“Last night was very dangerous. Everybody on the street after dark dies. We were afraid for you,” Fatema explained to me, as Sharon and I arrive just after 6 pm on Monday night to her Jabaliya home, in northern Gaza. It’s already dark outside, and getting here any later would have been suicidal.
We’d wanted to come back to them on Sunday night, but it was after 8pm, and H. insisted we not dare to come. “No one goes out on the streets after dark in this area,” he insisted. “No cars, no people. The Israeli drones, Apaches or F-16s will target you.” We didn’t go, knowing he knows best. Instead, we stayed at a Jabaliya hospital, talking with the doctors who were on call for an emergency. That hospital, Al Awda, doesn’t normally receive emergency patients. But nothing is normal here.
That night, Sunday, there were numerous explosions in and around Jabaliya, throughout the north, in Gaza city and the environs just outside Gaza. Everywhere.
We learned of some of the Jabaliya explosions. The Emad Akal mosque in Jabaliya camp, which was leveled, taking with it 3 neighbouring houses, 5 children between 4-17 years old, and injuring tens, blowing out walls, bringing down roves, and destroying the interior of tens more houses around the mosque. There were three more mosques in Jabaliya in the early hours of Tuesday morning: Riad Salheyn mosque, el Zawia mosque, Sabat el Amiin mosque.
There was also shelling from Israeli naval ships patrolling Gaza’s waters which had come much closer to the harbour, shooting on the port and targeting areas along Gaza’s coastline.
Later Monday afternoon, after seeing and smelling the damage, hearing of the deaths of the young girls and near deaths of the survivors, newly-homeless, and of owners of destroyed shops and homes, we each attempt to put into words, written and spoken, the things we’ve seen, heard, been told. It is impossible to tell all, there is too much to tell and thoughts are interrupted by new explosions.
The night at Fatema’s passes slowly.
“We didn’t go outside today,” she tells us. “Only upstairs, briefly, to get things we’d need down here: clothes, some food…” Yesterday, too, they hadn’t left the house.
She talks about the shelling near them. “The dust and smoke from the missiles were like black clouds. Beesan,” she continues, pointing at the teenage daughter, “she won’t leave even this room on her own,” gesturing to the basement door.
“I worry about everyone. The children here aren’t children. They don’t have a normal childhood. Abdullah (4), when I ask him to draw anything will draw planes, guns.”
Outside the darkened basement, where the family has cowered for 3 days, the psychological warfare continues.
Drones circle continuously, buzzing loudly, their whine amplified with proximity and speed. Imagine a mosquito hovering at your ear, all day, all night. It is a grating and jarring sound you cannot ignore, and a sound that holds elements of threat and terror: drones not only survey, they unleash explosives. When the F-16 rushes overhead, you also expect explosions.
Fatema continues to describe dealing with the terrorizing situation: “There’s nothing I can do. I’m not afraid for myself, I’m afraid for the young people and the men. They would be killed, or lose their legs. They (Israel) kill the men on purpose.
This is punishment, to see someone from your family killed, to see him cut up so badly from an explosion that he cannot walk, or doesn’t survive.”
At 8pm there’s a sound that was normal in the border areas along Gaza’s length -the 300m to 1000m from the border to Israel -where farmers are targeted on their land: machine gun fire. But this time, instead of from soldiers in jeeps, the fire comes from Apaches.
“No, it’s not a normal sound. They’re shooting at the houses, haphazardly,” Fatema estimates, from experience. I have little reason to doubt her: I hear the fire, and she’s lived such episodes before. The entire back side of their home is littered with holes from machine gun and tank fire.
I get a call from Haidar, who tells me what’s going on in his Gaza City neighbourhood. He lives near the Ministry Compound [which will be attacked in 4 different strikes later that night, starting at 1 am]. He tells me of the recent attacks on the Islamic University, less than 1 km down the road from his apartment.
“The university is not far from our building. What a terrible night. Barak was on TV saying they are going to intensify the attacks, going to target more Hamas leaders. But they’re not just ‘targeting Hamas leaders’; they hit the Islamic University, Al Azhar University, Al Quds Open University…” [and later that night, mosques throughout Jabaliya and other areas of Gaza].
I hang up with Haidar having condemned the International Conspiracy of Silence which allows Israel to continue its terrorizing of Gaza’s population, unrestrained.
At 9:20 pm the rain starts and my friends rejoice (I’m amazed at their ability to find joy in such traumatizing, horrific conditions. They still haven’t properly mourned the death of their mother killed just two days earlier). “They can’t attack us easily when it’s raining,” Fatema explains, relieved. So when the international community won’t intervene to halt Israel’s attacks on civilians, nature, at least, can.
The radio is on and instead of the news relating the latest hits around the Strip, the latest dead and injured, an passionate plea from an Imam. The words are too fast, I don’t understand them, but the meaning is clear: a lamentation for the dead. The room is quiet, except for a periodic “ameen” punctuating the holy man’s grieving. With 355 confirmed dead, including 60 children and 12 women and over 1400 injured, and with people already living in extreme poverty under the siege, it’s not hard to imagine the words of the sermon.
Fatema sits quieter than ever, head bowed, lamenting these deaths, and the deaths of her country? Her child’s future?
The imam’s voice cracks with emotion, and Fatema sobs more loudly, crying “ummi” (mother) to her dead mother-in-law. “I loved her dearly,” she’d explained to me earlier.
The dead woman’s mother, the grandmother, sits meditatively, straight, eyes distant, as she has sat for most of the night.
Latest of on-going missiles, this one closer again, shaking the building. There is speculation over whose house has been hit as the women listen to the radio.
Ripped from the shallow sleep I’ve fallen into by the loudest blast yet, shattering the night, pounding in my ears, though other explosions have continued to disturb the night. The drones overhead seem to fly more erratically, at least their sound becomes more erratic, louder, lower, faster, circling over the area, over the house. When the Apaches are directly overhead, most brief sighs of relief “they can’t shoot straight down,” it’s explained to us. But drones can.
I’ve the sensation that, because it’s been too comparatively quiet for the last two hours, until the last explosion, we’re going to be punished soon… because we were getting too comfortable, falling, even, into sleep. And because it seems that, with all of the explosions we’ve heard, surely every other target has been hit, and all that remains is us.
It leaves you to imagine the worst, and for many so far, that worst has been mortal.
It keeps us wondering, cowering, rips us from any newly-acquired sense of security that might’ve come with an hour of quiet.
The elderly father scrambles for a few minutes in the darkness to strike a match and light a candle. And the elderly aunt renews a chorus of panicked prayers, thumping rhythmically on her pillow in terror.
It’s been 11 minutes, and we are waiting for the next explosion, because it will come. The drones temporarily sound further away, but they quickly buzz near again, accompanied by the thud of helicopters blades.
It feels that every metre, every household must be continually terrorized.
The worried murmurs and frenzied prayers taper off as the women and elderly man try once again to sleep, their only escape…if they can get it. The drones sound like they’re in front now, their erratic motor reminding us below that peace and tranquility are hallucinations.
I realize that my dreams, my half-sleep, and my conscious really have all been filled with the same thoughts and feelings; images of the warplanes above and around; expectancy; wonder, at the newest bombardment -who has been hit? What building has been rocked…?
I’m so tired. I know I’m tired like every person in the Strip -there is no one who can sleep through the night -knows that long bouts of sleep are a luxury, through never restful, as all thoughts are on the attacks.
It is a completely different and frightening world that has very quickly become a reality for me, and a re-visited reality for Palestinians who lived through invasions again and again.
Except, all are telling me, this is worse than any time before. Prior, it was ground invasions and air bombardment. This time, it’s extensive, non-stop air, and sea, bombardment. And ground invasion looms.
Expected blast. Babies and children squealing in fear, hacking tears…