Eva Bartlett | In Gaza
29 January 2009
Remarkably, the staircase in Yousef Shrater’s bombed and burned house is still intact, as are the 14 people that make up the 3 families who were living in the house. Shrater, a father of four, walks over broken cement blocks and tangles of support rods and up stairs laden with more chunks of rubble, Israeli soldiers’ food leavings, and others remnants of a bombed, then occupied, house.
In the second story front room the original window is flanked by gaping holes ripped into the wall by the tank missiles which targeted his house. “They were over there,” Shrater says, pointing just hundreds of metres away at Jebal Kashef, the hilltop overlooking the northern area of Ezbet Abed Rabbo.
In the adjacent room, Shrater points further east to where more tanks had come from and stationed. “We were in this room when they began shelling, my wife, children, and I. We ran to the back room for safety, hoping it would be some protection.”
The back room is another haze of rubble and bits from explosions. The tanks had surrounded the entire Abed Rabbo area and no sooner did the family take shelter in the back room when a new shell tore into the house, fired from tanks to the south of the house. “It hit only a metre away from the window,” he points out, and leaning out the window and looking up, the hole left from the tank shell is just one metre above. “If it had come into the room, we’d be dead.”
Shrater explains how the Israeli soldiers forcibly entered the house and ordered the family members out, separating men and women and locking them in a neighbouring house with others from the area. His father and mother, living in a small shack of a house nearby, were soon to join them. The soldiers then occupied the house for the duration of the land invasion, as Israeli soldiers did throughout the Abed Rabbo area, as they did throughout all of Gaza. And as with other houses in occupied areas, residents who returned to houses still standing found a disaster of rubbish, vandalism, destruction, human waste, and many stolen valuables, including mobile phones, gold jewelry, US dollars and Jordanian dinars (JOD), and in some cases even furniture and televisions, used and discarded in camps the soldiers set up outside in occupied areas. Shrater says the soldiers stole about US$1,000 and another 2,000 JOD (~US$,828 ) in gold necklaces.
Back in the east-facing corner room, Shrater steps around a 1.5 m by 1.5 m depression in the floor where tiles have been dug up and the sandy layer of foundation beneath has been harvested. “They made sandbags by the window, to use as sniper positions.” The bags are still there, stuffed with clothing and sand. “They used my kids clothes for their sniper bags,” Shrater complains. “The clothes they didn’t put in sandbags they threw into the toilet,” he adds.
The whole house has sniper positions. Sniper holes adorn each of the two west-facing rooms overlooking the Dawwar Zimmo crossroads, where bodies were later found sniped-dead and unreachable by family members or emergency medical teams (including the Red Crescent medics who were shot at, one hit in the thigh, when trying to reach a body on January 7).
From the roof we see more clearly the surrounding area where tanks were positioned, the countless demolished and damaged houses and buildings, and bits of shrapnel from the tank missiles. Shrater’s father, 70, is on the roof, and begins to tell of his experience being abducted from his house and locked up with his wife and others for 4 days. “They came to our house there,” pointing to the low-level home which housed he, his wife, and their sheep and goats. “The Israeli soldiers came to our door, yelled at us to come out, and shot around our feet. My wife was terrified. They took all of our money, then handcuffed us. Before they blindfolded us, they let our goats and sheep out of their pens and shot them. They shot 8 dead in front of us.”
The elderly Shrater and his wife were then blindfolded and taken to another house where for the next 4 days Israeli soldiers denied him his inhaler for his asthma and his wife her diabetes medications. Food and water were out of the question, and Yousef Shrater’s father says their requests for such were met with soldiers’ retorts ‘No, no food. Give me Hamas, I’ll give you food.’
The older man leads us downstairs and behind Yousef Shrater’s house to his small home where a still-terrified Miriam sits, eyes permanently wide with alarm. “We saw terrible things, terrible things. I saw dead bodies on the street,” she says, rocking back and forth in agony. Hajj Shrater agrees: “In 63 years, never seen anything like this,” he says. The denied insulin and syringe lie ground into the earth near their door, along with various tablets. Twenty metres away, the remains of the animal feed shed also mingle with rocks and rubble, razed in the rampage.
The house between Yousef Shrater’s and his parents has also been damage. The asbestos roofing lies in hefty chunks on the floors of the bedrooms and kitchen, save for where it hangs precariously in the underlying waterproofing plastic sheeting, along with the heavy concrete blocks used to weigh the tiles down . The kitchen is black with soot from what must have been another white phosphorous fire, and empty shells lie in the burnt wreckage of the fire. Two metal doors from the F-16-bombed factory across the street from Shrater’s house are lying near the kitchen, having blasted clear across the street and over the roof of Shrater’s house.
Mahmoud Shrater, Yousef’s brother and also inhabitant of the main house, is at the house, clearing some of the rubble, sifting. “We need tents to live here now,” he says, standing in the shell of what was their home.