Saturday, August 19, 2006

Meanwhile, in Gaza

(I know this is long but you have to register to read it all on Haaretz.)

By Gideon Levy

The Gaza Strip has been completely closed to Israeli journalists for the last two months or so, since soldier Gilad Shalit was abducted. Not that hordes of these journalists have been gathering en masse at the Erez border crossing. Israel has been engrossed in another war, and even during normal times, it averts its gaze from what goes on in Gaza. However, the Israel Defense Forces has been operating quite energetically there recently, with no Israeli eyes keeping track of what it is doing. This week, as if with the wave of a magic wand, the media closure was lifted − which, it should be noted, is to the credit of the IDF.

A visit after this "forced vacation" reveals what one can see in Gaza, but also what one cannot see. The worst fears have proved false. We did not see scenes of horrifying mass destruction. Nor, contrary to our expectations, did we spot any signs of Nasrallah: no posters in the streets and no demolished neighborhoods, at least not in the northern or central Gaza Strip.

We did, however, see quite a lot of rubble, some inexplicable, such as the ruins of a once-flourishing sewing factory owned by Ahmed Abed al-Jawad, who makes garments for the Israeli fashion industry and has a "Jewish mentality," by his own definition. He employed 70 workers in the Muazi refugee camp, in the heart of the Gaza Strip. The bulldozers cruelly buried his life's work, and half a million shekels, he says, went down the drain.

Gaza looks even dirtier and more neglected than usual. Signs of the Israeli and international boycott can be seen in the piles of garbage that fill the streets: No salaries means no street cleaners. Cooking gas is difficult to come by, electricity is available only a few hours a day − after all, Israel, in its kindhearted wisdom, bombed the transformers. Generators for the rich and oil lanterns for the poor are highly sought-after commodities.

Fisherman like fish and the Israeli Air Force likes bridges: Not only did the IAF destroy the largest bridge in the Strip, in order to split the territory in half, but it also bombed a railway bridge, one over which no train has traveled for dozens of years.

Gaza does not appear to be interested in the war in Lebanon; it's not their war. Here, they are more concerned with when and where the army of tanks and bulldozers will invade tomorrow, how to find the money to buy school uniforms and bags for the school year that begins in two weeks' time, and how they'll make it through the upcoming month of Ramadan.

On the streets today, only one picture of Nasrallah can be seen, in a poster shop in the center of town. The firing of Qassam rockets has also diminished, although a Grad missile was fired at Ashkelon on Monday.

In the desolate Erez industrial zone, children toil at dismantling the remaining bricks for recycling; wall after wall, they demolish the dream that has gone up in smoke. Shimon Peres can still wax poetic about the "joint projects" and about a "free trade zone," but Erez is in ruins.

"Gaza is a garden compared to Lebanon," says M., our regular taxi driver.

A garden − a withered, blighted garden, enveloped in grief and suffering, bearing both in silence as this hot and lethal summer draws to a close.

The wall of a school has been destroyed, there are shattered tombstones in the cemetery and an endless number of homes with gaping holes in them. In the footsteps of the fighters: This is the route taken by IDF tanks and bulldozers through Beit Hanoun and Beit Lahia, the towns in the northern Gaza Strip, in their search for Qassam rocket "launch sites."

Crushed cars, looking like crumpled soda cans, lie at the side of the road. The tank's revenge. Here is the home of the Al-Masri family in Beit Hanoun: 13 souls and one tank that plowed through the living room as it went on its way. It drove forward and backward − and the corner house was gone. Why? What happened? Now 13 people are homeless.

They sit among the ruins of what was once their home, with no ceiling, no hope. Youssef-Shafiq, the father, says in poetic Hebrew: "On Monday, July 17, this huge tank came. It passed once, passed twice; on Monday, it entered the house. We were sitting where we are sitting now. We yelled: Stop! Stop! He didn't hear. Iron crushed iron. He doesn't hear, doesn't know. He doesn't know old people, doesn't know children, doesn't know women − just moves forward and destroys, destroys and goes. I have never seen a human being like that. He has no pity. There is no person like that in the world. He drove backward and did it deliberately. The girl stood like a pillar in front of the tank. She saw the tank with her own eyes."

In the end, they ran for their lives. Youssef-Shafiq "works at being unemployed," after having had a job in Yavne and Ashdod for 15 years. The ceiling fan now hangs by a thread, also bent and crumpled.

"What do they say in Israel? What do they see? What do people there say? We see the Jews crying over a one-year-old child. Why don't you tell your government: We cry over our children. Maybe they cry over their children? What's the matter with you? Only weapons? We worked in Israel. We know you. Why do the people destroy inside the house? The Al-Masri family was inside the house. Six boys and five girls, a father and mother, and we were in the house."

The entire street bears the scars left by the tanks and bulldozers. Hardly a wall remains intact. The street is wide enough for a Merkava 3 tank to move through, but who gives a damn?

And what happened in the home of the Shurafa family in nearby Beit Lahia? Four apartments for four brothers − Khaled, Ibrahim, Nafez and Mohammed and their children, about 50 people in all. A fairly nice-looking apartment building. A missile or bomb fell on it from a plane in the middle of the night. The entire building and everything in it was destroyed, and those that lived there have been forced to move in with relatives.

Family members say that that they received a warning by cell phone on August 7 from the IDF − 10 minutes to evacuate, 10 minutes till the bombing − in the middle of the night. Now the entire structure is ruined, with its blue and brown tiles in the bathrooms. The neighbors' homes were also damaged in the explosion.

Response of the IDF Spokesperson: "On August 7, the home of Mohammed Shurafa, which according to IDF intelligence served as a warehouse for arms for the terrorist organizations, was attacked. The IDF repeatedly warned the Palestinian population, for the sake of their own personal safety, to refrain from remaining in buildings used by the terror organizations. The warning is carried out in a number of ways: pamphlets, communications via the coordinating and liaison parties with their Palestinian counterparts, and the media as well as specific telephone messages. The IDF is careful to make sure that a reasonable period of time elapses from the time of the warning until the time of the attack, to enable the residents to leave and distance themselves from the area of danger."

The traffic lights don't work. There is no electricity. Unpaid traffic policemen seem to be the alternative to progress in the modern age. On the way south, along Saladin Street, you go down to a wadi, to bypass the monstrous concrete bridge that now looks like a collapsed house of cards. In the summer, it is still possible to go around it, but what will happen in the winter? Why did they have to bomb it? And the railway bridge, too?

The Mabruk home in the Muazi refugee camp. Home? Not quite. More like a shack. Dark-skinned family members on the background of a scene that resembles an African disaster area. A refugee camp planted on the sand, and the destroyed Mabruk home. As misfortune would have it, it too is a corner house, which is what perhaps doomed it.

The mother, Fatma, describes the events of Wednesday, July 19: "We were inside the house and we heard the sounds of the tanks from the direction of the olive trees. We hid in the next room and the bulldozer approached. We began to shout, so that he would hear that there were people in the house. We took out a white flag, so that he would see that we were in the house. They took us outside and we saw everyone running in the direction of the camp. We hid with the neighbors. On Friday we returned and found the house destroyed. No cupboard, no television, no washing machine. The refrigerator was on the floor."

A wedding picture still hangs on the bedroom wall, a final relic. Where will they go? What was their sin? No one came from the tax authorities to compensate them and they didn't receive any packages from the Supersol either.

This is where Ahmed Abed al-Jawad's textile factory was, on the outskirts of the Muazi camp. Only the labels for Madness Collection, Sack's, Zoom, Kookai − the trendiest fashions − can still be seen lying in the sand. Nothing else remains of the factory. It was all demolished and the debris removed.

The 2006 collection. Dozens of sewing machines are no more; 70 people's livelihoods have been crushed by IDF bulldozers. Farmer Majed Sa'id is now trying to fix the water pipes in the orchards that the IDF uprooted. He will soon replant the lemons and grapefruits. "It is not because of the Qassams, but rather so that the Israeli people will be satisfied that they caused the destruction here," says the farmer wearing a white T-shirt that says: "Gaza today, the West Bank and Jerusalem tomorrow."

The owner of the factory, Al-Jawad, emerges from the large building across the way, with its three floors of shiny brown tiles. A crushed child's bicycle stands in front of the building, whose shattered windows are covered with black fabric.

He is 43 years old and wears a fashionable blue shirt and plastic clogs, an all-Israeli look, smoking a Lucky Strike, speaking fluent Hebrew. Twenty years ago, when he himself worked in a sewing factory, he met Tikva Tzalah of Holon. He successfully managed Tzalah's factory in the Erez industrial zone, and when the factory there was closed, like all the Israeli-Palestinian ventures, Tzalah offered him the machines so he could set up a business in Gaza. Al-Jawad established a small sewing factory in his camp, and exactly a year ago, after the "work was going well," he explained, he set up the new factory near the orchard, 500 square meters, 150 sewing machines, two shifts, the last word. "I sewed for all the Israeli companies. You name them. Whatever the Israeli girls like, we sewed. And then came the great catastrophe."

On July 19, at 1 A.M., tanks and bulldozers entered the camp with a roar. Al-Jawad, his wife and their eight children hid under the sink in the bathroom. The children have been traumatized ever since.

"We were under fire until 7 A.M.," he says. "Then I saw that it was dangerous to remain under the sink, so I told my wife and children, 'Let's go hide on the stairs.' I once heard from Tikva that the safest place is behind the stairs, that it is a protected space. It turns out that it wasn't protected, so we went upstairs, to the second floor.

"At 7 A.M. I called Tikva. I told her: They are destroying our business. She said: Ahmed, what can I do? At 10 A.M., I peeked out the window and saw the bulldozer start to take down the roof of the business. Then I fainted. At that moment, I passed out for a couple of minutes. My wife poured water on me and the children began to cry. Instead of me encouraging them and strengthening them, they began to encourage and strengthen me. Ten minutes later, I came back to my senses. This situation lasted until 4 P.M. I saw about 100 tanks, no exaggeration. The entire area was filled with tanks.

"There were a few small children who thought that this was only a game and they started to throw stones at the tanks. I told my wife: It's all over for us. That's what I really thought. The tanks approached the house and the bulldozers destroyed the fence. They destroyed a building I had with goats and doves in the yard, together with the goats and doves inside. I told my family: 'That's it. It's over. Our story is finished. Children, our story is finished. Be strong. God is above us.' They all started to cry. It is impossible to describe what it was like. It's you and the children.

"This situation went on for a quarter of an hour until everything fell silent. A neighbor went outside with a white flag and we saw it and also went outside. Now I could see the tank sitting on top of my business. They completely erased it. I ran to the neighbors, and that's the whole story.

"No Qassams have been fired from this area. It is the quietest place in the camp. It was a place people came to for leisure, because of all the green and the trees and the tranquillity. After that, the neighbors told me that the soldiers knocked on the door after we left and then blew in the door and went inside. What didn't they do in the house? A mess. Their shoes with all the dirt, they ripped up the sofas, took down the curtains, they broke all the children's bureaus, and to top it off, they crapped on the clothes. That is the army's job, but why destroy things? And they commandeered the house from Thursday till Saturday.

"I have an Israeli mentality. Because of the television, the telephone calls to Israel all the time, the people I work with. I was more Jewish in my mind than a Jew. Until now. This will not change my mind. But I expect the State of Israel to look at me logically. Not to throw me to the dogs. It's a shame. It's a shame to lose a fellow like me who worked all these years making pretty things for the State of Israel. For 20 years, I build up the business, never even raise my eyes, and at one fell swoop, they destroy everything. Without talking. Without letting me know.

"The neighbors say that the soldiers opened the business and saw all the sewing machines and merchandise packed and ready to be sent to Israel and they destroyed the entire area, and then came back. Didn't they think about what would happen to the people? To the owner? To the workers? To the people in Israel that count on me the entire season? After all, the army and Shin Bet know every single person here. They know what they eat for breakfast and what they have for supper. So what − they don't know me? What I do and what I don't do? This kind of irresponsibility should never happen. But it did."

Response of the IDF Spokesperson: "On July 19, the IDF took action against terror infrastructures active inside the Muazi refugee camp and which use its inhabitants as human shields. During the operation, the IDF used heavy machinery to protect the soldiers, and if necessary, to destroy buildings that serve the terror infrastructures. It is possible that while moving within the densely constructed area, unintentional damage was caused to buildings."

"Unintentional damage? While moving? A densely constructed area? It was a beautiful place," sighs Al-Jawad, picking up yet another Madness Collection label from the sand.

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