This article is based on a letter sent to a friend who had written me toward the end of the first week in January to wish me a happy new year as well as to express her concern for the friends she knew I was worried about in Gaza following the Israeli invasion. I replied largely by quoting from various documents from them in order to convey to my correspondent as vividly as I could what my friends and by implication, most Gazans had been experiencing ever since coming under attack. What follows, then, are mainly some firsthand accounts of life in the killing zone of Gaza.
First, here are some excerpts from Hanan’s last note to me, a week ago obviously, I have had no word from her since. Of course, there is often no electricity, no water, no cell phone service; it is winter there, but people have to leave their windows open lest they shatter if there are explosions nearby; families huddle together just to keep as warm as they can. Under such conditions, how can I expect Hanan to write? And how can I know what her silence means? Anyway, here are her last but I hope not her final words to me:
"Dear friend Ken,
"Thank you so much for your concern and your noble feelings, I really appreciate them. You can say that I am fine but my people are not, you can never even imagine the destruction and the horror we’re living in, circumstances are the worstest, we haven’t had electricity for two days, and we just got some. It’s actually 4 o’clock after midnight, and it is an awful night. F-16 planes are joining our children with their dreams or what have become, nightmares. Sorry, I have no words to describe the situation here. I am not sure whether you got my story [for a book I’m writing] translated or not but believe me, it’s nothing. nothing at all compared to this.
"Concerning professor Haidar [another friend of mine], I haven’t heard from him for days either and am concerned because he lives in the middle of Gaza city, very near to the attacks. It came to my knowledge that he had lived through a bad experience [he narrowly missed death I read about it later and there was worse to come….].
"Dear Ken, again, thank you so much for your concerning feeling. There is one thing I want you to know. In case something happened and I didn’t make it or haven’t the chance to say so, I would like you to know that you are one of my best friends ever, and that it was a great pleasure for me to know you and to communicate with you. I’ve really learned a lot from you and your forgiveness personality was a source of inspiration and admiration.
"Take care of yourself, dear friend, and excuse me for this long message but it might be the last,
your little friend,
And my friend Haidar? After already having come close to death or serious injury when a police building very near his house was blown up, even worse times lay ahead for him. Here is the last I heard of him, taken from an interview conducted on December 30th by a Canadian journalist, Eva Bartlett, based in Gaza [published in The Palestinian Chronicle and reprinted here by permission]. I have had no word from or of him since.
"I was lying in my bedroom when the first strike happened, around 1:30 am. You know a strike isn’t just one explosion, it’s a series of explosions. Boom, boom, boom, boom. The whole building shook. I woke up and went to the bathroom first, and within 30 seconds the second strike hit. F-16s were bombing the Ministry of Foreign Affairs building, about 500 meters away. I could hear glass shattering everywhere. I went back into the bedroom and saw glass everywhere, all over the bed which is right up against the window. If I had been lying there still, it would have shattered all over me, would have seriously injured me, or worse, I don’t know. It was a very strong blast, and the glass must have hit the bed with great force.
"I brought a mattress into the living room, which faces the sea, and lay down trying to sleep there. Moments later, I heard a huge explosion, the third strike, this time from an area closer to the sea. The front, sea-facing window exploded into the room, landing on the desk and the floor, thankfully too far from where I was lying.
"I tried to call a friend who lives two buildings away from the Ministries. He’s got five children, ages 5 to 15. He said they were okay, but the children were terrified, screaming.
"I went into the third room, a spare bedroom, and saw that the windows were already broken. I looked through the shards of glass and saw that 4 ambulances had come, as well as 2 fire trucks. There were huge, black clouds. I was looking at the ambulances and the people below when another strike against the compound happened, the third series of explosions. Again, my building shook from the impact. I heard people screaming, there was more smoke, fire, and a terrible smell. I don’t know what the smell of death, I guess.
"The radio reported that my friend, Dr. Fawaz abu Setta, whose house is just in front of the ministry compound, was buried under the rubble of his home. I was stunned, it really affected me badly. He’s such a kind man, and I couldn’t believe it. I called friends, I was so worried, and 15 minutes later finally learned that another friend had spoken to him: he and his wife were okay, in the basement of their house, locked in because something had fallen against the door.
"The compound has 3 or 4 ministries, and each building has 8-10 floors. So I’d imagine you need 3 missiles for each building. So far there’d been 3 sets of hits against the buildings, as well as ongoing strikes around Gaza City and the Strip.
"I could hear some of the explosions in Gaza’s neighborhood, and the radio kept reporting the latest explosions. They were everywhere: Sheik Radwan (a district of Gaza City, where my brother and his family live. I started calling him, but he didn’t answer), Zaytoun (another district of Gaza), Jabaliya, Beit Hanoun
"All the time the building was shaking, like an earthquake. These were the loudest explosions I’ve ever heard. It was terrible, frightening, confusing. And you know, you don’t know where to run, what to do. I looked outside, but it was too dark, too filled with black smoke I don’t know what kind of bombs Israel is using, something that creates fire, and very dark smoke. I could hear children screaming in my own building, screeching from fear. My landlord is in his 80s, and his wife had a stroke last year and cannot walk. They live on the 12th floor. I couldn’t imagine how they were feeling then, completely helpless, the power out, no way of escaping if our building was hit, or even if it wasn’t hit, but just to escape the terror.
"I took my mattress and went to the corridor this time, the last place I could try. I lay down, and listened to the radio reporting the latest. And I continued to hear blasts all over.
"45 minutes after the 3rd strike, they came back, to finish the job against the ministerial compound. With the 4th strike, more glass shattered, what was left of it. I rushed to the window closest to the attacks, already shattered, and again tried to see through dark smoke. But I couldn’t see anything, but could hear ambulances below, more screaming.
"The electricity was off, the landlines down. No phone lines, no internet, no cell phone connection. I had no way of speaking to anyone. It was very isolating, terrifying.
"It seems ridiculous to go back to bed after all of this, to try to sleep. But there is really nowhere I felt safe, so I went back to the mattress in the corridor. It started raining, and I could see rain coming in the sea-view window, and my bedroom window. I got up, tried to cover things my laptop, my stereo I was just trying to save my things. And there was glass all over the floor, I was stepping on it.
"This morning, my nieces came over, and when they saw my bedroom with the broken windows and thick shards of glass where my head and body would have been, they were horrified, started crying.
"We still have glass everywhere. We tried to clean it’s everywhere. [Dr. Eid picks glass off the couch, the floor, apologizing to me this is the interviewer, commenting]
"I heard later that they used more than 40 shells, which when you add up all the strikes is entirely possible.
"After the attacks, the drones were all over, flying low, buzzing like huge mosquitoes. The sound they make, it’s loud, grating, and you know it means they’re considering what to do next. They were up there the rest of the night, flying circles, coming lower, going back up, the pitch of their whine rising, going away, coming back They want to make there presence felt. They are really saying to us, we can do whatever we want, with impunity.’
"There’s only so much one can bear, you know. You can’t think clearly, you know, I don’t know what to do.
"People are afraid they might strike the Ministry of Justice and next to it the Ministry of Education, just up the street, about 400-500 meters."
"Update: 8 am, 31 December. The Council of Ministers, hosting the Prime Minister’s Office, was targeted Tuesday night at around 8:50 pm, along with the Ministry of Interior in Tel al Hawa (just 500 meters from Dr. Eid’s home), which was targeted for the 3rd time. Both were completely destroyed."
After that, nothing but silence again. (I have just learned from Eva Bartlett as of this writing that my friend Haidar is in fact still alive.)
These are just two of my friends. There are about 1.5 million Gazans, all of whom have friends and family, mostly there, some elsewhere, and they all have similar stories to tell. You can see why Gaza is so much on my mind. And there is no end in sight. At least 55 more civilians died today, and more than 600 have perished now. At least 800 children have either been killed or wounded, and of course the hospitals, completely under-supplied and understaffed for years because of the Israeli siege, can’t cope. One Norwegian doctor, who has been working there now for eight days, with almost no sleep and little to eat himself, broke down in tears last night because of the children he can’t help and can only see die. And then he has to tell their parents when they are alive to tell.
Yeah, not exactly a happy new year, but at least I’m not living in Gaza. Yet I am.
* * *
I’ve just heard from another friend of mine there who, despite the shortage of electricity and all the other hardships of life in Gaza now, somehow finds the time to send me brief personal notes of reassurance that she and her family are still all right at least physically. But here I will quote some excerpts from a longer commentary she wrote for general distribution on New Year’s Day that provides a sense of the way people can adapt to and even laugh during the most dreadful conditions of life and death surrounding them. My friend Safa also expresses her rage that so many people in the world continue to cling to the most distorted and demeaning stereotypes of the Palestinian people, which only adds to the emotional burden she has to carry in the midst of being surrounded by carnage on all sides and having to live with the threat that in the next moment she and her family could be obliterated in an instant. Laughter and rage by turns in the shell-shocked charnel house of Gaza.
"It’s interesting how, at the most terrifying and horrific of times, we still manage to make light of the events, and even enjoy a dark sense of humor that surprisingly comes out not inappropriate and even the more amusing given the constant state of tenseness and apprehension.
"My 10-year-old cousin was eating a sandwich when my younger brother, 12, looked at him and, quoting a line from one of his favorite video games in his dead-on imitation of the character’s voice, while being extremely amused by the fear in the younger boy’s eyes, said enjoy it, it could be your last!’ I looked at him for a second and began laughing almost hysterically.
"On another occasion, we looked around for my 12-year-old and 14-year-old brothers during an intense bout of air strikes and realized that they had snuck back to the living room, the room directly in front of the area being bombed, and were watching a sports channel. But we had to see the scores,’ they retorted after being severely reproached. They’re becoming desensitized, I thought. I went through this before while living in Ramallah in 2002. I laughed so hard, they had become totally oblivious!
"I’ve had a lot of time to contemplate, the last few days, and looking at my siblings, I wonder how the rest of the world envisions the people who occupy the most despondent and unruly military zones in the world.
"My younger brothers spend their free time out with their friends, or playing basketball and soccer at youth clubs. They are passionate about sports, play station, and music. They play the guitar and are exceptional students. My brother who’s in collage is obsessed with computers and gadgets, he’s an engineering student who comes up with the most ingenious projects for his classes. He listens to music and plays the guitar and prays regularly. He’s an honor student who has big goals and big dreams.
"So please understand why I am infuriated when I see how we are portrayed on television. Hordes of bearded, teeth-gnashing, stone- throwing bloodthirsty savages in rags and tatters. And please don’t blame me for feeling utter rage against the state of Israel that has been intentionally targeting the unwary, guiltless, promising children and youth of the Gaza Strip in its vicious attacks over the past 5 days. Already, between 40 and 50 children are dead while hundreds lie in the hospitals, seriously injured or disabled for life.
"The people of Gaza have been suffering for decades under systematic and tyrannical oppression by Israel, the latest of its measures has been the siege and closures imposed on the strip that have completely devastated the livelihoods of Gaza residents and caused the economy to fall into an unprecedented and crippling depression. The people of Gaza have long been denied the means that have been afforded to the residents of countries with the same, possibly less, resources. And yet the amount of resourcefulness and zeal we demonstrate is a testimony to the potential of progress and advancement that lies within us .
"So while being cooped up in the house, watching local news stations when we have electricity, still in a state of disbelief, I wonder if the rest of the world would be so harsh in its judgments if they had the opportunity to understand. I wonder if people would as easily accept the unsubstantiated claims that the engineering faculty building of the Islamic university, which has been flattened during the attacks, was a workshop that produced Qassams, if they had seen my brother’s reaction. When he came back from a walk to the university building the next day, his face was white as a sheet and he had tears in his eyes. It’s all gone,’ he said, even the project (electric car) we’ve been working on all semester.’ We’d seen pictures, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Did he seriously have any hope that the car had survived?
"A few hours ago, the home of one of Hamas’ senior leaders, Nizar Rayan, was struck by 4 missiles. Not only was the entire building flattened, killing all who were in it, but several other buildings surrounding it looked like they were about ready to collapse. It is said that there were over 19 deaths, most of them women and children, and scores of injuries. The entire street was littered with debris and rubble. We saw the images on TV, children being lifted from beneath the rubble, headless corpses loaded into plastic body bags, the whole works. We sent a taxi to pick up my aunt, whose home lies 100 meters away from the Rayan building, and had caved in due to the attack. She and her children arrived, shaken, but all in one piece.
"Today the temporary halt of rocket fire coincided with the restoration of power to our home, at least for a few hours, at about 5pm. My brothers went to their rooms and played their videogames, I sat on the couch and read, and my sister went to take a nap. We tried to busy ourselves with regular daily activities in a situation that is anything but commonplace."
These are some letters from Gaza, written in the midst of war by those who are on the receiving end of the violence and who, because they are sealed into one of the most densely-packed regions of the world, have nowhere to flee. Inside their prison they can only wait and hope. And we, who remain on the outside, can only do the same, hoping that our friends and their families will survive and waiting for the world to act to bring this inhuman and criminal onslaught to an end before more lives are lost and Gaza becomes one continuous heap of rubble and shattered dreams.