Gaza life and death play out to beat of Israeli firepower
Israeli ground offensive puts ordinary Gazans in front line of conflict
As hundreds of mourners ascend the mounds of mud leading to another newly dug grave, a loud whooshing sound rises just beyond the cemetery. From behind a nearby house, two long rockets zoom skyward, Israel-bound. A roar from the crowd. “Allahu Akbar!” they cry as one.
It’s mid-morning in Khan Yunis, in the southern Gaza strip, and Hamas is burying one of its dead. Mohammed Abu Saada, a 26-year-old member of the Al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’s military wing, was killed by shelling from an Israeli tank as as the ground operation reached the al Zenna district, less than two kilometres from the border. Almost 1,000 men – there are no women – have turned out for his burial against a background din of buzzing drones and artillery fire in the distance.
Mohammed’s older brother, Raed Abu Sheida, says the Israelis crossed the border at night and advanced about 700m. That brought them to al Zenna, whose residents fled for the relative calm of Khan Yunis. Some men stayed behind, and a couple were detained. Raed describes ongoing clashes in the area between Israeli troops and “the resistance”, the common term used in Gaza to describe Al-Qassam and Islamic Jihad, and says buildings in al Zenna have been partially destroyed.
Raed, a soft-spoken lawyer, is wearing an elegant white robe, one sleeve covered with blood. With a crowd of more than 50 huddled around him, he doesn’t hesitate when asked if he hopes for an immediate ceasefire. “I want a ceasefire on the terms of the resistance,” he replies.
Twenty yards away, Khaled Regeb is burying his 36-year- old cousin Eyad, who he says was killed by an Israeli drone as he walked down the street. Khaled wasn’t a militant, his cousin says, but an employee of the Palestinian Authority; when he died he was “bringing food to people who were evacuated near the border”. Khaled’s allegiance is clearly to the Fatah faction of Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas. Asked how he sees the conflict ending, he says he wants Abbas “have the siege of Gaza lifted” and to start improving the lives of the people here.
A 30-minute drive to the south of Gaza city, Khan Yunis feels more impoverished, more provincial and more remote than the bigger of the two cities. The unemployment rate here is the highest in the Palestinian territories, and its hinterland relies mainly on farming.
In recent days, since the Israeli ground operation began, the town’s proximity to the border has put it in the front line of the conflict. Residents say that when the invasion began on Thursday evening shells smashed into buildings near the border, prompting thousands to leave their homes under the cover of darkness and seek refuge in Khan Yunis.
At a UN-run school in the town, temporarily converted into an emergency shelter, some 1,400 people who fled their homes when the tanks arrived are provided with food, drink and mattresses.
Conditions are tough, with more than 30 people sleeping on the floor in rooms that grow sweltering in the summer sun. In a classroom she shares with 33 other women and girls is Naila Abu Eid, whose village, situated 500m from the border, bore the brunt of the Israeli operation. She and her extended family of 20 left their house at midnight on Thursday and were taken by ambulance to the school.
“I went back to the house this morning to get some clothes and stuff, but we had to leave the clothes on our way back because the Israelis starting firing at us,” Naila says. She wants the fighting to stop, but she is pessimistic about the chances that any positive change will come of it. “In Gaza, the same story keeps repeating itself,” she says ruefully.
Suleiman Baraka lives in a fine house in a quiet neighbourhood
but when I arrive he apologises for not inviting me in for tea. Instead he pulls up a few chairs and we sit in the shade outside.
The reason is that in December 2008, during the 22-day Gaza war referred to in Israel as Operation Cast Lead, a missile struck Suleiman’s house and killed his son. The Israelis then proceeded to the house of his brother, a Hamas member, and bombed it before targeting a few more houses in the area. Some of them are still being rebuilt. Suleiman worries that when the Israeli military runs out of bombing targets on its current list, it will dip into “the database” and come upon his address again. As a precaution, since the latest bombardment began, he, his wife and five children have spent each night at separate houses so that they’ll never be in the same place if a missile falls.
Suleiman is an well-known astrophysicist with links to research institutions around the world, although the increasing difficulties he faces in getting in and out of Gaza have made it harder for him to attend foreign conferences in his field. Israel last let him in 27 years ago; his exit route since then has been the Egyptian crossing at Rafah, but since the coming to power of President al-Sisi in Egypt, that too has been closed. He was to be at a conference in Virginia in June, but there was no way out.
Suleiman seems determined not to feel sorry for himself, however. Thumbing his prayer beads, he speaks at length of his love of his work, of the wonder and promise of astronomy. They have seven telescopes in Gaza now, he tells me, and it gives him great pleasure to see a young people take such an interest. He glances around, instinctively trying to spot the persistent drone above us. “I’m very happy that looking at the sky around here is about more than spotting F16s.”