As Gazans Recover From Israeli Attacks, Trauma Mixes With Tentative Hope
The traces of the Israeli drone strike that killed 28-year-old Samaher Qdeih are all around her family home. A large indentation in a sandy courtyard marks the point of impact. Shrapnel is etched in the trunk of a lemon tree and the side of the house it stands next to. Water drips slowly out of a cracked pipe around shards of glass and plastic that litter the floor. A nearby concrete wall is stained with blood.
Samaher died on November 17, day four of Israel’s assault on Gaza, when she rushed home with her brother, Nidal, at 9 pm, after hearing the bombs begin to fall in their neighborhood in the southern town of Khan Yunis. The drone strike hit as the two were crossing the family courtyard to seek shelter indoors. Samaher was killed instantly, her family says. The blood-soaked blanket they covered her with is still piled in a corner. Twenty-seven-year-old Nidal’s leg and arm were badly wounded and he was eventually evacuated across the Rafah border crossing to Egypt for medical help, escorted by his father.
Forty days earlier, Samaher had given birth to her first daughter, Mayar. When the motherless baby is brought out wrapped in a blanket, her great uncle—who had been standing quietly to the side, resting both hands on his cane—begins to sob heavily, kissing Mayar on the forehead before being gently pulled away and consoled by family members.
“We have seen death with our eyes,” says Samaher’s sister.
Samaher is one of more than 160 Palestinians killed during Israel’s eight-day assault on Gaza. Of those who died, more than 100 were civilians, including thirty-four children, according to the Palestinian Center for Human Rights. Some 1,000 were wounded, all but thirty of them civilians. Meanwhile, countless others—who do not figure into most casualty figures—are suffering from deep emotional trauma.
“The children don’t sleep, they still feel the booms, they are afraid all night,” says Heba al-Attar, a 33-year-old mother of four from the village of Beit Lehia in northern Gaza. Heba describes how the children saw a farmer blown apart in an airstrike near their house. Her 13-year-old daughter, Dian, was particularly affected. Ever since the 2008–09 Israeli attack on Gaza, Dian has been gripped by fear of the deafening booms of falling bombs. During the latest offensive, she shook and sobbed uncontrollably at night. Now, “I have to always sit and hold her in my arms,” Heba says wiping away tears with the corner of her headscarf. “She can’t walk without holding my hand. She is always terrified.”
After a week of bombardment, Israeli warplanes dropped swarms of leaflets on Beit Lehia and other villages in the north ordering residents to evacuate their houses or face an impending attack. The strikes started shortly afterwards and the al-Attars left in a terrorized panic, leaving their belongings behind. As the bombs fell they walked the six kilometers to Gaza City, seeking refuge in a school run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency that was housing more than 1,800 people.
Men, women and children flood the three-story New Gaza Preparatory Boys’ School, pacing through hallways, staircases and dilapidated classrooms in a ceaseless stream. They carry with them the scant belongings of the displaced: blankets, thin metal pots, rumpled clothes and swaddled babies.
In a second-floor classroom, Faisal al-Attar (also from Beit Lehia but unrelated to Heba) sits in a crowded corner surrounded by nine of his family members. They have two blankets between them and little else.
One of Faisal’s sons, 14-year-old Khaled, has hardly spoken in four years. When an Israeli airstrike hit next to their home in 2008, the room Khaled was in shook so violently that the doors blew off their hinges. He went into shock and never fully recovered, withdrawing into himself and remaining uncommunicative. Now, Khaled smiles shyly, seemingly unaware his father seated beside him is describing his condition.
The school that is sheltering the al-Attars is itself no respite from the incessant bombardment. The night before, an Israeli military targeted two Palestinian journalists, striking their car as they drove by the school. The force of the blast shattered the windows of one side of the building.
“Children were screaming, women were crying,” says Yahiya Zagdud, the director of the school. “We are in a very difficult situation. We need peace so children can live like children in other parts of the world.”
Civilians pay the heaviest toll in Gaza. When the cease-fire between Israel and Hamas put an end to the violence at 9 pm last Wednesday, thousands took to the street to celebrate. The outpouring of joy was not only to mark the end of the bombardment; it was a celebration of what Palestinians generally viewed as a victory over Israel.
Hamas put up a better fight than it had four years ago and an Israeli ground invasion had been avoided. Many Gazans feel the resistance worked. The cease-fire agreement includes a pledge by Israel to end targeted assassinations and the easing of restrictions on the movement of people and the transfer of goods at crossings in return for Palestinian factions’ stopping all acts of aggression, including rocket fire and attacks on border crossings.
Left vague was the status of the so-called “buffer zones” imposed by Israel that bar Palestinians from coming within 300 meters (1,000 feet)—at a minimum—of the border fence that separates Israel and Gaza or risk being shot by Israeli soldiers. The policy effectively confiscates precious land from Gaza’s residents.
“The biggest problem in Gaza is space, is land,” says Abdel Halim el-Qadeh, a 52-year-old farmer who owns land along the border area. “Three hundred meters is a lot for us.”
On Friday, two days after the fighting stopped, hundreds of men, women and children walked into the buffer zone in eastern Khan Yunis. It was their first time to tread in the area in years and they entered it without any assurances of how Israel would respond.
Mothers and fathers ambled along, keeping their eyes fixed on the Israeli side as children scampered around them. Young men drove motorcycles defiantly close to the border fence. Farmers stepped foot on soil they had not tilled in over a decade. Palestinian policeman, clad in blue and black camouflage fatigues and black berets and wielding wooden sticks, paced the area warily.
Untouched for years, the stretch of land is barren, overtaken by weeds and hard brush. Black beetles crawl purposefully over the dirt. Closer to the border, the earth is furrowed by tank and bulldozer tracks where Israeli forces staged regular incursions. The hard, brown expanse stands in stark contrast to the Israeli side, with rolling lush greenery and trees that unfurl behind military watchtowers, soldiers and jeeps.
“See what the land is like? It is ruined,” says Ismail Farid, a 29-year-old journalist from Khan Yunis. “All of this used to be farmland, now people hope they can come again.”
Yet the area remains volatile. Earlier in the day, a 20-year-old Palestinian man was killed and nine others wounded near the fence when Israeli troops opened fire on a group of young men throwing stones at the soldiers. Despite the attack, hundreds of Palestinians continued coming to the border area throughout the day, emboldened by the cease-fire agreement, to come and walk on what had been a no-man’s land for years.
“I’m very happy. This is an achievement we never expected,” says Safeya Abdel Aziz, sitting on the back of a donkey cart in the middle of the buffer zone. Her husband, Abdel Aziz El Mokhtar, 65, puts his hands in the ground and feels the earth. “Tomorrow I will start growing wheat here,” he says. “The Israelis always betray agreements but I am hopeful.”
As sunset approached, a young man walked to the fence and began filming the Israeli soldiers barely ten yards away. The soldier warned him to get back. The man grabbed the fence and began to shake it in defiance. The soldier opened fire, hitting the man just under the elbow, crushing the bone and leaving his forearm dangling at a grotesque angle. The gathered crowd yelled and carried him away to get medical aid.
Meanwhile, Palestinian policemen arrive and begin forcing people back away from the fence, severely beating some young men who resist. By twilight, only a few small groups remain in the area, appreciating the freedom to stand in a place in Gaza where they previously could not.
“This is the chance of a lifetime,” says Moatez, a 23-year-old university student. “If it wasn’t for the resistance we wouldn’t be here. This is our land.”
For more on life in Gaza, read Oded Na'aman's Israel's Unceasing Grip on Gaza Goes Beyond Bombings.