On a sunny Friday afternoon, Tawfiq Saad sits in front of his house, drinking tea and watching his four children play in a small patch of land right across the house, near the northern border of the Gaza Strip, in the small town of Beit Lahiya.
Suddenly, a thunderous sound echoes throughout the area, and clouds of smoke rise less than a hundred metres from his house. The terrified children dash to the house screaming. The youngest of them, five-year-old Najat, jumps into her father’s arms and starts crying.
“This has been the way since two months now,” says 42-year-old Saad. “Israeli army artillery keeps pounding the place whenever Palestinians fire locally-made rockets at them.”
However, Saad admits he does not blame the Israelis entirely for his children’s suffering, saying he has talked to his neighbours in order to call on Palestinian militants not to fire rockets at Israel from their area.
“They fire the rockets and flee, and leave us, the civilian residents, to bear the brunt. I don’t believe [the Israelis] would bombard Gaza if the rockets stopped. We need to understand their motives,” he explains.
Indeed, Saad’s point of view is not common among Palestinians in this conflict-torn area, and it is unusual in light of his personal circumstances: he has been unemployed for about two years, and lives off food rations from benevolent organisations and from the odd jobs he does for friends and relatives.
Until two years ago, Saad worked as a blacksmith at an Israeli-owned metal workshop near the Israeli town of Khadera. There, he earned more than $1,000 a month building metal fences, window bars and protection railings. He claims that Israelis came from as far as Tel Aviv to have their metal needs built by him. He remembers being called “the metal wizard.”
Saad recalls that in May 2004, as he was finishing up at the workshop, a suicide bombing took place.
“I remember hearing that afternoon something on the radio about a suicide bombing in the town of Khadera, which is just 10 minutes away by car from the workshop. Suddenly, my boss Yisrael hurried inside and asked me to return to Gaza immediately.
“He drove me to Erez checkpoint [north of the Gaza Strip], and asked the soldier there to expedite my entry procedures to Gaza. He told me he was afraid that Jewish settlers living near the workshop might want to retaliate against me because the suicide bomber was Palestinian. He told me he’d call in a few days to let me know when I could return to work.”
Two years later, Saad is still awaiting that call. Yisrael still rings often to check on him, and sometimes sends him money on Jewish holidays, but he never calls to offer back his old job.
“Go and ask Yisrael about me. He’ll tell you I’m one of his best blacksmiths. He still says that to me on the phone. He tells me work hasn’t been the same since I left.”
Nowadays, Saad’s income has declined to virtually nothing. He does not have enough money to build his own workshop. He has barely enough to support his family.
“I can’t start my own workshop because I’ve spent my savings building this house for my family,” he says. “Even if I did build a workshop, I’d barely find customers willing to pay the prices I used to charge in Israel. There are thousands of other workshops that can do the same work for less money, but definitely not the same quality.”
On Saturday evening, Saad’s phone rings. It is Yisrael.
“He usually calls me on his weekend, on Shabat [Sabbath],” says Saad. “He always checks on me, and he even sent me some money for my daughter Najat when she got very sick last month.”
Following the call, a happy and excited Saad says Yisrael has applied for a working permit for him, and hopefully Israel will approve it this time because his boss’s work has suffered since Saad left.
“He told me I’m worth five of the Romanian workers who replaced me in the workshop,” Saad says laughing, his eyes shining with pride.
But on Monday morning, when Yisrael calls him back, the Palestinian blacksmith listens with a grim look on his face.
“Yisrael told me Israel refused to grant the permit for security reasons,” Saad says. “It’s funny. I’m probably the only worker in the area who’s actually not holding a grudge against them, and I’m still turned down for a working permit.”
Asked what solution he foresees for the current conflict, Saad answers almost instantly: “The only solution is for borders with Israel to open immediately, and that we live as partners. Things were like that before the first intifada in 1987, and we were living happily back then, so what would happen if we returned to that situation again?”
But until that day comes, Saad says he will keep sitting in front of his house drinking tea, doing odd jobs here and there, and continue hoping.
Another shell falls nearby. A thunderous sound echoes throughout the area, and a large smoke cloud rises not far from the house.
Yasser Abu Moailek is a freelance journalist and producer working in Gaza Strip. He freelances for several news agencies and publications around the world, with feature stories and news relating to the political, social, economic and cultural issues in the Palestinian territories. He is a correspondent for Arab Media Watch.