Friday, November 17, 2006

After the Rain of Death

Journey to Beit Hanun


"This is Islam al-Atamna. A girl of 14. She is sitting in her black mourning clothes. Eight close relatives - including her mother, grandparents, uncles and aunts - were all killed before her eyes, one after the other. They were killed in the street after they awoke at home in horror at the sound of the first shell that exploded and then fled outdoors, where the next shells caught them. About 11 fell on a residential neighborhood, one shell a minute, a rain of death, pursuing them in their flight. Fatherless for some time already, the girl is left alone in the world with her two little sisters and her 3-year-old brother Abdullah, whose legs were severed and who is hospitalized in the Al-Hilal Hospital in Gaza.

What should we say to Islam? What can we say to Islam? That the chip in the radar system is to blame? That the electronic component is responsible? Perhaps that the Palestinians are to blame?

Since the accident the girl has not fallen asleep for even a moment, which one can see in her frozen face. Islam is now a girl in shock, whose entire world was destroyed last Wednesday morning, with a total of 22 relatives dead and dozens wounded.

Islam's town is upside down. The roads are full of open pits, crushed electricity poles, smashed cars, torn houses and a sewage system whose effluents flow quietly in the streets.

After the six-day war waged by the Israel Defense Forces against Beit Hanun during Operation Autumn Clouds - when soldiers also took over Islam's house, imprisoning on the first floor the 104 people who lived in the eight apartments in the building, all relatives - people here expected to wake up last week to a new dawn, a dawn without soldiers. The day before, IDF had left Beit Hanun after "completing its mission" - nobody knows exactly what that mission was - and the residents awoke to freedom. But just then the volley of shells landed. Between 6:30 and 7 A.M., on the row of houses in the street that ends in a recently planted orchard, a gift from the Japanese government.

Now the survivors are sitting in the street of death, all of whose fatalities are members of one family, the Al-Atamna family. There has never before been such killing, of 22 members of one family, not even under direct Israeli occupation.

In the hospitals in Gaza, Egypt and Israel the wounded, about 40 in number, are moaning, many of them with amputated limbs and head injuries, quite a number of them children. The dead also include children, and mainly women: The mass poster that was printed presents the portraits of the men and the children who were killed, whereas the pictures of the women are replaced by paintings of red roses, as is the custom.

The entrance to Beit Hanun is horrifying. It is a town that is half destroyed and half deserted. Some of the residents, those who had a place to go, fled while they were still able to do so and have yet to return. Those who remain are walking around the streets like victims of shell shock, trying to assess the damages. A few people with initiative have already begun reconstruction: One is building a new fence, another is clearing the ruins from his yard, and technicians are repairing electricity and telephone cables, until the next invasion. An old woman is drying loofa in her ruined yard, as though nothing has happened.
Taxi driver Raad Al-Atamna, a member of the family and an old acquaintance of ours from the Erez checkpoint: "Her uncle was also killed, and another uncle is in a hospital in Egypt. Now she has nobody. What can I tell you, only God will look after her and help her. Gideon, I'm begging God not to harm either a Muslim or a Jew - no person should be harmed like us. It's a tragedy, a Holocaust such as we have not had since 1956. I hope that what happened to us doesn't happen to anyone else in the world."

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