Beit Hanoon, Gaza - Eyewitness account
Posted Dec 31, 2008

Beit Hanoon, Gaza

By Ewa Jasiewicz, reporting from besieged Gaza

Tuesday 30th 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
this morning. Chunks of debris – one a meter long and a foot wide - glass,
and sharp slices of their own broken roof, had smashed onto beds, chairs,
their kitchen and living room. 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. Smouldering 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 40,000 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 into 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, worrying that a
neighbour or family member had been struck, would add to the internal
invasion.

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 8 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’ he remarked.
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’.

‘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 Quds
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, ‘Its
Ibrahim, Its Ibrahim’. And he said no my son it’s not him, but then we 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 takes me by the eyes and 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 tarpaulin 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.

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. It’s 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 5 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 4. 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 air and deep brown eyes. She’s on her own which is
rare for any child here, they always stick together 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 6 meters 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 into the crater.
Iman, 12 years old, a tough, long haired tom-boy wearing a wooly hat and
jeans, witnessed the whole attack. She took us up the roof of her house to
point out where and how 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 into 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, in
groups 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 an experienced journalist, community and union organizer,
and solidarity worker. She is currently Gaza Project Co-coordinator for
the Free Gaza Movement.

http://www.FreeGaza.org