When Israel launched its offensive last July, I did not think it would last 51 consecutive days, or be waged against all Palestinians in Gaza.
The announcement of the operation came in the middle of the night, but the next morning I woke up thinking that I should go to work. My mother stopped me.
Life seemed normal; people went about their routines since we thought the assault would end after a few air strikes and assassinations, based on our long experience of Israel’s hostility and violence.
But the attacks expanded. It was far worse than our darkest fears.
During the war, I followed the news as closely as I could, but the severe shortages of electricity made it almost impossible.
The death toll relentlessly increased until it exceeded 2,200 people.
One of those deaths hit shockingly home.
The news came through a Tweet that night: “an Israeli drone targeted someone called Mahmoud Horani.”
In Arabic, a mere dot distinguishes this name from that of my boss, Mahmoud Jorani.
I rushed to the TV and saw the same breaking news about someone called Mahmoud Horani.
They can’t mean Mahmoud Jorani, I thought.
On Facebook, a mutual friend wrote on Mahmoud’s profile: “blessed be your soul, my dear friend.”
The shock hit me. It can’t be him. It’s not him! Why him?
I could not bring myself to call him. I was too afraid to find out, or even to believe, what had happened. I was full of doubt, but insisted to myself that he wasn’t, he couldn’t, be the martyr.
That night, I called a friend who told me the horrible news: Mahmoud was assassinated because he belonged to Hamas’ military wing, the Qassam Brigades — although he wasn’t fighting when he was killed. He was on his way to the mosque.
I knew he was devout, but why did he want to pray at the mosque that night? During wars, it is safer to pray at home; perhaps he felt that in such terrible circumstances, his place was in the mosque.
I knew Mahmoud as a very kind and humble agricultural engineer at the Ministry of Agriculture, and he was the chairman of the agricultural association where I worked as a project coordinator. Whenever the work day was finished, he turned into a funny and joyful person.
One would not have known that he was also a fighter with Qassam. I never imagined it during the three years I knew him, when I was a trainee in the ministry and also attending the university.
I only accepted the fact that he was dead when I saw his smiling face at the morgue in a photo that appeared on a news website the next morning.
Images of fighters during their training are released only after their deaths. The life of a resistance fighter is by necessity one of utmost secrecy. I saw pictures of my boss, the fighter, on Facebook and I began remembering the beginning of the assault, when I became a journalist to cover the war.
Initially, empty lands were the main Israeli targets, because it was from such sites that the resistance launched its rockets.
It was the first story I covered last summer: why are Israeli warplanes targeting empty lands as well as the most important agricultural plots in Gaza? I started researching and realized I needed to go into the field, to lands in central Gaza. I thought of Mahmoud, who lived there, and hoped he would agree to come with me. I called him but he politely declined. I didn’t understand and felt sad.
Two weeks of intensive bombing and shelling passed, but I didn’t hear from Mahmoud. I asked about him when I was talking with a mutual friend. “It’s his nature you know,” the friend said. “He rarely calls.”
Then, the first truce came. I called Mahmoud. I was surprised that he was laughing as he asked me, “Are you still alive?”
“What can I do? Unfortunately, yes, I am,” I answered, reflecting his grim humor.
He told me he had left his house and went with his wife, three sons and two daughters (who look just like him) to his father’s house. Like many of the thousands of people displaced during the war, they returned home briefly during the truce to fetch some of their belongings.
The last thing he said to me was, “Take care of your mum!”
I replied, “inshallah” (God willing). I thought to myself, why would he say that? I will ask him when the war is over.
What I didn’t know was that the Israeli army was looking for him. The constant threat of assassination prevents fighters from moving freely, even with their families.
That must have been the reason behind his refusal to come with me in the field. These are the hidden security concerns of the fighter.
Is the war really over? I am still waiting to ask him why he told me to take care of my mum, what he was thinking would happen if he came with me and why he didn’t tell me that he was a member of Qassam.
He said once: “It’s the conflict between good and evil; it is not just a matter of ancestors’ land.” I am still looking forward to discussing that point with him.
But I have to accept that he is gone.
Hana Salah is a Palestinian financial journalist based in Gaza. She has worked with several Palestinian and international media outlets, including the Anadolu news agency and Al-Monitor. This essay was written as part of the We Are Not Numbers project.