It’s a sunny day in the border region east of Beit Hanoun. Aside from a glaring absence of the citrus and olive trees which for decades abounded on this fertile land, finally razed by Israeli military bulldozers, all seems idyllic.
“This is the first time I’ve returned here since my friends were killed,” Ahmad Hammad says. He stands at the edge of a vacant plot and gestures to its far end which lies over 1 km from the border separating Israel and the Gaza Strip. “They were over there, I was standing here,” he explains.
Hammad, 24, recalls the day two years ago when three of his friends, all in their early twenties, were torn apart by an Israeli-fired surface-to-surface missile.
The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights reported that an Israeli military spokesman claimed that the Israeli army “targeted Palestinian gunmen accused of launching home-made rockets at Israeli towns.”
But Hammad remembers differently.
“They were all sitting over there, beside a small concrete hut. We used to come here all the time, to relax, drink tea, talk of our hopes and dreams. I was late that day.”
The date — 23 February 2008 — is etched in Hammad’s memory. His is a story of seeking a sanctuary where politics, occupation, siege and Israeli attacks didn’t exist. Just friends, tea, tobacco water pipe and talk.
“I left home around 2pm when they called me. They were already here, preparing the tea, relaxing. When I arrived to this spot, Muhammad stood up and began dancing around, joking, waving me to come over.”
He relives the next painful minutes in slow motion:
Then — it was exactly 2:28pm — there was a huge explosion and much smoke. I couldn’t see the area where they’d been standing, the smoke was so thick. When I finally got through the smoke and reached where they’d been standing, I found only pieces of my friends. I couldn’t even identify them by their faces, they were so destroyed.
I couldn’t think straight, couldn’t talk. I cried and cried, for maybe half an hour. Then I tried to call an ambulance, but I was still crying so hard the dispatcher couldn’t understand me. I called a friend instead and told him to bring a car and come here. He asked why, and I just told him to come here, still crying.
We collected my friends in pieces and took them to the hospital.
Hammad walks now, venturing to the site where his best friends were martyred. He sits near a water pipe leading from the ground and explains the area. “That was the hut, it was just a single room. We’d prepare tea and heat coals [for the water pipe] here.”
Pointing beyond the flat space where the hut stood, he notes a pile of rubble. “The room was destroyed in the last Israeli attacks on Gaza.”
The land is parched and cracked from want of rain or irrigation. “All the water pumps and wells in this area have been destroyed,” Hammad says, diverting to the troubles which now plague the region. “My own father’s well, over there, just 700 meters from the border, was destroyed. It must have cost him at least $10,000 to build, and now he can’t water his citrus trees.”
The Hammad family is not alone in repeatedly losing trees, crops and wells to Israeli bulldozers. Throughout the border region, wells, cisterns, piping, houses, farm equipment, and crops have been destroyed over the last decade, the most thorough destruction being during Israel’s invasion of Gaza last winter.
This dry, flat plot of land once sprouted onions. “Some of our other friends rented the land. They wanted to earn some money, so they planted onions and worked the land together. But they always let us come here to relax, whenever we wanted. That’s why we came here that day.”
He points up, over the border region where a fat white blimp hangs in the sky, surveying the land below with great accuracy. “These blimps are along the border. They can see everything with great detail, including my clothes and face.”
What the blimp misses, the drone hovering above sees. During Israel’s invasion, drones clouded Gaza’s skies and accounted for 519 of the 1,419 Palestinian civilians murdered during the Israeli massacre, according to the al-Mezan Centre for Human Rights. Often, the first drone-fired missile would be pointedly followed minutes later by a second or third, striking those who came to rescue the injured.
Earlier this day, Israeli warplanes leafleted the border regions, again declaring the 300 meters from the border mortally off-limits to anyone on the Gaza side. The Israeli-imposed “buffer zone” goes back a decade. And although the current limit is 300 meters, in practice Israeli soldiers target Palestinians up to nearly 2km away.
“They were young, were still dreaming and planning their lives,” says Hammad.
Muhammad al-Zaniin was from Beit Hanoun. He was still in school, studying business and English at al-Azhar University.
“He was an over-achiever, always wanted to get the highest marks possible. His goal was to be first in his class throughout university, and to finish early. He was always studying. Just before he was killed, he had learned the results of some of his exams: 97 percent, 95 percent. But he was killed before he knew the rest. He wasn’t asking for much from life, just to do well in school, get a job, and marry a girl he loved.”
Ibrahim Abu Jarrad was also from Beit Hanoun.
“He was the quietest of us all. He was very thoughtful and a mediator, always solving problems between people. His hopes were very simple: to build a home and marry the girl he loved.”
Muhammad Hassanain was from Jabaliya. His father was dead and Muhammed had taken on the role of providing for the family.
“He dreamed of building a new home, large enough to house the family comfortably. He was such a responsible guy — as paying the university tuition of his younger brother. He just wanted to marry and take care of his family.”
It was the same week that the Israeli military killed another six civilians in Gaza and wounded 16. Among the martyred were an elderly shepherd and a farmer in his thirties, both nearly 3 km from the border when shelled by an Israeli surface-to-surface missile east of Gaza City. A 12-year-old and two 10-year-olds were killed later the same day west of Jabaliya, targeted by Israeli air strikes. An infant was killed by shrapnel to his head and chest after Israeli aircraft bombed a government building surrounded by houses in the center of Gaza City. A 31-year-old in the east Khan Younis region was killed by indiscriminate Israeli fire the day earlier.
“After I saw my friends torn to pieces, I kept thinking, ‘I wish I had been with them.’ I saw part of the missile that looked like it hadn’t exploded, and I wished that it would now explode with me,” Hammad says. “It was the end of the life I had, the end of my dreams.”
The killing of Hammad’s three friends wasn’t his first personal loss, but it hit him the hardest.
“I’d seen my cousins killed, in 2004. But that was nothing. This was the most difficult thing for me, it still haunts me.”
While Hammad no longer visits places that remind him of his martyred friends, he does still regularly visit their families.
“Of course, they are like my own families. But even though I know they love me, I always feel that they blame me, think I was the reason their sons were killed. I see it in their eyes.”
Like most Palestinians who’ve suffered the loss of their loved ones, or suffer from the grinding, nearly four-year-long siege on Gaza, Hammad hides his pain behind smiles and laughter.
“I told my friends that I’d never laugh again after my best friends were killed. But we go on. And my laughter is hollow.”
Fluent in English, Hebrew and his native Arabic, Hammad is educated and employed. But not happy.
“I also had many dreams. I used to dream of doing a Masters degree abroad. Now I just live day to day, continue because everyone tells me I must. This is life. It comes and takes everything you want.”
Eva Bartlett is a Canadian human rights advocate and freelancer who arrived in Gaza in November 2008 on the third Free Gaza Movement boat. She has been volunteering with the International Solidarity Movement and documenting Israel’s ongoing attacks on Palestinians in Gaza. During Israel’s recent assault on Gaza, she and other ISM volunteers accompanied ambulances and documenting the Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip.