As we drive through Khoza’a village, east of Khan Younis, en route to the border area (“buffer zone”) farmland we will accompany farmers onto, OJ narrates what happened to this village during Israel’s bloody war on Gaza. On January 12, Israel began to seriously work on Khoza’a, ramping up the shelling, shooting and bulldozing of homes on January 13.
OJ points out a square of weedy land where Iman –one of our farmers and a Khoza’a resident fleeing the Israeli bulldozers demolishing her and neighbouring homes –and a reported 200 other village residents crammed into the space seeking safety from the Israeli forces’ shooting.
“They were repeatedly hunted,” OJ says, “from their homes being bulldozed, to the square where they huddled and Israeli bulldozers piled more and more rubble around them, trying to bury them, to the street Israeli soldiers ordered them to walk down but where more Israeli soldiers shot at them. They were waving white flags.”
She mentions Rahia, one of the women carrying white flags, who attempted to lead the terrified civilians along a street to safety but was sniped in the head and bled to death over the course of the next 12 hours, all medical access banned by the Israelis.
Jack Shenker, in his article Chaos in Khoza’a, gives a detailed account of what transpired that morning. In it he writes: “By the time night fell on January 13th, 14 residents of Khoza’a had been killed, 50 lay wounded, and 213 had been taken to hospital for gas inhalation.” Residents say well over 50 houses were demolished in the small village alone.
We meet the farmers and go out to the fields with them. They are keen to bring in their wheat. We harvest very close to the fence. It is a day unlike so many, and there are no signs of jeeps or Israeli soldiers along the fence, though the tracks of their military machines remain etched into the earth. The harvest goes quickly and without incident.
As she rips and piles wheat in neat stacks to be bundled, 13 year old Abir chats to me in a sweet child’s voice but with the words of a fatigued woman who has seen it all.
“Beitna demarr. Aysh bin sauer?” she says. Our house was destroyed. What can we do?, the rhetorical question on most Palestinians tongues these days.
Abir continues to talk of how her house was hit by missiles, of the regular shooting from Israeli soldiers driving along the border, of how an old deaf farmer neighbour was shot at yesterday: he didn’t hear the bullets, so eventually the Israeli soldiers shot his donkey dead, to ‘warn’ him.
“Aysh bin sauer?” she lilts again, then asks: “Do you have coordination?”
“La, la, fish tansik!,” I say, no coordination with the Israeli military. It’s important she understands that the Israeli soldiers shoot at us also, that no one is really out of their snipers’ scope. We make it very clear to farmers that we offer no protection, that we stand with them, we photograph and film and write and speak of what befalls them at the hands of Israeli soldiers abusing their power and their guns, although this abuse seems sanctioned by the Israeli military and its official and illegal ‘no-go zone’ policy in the buffer zone.
I’ve got the medic kit today, including emergency supplies which my colleague Leila used to carry, a morbid but practical consideration most farmers outside of Palestine don’t have to consider. I hope that I don’t need to use my newly-learned skills today.
The farmers, mostly women, with some men and teenage boys and girls helping out, finish cutting the wheat and begin piling it in impossible heaps which they then lean on to compress and tie with ripped up bits of material. The wheat is carried off in these bundles, and unbundled wheat stuffed into slings made of canvas and hauled off on shoulders.
As we leave, I chat with Iman’s brother, K, who pauses to point out the rubble that was their home.
At the edge of the field, we meet a woman carrying some unfamiliar metal cylinder with a mini-parachute attached. “The Israelis fire these into our fields,” a farmer explains. “If the field hasn’t been harvested, these often set fires.”
OJ fills me in that a field we accompanied farmers to on April 13 was hit by this fire bomb. The farmers that day had only enough people and time to tear out and pile the rye; they’d hoped to return the next day with more labourers to haul it away. But in the end, only ashes remained.