Mazen, the taxi driver off-handedly gestured to the north as we drove through the outskirts of Beit Hanoun. “My house was over there. It was demolished in 2003. My father was crushed in the demolition,” he explained, the emotion of the time passed and the reality of frequent tragedies grounding.
It was, he explained, an eleven-story apartment building, with 65 people living in it. When the Israeli army came and ordered everyone to leave it, Mazen’s father refused, went with the building.
The large-scale invasion into northern Gaza in March of this year saw, by conservative accounts, over 120 killed, and hundreds more seriously injured, including the youth I met in Cairo, Abdul Rahman, now paralyzed waist down and most likely bedridden for life.
In the few visits to Jabliya, Beit Hanoun, Rafah, and the Israeli-imposed ‘buffer zone’ running from north to south along Gaza’s border with Israel, I’ve seen houses completely demolished, partially demolished, torn to shreds by shelling, or merely laced with the marks of Israeli soldiers’ haphazard shooting.
I visited friends in the north for the first time, meeting the extended family and seeing their march 2008 museum: their home, permeated top to bottom and on all sides, by bullet holes and shelling cavities, most noticeable from the back of the house, the side which faced a sitting tank and hundreds of the over one thousand invading Israeli soldiers. The outside walls, the balconies, the doors, the inside walls, the clothes cabinet… from the living room to the baby’s room, all testify to the assault of Israel’ “Hot Winter” operation, also known as Israel’s Holocaust on Gaza, after a comment made by Israel’s deputy Defense Minister, Matan Vilnai, that Israel would rain a holocaust upon Gaza.
After walking me through their ravaged home, my friends toured me through the garden, pointing out the various fruit trees and vegetables: lemon, orange, plum and guava trees; a date palm; some olive trees; tomatoes; the favoured tea herbs (merrimea, zataar, nana); and flowering beauties like morning glory and jasmine. Situated beneath the house area itself, the downstairs patio is an oasis, surrounded by the many trees. From here, hot summer days pass in shade and with a breeze, and starry nights can be enjoyed. They are fortunate to have a good home and some fruit-producing trees. Under the siege, despite their good home, they still suffer from the black-outs, the restriction on movement, and if they need hospital care, the unavailable medical care and medicines.
F. explained how during the March invasion, she, her siblings, her sister-in-law, their mother and father-in-law, and the many children, were kept locked in one room for three days, no food, no toilet, no phones, no way of knowing what was going on outside or if their husbands and relatives outside were alive or dead. F. is strong and joyful, articulate and educated. That period, she confesses, was extremely difficult, the uncertainty of life outside their room-prison was unbearable.
Their lovely house, not only tarnished by gunfire and shelling, was turned upside-down by the Israeli soldiers who occupied it. “It took weeks to get things in order again,” she said. “So many things were destroyed, broken. The windows alone cost over $2,000 to replace. Everything is so much more expensive with the siege,” she explained.
In the upstairs, one brother had been breeding pigeons and keeping chickens and roosters, his source of income in a land with no jobs or possibility of going outside their borders to work. Some of his birds survived the assault and occupation. One room in the attic, overlooking the civilian area below and beyond, was transformed into a sniping post, a gaping hole in the wall still remaining. In a different area of Jabaliya, Abdul Rahman was targeted from such a sniping post.
H. and A. and their wives, family, are amazing hosts. Not only do they make me feel very, very welcomed, but almost a little guilty that I have to leave early: I’ve just gotten a text that there may be an incursion down in al Faraheen, and am worried about the farmer we know down there.
Before I can leave, though, we sit down to a quick lunch on the ground floor patio, more warm discussions ensuing. There’s nothing to dispute, I am now told that I’m part of their family and must come whenever I can to visit. A bag is filled, all goods from their trees or from local producers: olive oil, pressed from their olives; dukka, the mix of dried zataar (wild thyme), salt and sesame seeds; honey from farmers in the buffer zone area. They would have stuffed a bottle of their olives into the bag as well, but H. was not impressed by the quality they had ready thus far: “it’s not good enough. We’ll give you the best quality when they’re ready.”)
I leave, filled with this good will, new friendship, good food, and wearing a beautifully-embroidered Palestinian dress the mother gave me within 5 minutes of arriving.