Still Casting Lead: Israeli Air Force Attack Kills 2, Injures 12 in Single Family

Update: Midgdad’s 12-year-old cousin died yesterday.

“This is the occupation,” a neighbor mumbled as we stepped into what remained of twenty-year-old Migdad El Zalaan’s cement-block home in the north of Gaza City this afternoon.  The Israeli Air Force dropped the first of three bombs near Zalaan’s home at approximately 2 a.m. this morning, killing his uncle, wounding El Zalaan and the rest of his twelve family members, and destroying his home.

Midhad El Zalaan in his home after Israel’s Bombing

In one corner of the living room a baby doll lay on a mattress buried under shards of tin roof.  Cement blocks squashed plastic party hats and red stuffed bears, and  El Zalaan’s family’s modest possessions lay buried under layers of dust and rubble.  El Zalaan was on his computer right before Israel attacked.

“After the Israelis dropped the first bomb, I took my family and left my home,” explained El Zalaan, periodically looking up at the sky, where the ceiling once was. “Then the second bomb dropped and I went to my uncle’s home to find out if they were okay. My uncle’s wife [Saada El Zalaan] called me from under the rubble. She was holding her baby, I took the baby and then Israel dropped the third bomb.”  El Zalaan then helped his aunt out of her house despite her pleas to get her son out and leave her.

“I kept digging, looking for my uncle, then I found him, buried, but still breathing. He told me ‘take care of my family, take care of my wife and my children’ and then he died in my arms.”  Bahjat El Zalaan was 33-years-old and the father of 5 when he died.

El Zalaan described how during the bombing he was screaming and pulling his hair out, and how he was trying to protect his mother, father, grandmother and siblings from the shrapnel by holding them in his arms. “I got rubble in my leg and back,” he explained, wincing in pain throughout the interview.

He took his family to Al Shifa hospital in Gaza City. Two of his cousins, ages 10 and 12, remain in critical condition.  Israel had destroyed the roof of his home before, during Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009.  On the outside of the home, a small plaque hung near the broken window, “This shelter was repaired by UNRWA through a generous fund from the Federal Republic of Germany.”

Before leaving, El Zalaan asked if he could take a photograph with us and his cousin, who snapped a photo on his cell phone. As we left I asked him if he worked, and he said he had no home, and no work either.  “We stay at home because there’s no work.”  El Zalaan will be living with this cousin in the Beach Refugee Camp.

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A Million Dollars is Not Enough

I’ve already written about how Palestinians of all ages and genders in Gaza are nuts about Bollywood movies — and hence Indians — thanks to the “Zee Aflam” channel which streams Amitabh Bachchan, Aishwarya Rai, Sharukh Khan, Kareena Kapoor & Co. 24-7.

But on Thursday I was shocked when Mohamed, a young Palestinian lecturer at Al Aqsa University in Gaza City, asked me if I had been to Sri Lanka and then proceeded to tell me about his deep concern for the human rights abuses of Tamils there.  “You really must go there and see for yourself,” he said. He had visited the island nation after attending a conference in New Delhi a few years ago.

Earlier Mohamed had asked me if I spoke Hindi, and I said no, that my family was from south India.  “Ah, are you Tamil?”  Even though I’m only half, I answered in the affirmative, surprised that he was familiar with Indian geography. Most Americans and Europeans I’ve met have never even heard the word, much less know where on the map Tamils hail from.

This conversation was all the more surprising because it took place in the besieged, blockaded Gaza Strip, land of the 37.4% unemployment rate, where 77% of households live below the poverty line and two-thirds of the population are refugees.  Another professor had just finished explaining how during “Operation Cast Lead” in 2008/2009, Israel not only killed the living, but disturbed the dead — shelling the cemetery where his mother was buried.

We had also discussed the similarities and differences between Israeli apartheid and South African apartheid. In South Africa, blacks were allowed to travel on the same roads as whites, not so in the West Bank, where Israel prevents Palestinians from traveling on the same roads as Jewish settlers –which  now being challenged by the   Palestinian “Freedom Riders.”  Similar to the South African apartheid regime, Israel has corralled Palestinians into bantustans, however apartheid South Africa, unlike Israel, never bombed said bantustans or fired white phosphorous at civilians, burning them to death at temperatures of 1500 degrees Fahrenheit.

Out small group concluded the conversation by agreeing that the growing movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel is more critical now than ever.  Today India announced a donation of $1 million dollars to United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which provides basic food and other basic services to 5 million Palestinian refugees.  While this money will no doubt be appreciated — especially in the wake of the U.S. cuts to UNESCO funding after Palestine gained a seat — people here in Gaza have repeatedly told me that they don’t want charity, they want solidarity, they don’t want aid, they want equality.

Just as India and Pakistan were the first countries to officially impose a trade embargo on South Africa in the 1950s, it is time for the developing world to yet again step up and act against apartheid — Israeli apartheid — when the west will not.

While Picking Strawberries

Today was the first day of Eid, and I awoke to the Arabic dance beats of Nancy Ajram. The alleys around around my apartment where alive with the sounds of children playing late into the the night, but I didn’t mind the sleep interruption. At least it wasn’t drones. And I love Nancy.

In the afternoon, we went to a special Eid children’s fair at a park in Beit Hanoun, in the north of the Gaza Strip.  Fifty percent of the population in Gaza is under the age of 18, and as we arrived, that statistic became quite clear. There were kids everywhere.  Playing, dancing, singing –riding horses — all in their brand new Eid clothes.  Poofy synthetic dahlia barrettes were all the the rage among the girls. Volunteers from the Beit Hanoun Local Initiative, which works with children traumatized by Israeli violence (among other things) were singing and clapping as dozens of kids shrieked with pleasure as we arrived.

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Then there was a sort of homemade karaoke where Arabic songs were played over speakers and kids would sing along.  Everyone got a prize.

Afterwards, one person in our group wanted to stop at the morning tent in Beit Lahiya to pay respects to the family of the farmer killed by the Israeli Air Force on Thursday,  Nasr Ibrahim Alean.  Here in Gaza, its the custom for the family to receive people for three days after the death of a loved one.  I admit, I didn’t want to go. We had such a nice day with the kids, and I just wanted to go home. And wouldn’t we be bothering them anyway? They didn’t even know us.

Our car turned down a dirt road and we pulled up along a cement block house.  Men sat on plastic chairs outside under a tarp, and they warmly welcomed us in.  We asked where the women’s side was and I along with Silvia and Hama were led behind a plastic tarp to the area where the women family members had gathered in a circle.

We sat down, and I wondered if it would be in bad form to ask them what happened.  An attractive woman in a purple headscarf introduced herself as Nasr’s Aunt told us the story. Periodically others would join in.  Nasr, who was 23, was picking strawberries on Thursday, when an Israeli helicopter shot him in the leg.  As he lay on the ground bleeding, he called his brother, and told him he had been shot.  The helicopter fired again and blew his head off.

“His brother was to get married in two days,” said Nasr’s Aunt. “I had gone to the salon to get my eyebrows done, and then he was killed. He wasn’t in the resistance, he was just trying to work.”  She added that Palestinians just want freedom, they want their own state, but Israel had completely closed Gaza. “They don’t even want us to work. If it wasn’t for the United Nations, I don’t know what we would do.”

Other women echoed the Aunt’s sentiments, saying they just wanted freedom. They were so happy we had come, and offered us dates, insisting that we take three, when we reached for one. “The prophet Mohammed always ate in odd numbers,” they explained. But one is also an odd number, I thought. But it was too late, I had taken three.

After the dates, they served us bitter coffee, the tradition after a death, and brought out a photo album of Nasr. Someone mumbled that he was very handsome and indeed he was. We flipped through photos of him eating with friends, posing in a studio with hearts as the backdrop, and just hanging around.

An old woman in her seventies appeared and sat behind me. She wore a white headscarf and a traditional blue Palestinian dress with red and white embroidery down the front.  “They [the Israelis] don’t care about human rights,” she said. “There are no human rights here.”

Under the Missilefire: Celebrating Eid in Gaza

Eid-al Adha began in Gaza at sundown. For those of you not familiar with Eid, it’s the Festival of Sacrifice, and marks the end of the Hajj, the pilgrimage that all able-bodied Muslims should make once in their lifetimes. It’s one of the two most important holidays for Muslims, sort of akin to Christmas for Christians. Since everything would be closed tomorrow, we head to Gaza’s Old City to buy some vegetables.

I was excited to see what Eid was like in Gaza. The last Eid-al Adha I spent in Palestine was in February 2003 in the northern West Bank city of Tulkarem.  At that time, Tulkarem had taken on an air that reminded me of Christmas back in the states, with families out buying presents for loved ones—until the Israeli army entered firing teargas as moms and kids ran to get away from the noxious fumes.

When we arrived to the Old City, the streets were packed with people seemingly there for some last-minute shopping.  The tradition here is to give family members gifts of clothes and candy. Though we walked through narrow streets lined small stalls, it became apparent few people actually appeared to be buying anything.  I first stopped off for a smoothie or a “cocktail” as they call it here. We were the only customers.  We then walked around the stalls filled with candies wrapped in colorful foil. No customers.  Then it was off to buy vegetables, but I got distracted by some deep-fried sweets I hadn’t eaten in 8 years. The sunset and we were the only customers. A bag of crispy dough drenched in sugar syrup cost 1 Israeli shekel ($.25).  A Welsh friend bought a bag, and I bought some larger crescent-shaped ones stuffed with walnuts.

Then, it was on to the vegetables!  We slid past the hordes, but again no one seemed to be buying. A very eager child asked me what I wanted.

“Filfil!” I blurted out. Bellpeppers.

He led me past the onions and carrots towards a pile of yellow and green peppers and thenstarted tossing them into a plastic bag, thinking that I had wanted a kilo, though  I had only asked for the price per kilo. He was so damn cute I bought the full kilo.

I started to eat my sweet as I walked back down to the main square, but then I stopped, feeling bad.  There’s definitely stuff available to buy in Gaza.  Food and goods are clearly making it through the tunnels—at a steep markup.  But nearly 40% of the population is unemployed, with little hope of finding employment.  Though Israel claims that it imposes its blockade of Gaza for security, Israel prevents all goods from leaving Gaza.  Gaza’s real per capita GDP in 2011 is 35% below it’s per capita GDP in 1993.  I’m curious to know how Israel’s strangulation of Gaza serves Israel’s security.

Anyway, upon returning home, I learned that Israel fired on Palestinians in East Gaza  City earlier today without warning, as farmers worked their land.  Apparently, the people were confused as to why the Israelis were shooting at them–something I could definitely relate to. One person was injured.  Since then, Israeli helicopters have been shelling Khan Yunis, in the south.

Doesn’t leave a lot to celebrate.

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Israel Drops Missile on North Gaza Neighborhood, No One Cares

The Israeli Air Force fired a missile into a Beit Hanoun residential neighborhood in north Gaza early Sunday morning. The missile landed in a grove surrounded by homes, creating a crater the size of a tennis court and destroying over forty orange and olive trees. Chunks of shrapnel and oranges lay scattered about the grove

Local children and area residents interviewed appeared to be in shock.  Ayman Ismail Hamad explained that “[a]t 3 a.m. we heard a huge boom. It was so scary for the children and women here and they started to shout and cry – such a scary thing for them.  When we looked out to see what happened we found everything there totally destroyed . . . and the windows from the houses in this area – totally nothing. The [Israeli] F-16 didn’t leave anything behind.”

The owner of the farmland, Sufyan Musa Muhammad, reported losing approximately 40 orange and olive trees, not including the uprooted trees at the periphery of the crater, valued at approximately $200 a tree.  “It’s not just the price,” he added, gazing sadly at the upturned alien landscape.  “It’s that there’s no more fruit.”  According to Muhammad, no journalists had approached him regarding the Israeli missile attack, which went unreported.

Thirteen-year-old Amer Ayman Hamad, whose house is about 50 meters away from the impacted area said, “There was boom . . . I didn’t scream, I just woke up . . .  it was during the night we didn’t hear any plane except for the sound of the drones . . . after that I went to the bathroom.”

Israel has not claimed responsibility for the attack which terrorized local residents.  No one was injured.  Palestinians in the area believe that Israel used an F-16 to bomb the residential neighborhood due to the size of the crater and the thickness of the shrapnel.

When asked if he believed Israel should compensate him for his loss Muhammad replied, “I don’t want money from the Israelis. Whatever they do to us we are steadfast and strong and we won’t leave our land.”

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