New year in Gaza reopens wounds of old

New Year’s in Gaza is time to honor the dead. (Eva Bartlett)

GAZA CITY, occupied Gaza Strip (IPS) - For many survivors of the last Israeli war on Gaza, time has not healed their wounds, physical or emotional.

Halil Amal Samouni, 10, still suffers vision problems in her right eye. The shrapnel remaining in her head causes her constant pain and she is unable to concentrate at school.

Her concentration is broken, also, by memories of her martyred father and younger brother, both of whom she saw shot dead at close range by Israeli soldiers during the 2008-2009 winter war on Gaza.

The name Samouni has become well known for the high number of martyrs in the extended family, and for the brutality with which many victims were killed, the Israeli army’s prevention of medical access to the injured, and the thorough and systematic destruction of homes, farms, and civilian infrastructure in the Zeitoun district in eastern Gaza, and all throughout Gaza.

In the wake of Israeli tanks, bulldozers, warplanes and Apache helicopters, the once tree-laden area was left a muddy pitch of rutted earth and tree stumps. Chicken farms were destroyed, along with plastic greenhouses, farm equipment, water piping, and the tens of homes, agricultural buildings and the local mosque.

Many of the remaining houses were taken as military positions, sniper holes bored through walls, soldiers’ excrement, clothing, spent ammunition and food provisions were routinely left among the trashed belongings of the house. Hate graffiti was found throughout homes in the Samouni neighborhood and all over Gaza.

Most horrifying was the targeted shooting of the family — including children — and the deliberate shelling of homes they had been forced into by Israeli soldiers.

Amal Samouni was among the least fortunate of survivors.

When Israeli soldiers came to her home early on 4 January, they shot her father Atiyeh dead at close range, then fired continuously into the room full of family members. Amal’s younger brother Ahmed, 4, was seriously injured by the shooting. Denied medical care, he died the following morning, roughly ten hours after Israeli soldiers prevented medical rescuers from entering the area.

“They killed my dad and my brother. They destroyed our house,” Amal says simply. She has told her story to journalists many times. “But it hasn’t done any good, nothing has changed.”

Zeinat Samouni, Amal’s widowed mother, shows the single room her family of eight are crammed into, cracked asbestos tiling covering the roof.

“The roof leaks. We put plastic jugs on the floor to catch the water,” she says. “And because we can’t buy cooking gas, we cook over a fire instead.”

Aside from their physical discomfort, it is memories of the massacre and fear of a new attack that trouble them.

“I was terrified he would choke,” she says, gesturing to a child she holds. “He was only a few weeks old at the time.”

She recounts the trauma of having another child die in her arms, seeing him shelved in an overcrowded mortuary freezer, and all the while desperately wondering whether Amal was still alive.

“Even now, I’m still so afraid for my children, afraid that another war will come. The UAVs (unmanned drones) are always over us, and often at night the helicopters come.”

In northern Gaza’s Ezbet Beit Hanoun, families and friends of the Abd al-Dayem and Abu Jerrad families gather on 26 December, holding a candlelight vigil in remembrance of their sons, wives and husbands killed during a series of Israeli flechette (dart-bomb) attacks a year back.

The first to be killed in that area of Gaza by the razor-sharp nails was medic Arafa Abd al-Dayem, 35, on the morning of 4 January. Along with other medics, Abd al-Dayem had been on duty in the Attatra region, in Gaza’s north, retrieving wounded and martyred. As the medics loaded the ambulance, Israeli soldiers fired a flechette shell at the clearly marked vehicle, spreading thousands of darts at high velocity. Abd al-Dayem died an agonizing death, his internal organs and lungs shredded by the darts.

Khalid Abu Saada, a medic and the driver of the ambulance, testified to the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights: “The shell directly hit the ambulance and 10 civilians, including the two paramedics, were injured.”

The following morning, the Abd al-Dayem family and friends gathered at a funeral tent erected for Arafa. Israeli tanks again fired flechette shells, striking the gathering multiple times, killing five at the tent, one down the road, and injuring at least 25.

“The pain is still fresh, I still can’t move on since my sons’ murders,” said Sabbah Abd al-Dayem, mother of two martyrs in their twenties.

Jamal Abd al-Dayem, father of the young men, recalls: “It was clearly a mourning house, on the road, open and visible. Immediately after the first strike, the Israelis fired again. I lost two sons. One of them was newly married, his wife eight months pregnant.”

Said Abd al-Dayem, 29, died of dart injuries to his head one day later in hospital. Nafez Abd al-Dayem, 23, died immediately from the darts to his head.

Nahez Abd al-Dayem, 25, survived but retains two darts in his abdomen, one in his chest, with only the dart in his leg removed. Islam Abd al-Dayem, 16, a cousin, died after three days in hospital from the darts to his neck. Arafat Abd al-Dayem, 15, a cousin, died instantly.

Human rights organizations like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Physicians for Human Rights, and B’Tselem, among others, have criticized Israel’s use of flechette bombs in civilian areas in densely populated Gaza, where the darts have a “wide kill radius,” and indiscriminately target civilians.

Wafa Abu Jerrad, who was 21 and pregnant, lived down the street from the mourning tents. She was with her husband Muhammad, their two children, and relatives outside their house when Israeli soldiers fired the dart bombs.

Muhammad Abu Jerrad was stepping into the doorway, their two-year-old son Khalil in his arms, when the bomb hit. Wafa dropped to ground, struck by flechettes in the head, chest and back. She was killed instantly.

Sitting outside his family’s tent in the Attatra region, Saleh Abu Leila says, “Everything I worked for is gone.”

Since their two-story home was destroyed by Israeli soldiers during the war on Gaza, Abu Leila and 13 other family members have crowded into two small tents. During the summer, they sweltered in stifling heat. Now that winter is setting in, they are struggling to keep warm and dry.

Over 21,000 houses were destroyed or seriously damaged during the 23 days of Israeli attacks throughout Gaza that finally ended 18 January.

Since the end of the Israeli war on Gaza, Israeli authorities continue to block entry to cement and other necessary building materials. Glass, along with wood, piping and many other items, is considered potentially dangerous by Israeli authorities. The bomb-blasted windows of homes and buildings remain un-repaired one year later; the luckier families making due with plastic sheeting.

A small portion of Gaza’s 1.5 million people can afford to buy the overpriced, poor-quality cement smuggled in through the tunnels running between Gaza and Egypt. For those hardest hit, however, this is out of reach.

Hundreds of families, like the Attars, still remain in substandard shelters, insufficient for winter cold and rains.

Many Gazans do not welcome the New Year, they fear what it will bring.

All rights reserved, IPS — Inter Press Service (2009). Total or partial publication, retransmission or sale forbidden.