Faces of Gaza

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Dusty, poor and crowded, the Gaza Strip is not an easy place to live. But in recent weeks, a new hardship has set in. Indiscriminate Israeli shooting, the razing of entire neighborhoods and a slash-and-burn blighting of wide swaths of landscape are making life unbearable. The only thing growing here is a new Israeli matrix of control.

Hungry to live 

“We were sleeping in our houses,” remembers Sara Abu Khreik, 43. “At around 11:30, the Israelis started shooting at us with the tanks and machine guns and their big shells. At around 12, we found the tanks and bulldozers coming at us and they started to demolish the home on top of us. At that moment, we grabbed the children. We had about 30 seconds. The planes were flying overhead and from every direction the guns were working on us. We left without our scarves, without any covering. It came as a surprise, just like that.”

In the rubble lie the intimate pieces of a previous life. A cracked cassette tape. The torn poster of a beautiful singer named Latifa once decorated a young man’s wall. The color green surprises me. It is a modest flower garden, perennials now flattened into the sandy earth.

I found Sara in her tent, sitting alone. But as she began to talk about the night Israeli tanks and bulldozers invaded Khan Younis Refugee Camp, others gathered. They are all eager to speak.

Sara, for one, remembers when Israel first occupied Gaza in 1967. “They came with tanks and they were holding the Palestinian flag. I was about 10 years old. But even then, they did not do what they are doing now. They occupied us, but they didn’t demolish our homes, they were not shooting at our children or killing our men. Then we stayed in our homes. This is a war against a civilian population. They are firing on a people who have no tanks or missiles. What is a rock against a tank?”

Israel said it invaded this area under Palestinian Authority control to destroy a sand hill built by Palestinians, along with these homes. Palestinian shooters were using the hill for cover. The residents, here, however, say the barrier was meant to protect children from the frequent gunfire.

“In the night, the kids have nightmares of shooting. In the day, they have nightmares of shooting. When you sit and listen to what the children are talking about, they are saying to each other, ‘Today they shelled; today they shot guns; today they demolished; today they bulldozed.’ How much are our people supposed to endure?” Sara asks.

The walls of the nearby buildings are pocked with bullet holes and gaping shell wounds. One man holds up a pair of pants that were hanging on his wall when he fled. They are now pierced with holes.

The residents say that before the mass demolition, Israeli undercover operatives sometimes entered the camp. When they were fired on by Palestinians, the tanks in the nearby Israeli military encampment hit the residential area with heavy artillery. Now some 500 people have lost their homes.

“We were all living in five rooms,” Sara says of her family of 14 young ones. “We had a television, a washer, a refrigerator. There were wedding photos on the wall and photos of the children, and one of a verse from the Koran.”

The Palestinian Authority donated Sara’s family an apartment of two rooms that she says is just too small. “The thing that I miss most is just being in my own house with my kids.”

Her neighbor, Ahmad Hasan Lauwish, 31, enters the tent. His voice loud, his hands erratic, he is still dazed by what happened that night.

“I was inside my house, sleeping. From 11:30 to 3:45, I was in the house. People said they were demolishing, but I thought, the Israelis are not going to destroy it. I didn’t believe that the government would do it. I didn’t believe it at all.

“Then the light from the bulldozer woke me up. It was like the sun and I woke up swearing and the bulldozer came bearing down on me. I started to yell, ‘Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar.’ I went in the other room to try to grab a box, but I couldn’t. I tried to go in the kitchen to grab something, but I couldn’t. Finally, I went to the door again, but the tank was right there. There was dust and fog and they started to shoot at me.”

All he managed to save were his wife and his child – he wasn’t even wearing a shirt on his back, he says. “Since that day, I have been sick. Everything is gone. You tell [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon to bring his tanks, his bulldozers, his planes, his missiles. We are not moving.”

I wonder out loud how they are living. “We are not hungry for food,” says Sara, although there is no sign of food or drink anywhere. “We are hungry for humans to stand with us for our rights and for freedom. We are hungry to live.”

Laying waste

It is impossible to adequately describe the effects of Israeli troop movements in the Gaza Strip. The few years of economic growth under the Palestinian Authority had reaped new architecture, paved roads and streets lined with flowering trees.

Now, however, the Gaza Strip from its center to its northern and southern tips has been ravaged by Israeli bulldozers, the building of new military compounds and a series of demolitions and bombardments decimating entire neighborhoods and creating a new Israeli network for reasserting the Israeli occupation.

Since the start of the Intifada, the Israeli military has been in complete control of the main road separating Gaza City from Khan Younis, Rafah and all points south. At Kfar Darom settlement, two Israeli cement block outposts about one kilometer apart stop and start Palestinian traffic, ostensibly to allow passage for Israeli settlers and army vehicles. As far as the eye can see, the land has been razed clean and military hardware sprouts in its place.

Cars queue before these checkposts, waiting for a gesture from the hands sticking out of a skinny slot. The Israeli soldiers directing traffic are nearly invisible behind the high barricades.

When our taxi reaches the second Israeli post on the way to Khan Younis, the driver is unsure if the hands waved him on. He waits, then inches forward. Guns are trained on us from the right. On the left at a newly built army facility, a mounted machine gun turns towards us in the wind.

He stops, then nervously asks us if he should keep going. He drifts a few more inches. In front of us a long line of cars waits to run the gauntlet, their drivers looking on.

“Move it,” the soldier screams through the megaphone. Relieved, the taxi driver revs ahead. Human-sized cement blocks line the dusty road until we reach the sandbagged Palestinian security camp on the other side.

Coming the other way, the cars stretch for miles. Some drivers have fallen asleep, their heads slouched and sweating over the steering wheel. Young men stand outside the cars, lounging in the heat as if at a Sunday car wash. Eyes watch us pass in envy, tired and wan.

On April 18, Israel drew international criticism when it invaded three areas of the Gaza Strip under Palestinian control, moving tens of tanks into thin swathes separating Palestinian population centers. While the army did not stay – hours later, the tanks were in retreat – it left vast devastation in its wake. The incursion that permeated the boundaries agreed upon in peace accords drew a swift American response. But the damage that the army continues to wreak in entry-and-exit operations has not drawn similar condemnation.

In only one example, in between Deir Al Balah and Gaza City, Israeli bulldozers have razed a 30-meter wide strip of land from the edge of the Gaza Strip down to the sea. Trees, houses, anything in the way has been reduced to a dusty path for re-invasion at a later date.

The Israeli army says that its bulldozing of the landscape is meant to destroy cover for Palestinian shooters or those that have fired mortars at Israeli towns. But the visual impact of this newly carved wasteland seems also meant to destroy the Palestinian spirit at its roots – through the land.

Israeli “rules of engagement”

Salah-Al-Din Gate in Rafah is right on the Egyptian-Gaza border. At the end of a long dusty street, the Palestinian- Israeli flashpoint looks like the set of an old western. Men sit sipping tea before empty storefronts. The street’s unprotected center is empty. At its end, are two lines of sandbags and three uniformed Palestinian security men. In the distance, I can hear the persistent cannon of an Israeli tank.

Three men sit on a stoop. Their clothes are worn and one of them has teeth the color of brown apples. They are also eager to talk to me, an unexpected distraction. A woman passes, carrying a bag of rice on her head. At their prodding, I ask her if she has heard the news that a bomb has exploded in Tel Aviv, killing one Israeli. What does she think?

“I was happy,” Huda Kesar, 28, tells me, “because it happened to the Israelis. We have nothing else left.”

Two days after Khan Younis was destroyed, the Israeli army began to shell Rafah, targeting the nearby offices of Palestinian military intelligence. Then the tanks and bulldozers moved in to raze 17 houses and 40 stores in an area under Palestinian Authority control. One hundred and sixty-eight Palestinians, refugees and long-time Rafah landowners, were made homeless in the operation.

“The Jews, they are the problem,” says one man who will not give his name for fear of losing any chance of work in Israel. “They don’t want us to live. They don’t want to live with us. They want to take the land and take the ocean, but they don’t want us. We are human. Here you see respectable people, people like them. They have to speak to their government and say they don’t want problems with us.” He has not worked in seven months.

Khalil Abdul Al, 20, steps forward. He is a slight young man with freckles and a firm voice. His uncle was the Islamic Jihad activist killed by two Israeli helicopter missiles last week.

“In our opinion,” he tells me. “We do not start the firing. Right now you might hear gunfire from them, without any provocation. We have to defend ourselves.” There are no guns in view here, but the people assure me that they each have personal weapons for the nights when they are necessary.

To see the areas that have been leveled, we must walk up close to the sandbags. The three security officers are tall, their mustaches trimmed and their clothes pressed. They sit with their guns on plastic chairs. But they do not want to talk. Aren’t they frightened? I ask. The man in charge smiles kindly at my entourage. “If we are afraid, what will they do?”

Inside the camp, we follow the gutters of raw sewage past children playing in the dirt. Finally, we reach a house only half destroyed in the recent attack. From the door, I can see a wooden chest of drawers sagging in the bedroom. The kitchen has been sliced open by a bulldozer. Only one internal wall remains standing and behind it is the Israeli military camp.

“Go look,” the woman says. I refuse. Yesterday in Rafah, a journalist from Abu Dhabi satellite channel was shot in the leg by Israeli soldiers while waving her notebook over her head. The boys agree, saying, “They might shoot.”

“No, come,” the woman says firmly. “This is my house.”

She steps out in front of the wall in direct view of the Israeli base. Gently, she takes my arm and pulls me toward her. How then, can I tell her no? I see the Israeli position no more than 20 meters away, then quickly step back behind the wall.

“We are not afraid of their shelling, we are not afraid of their tanks, we are not afraid of Sharon and we were not afraid of Menachem Begin,” says Ihsan Abu Fakhour, 55. She is adamant. “This is our land. Whatever Sharon does, we are not afraid. The important thing is that we will not leave. That’s it.”

Twelve tents sit on the other side of the camp where most of the houses were demolished. These people here have not been given Palestinian Authority homes. Like Khan Younis, the buildings still standing are pocked with hundreds of bullet holes. And again, in the sea of rubble lie the scattered remains of these people’s lives.

As we walk back on to the main street, I see two boys walking tightrope over the sandbag barriers. They are not throwing rocks, only twirling on their toes and showing off. Passing under them, I and several others duck below the heights of the sandbags to cross the street. Suddenly, through the air cracks a rifle. The bullet whistles just over our heads.

Charmaine Seitz is Managing Editor of The Palestine Report.

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