I heard my name called out as I walked swiftly past the main police station in Gaza City. One of the three policemen gathered there walked over to me, a cigarette dangling from his lips. I had met Ahmed the second week I was in Gaza, when I went to play volleyball with Palestine’s best team, located in the Jabalya refugee camp. Ahmed was their star player. Warming up that day I paired up with Ahmed, which lead to a slew of questions about my coming to Gaza and sparked the beginning of our friendship. On one occasion when Ahmed was stationed by the building I live in, he snuck up while he was on duty and managed a few hours of sleep, leaving at 6 am in order to appear before the senior officer to end his shift. Ahmed was a member of the presidential guard, a player on the Palestinian national volleyball team, a father and was also studying to be a school teacher so as not to have to be a soldier anymore. This evening I learned what had caused this desire to grow stronger over the course of the past six weeks.
At the height of fighting between Fatah and Hamas, a Fatah-affiliated base was surrounded by Hamas forces. Ahmed was among the 150 soldiers inside the station. The gun battle continued most of the night, until at 6:30 am when Ahmed’s side ran out of ammunition. The station was stormed; the senior officer was executed. In total, 15 men were killed or severely injured that night in the course of battle. The station was burned to the ground. Ahmed did not return to work for one month. The evening I saw him was his first on duty since returning to headquarters. After questioning his absence, his superiors threatened him and then sent him back to work at a new location. And so, tonight, Ahmed was back on duty, a Kalashnikov awkwardly hanging around his shoulder, a thin beard adorning his face.
I asked him about the volleyball team. The volleyball season had ended and only the final match remained. Ahmed’s team was Fatah-affiliated and its only real competitor was its archrival, fitted in green uniform, none other than the Hamas team.
I wondered what would be going through Ahmed’s mind the day of the match. He had seen his colleagues and officers killed in front of his eyes by masked gunmen of the opposing faction. Very soon some of those same men may be facing him again, but on the court for a friendly game of volleyball. Hidden that night behind balaclavas, he would never know if they were the same people.
Philip Rizk is an Egyptian-German who has lived in Gaza since August 2004 where he works and writes. Philip runs a blog: tabulagaza.blogspot.com.