Mohammed, 3, son of Ibrahim Abu Auda, during Israeli shooting in Rafah at 3:30AM, July 2002. Their house is 40 meters from the Gaza-Egyptian border. (Johannes Abeling)
The situation in Gaza is horrific beyond belief.
Since Tuesday, May 11, thousands of people have been denied the simple right to return to their homes; this includes infants, children, students, employees, women, and men of all ages. There is no law in this life or world that should prevent someone from returning to his or her home.
Yet in Palestine this is happening. And it is Israel, the storied democratic state, that is practicing this grave violation of very basic human rights.
Tens of thousands of students and employees came from the south of the strip (Khan Younis and Rafah) to Gaza City for university studies, work, and for other various needs. They got stuck in Gaza after Israel closed all the internal checkpoints in the strip — dividing it into three separate parts.
My mother was one of those people. She came to visit my sister in Gaza City on Monday afternoon. She was planning to stay overnight and go back home on Tuesday morning. But on Tuesday morning she was jolted by the news of the closure and by what was going on in the Zeitoun neighborhood of Gaza City, which is very close to the Sabra neighborhood where my sister lives.
Like everyone else in the Strip she has followed the news not only via television and radio, but by watching and hearing the rockets launched by the Israeli combat helicopters which hovered over the buildings of Sabra and rocketed Zeitoun with air-to-ground missiles and shelled the neighborhood with high-explosive ammunition.
To reach Khan Younis refugee camp, she has to cross two checkpoints. The first is beside the illegal Israeli settlement of Netzarim where the tanks stand by two huge hills of sands. These tanks close off access to the coastal road and block anyone intending to cross. The second checkpoint is the one between Khan Younis and Deir Al-Baleh. This is Abu Holi checkpoint (so designated on account of the family name of the owner of the land and to call to memory that it was this family’s land that Israel confiscated and uprooted for the checkpoint).
On Tuesday, my mother decided that the next day she would cross the first checkpoint. This is easy compared to Abu Holi. She was dying from worry for my two brothers and my sister whom she left alone at Khan Younis camp as it was subjected to several largely unreported incursions in the last few days. She was terrified that the army might invade Khan Younis while she was in Gaza. The fear is always there that something more might happen to our family. She wants to be with them at such times no matter the cost. But it is especially important to her now with my father in Egypt and there being no older family members with them. My sister and I failed to convince her to give up her idea.
We agreed that she get a taxi from Sabra to the northern part of Netzarim where I would meet her. And because we cannot use the main road where the tanks stand, we have to circumnavigate this via a one kilometer trek on the beach before we can use the main road again to get another taxi. I walked half an hour on foot to meet her. Many children and students also made the trek. The army shot above our heads many times. At such moments we ran — myself every bit as much as the children and students around me.
I was notorious in my family for liking to run as a child. Now I run because my life may depend on it. But running on the sandy Gaza beach was extremely difficult. Some people, in their haste and fear, lost their shoes while running, but continued barefooted. Others were holding their shoes in their hands and running.
Many old women were crying after they fell to the ground and the sea water made their clothes wet. It was humiliating and yet I continued running. When I met my mom on the other side I started to worry about how I could get her safely to the other side. She cannot run. She cannot walk for even three minutes without sitting for a break. Then we saw the donkeys with carts coming to carry people. We paid four shekels and got on the cart. The donkey owner asked us to hold carefully to the edges of the cart and lie flat on it if there was any shooting. If so, we would then have to pick up the pace.
It is crazy. But in our situation today, nothing is normal. We sat. The driver ran alongside us. I closed my eyes and cried in silence. For a minute I wished that my mother had not brought me into this life. The 14-year-old driver saw my tears and told me to cheer up. At least, he said, you are not in Zeitoun where people are getting slaughtered. You have a chance to survive.
It was, he claimed, only another two minutes before we would arrive. And, after all, if anything happened there was a cameraman to take our picture. Apparently not all the journalists were blocked at Erez checkpoint on their way into Gaza. Some had obviously arrived earlier or were with the Palestinian press.
Despite all the hazards we succeeded in crossing. My mother was so happy and for a minute I was happy for her happiness.
We arrived at my apartment. The first leg of the trip was done. We decided to take a short break before continuing to Abu Holi checkpoint.
While listening to the radio we heard that the IDF opened Abu Holi. Quickly, my husband Nasser got our two kids and we raced to our car. More slowly, I helped my mother. We drove as fast as the engine could bear. My mother was so happy that she would go home. But her happiness did not endure. We arrived two minutes after the checkpoint was closed. The IDF had opened it for a scant 20 minutes. We waited for four hours before we returned home. My mother was so disappointed.
She could not sleep that night so on Thursday morning at 8:00 am I again took her to the checkpoint. It was so hot and thousands of people were there waiting. They all were praying that the army would let them cross. People were following the news and they learned more about the destruction at Zeitoun after the pervasiveness of the damage became clear following the IDF withdrawal. They also heard about the Apache helicopter strike in Rafah which left 13 people dead. Two girls, who were relatives of one of those killed, were seized by hysteria and tears. People at the checkpoint tried to calm them.
There was a woman who had left her 5-week-old infant and come to see the doctor in Gaza City. She could not return home. There was a young man who came to get his certificate stamped in search of a job, but got stuck.
The faces of the people were pelted by the relentless force of the sun. Many of them spent the night under the trees or sleeping in their taxis. Some returned to the middle camps or Gaza City to sleep with friends. Students who spent all their money on transportation going to and out of the checkpoint were sitting in great despair with nothing to do.
People were calling the Red Cross, UNRWA, the Egyptian Representative’s office, and the Red Crescent asking them to try to contact or pressure the Israelis to open the checkpoint. Then, in the middle of the day, two mature men went to the Israeli soldiers and pulled off their shirts and put their hands above their heads in an attempt to speak to them.
After they explained the situation from a great distance — a scenario that of course did not need any explanation beyond a simple glance the faces of the waiting people — the soldier promised to open if we remained quiet. We remained quiet for six hours in the hope that they would open. It was not until 4:30 pm that people started to approach the checkpoint again in another attempt to speak to the soldiers or even to walk through.
Suddenly, the soldiers started to shoot using live bullets and tear gas grenades. The tanks and the jeeps started to drive towards us. I took my mum from the taxi where she had been sitting for eight hours and we started to run. Every single one of us tried to escape. I was holding my young son Tarek with one hand and helping my mother with the other while Ghaida, my young daughter, was screaming somewhere close by.
My mother — my mother! — fell to the ground and people carried her. I carried Tarek and ran far from the gas. I shouted and called to Ghaida. She was shouting for me somewhere nearby, but out of sight. As a mother, these moments were the worst.
Five people got injured and approximately 10 were rendered unconscious by the gas. Ambulance sirens started to be heard and I still could not locate Ghaida. The shooting was still going on and the wheat field beside the checkpoint had caught on fire.
No words can adequately express the fear and humiliation of those minutes. And you wonder for a moment what life is this? Do we, too, not deserve to live as human beings?
Even after what happened, people still maintained hope that the IDF would open the checkpoint. And again we sat quiet in lines; hundreds of grim faces waiting. I tried to convince my mum to return to my apartment, but she had hope that they would open. She said the soldier promised the two men to open and they might honor their commitment. By now I had found Ghaida. She, at age eight, and Tarek, who is nearly four, were so tired and their faces were yellow.
We sat for another two hours for my mother. Again the bulldozers accompanied by the tanks started to move. They brought sand and began to close the road. We were thinking that they were cleaning or leveling the area but they were closing the road.
People started to scream in one voice: No, please, do not close, let us go. There was no act violent act from those waiting, either by way of action or words, but they started to shoot again.
By now, it was around 7:00 pm. The same scene as before was repeated. But this time we escaped with no hope — just with great despair — after more than 10 hours of waiting.
Almost every woman and child was crying or screaming. Men were helping and I could not look at my mum’s face. I had no words to say. I again noticed how tired my children looked. On our way back there was complete silence. Even our tears were spent. I wished that my mother could speak or cry to relieve her stress and heartache, but she did not.
The same exhausting wait happened on Friday, but this time we were not there. We decided not to go, but to call people we knew at the checkpoint to get the news.
There is no conclusion to this story. Tomorrow, we will wait again. Will we walk forward to our destination or will my heartsick mother fall unceremoniously to the ground and be borne away in retreat from gas, bullets, and hate?
Ghada Ageel lives in Zahra, Gaza Strip. Her story was delivered in three parts on account of the inconsistent electricity in Gaza. This time, her mother was able to make it home to Khan Younis on Saturday. Mike F. Brown assisted with editing the text.