Friday, January 9, 2009

To Live and Die in Gaza

To Live and Die in Gaza


By Laila Al-Arian


January 2, 2009, The Nation


On Sunday morning, I found out through a note my friend

wrote on Facebook, that the Israeli Air Force was

attacking my grandfather's neighborhood in Gaza. Safa,

who lives near my grandfather in the densely-populated

"Asqoola" in Gaza City, recounted the harrowing hours

she spent terrorized by what she called "the constant,

ominous, maddening, droning sound" of Apache

helicopters flying above.


"Outside my home, which is close to the two largest

universities in Gaza, a missile fell on a large group

of young men, university students," Safa wrote over the

weekend. "They'd been warned not to stand in groups--it

makes them an easy target--but they were waiting for

buses to take them home. Seven were killed."


Laila Al-Arian: In compelling public testimony, US

soldiers and Iraqi civilians bear witness to the

horrors of combat. My family had been trying to speak

with my grandfather since Saturday, after Israel began

its onslaught on Gaza. But we haven't managed to reach

him, perhaps not surprising since so many phone lines

are down. "Hold one moment," is all we hear. A

computerized directive from the phone company, one that

sounds increasingly strident the more it's repeated.

"Hold one moment." My mother hangs up in frustration,

unable to ease her anxiety or clear her mind from

worst-case scenario thoughts.


My grandfather moved to Gaza five years ago after

living all over the Middle East for almost fifty years.

As far as he was concerned, it was always a matter of

time before he'd find his way back to his birthplace.

He was born in Gaza City in 1933. Both of his parents

died of cancer by his fifth birthday, so he was raised

by four older sisters. The Gaza he knew during his

childhood was transformed by the establishment of

Israel in 1948. Following their forced expulsion from

villages and cities across the country, hundreds of

thousands of Palestinians streamed into the tiny

coastal strip. Most of the refugees relied on

assistance from the newly-created United Nations Relief

and Works Agency to survive, and jobs were hard to come

by. My grandfather was thus forced to move to other

Arab countries so he could provide for his young

family. By 1958, he had married my grandmother, a

refugee from Jaffa whose father, a policeman, had been

killed by Zionist paramilitaries ten years earlier. My

grandfather took her and their 1-year-old son to Saudi

Arabia, where he taught Arabic to schoolchildren.


Leaving his beloved Gaza was painful for my

grandfather, but he was left with no other choice.

Because he was never allowed to become a citizen of any

of the four Arab countries in which he worked and

lived, my grandfather never felt at home. In his mind,

they were transitory stops, temporary resting places on

the way to Return. He would save as much as he could

from his meager salary so he'd have enough money to

take his family to Gaza for summer visits. After years

of living modestly, he was able to buy a quarter of an

acre of land on Gaza's coast near the Mediterranean Sea.


My grandfather was sitting in a cafe with a group of

friends in the coastal city of Jeddah in Saudi Arabia

when he heard that Israel captured Gaza in the June

1967 war. His face went pale and he fainted from the

shock. The Israeli Army's occupation meant Gaza was

lost. But in practical terms the news had another

catastrophic effect: the Israeli military authorities

decreed that any Palestinian who was not in Gaza before

the war was not recognized as a resident of the strip.


My grandfather became a US citizen in 1999. By the time

he passed his citizenship exam, his knowledge of

American history and governance rivaled my own. Three

of his children had moved here years earlier, and

started their own families. Though my mother begged him

to live here with her, my grandfather's dream of

returning to Gaza never left him - and it was his

American citizenship that helped him do just that.


When he finally moved back to Gaza, my grandfather

changed. He stopped a lifelong habit of chain smoking

and embraced the outdoors, faithfully tending the

garden in his courtyard. He drank mint tea in his

nephews' vineyard and ate from the fig trees he could

only dream about years before. But he was also dismayed

by the changes he observed. His hometown had become so

overcrowded that trees were cut down to make room for

more buildings. With more than 10,000 people per square

mile, it has the highest population density in the

world. (Considering Gaza's overcrowded environment, it

is hard to fathom how anyone can argue that Israeli's

aerial bombardment is focused exclusively on "Hamas targets.")


My grandfather, throughout his life, never belonged to

any political factions, but like many Gazans he hoped

that Hamas' election would bring back a semblance of

law and order. Palestinian Authority officials had been

dogged by allegations of corruption since they began

administering Gaza and the West Bank under the 1993

Oslo accords. To many Gazans, the PA and its minions

were no better than gangsters.


With Israel's draconian blockade of Gaza, imposed as

punishment for the election of Hamas and backed by the

US and Europe, my grandfather's life was transformed

yet again. Medication to treat his diabetes was in

short supply and because of a shortage of gas and

electricity, his family was forced to use primitive

kerosene burners for cooking. Bakeries now had to

resort to baking bread with animal feed and sewage

treatment plants were crippled as fuel ran out, forcing

the water authority to dump millions of liters of waste

into the Mediterranean Sea. Electricity was scarce,

with homes receiving an average of only six hours a

day. Unemployment shot up to 49 percent. Because of the

border closures, my grandfather's nephews, who used to

work in construction in Israel, now had no source of

income. Israel's blockade caused a slow starvation of

the entire population, as malnutrition rates spiked

upwards of 75 percent among the strip's 1.5 million

residents. As in most siege situations, children

suffered the most from hunger and disease.


As missiles rain over Gaza, I can only imagine what my

grandfather is thinking. Much of the territory's

civilian infrastructure, including police stations,

universities, mosques and homes, has been decimated. In

the Jabalya refugee camp, five sisters, the eldest aged

seventeen and the youngest only four, were killed on

Monday as they slept in their beds when an Israeli air

strike hit a mosque by their home. Their parents told

reporters they assumed they were safe, since houses of

worship typically are not military targets. The

cemetery where the girls were buried was filled to

capacity, so they were placed in three graves. A United

Nations spokesperson said the killing is a "tragic

illustration that this bombardment is exacting a

terrible price on innocent civilians." The bereaved

father expressed the sentiments of so many in Gaza in

an interview with the Washington Post. "I don't have

anything to do with any Palestinian faction. I have

nothing to do with Hamas or anyone. I am just an

ordinary person." A few days after the attack, I found

out that the girls were relatives of our family friends in Florida.


I asked my mother why my grandfather did not leave Gaza

while its gates were still open. Why he didn't leave

before the siege, before life became unbearable, and

before this latest bombardment. "Because that's where

he feels he belongs," she said. "He was always homesick

before. Gaza is where his parents were buried. It's

where he wants to die."


Laila Al-Arian is a freelance journalist and co-author, with Chris Hedges, of Collateral Damage: America's War Against Iraqi Civilians (Nation Books),

based on their 2007 Nation article "The Other War."  



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