By Ewa Jasiewicz - Jabaliya, Gaza
Yesterday saw the first canvas tents go up in the Gaza strip to house internally displaced people. The UN estimates 50,000 people have been made homeless due to the bombing and bulldozing of homes and properties by Israeli occupation forces in Israel's 21 day offensive in the Gaza Strip. The displacement is just meters in the case of many families who don't want to move far from their ancestral land, and have opted to move into tents on the site of their destroyed houses.
People have lost more than their homes here. Entire families, living on family land, handed down throughout generations, have had their protection, life's investment, and community networks literally crushed. The Al Eer family, living on land close to the border in 'Izbat 'Abed Rabbu had eleven homes reduced to rubble, and had five members dragged out from under one home. According to the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, medical crews found Ibrahim Mohammed al-'Err, 11; Rakan Mohammed al-'Err, 4; Fidaa' Mohammed al-'Err, 17; Iman Nember al-'Err, 27; and Mohammed Mousa al-'Err, 48 in the early hours of Sunday 18th January. Ibrahim al-Err, standing in the ruins of his home told me his family left their home on January 7th, after being told by Israeli Occupation Forces to get out. The family was told to leave immediately by loudhailers perched on tanks. 'We saw 10s of tanks, they were everywhere, we didn’t even have five minutes, we didn’t have time to take our belongings'. Nasser al-Err, 40, living close by explained, 'My sons left without their shoes, I had 5-6000 Dinars at home – I don’t know where it is or how to reach it. My son is disabled, where will he go?'
The Ajrawi family lost five houses, the Jned family at least four. Naima Ajrami's vulnerable asbestos roofed three bedroom home housed nine people. 'We now live with our family in Falluja.' She gestures to the crushed brick, furniture and pieces of her life behind her and under her feet. 'We built this house ourselves. This is not the first time it's been destroyed; half of it was bulldozed in the invasion of 2005.' She lets her hands fall down, 'I don’t know how we will rebuild it, my husband has no work, I don’t know, we wont be able to rebuild'.
A Rubble Tide
The tide of rubble, of leveled homes, rolls up and down the Gaza strip. In Mooghrieka, a tiny neighbourhood close to the former Netzarim settlement, over 30 homes were totally leveled and a further 130 partially destroyed. On one street, the sheer force of tank shelling in the streets outside had been enough to cave in the vulnerable asbestos roofs of at least eight homes.
The home of the Abu Shalafa family was bombed by tank shelling on the 5th of January. Three members were injured including 13-year-old Maysa, suffering from Cerebral Palsy and now additional shrapnel pieces lodged inside her head. The family showed us a large floppy x-ray photo, with clear white spikes inside a black skull denoting the embedded shrapnel. Maysa was writhing and screaming on a wicker matt outside her home, 'She can't sleep at night' explained her mother as Maysa strained her clenched body in agony.
Dynamite, according to evidence uncovered by human rights groups and witnesses, was the main means of home demolition deployed by Israeli occupation Forces; later followed by bulldozing.
The Palestinian Red Crescent Society and its' army of volunteers has been trawling the streets of the areas hit by operation 'cast lead'. They’ve been registering families for sheets of plastic sheeting to patch up blast holes and smashed out windows in their homes, organized by the Red Cross. They tick off questionnaires registering 'emergency house destruction kits' consisting of mattresses, blankets, hygiene kits, jerricans, tarpaulin, a bucket, a kettle and chairs.
In Mooghreika, 53 members of the Al Qasans family – six families in total – had their four story home leveled, by F16 bombardment according to witnesses. Theirs is a similar story to many others, property was fired upon by tanks and inhabitants ordered out of their homes by soldiers through loudhailers.
In Ezbit Khader, in the Jabbal al Rais area, Mohammad Shaheen, Team Leader of the Red Crescent Society's Disaster Management Unit was commandeering a team of volunteers putting up tents to house 140 families. The temporary shelters were paid for by the Falah Charitable Society. Bulldozers had smoothed down uneven land for around 20 tents, each sporting a defiant Palestinian flag flapping in the evening breeze, the wind blowing freely here now without any houses or trees to catch in.
He told me, 'We wanted to put up the tents further inside the area, away from the border, but people wanted to be closer to their homes and land', he said. Asked how long the camp might stay he says, 'We are planning to have it here for up to one year if necessary but if we cannot get cement in then it could be much longer, it could be forever'.
The camp will have a food tent, medical tent, a play area for children in the centre and electric lights surrounding the huddled residential area. The United Nations Refugee Welfare Agency (UNRWA) has stated that it will only be dealing with existing refugees, settled in camps in the Gaza Strip – meaning charities have taken on housing the new homeless. Most of the 50,000 homeless in the Gaza Strip came from non-refugee areas and communities, qualifying as 'Internally Displaced People'. A camp of large white canvas tents sporting Save The Children flags has been erected at the foot of Atatura. More are planned for Zeitoun and Toofah.
A Refugee Camp for an Orchard
A cave-like shelter consisting of a collapsed lopsided roof is all that remains of Ziad Al Khader's home. The view from under the rubble is one of the camp. 'Where those tents are' he explains, 'Is where my lemon and olive trees were, that was my orchard'. The Al Khader family, are the ancestral residents and farmers of the area, hence the name Izbet Khadar. Ziad says the family lost 30 homes in Israel's offensive. Five relatives were also reportedly killed. Standing on top of the pile of exploded rubble that was his and his brother Ziad's house, Ibrahim Khader, a farmer, and father of three, tells the story of what happened. He points to piles of rubble and slabs of concrete, surrounding us, 'That there is my fathers house, that is my uncles house, that is my brothers house, another uncles house', the rubble comes alive with the fact it was inhabited and up-standing less than two weeks ago.
'All of us were home when the army came. It was the 16th of January. Missiles were fired onto our area, a tank shelled my brother Ziad's house, so his family came over to ours. We were then tank shelled. It was in the afternoon. My brother Ibrahim then called me and said he wanted to leave. I told him to ask the Red Cross to evacuate him but he said there was no chance, there was no co-ordination. The night was full of bombing. By 10am, everyone had left aside from mine and Ziad's family. We were hiding, huddling together, we didn’t see what was happening. My brother Ismaeel then came round and said, 'You have to leave', we said, 'How did you leave?' He said, with a white flag. So we left with white flags. We didn’t take anything with us, we left everything at home. There was shelling, in my analysis, was to get us out of our houses. The destruction wasn’t as bad as it is now when we left. If you look around this area you would never have though it had shops, and homes, it was our area, our community, named after us. We were shot at as we were leaving, from a tank, they shot into our lemon trees. We all went to Rabea Sultan's house, but they shot at his house too, it was an unnatural situation. Two of us were injured in the shooting. Our wives were asking the soldiers if they could return back to pick up some belongings, the Israelis said, 'No, and if you try we will shoot you'. We'd built our neighbourhood together, it was our village. I built this house myself, I didn’t rent it, I didn’t buy it ready-made, I worked on it and know every single part of it, because I built it with my own hands.
When I came back I couldn’t believe this was my home, and the industrial area, the agricultural land, our land, this area was a farm land area, we are villagers. Right now, some of us sleep here, others are with relatives. I am staying here, my brother too, we were born here, we grew up here, we learned here, it is dear to us, this is my grandfather's land and we will hand it down to our children too.
The plan of Israel is for all of us to leave our land and to give up on and give out the fighters. We can't, we won't, its our legal right, they're trying to colonise our land and our sea, even if my son said to me I am going to fight, could I stop him, When, it's our right? We didn’t come to the Israelis, they came to us, they came to colonise our land. We're far from the areas where any missiles were being fired, why did they come to us and do this? If one of my brothers, or my father's houses was still standing, then I could feel happy, it could be ok, but when I look around me and see all of my families' homes destroyed, I cant be'.
A Man-made Landslide
We traipse down the landslide that is the side of the mound that was Ibrahim and Ziad's homes and sit on mattresses inside the cave that is their home. We drink sweet sage tea – sage a natural anti-depressant that grows wild and abundantly here. Ibrahim's kids keep a fire burning in the corner, stoked by pages of torn old schoolbooks and bulldozed olive and lemon branches. Aromatic smoke wafts up into the peaked roof of the concrete tent we now sit in. Five men, fathers, in their 30s, 40s and 50s, sit staring out and the new camp infront of them, their gaze alternating between the tents, the grey ground – once a ceiling - under their feet and their new guests. They have all lost their homes.
Ziad, the eldest son, white haired and sharp-eyed in his early 50s intones, 'We all used to work in Israel, all of us, I was a builder, I had Israeli friends, and never in my life would I have expected Israelis to do this. How are we supposed to work for peace after this? How? They bombed our mosque. We had saved up, all of us from our area, on the land of my grandfather, for our mosque which we need for our community, to attack this, this is forbidden in our religion. Did the mosque fire missiles at them? They destroyed our water well, the well we all drank from, and now, what do we have here?' He picks up a dusty empty six litre water bottle. 'We were given his today, each family. Six litres. How are we supposed to live on this? And what if we want to wash our dishes? And look, its made by a US charity organization' he says pointing to a charity insignia. 'So the US is making the F16s that bomb us and the bulldozers that destroy our water wells and then US charities are giving us small bottles of water to drink in our ruins?'
Ibrahim explains, 'We don’t need a sack of flour, we need our nation. We need our sea, our land, we need our air, our sky, open borders, the right to leave, for Russia, Ukraine, the UK, wherever we want'.
I ask how it feels to sleep in their broken home at night, 'We have nightmares' says one of the men smiling ruefully. ''Its really hard', says Ziad blankly, 'We think about our home, we think about everything we had, all the good things that happened in it and all the bad things that happened in it. My children were born here, in this house. It was everything. And, we built it, and, it's, it's, gone.'
Ibrahim joins in, 'When I die, I won't feel happy. I haven’t go anything left to show for all my life and life's work, I didn’t manage to make anything lasting for my family, what I worked for was taken away from me, but, this is my land, still, and we are here'.
People still can't believe what has happened to them here. Their landscape, their lines of sight and lineages of land cultivation, the tending of the soil and cyclical toiling of the land to yield olives, oranges, lemons, a harvest, a livelihood, the centuries old relationship between farmers and their land, has been bulldozed into dust. The protection of a home, to live and die in, to shelter in, a community centre in its own right for every family, a place to sit and drink tea in and bake bread in and bring up children in, to come back to every night, to invite guests to, to sleep safely within, 'the heart of the home' a phrase used every day, to describe, terribly, too often, where tank shells and apache missiles were shot into, 'into the heart of our home' says family after family, after family.
People here feel uprooted, Israel's attack literally tearing families from their roots, blowing bricks and lives and livestock and trees and people sky-high. If not physically uprooted, this war had left everybody in Gaza psychologically uprooted, violated and disorientated by the fact of three weeks of blindness for every family unable to see what was happening to their relatives and fellow Gazans in 'closed military areas', kept out, kept blinded by sniper-fire and missiles against anyone daring to set foot but kept awake and shocked by the sound of bombs and strikes all over the Gaza strip.
Everybody heard the sound of homes being bombed, mosques being bombed, hospitals being bombed, shelling and bombing and striking, everybody jolted and shuddering in their beds and homes and by night and by day. Now people are slowly trying to re-root themselves, to return, to re-orientate, to follow the trail of destruction and piece together where the tide of Israel's war began, where it spilled over into the streets and alleyways and orchards, who it took with it, how and where, to cohere the sounds with what we see now before our eyes, this settled hell and to make sense of the before and after. Not knowing and not witnessing, being left with memories of sound without sight, and a present reality of pure destruction, gutted land and communities, is in itself a violation of the human need to understand and bear with and feel with our neighbours and friends. What many find so painful here, is not just the horrific violations that the living witnesses remember, such as the Samouni family and the Abid Rubbu Family, its not just what they saw, but its also the fact of what Israeli soldiers saw, they who perpetrated these inhumane violations, with open eyes, 'laughing' according to some witnesses; that they saw it all, when we didn’t and couldn’t stop it, and that they were present, that they perpetrated, witnessed and withdrew, anonymously, and seemingly, remorselessly.
The struggle now is to come to terms with and understand what physically happened here, and to re-root, as the communities of Atatura, Ezbid-Abu Rubbu, Toofah, Zeitoun, Rafah, Maghrooka, Johra Deek and Ezbit Khader are re-rooting, whether it be in canvas tents or their concrete ex-home tents. To re-grow and reclaim, a shared history and a shared future, and a present of an ongoing liberation struggle, together again
- Ewa Jasiewicz is an experienced journalist, community and union organizer, and solidarity worker. She is currently Gaza Project Co-coordinator for the Free Gaza Movement.