He was a happy man, gracefully making his way amid the guests who filled his living room, distributing smiles as well as juice, while sharing jokes and social talk, with a smile that would not leave his face.
“Nafez Abu Nahyeh was reborn today,” whispered one of the guests, while pointing at their host, who took the center of a rustic couch with his four children, tickling the youngest and caressing the hair of the eldest.
For more than three years the Abu Nahyehs were prisoners in their own home, after Israeli soldiers had commandeered their house, which is situated right next to the Jewish settlement Kfar Darom.
During those years Abu Nahyeh and his family never knew a social life, unable to receive guests or attend the social occasions of their relatives because the Israeli army had set up a permanent military post on the rooftop of their house.
But on September 11, Nafez Abu Nahyeh had his last encounter with the Israeli soldiers.
“[The soldiers] herded my family and myself into one of the rooms of the house,” Abu Nahyeh said. “Then I was ordered by the senior Israeli officer not to leave my house under any circumstances until the next morning.”
Abu Nahyeh added that throughout that day, they listened to the noise of the Israeli soldiers going up and down the second floor of their house.
“We heard loud banging sounds as if they were moving heavy equipment out. We knew this had to be related to the announced Israeli withdrawal.”
Israeli defense minister Shaul Mofaz had declared that, following the Israeli cabinet meeting on September 11, the Israeli army was to leave the Gaza Strip completely within 24 hours.
The commander of the Israeli army’s southern area, General Aviv Kochavi, led the last convoy of Israeli soldiers who crossed the Kissufim crossing into Israel, and watched as two soldiers wearing purple berets sealed the gate that separated Israel from the Strip.
Back at the Abu Nahyehs’ residence, things were unusually calm after sunset.
“I knew deep inside my heart that the soldiers had left our home, but I dared not venture out of the room. I was afraid they had left a soldier behind to keep watch over us,” Abu Nahyeh said.
“We had no radio or phone lines, so we were in the dark concerning the news. At about 10 pm I decided to go out and see what’s happening.”
What Abu Nahyeh saw would forever remain etched in his mind, he said.
“I went upstairs on my toes and peeked from the corner, but I didn’t see the usual scene of soldiers hiding with their equipment under the military netting that covers my rooftop. There was nothing and I was in shock.”
By midnight Abu Nahyeh and his family were all on the rooftop, and they looked into the Kfar Darom settlement, which lay - across from their house - in ruins.
Houses, military headquarters and other buildings had all turned into heaps of rubble. The settlement was no more.
The Abu Nahyehs did not sleep all night; even their youngest child Awad was unable to sleep. They were crying with joy over the fact that their nightmare had ended and that they would get their normal life back.
“I ran outside the house and into the settlement. I didn’t care if there were soldiers or not, for obviously they’d left a long time ago. I stood in the middle of Kfar Darom and started jumping with happiness. We were free and I will never have those unwanted occupants anymore,” Abu Nahyeh reminisced.
With the break of day thousands of jubilant Gazans joined the Abu Nahyehs in celebrating their freedom.
Upon returning to his home from the settlement, Abu Nahyeh found dozens of relatives, friends and neighbors waiting to congratulate him on getting his life back.
“I couldn’t fight the tears when I found my family, relatives and friends rushing toward me, hugging and kissing,” he said. “I felt I was out after decades of imprisonment. I was happy with my freedom and happier that my loved ones hadn’t forgotten about me,” he added, as a telephone call interrupted him. It was a cousin from Saudi Arabia congratulating him on the Israeli pullout from Gaza.
After the phone call Abu Nahyeh turned serious and spoke about the possible future of the Gaza Strip in light of the remaining Israeli control over borders, sea and airspace.
“I’m happy with Gaza being free from the Israeli occupation, but my happiness will not be complete as long as I keep seeing Israeli soldiers at the border crossings whenever I want to travel. If Palestinians cannot control their own land then we just moved from a small prison into a bigger one,” he argued.
Israel had declared that, following the completion of its military withdrawal from Gaza, it would close the Rafah border terminal, south of the Gaza Strip, for a period of six months, in order to renovate the terminal and appropriate it for the current situation.
According to Israeli officials, a new border terminal, Kerem Shalom, east of the Gaza Strip, will be opened for passengers and goods until the terminal in Rafah is ready.
The Palestinian Authority has rejected this Israeli move, stressing the necessity of having an Israeli-free border point in the Gaza Strip.
“Thank you for coming and I’m really glad that you were able to show up,” said Abu Nahyeh, as he greeted an unexpected guest who had surprisingly shown up at his house.
The guest was his cousin, Murad, who lives in the Egyptian village of Sheikh Zewayyed. Murad had managed to cross into the Gaza Strip after Israel pulled out its troops from the borders between Egypt and Gaza, giving residents on both sides of the border an unprecedented chance to exchange visits and see relatives they have never seen in their life.
“For now, I’m a very happy man. I will start renovating my house and maybe figure out a way to restart my money-changing business. There is a bright future for Gaza, if only Israel were sincere in its withdrawal and loosens its grip over the borders,” Abu Nahyeh declared, as he took his Egyptian visitor into the house.
Yasser Abu Moailek is a freelance journalist and translator living in Gaza Strip. He contributes news items and feature stories to several news agencies around the world and has worked with foreign media outlets and NGOs in the Gaza Strip. He can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org.