Abu Wael, my white-haired host in Beit Hanoun, so gentle and soft-spoken, sat and graciously urged his guests to eat more of food that he grew with his own hands on his northern Gaza farm, while he spoke of his grief.
The farm used to be planted with olive trees. During the olive harvest in October 2004, Abu Wael went with some workers and relatives to begin the harvest. However, Beit Hanoun came under attack by the Israeli army. That day, as they reached the farm, they received news that a cousin, Luay, was hit by a helicopter rocket and seriously wounded. So they left the farm out of concern for Luay and the family.
The third day after the attack, with Luay dying in the hospital and nothing else to be done, Abu Wael returned with the workers and relatives to harvest the trees. When they reached the farm, however, they were met by Israeli bulldozers that began to chase them. As they fled the fields, the Israeli army razed the land, crushing beneath their machines and metal blades the trees and their just-ripened olives.
That same day, 7 October, Luay passed away. Abu Wael fell ill, because of the land and because of Luay. But that would not be the last of his grief that year.
Three days later, Abu Wael and his son Ahmad stood on their balcony at 5am. An attack had just taken place and they were trying to figure out what had happened. Another cousin (also named Ahmad) decided to go the hospital to see what was going on. Ahmad was in the street, only 15 meters away from Abu Wael’s house, when he was hit during a missile strike fired from an Apache helicopter.
Abu Wael’s own son Ahmad went down running and found his cousin badly injured and also wounded in the leg, so he carried him and took him to the hospital. But there was no chance. He died that same day.
It was 15 days of attacks in Beit Hanoun. Five persons were killed. Each three days a new martyr. And the green all round crushed into rubble and dirt. It was a terrible time. Each day brought something worse than the last. Abu Wael did not recover from his illness for two months.
The beginning of 2005 brought a new year and new determination and Abu Wael came back to plant his fields. He planted the farm with orange trees. It was hard work; first they had to clear the farm of the rubble of the last destruction and build a new irrigation system. Within six months the trees were growing and growing fast.
However, the tanks came to raze the orchards once again.
But Abu Wael never gave up. He fought for his land with each seed he planted that next year. In 2006 he planted watermelon. He cared for the plants and they grew well. It was time to harvest again.
Once again, there would be no harvest. Over the border came the bulldozers and they destroyed in a few violent moments what took so much effort and time to grow.
Each invasion of the tanks meant a loss of money and time and work, and more sickness and heartbreak for Abu Wael.
But still he worked, and in 2008 he planted his land with many types of vegetables. This time the Israeli tanks bulldozed the farm a few weeks before harvest.
And they never stopped. During last winter’s massacres in Gaza the Israeli army destroyed Abu Wael’s land again. It was planted with cabbage and other vegetables. They destroyed the whole land as well as the irrigation system. So now the farm is nothing. Abu Wael cannot plant because there is no water to irrigate the fields with.
That’s how it is in Beit Hanoun. The farmers sow the seeds of wholesome provision, for themselves and their families and their people, and the Israeli forces destroy it. So the farmers come back to plant. And the tanks and bulldozers come back to destroy it again. And the farmers come back to plant.
They’ll always come back to plant.
I could tell from Abu Wael’s story that he felt more connected to his farm than to anything else in life. The kind of person who hates to be separated from it even for a day, Abu Wael goes there, even though he is old and even though he does not have the same strength he used to have.
It was not mere sentiment only, of course. He is a father of seven determined to see his children through college and the farm was their main source of provision.
That is why Abu Wael plans now to go to his municipality and ask for some irrigation equipment as some trees still stand in his devastated farm and he needs to bring them water. Even though he’s tired and even though he’s sick, it’s his way to fight and his way to survive.
Marryam Haleem is a senior at the University of Wisconsin studying philosophy and comparative literature and spent this summer in Gaza doing research for her senior thesis.