Two Weeks, and Counting

Palestinians carry the body of Khaled Abdel Kareem, one and a half years, during his funeral in the southern Gaza Strip town of Rafah July 11, 2006. (MaanImages/Hatem Omar)

Heavy artillery shelling along the border. Tank gunfire. Scenes of fierce clashes between the IDF and Palestinian fighters. Friends watching the daily news reports on Gaza call my cell phone during the day, expecting me to be staying at home, and are surprised when I tell them it’s business as usual, I’m in the middle of today’s program with the kids (Haneen! Get your butt back in your seat!) and could they please call back in a couple of hours?

You can only put life on hold for so long. After the first two days of the Israeli incursion, we all got tired of just waiting around with our ears stuck to the radio, listening to minute-by-minute reports yo-yoing between imminent truce and a full-blown invasion. Besides, we’d been in this situation many times before, and sitting around wringing our hands has never made much of a difference to the outcome.

In the evening, sporadic gunshots ring through the air, competing defiantly against tank gunfire. But these rounds aren’t being fired at anyone. They’re fired into the air, the traditional volley of bullets celebrating a happy marriage (and a none too cheap gesture, I may add, with bullets now supposedly costing 17 shekels a piece). July is the month of weddings, and though they may have to be toned down out of respect for those killed during this new incursion, they are not being postponed… for who can say when would come a more “appropriate” time to get on with life?

At night, when it’s too hot to sleep indoors (which most of the time it is), I lie down on a mattress I’ve put on my balcony. One of three things happen: 1) I’m worn out and fall asleep immediately; 2) instead of sheep, I count the sound of heavy artillery shelling until I fall asleep (I usually count up to between 15 and 20 shots within as many minutes); or 3) a particularly loud shelling sound or sonic boom sends me scurrying back inside like my butt’s on fire and I sweat the night out sleeping on the floor of my room.

Which brings me to the reason I make myself go through this every night. Electricity (or lack thereof). Ever since the first day of the incursion, the power has been cut for at least half the day. The IDF bombed the only power station in Gaza, forcing us in the south (Rafah and Khan Younis) to make due with less electricity while some of our power is diverted to Gaza City. Each neighborhood in Rafah gets its turn, a few hours of electricity here, the next few hours there… better than nothing, but the problem is that we never know when the electricity will come to our area. It may come at 3 in the morning (when it’s practically useless), or maybe at 4 in the afternoon (when I’m not at home). And there’s no telling how long the power would last.

If I’m lucky enough to be home (and awake) when the electricity comes, I rush around like a madwoman, plugging all the appliances back in, putting the laundry into the washing machine, charging my cell phone, my neon battery-light, my laptop… praying the electricity stays on long enough for me to get some work done. Forget about TV… even during the few hours the electricity is running, either the power’s too weak or the IDF planes flying overhead interfere with the reception so much that it’s impossible to get a clear picture for more than a few seconds. So much for entertainment.

5 days ago, the IDF damaged the main power line in Rafah, and we didn’t get any electricity for over 56 hours. Needless to say, the food in all the refrigerators throughout Rafah went bad (I opened my fridge door to find my milk mutated into a new life form and my grapes covered with moss).

Lack of electricity is of course hardest at night. When the power comes and all the lights and appliances whirl to life, your spirits immediately lift. You breathe a sigh of relief. You and everyone around you jump into action. But just as quickly, the power goes off, and the world goes black again. Sometimes, this off-and-on marathon goes on for a while. One night, the power went on and off literally every 5 to 10 minutes for an entire hour before going off completely. Every time the power goes out, a groan of frustration escapes from you and despair sets in. And the worst part of all is the stress that comes from “not-knowing”… Would the electricity EVER come on? If it did come on, when would it come? How long it would be on? And if it came and then turned off, how long would we again have to be without it? The result of this stress is nothing short of psychological exhaustion.

Yesterday, 4:20PM. An IDF plane targeted another car. This time, it dropped a missile in the street in front of the empty warehouse where everyday I take groups of youth for our summer activities. The car it was aiming at got away, but the missile left a huge gape in the middle of the street, and some of its fragments rammed through our fence and landed in the sand-filled space where we play volleyball.

We were lucky. If that car had passed that specific spot just a half-an-hour later, the kids and I would have had firsthand experience of that missile as we pulled up in our small white bus for our afternoon activities.

Some people weren’t as lucky. Rami, the young man who runs the little shop across the street from us, had been selling us juice and biscuits for the kids everyday for as long as we’d been renting that warehouse. He and two of his brothers were sitting in front of their shop as usual when the missile struck. Some of the fragments of the missile flew in their direction as well. Rami caught a face-ful of those fragments and now lies in the Intensive Care Unit. His 18 year-old brother Bilal got a shard stuck in his heart and died. Bilal had just finished his Taujihi (baccalaureate exam) a few weeks ago and was looking forward to university. He was also the only one who could read and write, the pride of the family.

I’ve cancelled today’s activities out of respect for Bilal’s family, who have set up a tent in front of their home/shop for the traditional three-day mourning. Tomorrow, I’m hoping to continue with our summer program. But my bus driver warned me today that we barely have enough gas to make it through another day. There’s no gasoline left in Gaza. Pretty soon, we won’t be able to pick up the kids at all.

Yumi Terahata is the program manager and field coordinator for a Japanese organization, Frontline. She has been working and living in Rafah, Gaza Strip for the past 3 years, running a psychosocial program for youth living along the Egyptian border and (now former) Israeli settlements.

Related Links

  • BY TOPIC: Israel invades Gaza (27 June 2006)