All eyes on Gaza

The world’s eyes are focused on Gaza these days. Not because international song festivals are planned, or because the Oscars will be awarded on its grounds. Rather, global attention is focused on Gaza because of the Israeli military escalation taking place against its people.

Ever since the proposal of the roadmap to an Israeli-Palestinian settlement, the Palestinian people have fallen victim to the political intentions of both those in favor of and those opposed to the plan. The Palestinian Authority accepted the plan in the hopes that it would end the struggle and Israeli aggression against its people. At the same time, the Palestinian opposition groups have rejected it, especially Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

The Islamic opposition recently upped its criticisms of Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, especially after his speech at the Aqaba summit, and declared a halt to their meetings with him. Just days later, the four main political factions carried out a daring military operation at the Erez checkpoint in northern Gaza, killing four Israeli soldiers.

Occupying Israeli forces responded in a series of counter-operations, including the assassination of several Hamas leaders. The most prominent of these was the attempted assassination of Abdel Aziz Rantisi, a leading Hamas political leader, who miraculously escaped with his life. These assassinations were, in the words of Israeli security officials, an attempt to “help” the Palestinian Authority eliminate Hamas.

And as usual, it is the average Palestinian citizen who falls victim to such Israeli military escalation. When a targeted person is assassinated, dozens of innocent civilians – men, women and children – are cut down as well. And with each Israeli military operation, there is a new story of Palestinian suffering.

The only crime that nine-year-old Amal Jarousheh committed was going out to play during her summer break. She was meters outside her doorstep when the car carrying Rantisi was targeted by missiles fired from Apache helicopters overhead. Hit by missile shrapnel, she fell a limp corpse, lying bleeding on the red-streaked pavement.

“This escalation of Israeli aggression will be the reason for the escalation of the resistance,” says Amal’s father, Nimer Jarousheh. “I personally feel a desire for revenge over the murder of my daughter.”

Overall, Gaza’s residents live in a constant state of fear. They could be killed for the simple reason of, due to very bad luck, traveling near a car transporting a targeted Palestinian. This sentiment is expressed by Abu Mahmoud, a civil servant.

“When I go out to work and take a cab, I keep my eyes wide open, watching the sky,” he says. “I always expect to see Israeli helicopters that may be targeting a wanted man, who could be right next to me. We all remember the innocent civilians who died in the assassination of a Hamas leader in Sheikh Radwan. Seven people were killed and most of them were in a cab. Some were just walking next to the place where it happened.”

Other Gazans have actually lived the horror that Abu Mahmoud fears. Schoolteacher Zahwa Abu Ataiwa says her daughters have nightmares almost every night. One child, she says, has even started to involuntarily wet her bed. This all began when the girls watched from their veranda in Gaza’s Sabra neighborhood as a Hamas activist was blown to pieces, she explains.

Hamdallah Abu Faraj is another Gaza resident who was unlucky enough to witness an Israeli assassination. He was sitting in front of his shop when Apache helicopters rained down missiles on the car carrying Tito Masoud and Suheil Abu Nahel, two Hamas activists. Nine other Palestinians were killed in the attack.

“I was sitting in front of my store, waiting for customers. Lately, there have not been many because of the poor economic conditions,” Abu Faraj recounts. “The street was full of people, especially women and children. All of a sudden we heard a series of explosions. Two Hamas activists and nine civilians were killed, some who had come to the area to shop, and others who had come on personal business,” he goes on.

“My store was turned upside down. The clothes were mixed together with body parts and blood. People were dropping to the ground – some dead and others injured. I ran along with other shopkeepers to help the people and try to save them, especially the women and children. There are always so many people in this area at that time of day.”

Abu Faraj suffered personal loss as well. He tells of his two neighbors, Samia and Majeda Daloul, who died in the Israeli assassination. They had gone out to choose a bride for their brother and returned in funeral shrouds. “Their joyful occasion never came to be,” he mourns.

Just hundreds of meters away lives Husam, 48, a taxi driver. Nowadays, he prefers to stay at home and park his car in his front lawn rather than go out and work in these circumstances. He has good reason. His colleague, Hamed Haboush, was killed while driving behind Rantisi at the moment of the attack. He was killed instantly.

“After our colleague was killed, we [taxi drivers] were all very depressed,” Husam says. “And even though it is very difficult these days to make money to buy food for my children, I rarely go out anymore because I am scared that what happened to my friend is going to happen to me too.”

But Gazans are not only plagued by the constant fear from killings and assassinations, they are also being strangulated by the closure and siege imposed on them for over two years. Ahmad Abu Shaban, 50, from the Shati Refugee Camp, worked inside Israel for 15 years. Today he says he would rather die from hunger than to go back and work in Israel.

He says he sees his brother Sameeh, who still works inside the Green Line, leave the house at two in the morning every day. He then has to wait at the Erez checkpoint for hours on end until he is allowed to cross the border into Israel. During this wait, the workers are bullied, humiliated and harassed, he says. Israeli soldiers force them to strip, and they are meticulously body searched. Sometimes, on their way home, they are left in the cold night for hours, until they are finally allowed to return home.

“After seeing all of this Israeli terror and the killing of so many civilians, I won’t go back to work in Israel, whatever the price,” vows Abu Shaban. “For two years, I have been sitting at home and have not been able to work in Gaza because of the terrible economic situation.”

Abu Shaban was forced to pull two of his sons out of school to get jobs and help him with household expenses.

Even students cannot escape the Israeli measures taken against Gazans. Twenty-seven-year-old Mohammed Hamoudeh from Khan Younis City returned from Turkey, where he is studying for his Masters degree, six months ago to visit his family and is now stuck in the Gaza Strip.

“I haven’t been able to complete my studies, which I am almost finished with,” says Hamoudeh. “The only reason for this is because I live in the Gaza Strip and I am at the mercy of the Israeli occupation, which controls the borders. It closes and opens them at whim and now they are not allowing anyone under the age of 35 to leave the Strip.”

The fact is, no matter where you turn in Gaza, you will find stories of individual suffering. Food importer Husni Abdel Rahman, 52, complains that he has lost hundreds of thousands of dollars – equaling his entire capital – since he started his business, all due to the closure of the Karni Crossing.

“My products would be held for hours at the crossing and I would have to pay fees for them instead of them crossing over to the Israeli side,” Abdel Rahman tells. “The produce spoils at the checkpoints and I still have to pay them [the Israelis] even though they ruined my products.”

But the agricultural sector in Gaza has paid an even higher price. Not even the harvests have been saved from the jaws of Israeli bulldozers. A case in point is Beit Hanoun, which has been reoccupied for over a month. Israeli forces in the town have demolished homes and uprooted trees. An onlooker at Beit Hanoun is shocked at the new landscape. Where there was once orchard upon orchard of orange, palm and olive trees, now lie leveled, empty lots.

Mohammed Yehya, 55, a farmer from Beit Hanoun, says his lifetime’s work has been ruined. “I spent my entire life in agriculture, between my palm, orange and olive trees. Now, I have lost them all. They have been assassinated by Israeli bulldozers,” he says passionately. “They were like my children. I took care of them; I nurtured them every day.”

“Our problem with the Israelis,” he continues, “will not end except with a comprehensive solution to our problem. This calls for serious international intervention to force the Israelis to adhere to international resolutions and implement signed agreements.”

In many ways, Hamas agrees. Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi says that with every assassinated Hamas leader, the movement’s cadres will only grow stronger, and the Israelis will only become more afraid. “This is their choice because they do not respect the agreements they have signed,” he says.

The Islamic movement’s spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmad Yassin offers his take on the ongoing efforts to achieve peace. “We are a people who seeks peace, but it must be a peace that guarantees the return of Palestinian rights,” sermons the aging leader.

“Not the kind of peace the Israelis want, which is to occupy our land, kill our people and in the end claim that we are terrorists,” he continues. “They are the terrorists and they should be punished, not the Palestinian people, who are defending themselves and their land.”.