30 December 2008. It happened at 9am this morning. We were speaking to Sabrine Naim at the time, standing and talking in the Naim family home which had been wrecked. Only two of their family of 12 had been home at the time. They were expecting an attack. And it came at 4am - a missile strike by an F16 on the local police station and Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine offices. Smoldering rubble and rocks and dust were strewn across the heart of Beit Hanoon - the market, taxi-rank and main street littered with debris.
Sabrine had been hit in the face with small chunks of her neighbour's home. One side of her right cheek was covered with a thick white dressing. She looked watery eyed and exhausted. Debris had also struck her in her heavily pregnant stomach. With only a month to go until giving birth, she spent two hours in the local hospital before being discharged.
The 4am blast shook us all out of our beds. A gigantic abrupt bang - the sound of concrete walls, floors and steel rods exploding on impact in an instant. The strikes had been happening all night - most of them in Jabaliya again. Distant thuds that you strain to map in your mind.
We had spent the night in Beit Hanoon, a town home to some 40000 people in the North of the Gaza Strip. Beit Hanoon borders Erez Crossing and Houg (now called Sderot) in Israeli territory. The town possesses some of the most fertile land in Gaza. Much of it - orange groves and olive trees - has been bulldozed by the Israeli military to clear cover for fighter fire against Israeli settlements and towns. Even so, because of its proximity to Israeli towns, rockets have been known to be launched from here.
The family home we stayed in had been occupied by Israeli soldiers in the last invasion in 2006. The family of six was moved in to the downstairs flat, whilst soldiers blasted holes in the walls of rooms on the top floor to make sniper posts. If the noise of an invasion - tanks, Apaches, F16s, heavy boots, agitated soldiers and the never-ending sneer of the surveillance drones - didn't keep the family awake, then the sound of single shots and the wondering what or who had been hit did.
The house, located in a courtyard with olive trees and a roof with clear views of the surrounding streets made an excellent vantage point for snipers. Another home, of local doctor Mohammad Naim, a specialist in treating prematurely babies at Shifa Hospital had been occupied 12 times in the past eight years by Israeli soldiers. He hadn't even bothered to paint over the naked grey concrete smears in the walls in his upstairs room. They had been sniper holes. And he knew they would be back again.
His outside wall too, bore the spray painted orientation indicators typical of occupying soldiers moving through narrow alleys at night.
'Do you think you'll move if they invade?,' I asked him. 'Where will I go?' he said, 'I haven't got anywhere else to go?'. He showed me the lock of his front door, 'This as been smashed open at least 20 times' Dr Mohammad had been blindfolded and taken to the agricultural school in Northern Beit Hanoon during the last invasion, along with all local men aged between 16-40.
He had been interrogated and detained from Thursday afternoon under Friday evening. 'Every invasion they occupy my house. They cut the electricity and use their own flashlights. Last time my family were all downstairs for five days. My children are the worst affected - they remember everything, the tanks, the invasion, and being jailed; none of us are allowed to go out even when there is a break in curfew.' Asked how the soldiers behaved towards the family, he said, 'Well it depends on the shift, sometimes they're decent, sometimes they can be aggressive. But with the situation as it is now, any movement could attract fire.'
Always a 'together'
'50 people were killed here.' This is my friend Sabr talking. He's
pointing to the street outside his sister's home - another one always occupied by soldiers, like that of Dr Mohammad. In the last invasion, resistance had confronted advancing tanks. The result was a bloodbath. His family home had been leveled to the ground.
Walking through the streets here, nearly every house has a martyr - martyrdom status is attributed to anyone, young or old, fighter or civilian - who has been killed by occupation forces. It is a mark of respect, and a coping mechanism for the sheer volume of death and an inconsolable, mounting level of loss that affects every family. It is also a way to honour and pay tribute to lives violently taken, and let life live after death under occupation.
Everyone knows a neighbour, a friend, a cousin, somebody who was killed by Israeli occupation forces. Communities here feel each death personally, because so many so know one another personally. The extended family lines and kinship networks that have grown up from the collective experience of dispossession and expulsion are a web of support and a common thread made solid in the form of houses built from tents, all close together and all bearing
witnesses together. Because the size of families and the proximity in which people live together, there is a natural participatory experience in almost every aspect of daily life. And every killing there is a witness, to almost all that happens in peoples lives, there are witnesses, always a 'together'.
We pass a huge crater in the Al Wahd Street, just opposite the Al Qds community clinic. Its where a missile from either a Surveillance drone or F16 blasted Maysara Mohammad Adwan, a 47-year-old mother of 10, and 24-year old Ibrahim Shafiq Chebat into a pile of cement and clay-like mud.
Ibrahim's father, Shafiq Chebat, a classical Arabic teacher, was the first to uncover his body, but he did not immediately recognize his son. A bulldozer was clearing debris when an arm was discovered. 'I never expected to find him here', he explained, 'He was a civilian, he had gone to work at the 7-up factory, I thought he was at work.'
Because of an Israeli strike close to the factory in Salahadeen Street, staff were sent home early for their own protection. Shafiq's sister-in-law, Fatima explained to me, 'The mud and the rocks, they were piled meters above his body ... meters! It was two hours before they got to him. And then his father didn't know it was him. It was his youngest son that said, 'It's Ibrahim, It's Ibrahim'. And he said 'no' my son, it's not him, but then he wiped the mud from his face and when he saw it was him, he fell on the ground, he fainted on the ground.'
Ibrahim had been working at the 7-UP plant to save money for his
wedding. He was due to marry Selwan Mohammad Ali Shebat, a woman widowed before she could wed, she now describes herself as 'broken' and 'suffocated' with grief.
The women's grieving room was full of mothers with lost sons, sitting around Ibrahim's mother on gaudy sponge mattresses. Fatima and Kamela, sisters of Sadeeya, Ibrahim's mother, had both lost a son each. 'I am a mother of a martyr and she is a mother of a martyr, we are full of martyrs here'. Fatima's son, Mohammad Kaferna, was killed by a tank shell in September 2001, whilst Kamela's son Hassan Khadr Naim was killed by a missile strike in 2007.
Sadeeya was stunned and disorientated in her grief, throwing her arms up, she keened over the memory of her dead son, 'I said don't go out, don't go out, don't go out, don't go out.'
Sadeeya's sister Kamela leans forward. 'They are using weapons of war against us', she says. ' we're civilians and they are bombing these neighbourhoods with war planes.'
Blue tarpolin grieving tents silence the streets of Beit Hanoon, like the rest of Gaza. Men sit side by side in lines on plastic chairs, taking bitter coffee and dates. With their quiet collective remembrance, they are the passage ways for too many families and communities into new levels of desolation and collective resilience.
'They call us terrorists'
So, I think we need to go back to 9am this morning. And the 'it' of what happened.
We had been talking to Sabrine Naim, in her rubble home when we heard two soaring, succinct, thuds. A plume of black smoke stormed up into the sky. We had though it was too far, maybe the outskirts of Beit Hanoon - in the end we go to Beit Hanoon hospital - the only one in town. Its a basic facility with just 47 beds, compared to Shifa's 600, and no intensive care unit. With Beit Hanoon expected to be first in the firing line if Israeli ground forces invade, the hospital is desperately under-equipped to cope. Two days ago, it had just one ambulance. Now five have been scrambled from other local state and private hospitals and wait in the parking lot primed for the worst.
'They're bringing them in, they're bringing them in', we hear people say. I expect to see a wailing ambulance come veering round the corner, instead a cantering donkey pulling a rickety wooden cart vaults up to the hospital gate. Its cargo three blackened children carried by male relatives. They hoist their limp and contorted bodies into their arms and run in to the hospital. Their mother arrives soon after by car, running out in her bare feet to the doors.
Haya Talal Hamdan aged 12 was brought into the main emergency ward and lain down. She was soon covered with a white sheet, as her mother, comforted by relatives disintegrated into pieces. Ismaeel aged 9 came in,breathing, his chest pushing up and down quickly as doctors hurriedly examined his shrapnel-flecked body.
In the emergency operating theatre was Lamma, aged just four. Opening the door, I saw a doctor giving her CPR, again and again, trying to bring her to life, but it was too late. She died in front of us.
Lamma's mother blamed herself, 'I asked them to take out the rubbish, to take out the rubbish, I should never have asked them to take out the rubbish.' A female relative was livid with disbelief, 'She hadn't even started school! We were, sleeping, and they call us the terrorists? How could they cut down this child with an F16?'
Doctor Hussein, a surgeon at Beit Hanoon Hospital said the cause of death was 'multiple internal injuries and internal bleeding'. Their fatal injuries were consistent with their bodies having been 'thrown up and down in the air 10 meters'.
Outside the hospital I turn around and see a young girl, maybe 10 years old, in a long skirt and slightly too big for her jacket. She's beautiful, with straggly brown hair and deep brown eyes. She's on her own, which is rare for any child here, they always stick and move together. She looks eerily alone, in the car-less empty street. I say 'hi' and smile and she comes over and we shake hands, and I'm struck after the violence of the death of Lemma and Haya, and turmoil and out of control grief of the hospital, at how vulnerable she is and how uncertain anything is about her future.
After the hospital, we made our way to the scene of the strike - Al Sikkek Street, close to the Erez Crossing. Two large craters around six meter in diameter and 20 meters apart scared an empty wasteland, between a row of houses. One had turned into a lake; the missile downed power-lines had smashed into a water pipeline, now spewing fresh water in to the crater. Iman, 12 years old, a tough, long haired tomboy wearing a wooly hat and jeans, witnessed the whole attack. She took us up to the roof of her house and pointed out where and what she saw.
At the second crater, next to two green wheelie bins, we see a twisted bicycle and wooden cart, mangled together with plastic bags of rubbish that the children never got to dump. There is still blood on the ground. Crowds of young men gather to stare in to the craters, and point to the gushing water mixing with sewage. They also point out a blasted building near by - its corner missing - a casualty of a 2007 Israeli missile attack.
We walk back to the main street, now lined with solemn male mourners, talking quietly or looking listlessly at us. Iman explains to us, 'I always ask God for me to become a martyr like the other children. My mother is always asking why, but they're killing children here all the time, and if I die, then I prefer to be a martyr, like the others. Even it's better to die than live a life like this here.'
Ewa Jasiewicz is a Palestine solidarity activist, union organiser and part of the editorial collective of Le Monde Diplomatique Polish Edition.