It is difficult to describe a place more alone, more cut off from the rest of the world, a place where people live with the constant threat of violence, without a refuge.
For many of Gaza’s 1.5 million residents, suffering is merely a matter of geography.
The Gaza Strip’s entire length can be driven in an hour. At its widest, just seven miles separate the shores of the Mediterranean Sea from the blockades at the Israeli border.
Gaza is easy to navigate and easy to contain.
Israel controls Gaza’s land borders, maritime waters and airspace. Since Hamas took over governing the strip by force in June 2007, Israel has enforced an almost total blockade of Gaza. Israel controls what goes in and out, and whom. Only a system of hundreds of underground tunnels skirts the blockade, allowing food, fuel, medicine, and, yes, weapons to be smuggled into Gaza.
Determined to stop daily rocket attacks from Gaza, Israel began its latest military campaign in Gaza, dubbed Operation Cast Lead, on Dec. 27, 2008. During the devastating 22-day air and ground assault, around 1,400 Palestinians were killed, at least two-thirds of them believed to be civilians, and nearly 6,000 were wounded. Tens of thousands more were left homeless.
Between the rockets fired by Hamas and Israel’s bombs and tanks, the people stuck in the middle try to keep their families fed and clothed, provide shelter and fuel, and make attempts at normalcy.
Osama, a 21-year-old furniture maker, knows what it feels like to be trapped.
During Israel’s siege, air strikes destroyed his factory. Today he lives with his parents and siblings next to the bombed-out Ministries of Finance, Communication and Foreign Affairs. The windows in his apartment are still pane-less after being shattered during the air strikes on the nearby government buildings.
During the war, everyone suffered, even if they didn’t take a direct hit. Whole neighborhoods were without power and water for weeks. People spent sleepless nights listening to the barrage of artillery and missiles hit nearby buildings, watching friends, family and neighbors die around them.
Osama is handsome in his black button-down shirt, black dress pants and polished shoes. With his youthful appearance—his slight frame, hairless chin and wide smile—he looks like someone who has a whole lifetime ahead of him. But the recent violence has disillusioned and depressed him.
Two of Osama’s best friends found a fourth way out of Gaza: in a casket.
“Maybe next time you visit Gaza,” Osama says casually, “I’ll be dead too.”
Four sonic booms from F-16’s rip over Gaza City one afternoon. Sonic booms sound almost like bombs, but the ground doesn't shake the same way.
At Popeye, a brightly painted Gaza internet café and hookah joint, Nehad El-Rahim shakes his head and sighs. In his late forties, his close-cropped hair is already grey. He wears a white button-down shirt and khakis.
“It’s not easy to live in Gaza, even for one day,” Nehad says. “What about to live forever here? But, what we can do? This is our situation.”
An attorney who had settled his family in the United States, Nehad came back to Gaza in 2005, when Israel pulled its citizens from the territory, because he said he was ready to help form the new Palestinian state.
Four years later, his disappointment lingers in the wrinkles at the corners of his eyes. He finds it impossible to practice law in a place governed by Hamas, a militant Islamic movement which rules by fear and corruption. Even worse, he is unable to attain a visa to rejoin, or simply visit, his wife and two young children, now living in Ogden, Utah.
He spends his days tending to his elderly parents and reading books. He says people used to go to the beach to relax, until Israeli bombs killed eight people there. At the height of the military campaign, the Israelis dropped leaflets warning residents to vacate targeted areas. But if a beach is not safe, Nehad wondered, where is?
The fragile cease-fire in place since Israel called a halt to Operation Cast Lead teeters precariously. On this afternoon, Israel has threatened “disproportionate retaliation” for several rockets fired from Gaza, which had injured two Israeli soldiers and a civilian. A cloud of fear hangs over Gaza’s bright winter sky. Palestinians debate among themselves what the target will be this time and seem to brace for a new onslaught of violence.
I hire a tall, gangly 24-year-old named Hamadah as my driver and translator. A bright young man, he wears the universal uniform of youth: jeans, t-shirt and tennis shoes, his longish hair slicked back.
As we bounce along the ruined dirt roads of El-Attatra, Beit Lahiya and Jabaliya, Hamadah speaks in impeccable English about his girlfriend, who is studying medicine in Egypt. Because of her strenuous school schedule during the day, she calls him in the middle of the night, and they spend hours talking and making plans for their future. But he and others feel there is no future here.
“If you gave anyone here the chance to leave, they would,” Hamadah says
Hamadah dreams of escape. He dreams of the real life he will start with his girlfriend in a safe European city, away from the relentless violence that plagues Palestine.
Hamadah says none of his previous escape plans have worked. He now hopes that a German university will accept his student application and that his girlfriend will join him there. He works at improving his German-language skills and is saving his money in case there is no scholarship.
While some Gazans desperately hope for a life outside the territory, others cling to the ground in Gaza ever more firmly.
For some of these people, survival has come to mean something completely different. You may lose your mother, your father, your children, your home, or all of them at once. But you go on. You continue to live, to work, to raise your family, to pray, not only because you have no other place to go, but also out of spite. You refuse to give up. You refuse to be crushed.
And you pray for revenge.
In El-Attatra, a farming village in Northwest Gaza, the Abu Halima family was eating supper when the Israeli military attacked. Several family members crouched in a hallway, away from the first blasts, when a white phosphorus bomb tore through the ceiling directly above them. The bomb and ensuing fire killed Saleh Abu Halima and four of his children, one of them a 15-month-old girl. Several others were seriously wounded.
In the house next door, a relative, Nabeela Abu Halima, dons a hair-hiding scarf and a galabeya, the figure-concealing robe typically worn by observant Muslim women throughout the Middle East. She stands in her living room, the walls peppered with bullet holes and defaced with graffiti. Next to her is a bright red drawing of a naked woman.
Nabeela tells me about the day Saleh Abu Halima’s house was attacked, how she and her sons helped load two wounded people and the burned body of the baby girl onto a tractor, which rushed them toward the nearest hospital. As the tractor chugged down the dirt path toward Gaza City, Israeli soldiers in a building along the road ordered them to stop.
Nabeela’s eldest son, 18-year-old Matar, and another relative,18-year-old Muhammad, got off the tractor with their hands up. Both young men were shot in the chest by the Israeli soldiers, Nabeela said. Matar died instantly, Muhammad died minutes later.
Nabeela begins to weep. She said the Israelis next told them to leave, but she didn’t want to leave without Matar and Muhammad’s bodies. She pleaded with the soldiers. They shot her in the arm.
The group fled, carrying the wounded several more kilometers to the hospital. They were forced to leave the body of Shehed, the 15-month-old girl, by the side of the road for eight days. Relatives have pictures of the dead baby. Dogs feasted on her legs and stomach.
Nabeela came back to a vandalized home—Hebrew scrawled across the walls, trash on the floor, feces in the pots and pans. She claims that she wasn’t a Hamas supporter until recently.
Now, her anger and grief boil to the surface when she talks about losing her son.
“If Hamas members come back, I swear to god I will help them fire rockets into Israel,” she says.
In Shifa hospital in Gaza City, Sabah Abu Halima lies in a bed, her arm and lower body covered in white phosphorus burns. It was her husband and four children who were killed when the bomb ripped through the Abu Halima home. It was her baby, Shehed, whose burned body was abandoned by the side of the road.
Between gasps of pain, Sabah seems to take solace in a single vow.
“I pray to Allah that I will have revenge,” she says. “I pray and dream of killing myself among the Israelis.”
Instead of crushing extremism in Gaza, Israel seems to have added new recruits.
The conflict in Israel and Palestine has a 60-year history of attack and counter-attack. Both sides have suffered. Many of the Israeli military’s actions appear to have been punitive—punishment not on the actual perpetrators, but a collective sort of retribution for past violence. Hateful.
There was the case of Zeitoun, a neighborhood now known to Gazans as the site of the Samouni family massacre. In an incident widely reported by international media and under investigation by human rights organizations, some 100 Samounis huddled in a home the Israeli soldiers had instructed them to enter. Then the building came under attack from bullets and shells. Around thirty family members, trapped inside, died over the next several days.
Homes in Zeitoun were vandalized and destroyed. One family showed me where the Israeli soldiers gathered all of the furniture in the living room and lit it on fire, letting their possessions burn to ashes. The soldiers left behind disturbing graffiti and mountains of trash, and bullet holes in the walls.
Israeli bulldozers then destroyed Zeitoun’s chicken farms. One farmer lost 65,000 chickens. It’s as if they not only sought total physical destruction; they also sought to destroy people’s hope.
Late one afternoon, I meet Kauthar, a pretty young mother of four, as she entertains her 9-month-old son Muhammad in front of their demolished home in Abed Rabbo, Jabaliya. I photograph Kauthar, surrounded by the physical ruins of her life, as she throws her giggling little boy in the air.
Abed Rabbo, on the eastern edge of Gaza’s border with Israel, was without a doubt one of the most battered areas, first attacked by Israeli F-16’s, and later by tanks, during the military operation. Israel says that the neighborhood was a well-known rocket-launching area and reduced every single building to rubble.
I ask Kauthar if everyone in her family is safe. She shakes her head and points toward the sky. Then she tells me the shocking story of how two of her daughters died on Jan. 7, 2009, the 5th day of the Israeli invasion.
She says that on that day, the Israeli soldiers used loudspeakers to warn people to vacate their homes. Abed Rabbo had already been under attack from the air, and now the soldiers were going to raze all of the buildings with dynamite.
Kauthar, her daughters Amal, 3, Samar, 4, and Suad, 7, and her mother-in-law, came out of the house as instructed, bearing a white flag. An Israeli tank sat 10 meters away. After a few minutes, an Israeli soldier opened fire, shooting the three little girls. As Kauthar's mother-in-law picked up one of the girls and turned to run back inside the house, she was shot as well.
Other family members helped pull the girls back into the house. Khalid, the father, began calling everyone he knew for help. The family was stuck inside the house for three hours. There was an ambulance nearby, but Israelis ordered the driver from behind the wheel and shot at it. Amal and Suad died inside the house.
Finally the grandfather walked out of the house carrying one of the dead girls, in hopes that he wouldn't be shot. The soldiers allowed him out and the rest of the family followed. As they departed the neighborhood, Khalid said the soldiers shot at their feet.
Samar, the middle daughter, was transported first to Egypt, then to Belgium for medical care. The rest of the family is staying with friends until they can rebuild or buy a home.
While she talks, Kauthar absentmindedly throws bits of cement and random household objects at the pile of wreckage in front of us, emotion clouding her face.
Kauthar’s story haunts me. Two days later, I return to Abed Rabbo and walk to Kauthar’s former home, looking for her. I find her husband Khalid instead, who tells me that Kauthar is unwell and was visiting the local mental clinic to get tranquilizers.
The last time I see Kauthar is the day before I leave Gaza. She shows me a photograph of her and her daughters from an identification badge. We go one last time to the wrecked home in Abed Rabbo, but stay just ten minutes, Kauthar’s agitation growing as time passes.
When we part, we exchange telephone numbers, and I want to give her something to remember me. I want her to know that I won’t forget her or her story. So I give her the scarf I am wearing, my favorite, given to me by a dear friend.
I miss that scarf often, and when I do, I think of it around Kauthar’s neck and how the breeze tugged at it while Kauthar stood watching my car pull away. I think of Kauthar’s daughters, the two little ones in heaven and the one who remains alone and afraid in a Belgian hospital, separated from the most important people in her life.
And I think of Kauthar, and all of the other Gazans left behind who, amid suffering and incomprehensible loss, find the strength to go on.