Claire Porter Robbins is a Calgary-based writer and former aid worker in Gaza.
My friend Ruba has a daughter named Reem. She’s two-and-a-half years old, with an impish grin and curly hair. She’s a fan of Nutella, she likes to run and play with her older brother and sister, and she likes to pretend to be talking on a cellphone, giggling and mimicking her mother, who is a bubbly, passionate pediatrician I met while working for Doctors Without Borders in Gaza.
Reem was born during the May, 2021, war between Israel and Hamas. Ruba told me how afraid she was while going into labour as bombs fell overhead, not knowing whether they would be hit while driving to Al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City. But they survived, and Reem was born into a stretch of fenced-in land just 41 kilometres long.
Since the news broke of Hamas’s brutal attacks on civilians in Israel, there’s been an uptick in discussion about collective punishment, a war crime under international humanitarian law. According to the Red Cross, the term refers to “types of sanctions, harassment or administrative action taken against a group in retaliation for an act committed by an individual/s who are considered to form part of the group. Such punishment therefore targets persons who bear no responsibility for having committed the conduct in question.”
Thousands of families in Israel and the Palestinian territories are experiencing collective punishment as a result of Oct. 7. For Gazans, however, the punishment is a permanent feature of everyday life, which began long before this devastating war. They live under a crippling Israeli and Egyptian blockade put in place in 2007, and the constant threat of military violence from Israel. Reem has been a victim of collective punishment from the moment she was born.
There’s a statistic that has haunted me since I first saw it. In 2022, Save the Children found that half of its survey sample of kids in Gaza had thought about suicide.
Reem doesn’t know what Hamas is, or Israel, but she’s lived through three major conflicts between them and now enters her fourth. She can’t yet read or write, but she already knows she must get away from the windows when the bombs start shaking the ground; she knows her mom always has a bag packed by the door.
Even in times of “peace,” Gazan children are punished by the blockade. As the daughter of two doctors, Reem is fortunate by the standards of Gaza, while her peers are more likely to have parents among the 64 per cent of Gazans who are food-insecure, or the 54 per cent who live below the poverty line. But even though she has her basic needs met, her ambitions and freedom in life are restricted by virtue of the place she was born. As it stands, Reem will never travel outside of Gaza. If she needs complex medical care, she will need to apply to the Israeli government for a permit to travel to a hospital in Israel or the West Bank. According to Israeli human rights NGO B’tselem, Israel denied 30 per cent of permit applications for children to leave Gaza to receive life-saving care in 2022.
Now, in times of war, things are worse. Ruba was one of the fortunate few who got a call from the Israeli military on Oct. 9, warning that her building might be bombed. She and her husband got Reem and her siblings out in time and the building was partially damaged, but Ruba told me the neighbouring apartment complex was flattened, still holding families who didn’t get a call or were unable to get out. Some of Reem’s and her siblings’ playmates were in the building, and Ruba thinks as many as 10 of them were killed. She tells me the kids keep asking if their friends are safe. She asks me how she’s supposed to tell her children that their friends are dead.
Now, after the evacuation order for 1.1 million Gazans, Ruba and her family have fled south. She is exhausted, she says, trying to keep the kids busy in their temporary shelter during the day, hearing bombs explode at night. She didn’t pack enough warm clothes for Reem in the emergency bag. She texts me, “What a horrible feeling that you can’t protect [your baby] from anything, even bad weather.”
I tell her I’m praying for a ceasefire, but she calls out the temporary nature of that solution. She asks me what kind of life I think she’ll be returning her kids to, what kind of life Reem has to look forward to. “Claire,” she says, “even if we survive this, we’ll live another horrifying one, and if we survive that, we’ll carry on this suffering and terror for a lifetime.”