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“A Sea of Misery”: Gaza Is Unlike Anything I’ve Ever Seen, Says NGO Head/Ex-CNN Journalist Arwa Damon

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Award-winning journalist Arwa Damon has just returned from a humanitarian trip to Gaza in her capacity as the founder of INARA, the International Network for Aid Relief and Assistance, a nonprofit currently providing medical and mental healthcare to children. Damon describes the overwhelming need for aid under Israel’s siege of the territory. “Nothing goes in and out of Gaza without Israel’s approval. That includes aid, and that includes people,” she says, calling the Israeli military’s rules for what is allowed in “illogical” and arbitrary. “The zone needs to be flooded, not only with aid … but also with humanitarian workers,” concludes Damon. We also discuss the mental health crisis gripping the population, U.S. military assistance to Israel and how anti-Arab racism and fearmongering in Western media coverage has and hasn’t changed in the post-9/11 era.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Israeli warplanes bombed areas across northern Gaza today while ground troops conducted raids as the assault on the territory entered its seventh month. Forensic experts from Gaza’s Health Ministry are still removing bodies from the yard of Shifa Hospital, once the largest medical facility in Gaza, that was burned down and destroyed by Israeli forces. Health officials say the number of dead following Israel’s raid on Shifa is still not known, but is in the hundreds.

Meanwhile, in the south, Palestinians who tried to return to Khan Younis, Gaza’a second-largest city, following the withdrawal of Israeli troops Sunday, say it is now unlivable. An estimated 55% of the buildings in the Khan Younis area, around 45,000 buildings, have been destroyed or damaged, according to two mapping experts at City University of New York and Oregon State University who have been using satellite imagery to track destruction.

This comes as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has escalated his pledge to invade Rafah, where more than 1.4 million Palestinians — well over half of Gaza’s population — are sheltering. In a video statement Monday, Netanyahu said, quote, “It will happen. There’s a date,” he said, without elaborating. He spoke as Israeli negotiators were in Cairo discussing international efforts to broker a ceasefire deal with Hamas.

The official death toll has now topped 33,300, including over 14,000 children. That number does not include thousands missing under the rubble and presumed dead. Nearly 76,000 people have been wounded.

Israel has been accused of using starvation as a weapon of war in Gaza, where the spread of hunger and malnutrition has been described as unprecedented, with famine setting in.

For more, we’re joined by Arwa Damon. She just returned yesterday from a humanitarian trip to Gaza. She’s an award-winning journalist and the founder of INARA, the International Network for Aid Relief and Assistance, a nonprofit currently providing medical and mental healthcare to children in Gaza. Arwa Damon is also a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. She previously spent 18 years at CNN, including as a senior international correspondent. Arwa Damon joins us now from Istanbul, Turkey.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Arwa. Can you start off by talking about what you saw in Gaza and what you think needs to be done?

ARWA DAMON: You know, on the one hand, that would seem like a simple question. And yet, on the other hand, it’s so extraordinarily difficult to actually put what I witnessed into words. In fact, Gazans themselves can’t actually grasp the fact that this has become their reality.

In Rafah, in the southern area of Gaza, where you have a crush of about 1.5 million people, it feels as if you’re moving through a sea of misery. There is no empty space left. Tents are spilling out of both U.N. shelters and other makeshift shelters that have emerged. They’re spilling out onto the sidewalks. There’s stalls that have been set up. The movement of people clogs the streets. You have people having to move around on donkey carts because there’s not enough fuel or diesel to power vehicles. And then you just have the sheer need of this entire mass of humanity that is — to a certain degree, feels as if it’s absolutely suffocating, because they need everything. They are reliant on others for just about everything, from food to water to medicine to baby formula to diapers.

We stepped out in this one area called Mawasi, which is sort of a beachy area. It was Gaza’s beachfront. And there, it’s just tent after tent after tent in the sand. There’s no sewage systems, and so sewage is sort of running along these makeshift canals. There’s no proper toilets. There’s no nothing. And all of the mothers there are just shoving these emaciated babies at you, you know, begging for proper formula, begging for proper care. They’re begging for medicine for children who are epileptic. You walk into a tent, and with each step your foot takes, a cloud of mosquitoes and flies just swarms up. I mean, it’s inexplicable.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Arwa, Israel has in recent days said that it’s opening up new entry points into Gaza for aid. Could you talk about the aid that you saw coming in, which still has not reached the level, the number of trucks per day, before the war even started?

ARWA DAMON: Right, and there’s a number of things that I think everyone would be best served to understand about aid and distribution. So, yes, if more aid is able to get in, absolutely that is going to help. However, when it comes to getting aid to those who need it, it is beyond just opening up additional crossings. The aid trucks that come into Gaza all get searched by Israel, and that is a process that can take around two to three weeks to begin with. You do see aid being distributed. The problem is that the quantity of the aid is insufficient.

Additionally, it’s important to note that once the aid gets inside Gaza, getting it distributed within this, you know, tiny little space, yet at the same time extraordinarily difficult to navigate area, poses great and additional challenges. There’s a process that’s called deconfliction — this exists in all war zones — whereby which aid organizations wanting to reach a certain area will notify warring parties about their intent and will secure permissions to be able to safely move to that area. This is a process that has not and does not work inside Gaza. And the tragic, horrific strike that we saw on the World Central Kitchen convoy is clear evidence of that. And that really sent huge shockwaves within the humanitarian community, because the World Central Kitchen has some of the best deconfliction mechanisms, has some of the best lines of communication to the Israeli side.

And so, you have these additional layers upon layers of challenges. Add to all of it, the lack of aid has created a very understandable level of panic among the population. What that means is that whenever aid arrives to a certain area, there is chaos and there is panic. And this is why you keep hearing people speaking about the need to flood the zone. The zone needs to be flooded not only with aid, so that people can stop panicking and have a certain measure of confidence that they will be getting a stable supply to food, water and other basic necessities, but also the zone needs to be flooded with humanitarian workers, people who know how to address this level of a humanitarian crisis.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And could you talk, as well, about the impact of this war, the mental health impact, especially on the children of Gaza, that you have spoken so eloquently about in recent days?

ARWA DAMON: I’ll give you one example. A mother came up to me, and she was — she had heard about the fact that, you know, we do work with mental health, specifically with children. It’s also important to note that, you know, when an area, a population is still in crisis, is still in an emergency, all you can really provide is basic mental health, especially for children. And what does that actually look like? It really just looks like a distraction, so creating activities and ways for them to express themselves that can sort of help them distract themselves from all of the horror and the nightmare that they’re going through. But this mother comes up to me, and she says, “I don’t know what to do with my 7-year-old right now, because every single night he screams at the top of his lungs, and he goes into what look like convulsion and seizures.” And he started doing this after he saw his sister’s head blown off during a strike that hit their home, that also wounded other siblings.

You know, you walk around Gaza — and I’m talking specifically about the children right now, but you see this also very deeply in the adults. And you know that sparkle that’s normally supposed to exist in a child’s eye? It’s not there anymore. That’s not to say it can’t come back and it can’t be brought back with these activities. You know, there are these beautiful, heartwarming moments where you are able to create a scenario for a child to be able to laugh and smile, albeit briefly.

But you really feel as if you are walking through a population that is — they’re ghosts. And they describe themselves as ghosts. They’re ghosts of their past. They’re the ghosts of who they used to be. And they’re constantly haunted by the ghosts of everything that they have lost. And the trauma doesn’t end. It comes at them from multiple different directions every single day. The mental health impact of this is unlike anything that I personally have ever seen 20 years working in war zones, just the immediacy of the need, the speed with which this all happened. And even people in Gaza, when you talk to them right now, you know, despite having lived through this for six, seven months, they still tell you that they feel as if this can’t be real. Right? Like, this can’t have happened. This has to be a nightmare from which one day they’re going to wake up.

AMY GOODMAN: Arwa, you have said — you’ve pointed out that what’s happening in Gaza right now is absolutely egregious, that the Western world, the ones providing the weapons, cannot pressure Israel into allowing more aid and medical staff. Can you talk more about that? I mean, this isn’t, you know, a natural disaster, where an earthquake happened and people can’t get to the people. Explain exactly Israel’s role in preventing this aid from getting to those in need.

ARWA DAMON: So, nothing goes in and out of Gaza without Israel’s approval. Nothing. That includes aid, and that includes people. There’s a whole process for that. And this is a process that actually existed before October 7th. It is, since October 7th, extraordinarily and excruciatingly long. In addition to that, since 2008, there has been a list of items that are banned entry to Gaza. This list also exists to the West Bank. Now, since October 7th, there have been additional items, that are not part of this list, that have been rejected. There is no formality to this rejection. We in the humanitarian space end up finding out about items being repeatedly rejected, and, as such, there’s no point of trying to send them in, because of repeat rejections. These items range from things like solar panels to wheelchairs to certain kinds of medicine to sleeping bags in some cases — anything that the Israelis say can be deemed to be dual-use. But the problem is that it feels very illogical, and, again, there’s no formality to it, so you don’t know if an item is going to get rejected until you actually try to send it in. Some organizations have even had children’s toys be rejected. You know, you try to put together these hygiene kits for families, and the nail clippers in them get rejected, and, as such, the entire truck gets completely turned around. And so, it’s extraordinarily difficult to try to navigate that kind of a situation. And, obviously, this creates an even greater and more desperate need inside Gaza itself.

Now, what is very difficult to comprehend, as you were saying there, is the fact that Israel is an ally to the United States and other very powerful Western nations. Is this the first time that we’ve seen an area under siege? Absolutely not. Look, I covered Syria very extensively. The regime of Bashar al-Assad, a dictatorship, along with their Russian allies, did, yes, put entire neighborhoods and areas in Syria under siege. But there we were talking about a dictatorship with Russia as its ally. We saw ISIS besiege entire areas in both Syria and Iraq. But we’re talking about ISIS. We’re not talking about a democratically elected nation-state that is an ally of the United States. And that is what makes it so difficult for anyone inside Gaza to comprehend how it is that the United States is allowing Israel to continue to besiege the Strip in such a way. And remember, it was on day one that Israel cut off electricity, water and basically vowed to cut off any form of assistance. They cannot comprehend this. They cannot comprehend how it is that this is being allowed to happen to them — on top of that, happening to them, and the United States is still continuing to fund the war effort.

AMY GOODMAN: Arwa Damon, I want to ask you about the journalists killed, estimates between 90 and 130, 140 journalists killed by Israel in Gaza alone. You were an award-winning journalist for CNN for 18 years, covered the U.S. attack on Iraq. I wish we saw your reporting more. You mainly did it for CNN International, which would show the picture of the statue of Saddam Hussein coming down in a split screen with the casualties of war, whereas CNN domestic would just show the statue of Saddam Hussein coming down hundreds of times. But your reporting was extremely important. I want to talk about seeing the images of casualties on the ground in Gaza. Right now Israel doesn’t allow international journalists in, and domestic journalists in Gaza, so many of them, have been killed. Can you talk about the significance of this? Because that leads to people around the world caring, to put more pressure.

ARWA DAMON: You know, this is the first time, I would argue, that Gazans have control over the way that their story is being told. And that has made, to a certain degree, the understanding that the Western world has about what’s actually happening in Gaza and the toll of all of it shift slightly, because the Western media does not control Gaza’s story anymore. Gazans do.

I have to say, I mean, I have so much respect and admiration for all of Gaza’s journalists, because, you know, when we go into a war zone, wherever it is, as journalists, there comes a point when we get to rotate out. Right? You can tap out. You can say, like, “I need a break. Send in the next crew.” They have not been able to tap out for six months. And they’re not reporting on something that is happening to a different population. They’re reporting on their own people, what’s happening to their own families and to their own loved ones.

This ongoing effort, however, it would most certainly seem, to try to silence Gaza’s journalists is extraordinarily disturbing. But it is, sadly, part of this whole overarching desire to control the narrative. And right now, though, it’s not working, because Gaza’s journalists and Gazans, they’re not going to stop. And they deserve to be commended for that and for the awareness that they’re actually raising about what is happening to them.

And it’s very, very disturbing, but to a certain degree makes sense from a PR perspective, that Israel is not allowing Western journalists in, because if the scenes that Gazans are witnessing every single day were part of the regular broadcasts that are happening, there would be a much bigger and stronger outcry than what — than anything that we’re seeing right now.

I mean, you know, I went into the European Hospital, which is basically southern Gaza’s currently largest and only really remaining, you know, significantly functioning hospital. You walk into the hospital courtyard, the outdoor pathways, and it’s streams of tents, and there’s sewage lines running next to the tents. And this is inside a hospital. And people have crammed themselves into the hospital corridors themselves. You have bed after a bed of injured and the injured children with amputations, with horrific burns. I walked into the ICU, and there, there was a 10-year-old boy, and the ICU nurse said he’s a gunshot victim. He took a gunshot bullet straight to the head. It’s just — 

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Arwa, I wanted to ask you —

ARWA DAMON: I mean —

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We only have about a minute for this segment, but I wanted to ask you — we’ve mentioned that you were a CNN reporter for 18 years, covered many conflict zones. How do you look at the coverage of CNN since October 7th and the degree to which not only CNN but most Western media outlets are always deferring to Israel to make sure that Israel gets a chance to comment on every single story that they write or that they produce?

ARWA DAMON: You know, October 7th happened, and then the coverage began, and I immediately was catapulted back to the post-9/11 era. And I was in New York when 9/11 happened. And I just — my hair stood on end, because it was the same level of, you know, dehumanization that we saw back then. It was the same sort of panicked, kind of one-sided, to certain degree, reporting that we saw back then. And it was extremely upsetting, because one would hope that, you know, we, the journalism world, the Western journalism space, would have learned the lessons of post-9/11 and that we wouldn’t sort of default into this whole dehumanization of the other.

And I think it’s really important that all journalists are cognizant and should know — you know, we go all over the world. You know, there’s a basic fact that we should all know, and that is that people, we’re the same. We love the same. We laugh the same. We live the same. We feel pain in the same way. And yet there was this default back into this dehumanizing rhetoric, this sort of “us against them” issue. And it was absolutely devastating and gutting and heartbreaking to witness and see that we defaulted back into sort of that same rhetoric and that same dehumanization of a population, that perhaps, you know, for very superficial reasons, we don’t perceive as being like us, and this desire to sort of inflict collective punishment on an entire people.

AMY GOODMAN: Arwa Damon, I want to thank you for being with us, just returned from a humanitarian trip to Gaza, award-winning journalist with CNN but now founder of INARA, a nonprofit currently providing medical and mental healthcare to children, also nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, spent 18 years at CNN as a senior international correspondent.

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