I have hesitated reading the anonymous soldier testimonies released by Breaking the Silence regarding the Israeli attack on Gaza last summer. I didn’t want to read the admissions that seemed all too obvious, all too predictable. As in other testimonies released by Breaking the Silence I expected stories of civilians being targeted, random wanton destruction, and lax protocols that made it all acceptable. Just following the news of last summers attack and the narratives provided by Gaza residents would draw you to the same conclusions. I didn’t need soldiers’ confessions to collaborate these facts.
I am currently in Jordan with a friend trying to return home to Sheja’iya, in Gaza. We have been here for 3 weeks waiting for word on the Rafah border crossing. Although we hear rumors about possible openings, to date the crossing is sealed. We have spent our days sitting with both Syrian and Palestinian refugees. I have spent too much time in coffee shops, drinking too much coffee and reading too much news.
Yesterday over coffee my friend Intimaa and I were debating which was the most beautiful spot in Gaza. The list always gets reduced to two areas, the farmland around Faraheen or Johr Al-Dik. Sitting smoking shisha I recalled the silence in the rolling fields of Johr Al-Dik, interrupted by the occasional barking dog or the chirping birds. I recalled the crops of eggplant, tomatoes, and cucumbers that struggled to thrive with a water source contaminated by salt. I recalled the wind rustling through the fruit trees, the slanting sun illuminating the olive trees at dawn.
And I remembered Nasser, his beautiful children, and the tragic story of his life. How in the spring of 2010 his wife, Naama was cut down in the front doorway by a flechette shell fired from an Israeli tank. It was late afternoon, the sun was shining, and the kids were playing nearby. I recalled how the ambulances were blocked from entering the dirt road to the home. How Naama bled to death there, in front of her children. We stood in front of the house as Nasser pointed out the watchtowers and the placement of the tank that fired the deadly shell. The Israelis claimed there were militants in the area, but offered no explanation as to why Naama was targeted and killed.
Nasser recalled how his house was shelled less than one year later, destroying the 2nd floor, injuring 2 of his sleeping kids, forcing him and the children to retreat to the village. Once again, Israel claimed there were militants in the area. The home they were staying in was near the graveyard. One night Nasser found his children crying at their mother’s grave. He and his family returned to the land, living in tents under his trees until the funds were secured to rebuild his home. They hung a white flag from a pole near their home to alert the Israelis that they were there and they posed no threat. Nasser realized he or his children could be killed at any time.
Nasser and his kids are part of what I love about Johr Al-Dik, families surviving on their land and refusing to give up even in the face of unbearable Israeli aggression.
Last evening, I relented and downloaded the soldier’s testimonies, “This Is How We Fought In Gaza”. Scanning the Table of Contents, Testimony 18, page 56, caught my attention. It is titled, “Check it out, there’s nothing at all left of Juhar al-Dik.”
Check it out, there’s nothing at all left of Juhar al-Dik
Unit: Armored Corps •Rank: First Sergeant • Location: Deir al-Balah
Before we entered we saw orchards on a slope, a low fence beyond them and then Juhar al-Dik up on this little hill. You’ve got the barrier [between Israel and the Gaza Strip] and then Juhar al-Dik is on some high ground that overlooks it, and it’s very green. Of all the houses that were there, I think I saw maybe four or five still intact, or relatively intact. Most of it was D9s (armored bulldozers). They just took down all the orchards. Not a single tree left. Lots of houses. The D9s destroyed lots of houses.
Quotes from men in the company: “Listen man, it’s crazy what went on in there,” “Listen man, we really messed them up,” “Fuck, check it out, there’s nothing at all left of Juhar al-Dik, it’s nothing but desert now, that’s crazy.” The D9’s worked on it for three weeks. When they didn’t have a specific job like leading our way or opening up a specific route for us or some other mission, they just went and flattened things. I don’t know what their specific order was, but they were on a deliberate mission to leave the area razed, flattened.
I contacted a friend at PCHR for an update on Nasser and his family. He texted me this terse message, “Hi dear, Nasser and his family were forced to evacuate to an UNRWA shelter in Buriej camp. His house was destroyed completely. I’m in touch with him. They survived a very critical condition during their evacuation.” Once again, Nasser has been forced from his land. His home was leveled, his fields destroyed, the trees razed.
Consider this. In the context of rocket fire from Gaza and consider this in the context of the wider “War on Terror”. Nasser and his children are one family in Gaza. What exactly do you wish them to do? They are given limited options. They cannot leave Gaza. They have been living in a UN school since August. Many of the schools have been housing homeless families since the attack ended, the children cannot learn. UNICEF estimates nearly half of Gaza’s 900,000 children need “psycho-social first aid”. (Children comprise 50% of Gaza’s population, why aren’t Israel’s attacks framed as a war against children?) Unemployment is 45% or more. Farmlands, and therefore food sources, have been destroyed. Clean water and electricity are scarce. Building materials are banned. Israel’s crimes against civilians continue unchallenged, and they are already planning the next attack. My friend Intimaa managed to speak directly with Nasser. He didn’t have very much to say. Once again he is rebuilding. He said he simply doesn’t know what to do. Every time he builds a house, Israel destroys it. He is grateful that at least his children are all well, and for the time being, safe. In closing he said, “You know the situation. There is nothing left.”
What’s next for Nasser and his young family? What choices are expected of them? How should they protect themselves? On the international stage Israel continually talks of “peace” and “fighting terror”. Nasser and his children know better.
When I sat for tea with Nasser, back in 2011 (2 “wars” ago), his children still managed to laugh as they played in the garden. Nasser was a soft-spoken, gentle man, prone to chain-smoking cigarettes. He worried about his kids. He was calm, deliberate, and determined. At the time, I didn’t see any signs of anger. He didn’t speak of retribution. In an earlier draft of this piece, I ended with a question, “But with all that has transpired, if hatred were to rear it’s ugly head dare you blame him?” But this is the mind of those who attack him, poisoned by hate. Perhaps it is better to point to the resilience of the human heart that continues to love and persevere in even the most desperate circumstances. There is something left in Johr al-Dik, something the Israelis fail to see, and something bombs will never eliminate. The spirit of the people remains. Nasser will persevere. He will rebuild his home, replant his fields, and tend to his children. He will hope for the day that Israel will be held accountable for it’s crimes, but he will not wait.
Johnny Barber writes on the Middle East. He can be reached at: email@example.com.
 From “This Is How We Fought In Gaza” Soldiers’ testimonies and photographs from Operation “Protective Edge” (2014). Published by Breaking the Silence