Gaza — A defining moment in our moral history

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When I arrived in Jerusalem last week, a colleague greeted me with these words, “To travel here is to travel not only in space, but in time.”

For me, it was February. For the people I met in Israel, it is still Oct. 8.

Throughout the Middle East, there is a wellspring of trauma rooted in history and the tragedy of the current war. From Tel Aviv to Ramallah to Amman, I was struck by the profound pain people are carrying — the suffering of the Holocaust, the Nakba, Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, the trauma of Hamas’s brutal Oct. 7 attacks, Israel’s massive siege and bombardment. The families of the dead, injured, displaced, missing and held hostage live in horror every minute of every day.

We have never seen a humanitarian crisis like this. Gaza is completely walled in and cut off, without sufficient food, water or regular communication. Experts say people in North Gaza are on the brink of famine. Disease is spreading, few hospitals are even partially functioning and there is little to no basic medicine or supplies. Even lifesaving cancer and diabetes drugs have been repeatedly blocked.

The little aid that has been allowed in, and delivered, is a trickle in an ocean of need. When earthquakes devastated Haiti, Turkey and Syria, satellite phones, gasoline and other basics of the disaster-relief toolkit were brought in. But sufficient humanitarian personnel and supplies have not been allowed past the gauntlet of restrictions surrounding Gaza.

The sheer magnitude of the destruction from more than four months of what President Biden has called “indiscriminate bombing” is unmatched in this century. One in 100 residents of Gaza has been killed. Thousands of children have died, thousands more have lost one or both parents. More than 60 percent of homes are gone, along with schools, universities, hospitals and businesses.

Surviving Palestinians have no way to escape and nowhere to go. Most of Gaza’s residents have fled into the tiniest part of the Strip; our colleagues at CARE, where I serve as president and CEO, now call the southern city of Rafah the biggest and most crowded refugee camp on Earth. Further bombings and a ground invasion there would mean even more devastating casualties — and would close the main corridor through which humanitarian aid can be supplied.

The appalling statistics can’t begin to express the extent of the heart-breaking realities. As one CARE colleague said, “The horror you are seeing in photographs and videos is nothing compared to what we are experiencing.” People report eating and feeding their children grass and pet food. Another colleague moved his family four times within Gaza; he described trying to calm his children as bombs rained down and struggling to answer when his 6-year-old asked, “What is the grave?” upon learning that her best friend and her cousin had been killed.

We learned of a boy who, among more than a thousand young amputees, lost both arms and asked his father, “When will they grow back?” Doctors report performing emergency hysterectomies without anesthesia.

This catastrophe is itself at a crucial tipping point, as was made all too clear by Thursday’s tragedy. For children, the elderly, others with weakened immune systems, acute malnutrition and dehydration could lead to death within days. There is a spiraling and deeply concerning breakdown of law and order, driven by pure human desperation and the lack of governing systems.

Only an immediate ceasefire by all parties, the release of the hostages and the urgent restoration of humanitarian and commercial assistance can change this picture. There is absolutely no time to waste. In words we heard again and again, one colleague said: “We don’t know if we will live or die, so please carry our message. We need a ceasefire to save our lives and the lives of our children.”

Americans have a particular role and responsibility in this crisis. Many of the “dumb bombs” that have caused so much death and destruction were built in and provided by the United States. Three times, the U.S. has vetoed ceasefire resolutions before the United Nations Security Council.

This is a defining moment in America’s and the global community’s moral history. What we do — or don’t do — now will be etched in time, determining life and death for thousands of people and the future arc of the Middle East.

Michelle Nunn is president and CEO of CARE.

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