Untranquil village life
22 November 2002
I went out with a Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committees’ mobile clinic to a village community centre. As we left the office there was news of a suicide bombing inside a bus in Jerusalem. My heart sinks when I hear of more violence. The death toll was 11. Prime Minister Sharon will no doubt use it as an excuse to visit even harsher treatment of Palestinian civilians in the Occupied Territories, so he will get the army to make life even more unbearable for the Palestinians.
The radio in the van was tuned to a Palestinian station in Hebron which reported the news and then played a lively Arabic song which says "We will have our revenge." The young doctors were pleased that so many Israelis had been killed, which is terrible but not surprising as they have lived all their lives under Israeli oppression.
After the clinic, one of the drivers, Samir I will call him, insisted that I go with him to his house a few kilometres out of Gaza City, in a village near Deir el Balah. He very much wanted me to stay with his family, so I had said I would. When we were going along the Beach Road out of Gaza City he drove down to the water’s edge and suggested we had a swim. So we stripped off to our pants and went into the warm water.
On the way to Samir’s house, as we were approaching Mughazi, he pointed out the very neat cemetery of the British soldiers killed in action here in the Second World War [Photo 1].
Samir built his house on the highest point in the Strip, a gentle hill which reaches a rarified 80 metres above sea level! From here one can see all of the Strip, and at night an illuminated tower was visible in Ashkelon, in Israel, a short distance north-east along the coast. A kilometre away to the north of Wadi el Salga there is a settlement, evident by its fence, a row of bright lights at night, a number of polytunnels, and surrounded by a broad swathe of cleared Palestinian farmland from which the occupying army has uprooted olive and orange trees. There are 1.2 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, and 7500 settlers.
To the south-east, rather more than a kilometre away, is another fence with an even broader area of bare earth outside it [Photo 2]. Behind the fence is a kibbutz which is actually in Israel, but the ruined farm land is in the Strip. Samir warned me to take photos discreetly and quickly as we were within surveillance range and the Israelis shoot for any, or no, reason. There is shooting every night from the settlement or the kibbutz, he says.
Samir and his wife have two lovely sons aged 8 and 2. Both are very friendly and the little one is comical. The village of some 500 people is a clan of Bedouin who were expelled from near Be’er Sheva, which is in Israel to south-east of Gaza, in 1948. Three people tried to return in 1950: they were shot dead. Samir’s grandfather bought the land here cheaply from UNRWA which was encouraging the displaced Palestinians to settle in Gaza.
We went for a walk which took us past a damaged building used to house the pump which filled the village’s water tank by Samir’s house. Eight months ago eight tanks and a bulldozer entered the village on no particular pretext. The water tank and pump house were shelled from 300 metres. A shell passed through the reinforced concrete at the corner of the building, cutting and melting 8 embedded steel rods evidence, Samir contended, that the shell was tipped with depleted uranium.
He showed me flechettes from another missile fired by one of the tanks. These are 4-centimetre darts, some thousands of which are released when the missile explodes in mid-air. They are diabolical anti-personnel devices which kill and maim within a radius of 300 metres. Israel purchased them from the US, banned under international law because they are indiscriminate weapons causing unnecessary suffering.
After shelling the pump house and a three storey home which has not been habitable since, the tanks and bulldozer went through an orchard belonging to Samir - in which he told me he was born - destroying many olive and citrus trees [Photo 3]. As he says, a house can be built in a number of months but the trees take years to grow - an olive tree is not productive for five years. The bulldozer then went on to rip up the electricity and water supply to many of the houses. These machines, made by Caterpillar in the US, have machinery underneath which can plough up anything to a depth of two metres.
During the evening, Samir and I moved from one house to another, taking little cups of ‘bedouin coffee’ with its own pleasant distinctive flavour, and deservedly popular ‘Arabic tea’ with mint and sugar. There was talking by the hour, partly in English if there was someone with some English, or just in Arabic, when I was left to my own thoughts and took pains not to go to sleep. Samir was partly showing me off, but he makes a point of welcoming foreign visitors. Other members of his family - brothers, sisters, cousins and more distant relatives - were obviously pleased to share in entertaining me. The people living in this village are naturally hospitable, but also they are at daily - and nightly - risk of being shot or shelled, and they want others to know about their situation.
The multifarious ways in which the enemy persecutes them can never be far from their minds. Burst of gunfire and the noise of tanks and aeroplanes are regular reminders. So many men have spent time in Israeli jails and prison camps, even if they have done nothing that could harm Israelis. The experience of one man of sixty something, who dropped in to take coffee, is typical. He was arrested as a student of 19 and was imprisoned for 12 years, mainly at a prison camp in the Negev desert. Men of this age will often say, amazingly, that they have nothing against ordinary Israelis.
Younger people are more likely to have a general hate of the occupiers, which is not surprising when they have suffered in some way every day of their lives at the hands of the Israelis. A young man with whom I went a walk said: "Hitler good" - which was about the extent of his English. Another said: "Hitler not good man. He did not kill all the Jews." Between radical young people, and older people who believe that further violence cannot lead to peace, there are people the age of the young doctors I am with, who are ambivalent. They know that violence must cease but cannot help being excited when the Palestinian David scores a blow against the Israeli Goliath. Perhaps the story of Sampson provides a closer analogy.
I was given some lovely carrots which had just been harvested in the little field below the house. The donkey which pulled the cart with the produce was eating the green tops enthusiastically. It is good to see that Palestinians in general look after their animals well. The donkeys and horses have good coats and are rarely undernourished. I was also offered marrows. Sadly they are not worth harvesting: the growers are getting 5 shekels (less than a pound sterling) for 20 kg. This is largely because the Israelis make it very difficult to send produce, particularly if it is perishable, out of Gaza.
The women who work in the wheel chair and appliance store underneath the UPMRC office invite me to eat with them at dusk. They started preparing too early so we have to wait, chatting, for 3/4 hr before we may break the Ramadan fast. They are friendly and welcoming people who, like nearly everyone else I meet, thank me for coming. One of them has her two young boys with her. One is a bit doubtful about me as he associates me with the ambulances which frighten him because they bring in "dead people killed by the Jews," his mother translates. I am sorry that they play with toy pistols most of the time.
Death and wounds from bullets, shells and rockets are an ever-present reality for everyone here. The children ask for toy guns so they can pretend to kill Israelis. One of the women said that her six-year-old nephew can draw very well but his drawings are all of guns, tanks, aeroplanes, ambulances and of dead and injured people. Where so many families have had members killed or injured by the Israelis, is it surprising that the children grow up with hatred of the oppressor in their hearts?
I thought Samir was exaggerating when he told me to be careful about taking photos as I could be seen by the Israelis nearly a mile away and might be shot. However, a few days after I visited his village a soldier or settler at the perimeter of the kibbutz aimed at a house where a young woman was in bed and shot her in the liver. She is in hospital, lucky to be alive.
Three months ago three members of the Palestinian police were on duty in the village. A tank made an incursion and the crew saw them in a small building. A shell was fired at each of them, splattering their viscera and brains over the inside of the building.