Letters from Gaza

After the nightmare ends, you can see the relief and joy in people's eyes.

letters from gaza 521 (photo credit: Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters)
letters from gaza 521
(photo credit: Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters)
When will the war end? When will there be a cease-fire?” It is a refrain heard repeatedly from Gaza residents soon after the mini-war with Israel breaks out on November 14.
The Israel Defense Forces comes up with the name “Operation Pillar of Defense” to describe its retaliatory air strikes launched to counter the rocket attacks by Gaza militants in the wake of the assassination of Ahmed Jabari, head of the armed wing of Hamas.
Fearful Gaza residents, mindful of havoc wreaked during the IDF’s “Operation Cast Lead” at the end of 2008, realize the new “operation” will leave its scars as well.
“Israel started this war,” declare Hamas and the other militant groups. They set up a joint operations center.
Day 2: All the Palestinian factions declare their intent to avenge the death of Jabari. In the morning, enraged crowds set out from Shifa Hospital for the funerals of four people killed in air strikes. This sets the scene for the large afternoon procession accompanying the body of Jabari to the Great Omari Mosque, the largest in the Gaza Strip. The eulogy delivered in the mosque while Jabari’s body lies before the crowd is replete with rage and hate.
Suddenly, time stands still for me. I am rooted to the spot and my head starts spinning – I have received a telephone call that my daughter has been wounded by a shell from an Israeli tank. I am told that she has lost her hand.
I try to pull myself together as I rush, hysterical, to the hospital. I will never forget this trauma. As a journalist who knows how to write about others, I find it very difficult to write about myself and my own personal pain. My sweet child Bisan, nine years old, was playing with her twin sister Roba in the yard of her mother’s parents’ home when it happened. Roba saw her sister being hit and bleeding. It is impossible to deal with the trauma of these two little girls.
Day 3: It’s Friday and no one is talking about a hudna (cease-fire), rather about war and the terrible suffering that it brings in its wake. Rumors of an IDF emergency call-up of the military reserves propels Gazans into panic hoarding; in otherwise deserted streets, long lines form in front of bakeries, gas stations and supermarkets. If the electricity supply is cut off then generators are the answer, if there’s no fuel then life becomes a nightmare in the darkness of a war zone.
I manage to get my daughter Bisan to a hospital in Israel with the help of a colleague, Matan Drori, at the Hebrew daily Maariv in Tel Aviv. The Safra Children’s Hospital in Tel Hashomer saves her right hand (the one she writes with), but she loses three fingers.
My wife is staying with her.
Day 5: Reporters are exposed to the full horror of war on seeing bodies of infants, women and children in the ruins of the bombed house of the al-Dalo family in the Nasar neighborhood of Gaza City. Rescue teams toil for two days to extract the bodies of the 14 family members killed in the worst attack since the beginning of the operation.
The pain will haunt the Nasar quarter for years to come. The al-Aishi family, who live meters away from the al-Dalos, still can’t comprehend how they managed to stay alive, since at the time of the attack they were all in their living room, which overlooks the house that was hit. The mother of the family believes that their heavy curtains saved them by blocking the shrapnel that was flying in every direction, damaging neighboring houses.
Day 7: The Israel Air Force drops leaflets with maps over Beit Hanoun, Beit Lahiya and other locations in the Strip, which had been badly hit in Operation Cast Lead. The leaflets warn residents to leave their homes and move into Gaza City, as Israel intends to invade and does not want to harm them.
It’s hard to witness the panic and fear of women and children as they flee to the UNRWA school, seeking shelter from the fierce fighting likely to erupt if Israeli ground troops enter the Strip. They bring whatever they can carry to keep themselves warm in the cold Gaza nights and to sustain themselves for several days' sojourn in the classrooms. Today, Tuesday, 31 people are killed and more than 50 wounded – bringing the number of Gazan fatalities to 140, with 950 hurt. Strenuous efforts are being invested to obtain a cease-fire. For the man in the street these efforts are crucial yet frightening – the last hours of fighting are likely to be even more lethal than before. Israel is attacking with massive force in order to obtain the best possible terms in a cease-fire.
On this fraught day, the Izz ad-Din al- Qassam Brigades (Hamas’s armed wing) chooses an unusual way to demonstrate how they have the upper hand in the conflict against Israel. The Hamas Ministry of the Interior announces that seven men, whom they describe as collaborators with Israel, have been summarily executed. Their bodies are tossed onto a crowded junction on Nasar Street in northern Gaza City, and gunmen on motorcycles are photographed dragging the body of a man behind them through the streets.
The final hours of the seventh day of fighting, between three in the afternoon and six in the evening, are the most painful since the start of the conflict. There is relentless shelling from all directions.
Before journalists can rush to the scene of an incident with casualties, they receive reports of another one, in another place. The reports no longer identify the dead or give the number of wounded, relaying only the number of fatalities, without names.
Day 8: Great disappointment – no ceasefire.
Residents find that the war is continuing in its most vicious phase. Hamas blames Israel for not approving the understandings reached between the sides in Cairo. The trauma continues.
Most Gaza residents are unhappy about the handling of the war, especially the escalation in the quantity of rockets launched at Israel. Yet no one criticizes Hamas or the armed resistance, since it is not deemed a suitable time to do so, particularly in light of the cruel and deadly Israeli strikes against innocent civilians. Many people who were previously severely critical of how things are run in the Strip are supportive of Hamas, because it is important for them to demonstrate Palestinian unity in the face of Israel’s aggression.
The overwhelming majority of Gazans hope for a long-term cease-fire – they are tired of the deadly rounds of fighting. They are anxious to safeguard the physical and mental wellbeing of their children, fully aware of the trauma the young ones are suffering. They want an end to the siege on Gaza, and an end to Israeli military action, such as targeted killings.
Good news about my daughter, though.
The operation on her damaged hand was deemed a success. She is still at Tel Hashomer with her mother.
Nine o’clock at night – the cease-fire goes into effect.
Day 1 after the conflict: A day after the nightmare ends, people can’t believe it ended this way, but you can see the relief and joy in their eyes. Most people are happy that Hamas hit Israel hard and that its missiles reached as far as Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
The rest are just happy that it is over – it was terrifying and very painful. Most people, however, don’t believe that the cease-fire will last more than a few months. People are used to this cycle of conflict, which will continue until the Israeli-Palestinian issue has been resolved.
Since the early hours of the morning, people have been leaving the UNRWA school in Gaza City where they spent two nights. They are happy this has ended without a ground operation like that of Cast Lead, which left some of them homeless for close to a year.
A lot of people have come to Gaza City to see what happened there, because most of the time they were stuck in front of the television. Now, driven by curiosity, they are flocking to the buildings that have been hit.
This causes huge traffic jams, especially in the city’s main Omar al-Muktar Street. The street becomes the site of demonstrations of joy, and people climb out of their car windows raising Fatah and Hamas flags, hooting their car horns and shouting slogans praising the armed resistance.
The strangest thing is the huge turnout of Fatah activists and supporters with their yellow flags. It is the first time they have been allowed to show a presence at the Plaza of the Unknown Soldier on Omar al-Muktar, without being beaten or arrested by Hamas.
It was Hamas who made the call to take to the streets on the first afternoon after the fighting ended, in order to display its overwhelming support in Gaza following its “victory” over the strongest military force in the region.
The writer is a Palestinian journalist living in Gaza who writes for the Hebrew daily Ma'ariv.