Fear of the sky

(Photo/Illustration by Nigel Parry)

6 September 2003 — Yesterday was so beautiful. It was the second time in the two-and-a-half months in which I’ve been here that I wasn’t hot. The sky had full grey and white clouds, just like home. There was a perfect breeze and the air was clean.

In Rafah, we went to have lunch with a family that has a big ugly metal wall for a back yard and a side yard of twisted re-bar and concrete, a pile that used to be a neighbor’s house. We ate lunch on the porch and if I squinched down to just the right height I could look out and see just the sky and the clouds — no wall — and pretend that it didnt exist, that we were just hanging out, having lunch on a beautiful Gaza autumn day.

The day before, in a different part of town — Tel Al-Sultan — a three-unit apartment building had been demolished, some surrounding olive trees knocked down and part of a wedding hall also ruined. The house had stood very near the Gaza-Egyptian border and also right underneath the most hideous, active sniper tower in Rafah. I was fully aware that we were being watched the whole time. Knowing this fact and that this was the tower that had shot Ablas’ leg off one day as she was shopping with her 8-year-old neice Rula, made it impossible for me to feel okay away from a protective wall.

The families who had lost their homes weren’t there, but the neighbor was. He was packing up his stuff and leaving his home, ready for it to be demolished next. We looked around the wedding hall under the watchful eyes of the tower and three tanks and I was shocked to not hear one bullet. A photographer had come earlier in the day and had been shot at.

The next day, the beautiful one, after eating lunch, we went to find the families. We met Assad, one of 9 brothers who lived in that area, all of whom had lost their homes. He was the one who owned the house that was being vacated. He and his family lived in the house during the day, but before sunset every day came to the house he is staying at now. Before and after the cease-fire, every night and most days, this area clatters with gunfire and shelling. After his brother’s house was demolished next door, he decided to give up hoping that his family would be safe there.

He told us the story of his brother, Omar, who owned one of the three flats in the recently destroyed building. He is 25 and was preparing his house for his wedding, which was supposed to happen this week. He had been painting and cleaning and filling it with furniture, just fixing things up. You can imagine him looking around, full of pride and anticipation, anticipating the first moment his new wife looked at this home he was bringing her to, maybe imagining their first night together, their future kids running around, his brothers coming over with their families for dinner.

Assad thought the Israelis saw him going in and out and knew what he was doing and demolished that home, on that day, on purpose. Now Omar has no home, he has had to postpone the wedding, not for a week or a month, but for as long as it will take him to save up enough for a house, most likely 5 years or so. Assad said Omar is already sort of ready for his fiance to leave him before that happens!

Assad means happiest, which was funny because he really was happy. He laughed the whole time, about losing his house, about his brother, about having no electricity, having 10 kids, about everything. We met his other brother, Issa (“Jesus”) and he was much less happy.

Issa had once owned a home in that area too. But in March 2003 it was demolished. A month before the demolition the friendly folks in the tower sent small missiles through two of the upstairs windows which had set fire to the house but, thank God, hadn’t hurt anyone. They spent a lot of money to fix it up and moved back in, and then waited.

One afternoon in March a bulldozer rammed into one of their walls with no warning. His son, a 2-year-old, was shot in the thigh that day and had to spend 2 months in the hospital. I asked how he was now, not physically, but mentally. I can’t even imagine how scary it would be to go through all that as an adult, but for a 2-year-old? All i could get out of Issa was an il hamdu lilah (“Praise be to God”). Many aid organizations came to take pictures, many of them promised to help with donations, but he hasnt seen any of them again.

I asked if they and their kids felt better now that they were away from the border. “No,” Assad said, “there’s nowhere here to feel safe. Here there is still shooting, we still can’t sit outside at night because of the tower from the Morag settlement that shoots over here. We aren’t home here and what can we do? None of us has enough money to get a new house.”

We left — we could, they cannot — and again, the only thing I could promise was that their story would be told. Again, I felt totally worthless and helpless and small being able only to offer this small gesture in the face of their immense needs.

We got to the street and I saw a truck with big speakers. Shit. This truck comes out when something bad has happened. I asked Mohammed and Adwan what was going on, could they understand, but they couldn’t hear. Mohammed went to buy cigarettes and came back saying the same thing I had thought earlier: Shit. The Israeli army had just dropped a half-ton bomb from an F-16 on an apartment building in an attempt to kill Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader of Hamas, and Ismail Hanniya, a top political hamas guy (a moderate).

No one had been killed, but even this attempt was a very bad thing. There are only two things that could happen — I decided before I came here — that would make me leave right away. The first was if Sheikh Ahmed Yassin was killed or if there was fighting between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. This attempt in Palestinian societal terms was similar to if someone tried to kill Sharon or Bush. I can’t imagine what would happen if someone dropped a bomb on Sharon’s home, or on Bush’s ranch with him in it although I’m pretty sure that it would start a war.

Despite 36 years of occupation, countless violations of human rights and international law, amidst the bombs dropped from planes and $80,000 “Hellfire” missiles shot from Apache helicopters, despite all the demolished homes and uprooted trees, the nearly 2,600 Palestinians killed in the last three years, this is one of the single acts that would end any hope for peace here. I really am afraid to think of what might happen if the Israelis succeed in killing him eventually, and sad too. Obviously not becuase I support him or Hamas, but because of what it would mean for all the people here.

Already, things have changed here. I hear that in Israel security is stepped up. It’s big news on the web and the TV — “Israel readies itself for another attack.” Maybe people in Israel feel the same way we do here. Last night in Rafah, an Apache flew over the border area all night, keeping me awake long after the five bombs shook our house. i could hear it clearly and was too scared to sleep, thinking that it could strike at any minute. Friyal couldn’t sleep either, and this is a family that sleeps no problem with all night shooting.

In the few minutes I managed to sleep, I dreamt about Apache helicopters, that whole ‘sound-getting-integrated-into-your-dream’ thing. This morning in Gaza City we could see two huge warships in the water. F-16’s were flying all day and I saw three fly overhead in formation. At work, we heard an explosion and even the usually hardcore Marwan was startled. We never figured out what it was. I went home and kept hearing Apaches. I heard so many that I thought it must be something else, but my friend Ashraf told me they were all over the place.

I was scared to come here, to the Internet cafe. I talked myself into it and as I walked down my street I looked at the sky the whole time. At one point I saw something big up there that was silent, right over my head. I ran to the sidewalk to get out of the street and stared at with my heart pounding until I realized it was a flock of birds way high up. I’m sad to think that Israelis are living in this kind of fear too, because of something their government decided to do, but I’m also sad that although its the Palestinians that live every day with F-16s, Apaches, tanks, shooting and shelling, it’s only Israeli fear that gets news coverage. There’s no news coverage of the crying daddy who ran his baby girl to Shifa hospital yesterday because her head was injured in the attack. There’s no news coverage of the little girls who were on their way home from school and happened to walk by that apartment when a huge plane flew over it and dropped a bomb onto it.

I’m going to go home now and turn on my fan and hope that it covers the sound of the F-16s and Apaches enough that I dont have see them when i sleep too.

Elizabeth Holt is a volunteer with the International Solidarity Movement in Rafah. She also works in Gaza City. This is her second time volunteering with the ISM. Elizabeth is from Seattle, Washington where she works as a neuroscientist and as a volunteer with the Palesitinian Solidarity Movement.