Palestinians inspect what remains of their olive trees after they were destroyed in an Israeli military operation into the Gaza Strip, September 2007. (Wissam Nassar/MaanImages)
Leila pointed towards a lone tree and small house on a ridge above what appeared to be a vacant lot. “This was a great field,” she said, “filled with lime, guava and orange trees. They destroyed them, killed the trees,” she explained, referring to Israeli invasions over the years. “A few days after he learned his trees had been destroyed, the man who owned and tended to the trees passed away.”
She began to speak of Israel’s last large-scale invasion, at the end of February and into the first week of March, which Israel dubbed “Hot Winter.” During the invasion Israeli forces killed at least 120 Palestinians, and wounded hundreds more. This was the invasion during which Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai threatened Palestinians in Gaza with a “holocaust” in response to the firing of homemade rockets from the Strip towards Israel.
Leila’s family home in Jabaliya, in the northern Gaza Strip, lay in the thick of the slaughter. Israeli soldiers took over her home, using the top floor room overlooking a main street as a sniper position, from which to target people outside. The family was kept locked in one room, at gunpoint, for three days, as is often the army policy when invading Palestinian areas. “We weren’t allowed to cook, to heat milk for my baby, to wash for our prayers. The soldiers said we could only go to the bathroom alone, but I refused this. I’m a woman, I don’t want to be alone with soldiers,” she explained. As it was, Leila said that the women complained of soldiers not allowing them to close the door when using the toilet.
Israeli soldiers took humiliating trophy photos of one of her brothers, Ahmad, as US soldiers so infamously did of their Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib. “He was blindfolded and handcuffed, with his arms behind his back and his legs bound, stripped down to his underwear. The soldiers took turns posing with him. One put a plastic pot of flowers on his head. Another pretended to strangle him. They all wanted to take a turn.”
Leila mentioned how they were cut off from the outside world, had no idea what was happening even on the street out front, where or how their extended family members were, how bad the invasion was, or how long it would last. Amazingly, when she speaks of hearing one of Israel’s massive armored bulldozers — the kind designed to destroy buildings — thunder past, her greatest worry was not her house. “I was afraid they would destroy our trees,” she said, referring to the lemon, orange, guava, olive, plum and date trees.
She described the noise and power of the bulldozers. “Sometimes, when we could watch the bulldozers move along the street, we would see houses shaking and swaying, moving with the vibration of the machines.”
Standing on the balcony overlooking the razed field, Leila returned to the invasion.
“We had been preparing breakfast. An Israeli drone was flying overhead, as were helicopters. There were many, many tanks in the field behind our house. Across that lot [pointing towards the lone tree], there were two high school-aged boys walking towards that tree. We were here on the balcony by this point, shouting, shouting at the boys, because of the drone and helicopters above us, firing missiles in the area. Suddenly, one hit the youths, and we saw arms and legs explode into the air. It was terrible, terrible. Some youths in the area began trying to recover the body parts which were strewn all over. It took a long time to pick up all of the pieces.”
Like most in Gaza, Leila knows too well about the deadly drones that occupy Gaza’s airspace. “When drones fire missiles, you cannot run away. They are very accurate. First they take a photo, then they pinpoint their target, then they fire. All this happens very quickly. When helicopters bomb, at least you can see the helicopters and anticipate where they will fire, run maybe 10 or 15 meters away, maybe escape.”
Her family has witnessed much violence, particularly during that week of carnage.
“In another incident, an ambulance was approaching that same area there with the tree,” she explained, again gesturing away from her home. “The ambulance was headed past the tree, trying to get to where injured people needed care. Even though the ambulance was clearly and visibly a medical vehicle, the Israelis shelled it. Then a man nearby came running to aid the driver and he too was hit by missile shelling.”
Palestinians in Gaza have not become numb to the constant carnage; instead, each killing compounds existing trauma. “My younger brother, Saed, was walking not very far from the area over there [pointing again to the lone tree] when he saw a group of youths, teenagers, struck and killed by a missile. Although this is our life, he went into shock. He couldn’t concentrate, couldn’t study.”
And still a lone tree stands where the earth is tarnished with blood.
Pseudonyms were used in this essay to protect the safety of the concerned family.
Eva Bartlett is a Canadian human rights advocate and freelancer who spent eight months in 2007 living in West Bank communities and four months in Cairo and at the Rafah crossing. She is currently based in Gaza, after the third successful voyage of the Free Gaza Movement to break the siege on Gaza.