From the second night of Pesach to the day after the seventh Shabbat, Jews count the Omer: fifty days of transformation. Rabbi Michael Strassfeld writes, “The challenge is to remember what day it is, who we are… To completely forget even one day is… to become lost.”
I am counting an unseasonal Omer this summer, for the fifty days of war that changed Gaza in 2014. The passage of days paces out a journey. In UNRWA’s Central Operations Room, in Gaza City, people counted many things to situate themselves in space and time, to not be lost.
The Palestinian sitting next to me counted on his cellphone the seconds that elapsed from the knock on his brother’s roof.
A mother on my team counted constantly the inches between her body and her boys. Never more than an arm’s length, so that she could lunge and grab before the bomb hit. She could carry only one – which one?
We all counted the children. In Gaza as in Israel, they are everyobody’s children: the nine killed in the cafe, the three on their roof, the four on the beach. The one child killed each day in her own home, because her home happened to be too close to some other target.
A mother, crouched in a basement with her children while the building opposite was pounded, counted the strikes. “They hit it so many times! So you never know when it’s over. So you don’t know when you might be safe. So you just stop feeling safe.”
From Day 9, the day of the ground invasion, I counted the runaway numbers of Gazans in UN shelter schools. 20,000 arrived each day. 1000 each hour. I counted the trucks lined up at Kerem Shalom, the one chokepoint entrance through the blockade.
The man opposite me counted up to 200 metric tons of food each day.
I counted 1106 mattresses that fit into a truck, and weighed them against 1000 people walking into the shelters each hour. The war was a slow drowning.
I counted the minutes of the Shuja’iyya pause before the rain of bombs. I counted the friends and colleagues who checked in when they reached safety, but the mind insists on counting the ones who didn’t.
The morning reports sometimes counted one bomb per minute. I measured our hallway and wondered whose room would be within the kill radius.
I counted the press reports that quoted public figures who ‘watched in horror’.
Finally, impossibly, we counted 293,000 people, shoehorned into 90 shelter schools. 3250 per school. 108 per classroom.
I counted 50,000 rubbish bags, sized to fit school waste-paper baskets, as one week’s supply.
I counted the seven flagged shelter schools that were struck by the IDF.
On her fourth day without electricity, a member of my team whispered that she was holding her girls in the dark, counting the minutes of the night. Not-dying one minute … one more minute … one more minute …
Counting, I realized then, is supposed to lead somewhere. Time is a goal-oriented journey. In an aimless war, Gaza’s minutes had ceased to lead to anything.
By the fiftieth day, the built and social environments of Gaza were indeed transformed. The scale of reference had changed. People were dwarfed, crawling over millions of tons of rubble.
Quantity surveyors counted out materials for 18,000 missing family dwellings.
Uncounted windows crunched and twinkled underfoot.
Nobody knew how to value 2200 dead human beings, because there was no result to give their deaths meaning.
On the fifty-first day, Gazans held each other, counted their losses and began to count down to the next war.