New Year, Old Story

A quiet weekend: The Israel Defense Forces managed to conduct two operations in Gaza during a four-day period starting last Thursday and continuing through this past Sunday. This is how the New Year’s celebration there looked: 10 Palestinians killed, including two teenagers, one of whom was mentally disabled; 30 Palestinians injured, including a cameraman from Channel 10; and another 14 homes demolished. While Israel was collecting food contributions for Sri Lanka, residents of Khan Yunis sat on the sand near their destroyed homes, eating a paltry lunch.

On Sunday, after the operations ended, five Qassam rockets hit Sderot and mortar shells were fired at the Erez industrial zone, seriously injuring a 25-year-old worker, Nissim Arbib. Operation “Purple Iron” had not ended yet and “Autumn Wind” had not yet begun to blow, and suddenly “Purple Rain” poured down upon the Erez checkpoint. There was a faint boom and then a mortar shell fell near us, in the adjacent industrial zone. Shlomi Eldar, a reporter for Channel 10, was on his way to meet with the Palestinians who were firing the mortars from Rafah, and we were going to meet the victims of “Purple Iron” in Khan Yunis. “See you this evening,” we said, but by the time evening came, Eldar had already brought his cameraman, Majdi al-Arbid, to the hospital in serious condition. An IDF sniper shot him from a range of 300 meters in Jabalya, despite the fact that he held a television camera in his hand–or perhaps because of this. Eldar, an experienced and honest reporter, is convinced that the photographer did not pose a risk to the sniper, who saw the camera and nonetheless shot without warning, intending only to injure the cameraman. He was hit by a bullet in the groin, two steps away from Eldar. Long hours passed before Eldar and the Channel 10 team managed to persuade the IDF to allow the bleeding photographer, whose life was at risk, to be rushed to a hospital in Israel. The IDF is investigating.

On the way out of Erez, near Beit Hanun, there is a tank and a bulldozer, digging up the only access road. It is hard to know whether this is the end of “Purple Iron” or the beginning of “Autumn Wind,” which began and ended on Sunday. How are people supposed to enter and exit Erez now?

Munir’s atonement

The motorcade of candidate Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) is making its way through the streets of Gaza. Abu Mazen injured his finger the previous day when a bodyguard closed the door of his car on his hand. Another candidate, Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, is delayed at the Erez checkpoint on his way to another election rally. Entry into the Gaza Strip is now only barely possible, via muddy paths. In the evening, dozens of tanks were already lurking in the dark groves on the side, making this route also fearfully dangerous. Munir, a Palestinian taxi driver, quotes from the Yom Kippur kapparot (atonement) prayer he learned when he worked as a youth in the Tikva (Hope) market in Tel Aviv. In the Al-Amal (Hope) neighborhood of Khan Yunis, there is a lot of destruction from the previous night. “This is my exchange, my substitute, my atonement,” Munir mumbles, waving an imaginary rooster above his head, a remnant of his happy childhood in the Tikva market.

The loudspeaker barks out: “Stop.” The loudspeaker barks out: “Go.” And again: “Stop.” And again: “Go.” The defense forces, which can see but cannot be seen, are amusing themselves with dozens of cars waiting at the Abu Huli checkpoint, on the only road spanning the Gaza Strip, near Kfar Darom, opposite the road to Gush Katif, below the road to Kissufim. A huge traffic jam. It is another one of the places where the occupation looks so frightfully ugly, with invisible soldiers and the hoarse loudspeaker. All of the drivers hurry to roll down their windows in submission, to make sure they hear the soldier’s command. Sometimes, the road is completely blocked for days and there is no passage between Khan Yunis and Gaza City, or between Rafah and Jabalya. A. calls from Cairo: He has been stuck there since the Rafah crossing was closed. No one knows how long the crossing will remain closed.

“You were a son of the camp,” says the voice on a different loudspeaker, at the mourners’ tent for one of the Palestinians killed in the Khan Yunis camp. Nothing compares with the bleakness of this camp. Barefoot children tramp around in the mud. Water leaks through the asbestos roofs of the shacks. Hundreds of men sit on the ground idly, day after day, year after year. The well-tailored image of the leftist candidate, Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, which peers down from the election posters, seems disconnected from reality.

In the nearby Al-Amal neighborhood, life had been more hopeful. Some of the more successful residents of the camp moved into reasonable-looking apartment houses. But the nearby settlements of Neveh Dekalim and Ganei Tal put an end to their Palestinian neighbors’ hopes of finally living in human conditions. During the night, the bulldozers had come and destroyed a group of buildings under construction. Only a pile of rubble remains now in an empty lot, next to a wide strip of sand that was cleared during a previous operation. From every window, one sees the Jewish settlements or, more precisely, the terrifying guard towers that surround them. From here, the disengagement looks further away and more long-awaited than ever. No one talks about the disengagement in Khan Yunis, nor about the upcoming Palestinian elections. On Sunday, everyone was busy assessing the damages of the latest operation of killing and destruction–“Purple Iron”–which ended during the night. Hundreds of stunned residents are poking in the sand, a familiar sight. An apartment-bunker

The Sabahi family’s three-story apartment building is home to 30 people. Soldiers took over the building for operational purposes. Last Wednesday night, the residents of the building were ordered via loudspeaker to vacate their apartments. On Sunday morning, we entered the building with one of the residents, Osama Sabahi, to see what the soldiers left behind. Sabahi, a pharmacist, was devastated by what he saw: His spacious apartment on the top floor was destroyed beyond recognition. The soldiers had made giant holes in the walls, using these as lookout posts and firing positions. The furniture was upended, clothes were scattered and the sights we encountered in the bathroom are unfit to print. Sabahi says that NIS 600 that he kept in the dresser were gone. (The IDF Spokesman’s Office: “We are not familiar with this claim.”) But why did the soldiers take the blue flour jar from the kitchen to the children’s room? No one knows. Boxes of Tnuva chocolate milk were scattered everywhere. What would the soldiers think if someone did this to their homes?

Osama Sabahi’s aunt, Maryam, lives on the first floor. She is about 60 years old and is mentally ill. When they evacuated the building, they left her behind. The pharmacist says that the soldiers took her up to the third floor and left her there for two days before allowing the Red Crescent to evacuate her. The tiny playground below, the only one in the area, is partly destroyed. It was built several months ago and this is the second time the IDF has damaged it during the war against the Qassam. The entrance to the Sabahi’s home is also completely destroyed. Piles of stones and the remains of the iron gate block the entrance to the home that was transformed into a military post. Osama says that he is afraid to bring his family back there. There is no electricity and no water, and his small children are liable to fall through the holes in the walls, three stories above ground. Even before the latest operation, the apartment looked like a bunker: The windows facing Ganei Tal were filled with bricks about four years ago to protect against Israeli snipers. It is not recommended to peek out from these windows–the wall of the building is full of holes and an Israeli flag flutters in the wind on the tower across the way. The plant nurseries of Ganei Tal look like a shimmering sea from the window.

A table was prepared down below. Neighbors spread trays of rice, yogurt and eggs on the sand–the first meal for the new homeless. There are also humanitarian efforts under way here, in the Al-Amal (Hope) neighborhood of Khan Yunis, in the backyard of Ganei Tal and Neveh Dekalim.

The IDF Spokesman’s Office: “Before the entry of an IDF force into an inhabited Palestinian building, which is only done for operational purposes, the soldiers are instructed to avoid harming the residents and damaging property. Nonetheless, buildings may suffer damage–only in accordance with operational needs. In addition, the residents of the homes are given the opportunity to collect items of value from the home before the soldiers enter. It should be noted that the forces have operational documentation of the activities in the homes.” A new memorial poster

The new memorial poster displays an unusual-looking face. This shack on the alley of sand and mud in the Khan Yunis camp is the home of the last shaheed (martyr) from last weekend’s operations, Ahmed Tuman. Afflicted with Down Syndrome, he was 17 when he died. His mother and sister, dressed in black, enter the meager guest room. Only their sad eyes are visible through their veils. An asbestos roof over our heads, the wind whimpers and the rain pounds. The mother, Sabha, and the sister, Ibtisam, speak about Ahmed: He studied at a special education school run by the Red Crescent and he loved to go to weddings, to dance, to sing and to do impersonations. He specialized in imitating Yasser Arafat and Sheikh Yassin, but was also not afraid to imitate residents of the camp–he was a local Yatzpan (a popular Israeli comedian). He especially liked posters of “martyrs.” On the day of his death, he still managed to hang up a poster of the last member of Iz al-Din al-Qassam (Hamas military wing) to be killed. Here it is on the wall, pasted with brown tape, alongside the new poster–on which he himself appears.

Last Thursday, his father locked Ahmed in his room before going to the market. The father was concerned that his mentally disabled son would venture out into the street. They always locked Ahmed in when the IDF was in the streets, but when the father returned from the market and opened the door, Ahmed managed to get around him and run outside. It was 9:30 in the morning and Ahmed made his way toward his sister’s home in the nearby Al-Amal neighborhood. She pleaded with him to return home and Ahmed told her that he was not afraid and went back out into the street.

He went down the street leading to the main road, where tanks and snipers awaited him. Perhaps he began fleeing when he noticed them. Perhaps he provoked them. Perhaps they shot at him for no special reason–the street was empty and no one witnessed the shooting. They sprayed his body with bullets from a distance of about 30 meters, shooting from the welfare ministry building where the snipers were positioned or from the tank deployed alongside it. Here is the hospital’s death report: A bullet to the head, a bullet in the heart, a bullet in the ribs, many pieces of shrapnel in the right leg, shrapnel in the hip. He remained sprawled in the street, bleeding, for an hour before his body was taken away.

The IDF Spokesman’s Office does not think that Tuman died: “On Thursday, December 30, while IDF forces in the Khan Yunis area operated against the launching of mortars and Qassam rockets, a Palestinian approached an IDF force. The force fired warning shots according to regulations and when [the Palestinian] did not halt, shots were fired at his legs and he went away.” On the other hand, it appears that the spokesman’s office may believe that Tuman, who suffered from a serious mental disability, was involved in planting explosives. According to the IDF statement: “It should be noted that during the operation, the IDF hit a number of Palestinians involved in planting explosives against IDF forces.” In response to the delay in evacuating Ahmed, the office says: “We do not know of any incident in which the IDF delayed or prevented an ambulance from accessing and treating the injured.”

Ahmed’s cousin, Hadil, who is paralyzed, somehow manages to stretch out her hand and wave Ahmed’s memorial poster, as if to say–“Look what my cousin did.” The two cousins shared a special love for each other. H., Ahmed’s older brother, is afraid. He has worked for the past year and a half in the fields of the Ganei Tal settlement, growing spices. His wages are NIS 48 [$10] per day, more than his co-workers who started later and earn only NIS 35 [$7.50]. H. is now worried that his employers will not accept him back at work because his mentally disabled brother was killed by the soldiers. He told his employers that his mother was hospitalized.

GIDEON LEVY writes for Ha’aretz.