Eva Bartlett | In Gaza
30 January 2009
Imagine being grateful for the chance to return to your demolished home and sift through the rubble, to try to retrieve personal belongings, ID cards and papers, still-useable clothes and pots…
Imagine your house had been bulldozed, you’d been given 5 minutes to leave it, not been allowed to collect any of those cherished possessions, you’d not had the foresight to gather all the most important documents and memorabilia and keep them by the door anticipating such an event, you’d been commanded to run away run to the nearest city or you’d be killed, you’d watched from a distance as the military dozer ate your house, and you’d been too terrified (with reason) of being shot at if you tried to later return and collect belongings …so terrified you didn’t.
That was Manwa and Sharifa, mother and daughter, living in a house just a hundred metres from Gaza’s eastern border.
Stately Manwa, short and broad and strong and smiling. A month and a half ago when we met she’d grinned, grinned, in welcome and in her customary nature. She’d already lost much of her land to Israel’s “buffer zone” the 300m (in other areas more than half a kilometer) band of land along Gaza’s borders with Israel. This ‘buffer zone’ is one of Israel’s many contrived [‘for security’] land-grabs, as is the Separation Wall [‘security barrier’] eating the West Bank, the closed military zones throughout the West Bank, the Jewish-only roads dissecting the West Bank, and Israel’s latest: the extended ‘buffer zone’ now declared a ‘closed military zone’ from the eastern border out 1 km. Manwa’s is but one of many households who’ve been forced off their land –in Gaza!! in Gaza!!! NOT in Israel. This is Palestinian land, it must be highlighted. Palestinian land, it must be screamed –after Israel’s military assault on Gaza (the one that has killed over 1400 now…).
At 2:30 pm January 17, 4 massive Israeli tanks and 1 towering military bulldozer accompanied a smaller military bulldozer and invading, occupying Israeli soldiers as they blazed towards Manwa’s, yelling through a megaphone, ordering them to get out of the house. Sharifa, 22, left first. Soldiers asked her if there were any men inside the house, to which she replied ‘no’. Manwa came next, also with hands in the air. The question was repeated, soldiers not believing the women could stay by themselves, telling the women as much.
It was 3 weeks after Israel’s Gaza-wide air-strikes began, and the fact that Manwa and Sharifa had stuck it out alone in that isolated area is incredible.
“They told me our house was now in a closed military zone,” Manwas said. “They said it was a ‘decision from the top’ and that we had to leave immediately and walk towards Gaza,” she said. “I refused, and tried to negotiate with them for time to gather our belongings. They refused.”
Manwa was a safe distance away, watching, when the Israeli soldiers bulldozed her house at 5 pm that day.
This was one day before Israel declared a ceasefire (which Israeli soldiers promptly broke, in instances throughout Gaza) and the area was in the northeastern corner of the Strip. There would have been absolutely no possibility of resistance fighters being present, thus no ‘reason’ to demolish the houses (as Israeli war mongers attempt to justify their collective punishment –demolishing, bombing, setting fire to with chemical weapons, Palestinians’ houses and buildings if it is suspected that there may have been resistance in or near the buildings, or if one’s family has a member in the resistance, or if it is suspected that there may be a member of resistance in the family, or if one has the same name as a member of the resistance…).
Yet, strangely, illegally, Israeli war authorities were able to declare Palestinian land in Gaza a closed military zone and, thus, render the land vacate, and an estimated 400 people homeless (modest estimate based on 80 families with an average of 5 people per family) in the Beit Hanoun ‘buffer zone’ areas alone.
At 1:40 pm, a delegation of about 15 international and Palestinian solidarity activists joined Manwa, Sharifa, and Manwa’s son Said, for the walk along the track 1.5 km out where the closed military zone began. Manwa had asked us to come. She wanted to go home, even briefly, to try to find her papers and anything precious.
We walk past a plot of rubble which a week ago had been 3 houses. Mohammed lived in one of them, with 5 other family members, and like Manwa was given just minutes to vacate.
The flat fields around us once held olive, lemon and palm trees, Saber tells us. About 750 dunums (1 dunum=1000 square metres). “People from all over Gaza had jobs here. It is one of the best regions for agriculture in Gaza,” Saber goes on. He doesn’t need to spell out that all of the trees had been bulldozed, like the houses, over the years since 2003. We know, are aware of Israel’s policy of razing Palestinian land.
We pass a house shell, with a yellow Fatah flag still flying, and are told that a mother from the Khadera family was killed in the shelling. Luckily her daughters survived.
Another house in ruins on the left side of the track. “There were goats and sheep in one area of the bottom level of this house,” we are told. “The Israeli soldiers bulldozed it with the goats and sheep inside.” An old man sits next to his former home, concentrating on the fire that is boiling his tea water.
Down the track a little further we are directed to where the Wahadan family house was. “They destroyed the house, the water well and its pump too,” Saber tells us.
Proud Manwa narrates as we walk. “I was so scared when I saw the tanks. My heart dropped to my feet,” she tells us. She goes over the day of demolitions again, in detail, reliving it and making sure we understand that (and how) she’s lost her home.
We pass an F-16 crater, the kind you see all over, and then take a slight detour off the path, to go visit a shanty town of tin houses. This is part of Manwa’s extended family, and they want to show us how even though the houses are over 50 metres from the missile crater, the impact of the missile sent shards of shrapnel slicing through the corrugated metal walls of their shack-home. “The children are having serious psychological problems now,” Saber relates, telling us that the kids, around 2 or 3 years old, are traumatized by the explosion, the deadly fragments of missile which pierced their home.
When we are nearly at Manwa’s house we briefly discuss the importance of such accompaniments. Gives people hope that they can return to their homes, if only briefly for now. Challenges the illegality of Israel arbitrarily imposing and extending no-go zones at whim on Palestinian land.
We reach the house and I recall my first visit, when I’d been charmed not only by Manwa, Sharifa and Said, but also by the neat, tidy, homey house, had thought that it was the perfect hill-rise location with the possibility to grow the grains and vegetables one needed, graze one’s sheep. It is a pancake of angles and debris now. It is too tangled and the slabs too large to move without a bulldozer. We can only surface-sift, and are unable to reach the closet which Said points out lies under an unmovable slab of concrete. Manwa nonetheless smiles her gratitude at us for being here.
About 100 metres beyond, the electrified fence, and beyond the patrol road which carries the jeeps that buzz back and forth. Some jeeps buzz by and we eye them, wary. Yesterday, in Faraheen, east of Khan Younis, an impoverished agricultural worker was shot dead as he worked the land near the ‘buffer zone’ down south. He was apparently the only bread-winner in the family and had held off doing any farm work in that area for some time now, worried about being shot. Poverty breeds necessity, and in Gaza that means risking death at the guns of Israeli soldiers when farming or fishing (or at home or at school or at mosques or in cars or…).
I kick aside a rusted stove pipe, pluck out some notebooks with writing which could be valuable in some way to the family, shake the concrete dust off of some dresses and clothing items, find a tin box with necklaces and mementos. It all goes into a plastic bag I’ve found in the ruins. I step over the room with the animal feed, some of the sacks still partially filled with grains, and head to the corner where the closet is said to be. This is the most eastern corner, closest to the border. We all watch the border area as we sift, hoping to find ID cards and anything useful.
But eventually we are defeated, cannot reach beneath the heavy top layer. We must leave, and leave behind Manwa’s identity.
She smiles still.
As we walk away, 2 crisp cracks of gunfire, and a whizz. ‘Warning shots,’ though close enough to hear that whizz. A minute later, 2 more.
We’re luckier than the Khan Younis youth of Tuesday.