Last May’s Israeli assault on Gaza had devastating consequences.
Hundreds of lives were lost, whole families were wiped out and neighborhoods were flattened by Israel’s bombing campaign.
That campaign also targeted several tall mixed residential/business towers. These were not just prominent features of the Gaza skyline. They held prominent places in the hearts and memories of many Gaza residents: those who lived and worked there, and also those who lived in their shadow and promise.
Without them, Gaza City seems notably distorted and gloomy.
One of these was al-Jawhara Tower, a nine-floor tower bloc that was completed in 2004 and which housed residential apartments, private businesses, legal and educational offices, as well as a number of mostly Palestinian and Arabic media offices.
Today, all but the last of the rubble of al-Jawhara has been cleared because of the danger it posed.
But the space left behind is not just an absence on the land. A prominent feature of Gaza City’s professional life, many Palestinians in Gaza have stories connected to the tower.
With its rubble, there are many memories and dreams from al-Jawhara now buried.
Memories and devastated dreams
Asma Abu Telkh, 33, a writer and entrepreneur, got her first job as a computer coder in al-Jawhara.
“This place looms strong in my memory. I started a job there 10 years ago and have many beautiful memories.”
Al-Jawhara Tower and others played an important role for many in their professional lives, Abu Telkh told The Electronic Intifada.
“They embodied my memories of work: meetings with colleagues, interviews and the ends of working days. It feels like my memories have been erased, like something deep inside of me is about to be amputated and I don’t know how to prevent it.”
With so many companies located in al-Jawhara, some, like Abu Telkh, even moved from job to job within the same tower.
“I spent much of my life in it,” Abu Telkh said. “A complete memory carries our experience of growth, our development within these walls where we got to know many lifelong associates, both colleagues and friends. Everything that threatens our memories threatens our existence in life and hurts us deeply.”
Mahmoud Ammar, 42, is a music producer and a sound engineer.
With a friend, Wael Bassiouni, Ammar opened a studio in al-Jawhara in 2011, fulfilling a lifelong dream. That dream shattered in just a few minutes.
“I worked for many years to realize this dream, to create this studio and work in production. We focus on patriotic music inside and outside Palestine. Wael and I tried so very hard to realize our dream. With some personal support, we managed to purchase expensive audio and recording equipment that was difficult to find in Gaza.”
For 10 years, he said, he was living the dream. But, already back during the all-out military assault of 2014, it became clear that Israel had also started to target residential and commercial towers.
Ammar began to worry, though, fatefully, he didn’t act.
“When Israel began a policy of destroying towers, I began to worry about the possibility of them bombing my tower.”
Livelihoods and jobs
Ammar said the destruction of al-Jawhara Tower came at a great cost to him and everyone else who worked there. He estimates that he has lost some $5,000 in studio equipment alone, equipment that, even if he had the money, would be hard to replace in Gaza, which is under debilitating Israeli restrictions on what goods and products can and cannot enter.
It was not just an assault on their livelihoods – and the hopes and opportunities for many young people – but an attack on a place filled with many beautiful moments.
He still visits where the tower stood.
“Every day I come here and look at it, and in my heart, I am overcome with great sadness. I cannot believe this place no longer exists.”
Ammar is determined to build another studio. That, he noted, is what life in Gaza is all about: the constant destruction and rebuilding of dreams.
Muhammad al-Samouni, 46, a father of six, used to be a guard at al-Jawhara Tower.
“Even now, I am in shock. I used to spend my day working at this place where I have many friends. The tower was really a small city.”
Al-Samouni has now been unemployed since the May attack, after which unemployment in Gaza topped 50 percent.
“I did not expect the tower to be bombed because there was no political activity there. When the Israeli military warned the tower’s occupants that they would bomb it, none of us believed the news.”
Hundreds of citizens used to visit al-Jawhara Tower every day to take advantage of its many institutions, companies, services and shops. It had become central to life in Gaza City. Everyone thought it was safe.
Al-Samouni misses his job, and not just because he is downcast about his chances of finding another in Gaza’s desperate economic situation.
“This place holds so many happy and sad memories; this was a place of so many people’s achievements … but this is what wars do to us. They leave us with pain, day and night.”
In all, according to Ahmad al-Zaim, the owner of al-Jawhara Tower, more than 700 people lost their jobs – some permanently and others just temporarily – as a result of the destruction of the tower.
“The tower was home to engineering offices, clinics, restaurants, lawyers, accountants, apartments, public service providers, and tourism and travel offices,” he told The Electronic Intifada.
And it was more than just that to him. It was home. A home that was destroyed before his very eyes.
“I will never forget the look in my children’s eyes after we had evacuated and we stood there watching as the tower was hit by missile after missile.”
This was their home. All their childhood memories.
“They were crying over their home and their childhood. Watching them, screaming with fear on the side of the road, I saw how unstable this world is.”
Al-Zaim is rebuilding. He is in a hurry. The tower, he said, was once “the soul of the neighborhood.”
He wants to breathe life into Gaza again. And he wants to help those who were displaced.
“Dozens of apartment owners and their families became homeless, without shelter and stability. It is so sad to lose this place completely.”
It was the panic ahead of the bombing that many remember the most vividly.
The families residing in al-Jawhara Tower were informed in the middle of the night that their home was a target.
Tens of millions
Bleary-eyed and scared, they had to get everyone up and out.
“My neighbor told me in the middle of the night that I had to leave the house because the building would be bombed,” Nabil al-Sakka, one former resident, told The Electronic Intifada.
“I woke up my three sons and my wife and searched for official documents, such as ID cards, and our phones.”
Amid the hurry, the grief was overwhelming for the 40-year-old project coordinator.
“I couldn’t control my tears. So many years, so much work and struggle in order to buy this apartment. It was a difficult and sad moment that our children will never forget.”
The al-Sakka family is now renting an apartment and intends to move back in as soon as the tower is reconstructed.
Rebuilding the tower may help in the longer term as new memories and connections are re-established.
But for now, the bombing of Gaza’s four towers last May – in addition to al-Jawhara, there was Hanadi Tower, al-Shorouk and al-Jalaa – has caused significant economic consequences.
According to Gaza’s chamber of commerce, total losses incurred as a result of the destruction of the towers reach into the tens of millions of dollars.
“There are the direct losses resulting from the destruction of the commercial towers, and there are losses incurred from damage to the infrastructure and the dozens of small- and medium-sized shops in the area also struck during the barrage,” said Maher al-Tabaa of the chamber.
“The destruction of these towers will have serious negative repercussions on the fragile economy of Gaza,” al-Tabaa said.
And it is always the same after every Israeli assault, he noted.
“The greatest impacts come in the high rates of unemployment and poverty after every war.”
Ruwaida Amer is a journalist based in Gaza.