Six years is a significant amount of time.
But when it comes to the last major Israeli military assault on Gaza, it feels like yesterday. Those six intervening years have not managed to erase even the tiniest detail from my memory.
It is the pain, of course, that stands out. Not the shocking deaths, though these too are seared into my memory.
But it is the pain of those left behind that continues to resonate.
And today, what resonates is their struggle to survive in situations where children have had to grow up fast, where promises that families be paid official allowances remain unfulfilled, and where coronavirus restrictions have hit them hard again.
In 2014, I worked for the local al-Resala newspaper. Our emergency rota was tough during those days, divided between three days at the office and 12 hours at home. That rota carried on for the 51 days of Israel’s offensive.
On the fifth day of the aggression, 12 July, I had just got home after a long shift – it was around midnight – when an explosion shook our neighborhood.
I ran outside to see where it had come from and noticed smoke from the home of a friend, Bilal Qandil.
This would be the first time I would witness a massacre with my own eyes, not through a screen or hearing about it in an interview.
I saw five bodies torn apart in the courtyard of the house next to a destroyed table, a teapot, and a deck of playing cards covered with blood. Until now, I cannot understand what these people did to be killed with this brutality while playing cards in their own yard.
Among the victims was Husam al-Razayna who used to work in a motorcycle repair shop. The workshop was the only source of income for Husam, his wife and nine children.
The youngest child was just two weeks old when Husam was killed.
The oldest son, Deeb, found himself having to provide for the family. But when the offensive finally ended, there was no work and the family had no income.
“My father left us with nothing. His income was his work. He had nothing to leave us. We had to rely on financial and food assistance at first,” Deeb told The Electronic Intifada.
The family was hoping that their financial situation would improve once the Palestinian Authority started paying financial allowances to families that had lost relatives during the aggression.
For decades, the Palestine Liberation Organization, then the PA, and now again, the PLO, has offered financial support to the families of those imprisoned, wounded or killed by Israel.
Israel has tried to characterize the practice as a reward for violence, an argument that has gained plenty of traction in the United States in particular.
But among Palestinians, it is entirely uncontroversial. Many of those affected have lost their primary breadwinner and their stipends are seen simply as social security for a besieged population who live under military occupation.
According to various advocacy groups for the families bereaved in 2014, the PA made promises of such support in 2014, at around $400 a month for every family, though there was no formal announcement.
But six years have passed, and the assistance has never materialized.
Despite repeated attempts, the PA would not comment for this article why there’s been a long delay.
In all, some 900 families lost their primary breadwinner during Israel’s attack in 2014, according to Alaa al-Barawy of the martyrs’ families committee in Gaza, a non-profit that advocates on behalf of families who have lost relatives in conflict.
Some 1,850 families should have been eligible for assistance.
A year after Husam’s death, it was clear to Deeb that any thoughts of an education he might still harbor would have to be shelved.
He had been studying to become a teacher at al-Quds Open University but ended his studies. He sought out his father’s old workshop instead and began working there. With earnings of $8 a day, he began to provide for his family again.
“I thought that I would pause my education temporarily until we started to receive the monthly allowance,” Deeb told The Electronic Intifada. “Certainly the money I was making was not enough to both feed the family and study.”
Deeb’s mother, Mirvar, said she was always against her son stopping his education. But she realized there was little choice.
“If his father was still alive, he would have graduated by now.”
Not weak, but helpless
Deeb continued to work in motorcycle repair until Gaza’s government-imposed restrictions over the COVID-19 epidemic. Apart from a brief respite when the lockdown was eased over the summer, the workshop has been closed and the family returned to having no source of income.
Last month, Deeb tried to kill himself. The night before, he had spent an evening trying to console his younger siblings who were crying from hunger.
“I couldn’t watch them go to sleep on empty stomachs anymore. I felt trapped and I lost hope of ever improving my situation.”
Deeb was going to burn himself. But at the last moment, as he was pouring fuel on himself, an uncle and some neighbors stepped in to stop him.
“If the PA paid my father’s allowances, my life would have taken a different turn,” Deeb said. “I’m not weak, but I feel helpless.”
According to Sami al-Amassi, head of the General Federation of Trade Unions in Gaza, some 160,000 casual laborers have been negatively affected by the lockdowns in Gaza, either through losing their jobs completely or their only sources of income for significant amounts of time.
“This is a real human tragedy,” al-Amassi told The Electronic Intifada. “There should be support specifically for those families.”
Deeb’s story made me check on another family that lost relatives in that massacre in our area six years ago.
Reem Qandil, 41, lost her husband Yousef and her oldest son Anas, who was 17 at the time.
Yousef, a construction worker, was the family’s sole breadwinner. Reem had little faith in the PA and quickly realized it was up to her to feed her five surviving children. She started cooking sweets to order out of her home.
“I don’t earn much, but at least I can feed my family and I don’t rely on assistance,” Reem told The Electronic Intifada.
Pandemic restrictions have also hit her hard. Demand for her sweets are down and any celebrations where she might have expected large orders, like birthdays or weddings, are out of the question.
In such a climate, Qandil said, she can understand how desperate Deeb got.
“I wasn’t surprised when Deeb tried to kill himself. Since I lost my husband, no one is helping me too. The burden is too heavy.”
Protests in vain
Before the coronavirus pandemic, Qandil used to protest every week with hundreds of families in front of the PLO’s office for the families of victims of conflict to secure their promised stipends.
Nothing came of those protests and Intissar al-Wazir, a former PA social affairs minister, a senior figure in the PLO, the first woman member of Fatah and now the head of the martyrs’ families foundation, said she could not give any reason why the payments have not been delivered.
“We prepared lists of families of martyrs and submitted them to the presidency,” she told The Electronic Intifada. “Until now we don’t have an answer. We’ve received only promises.”
Mustafa al-Sawaf, a former editor of the Falasteen newspaper, a daily newspaper affiliated with Hamas, and a close observer of Islamist political movements, said he believed the holdup in paying out allowances was political.
“There’s no justification for this procrastination,” he told The Electronic Intifada. “This is part of the PA’s punitive measures against Gaza going back to 2017.”
In 2017, the PA imposed a number of cuts in its budget for Gaza, including cutting salaries of former PA employees there and ending funding to pay for electricity. The PA said it was simply responding to budgetary pressures, but in Gaza, it was widely seen as a punitive measure against Hamas.
Alaa al-Barawy sees the refusal to pay families their allowances as another consequence of the Palestinian division between the Fatah-dominated West Bank PA and Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip.
“We’ve asked again and again that this issue be separated from the political file,” he said.
For Deeb, it is a matter of survival.
“I hope the PA will reconsider, at least in the light of COVID. I don’t know how long I can go on like this.”
Hamza Abu Eltarabesh is a journalist based in Gaza.