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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The Olive and the F-16: Autumn in Gaza

Today completes another week of olive picking in Gaza.  Another week of pausing, breaths held, as Israeli tanks the color of sand moved nearby along the buffer zone, another week of children frightened at the sound of roaring F-16s, another week below the watchful eye of the drone.

Together with the Beit Hanoun Local Initiative, International Solidarity Movement (ISM) volunteers picked olives with families near the buffer zone in the village of Burej and in two different locations in Beit Hanoun this week.

“We’re here to harvest olives and be with the land because this is our land and we don’t want to abandon it,” said 27-year-old Randa Hilou a local student to came to pick in solidarity with the farmers in Beit Hanoun.

On Wednesday, dozens of local children joined in the picking. I asked the children why they had come. “I’m here to pick olives,” declared 9-year-old Mahmoud, taking a break from dumping olives into a blue plastic crate.  “We love olives,” added other children, who gathered around.

At one point in the day, the sound of Israeli F-16s could be heard overhead. “I went picking with my mother and father,” added Bursa, also 9-years-old. “I am not afraid.”

Later in the week, ISM volunteers picked closer the Erez crossing in an area that used to be full of olive, orange and grapefruit groves.

“Before, people came from all over Gaza to pick fruit in this area,” explained Saber Zaaneen, the 33-year-old coordinator of the Beit Hanoun Local Initiative explained to me on Thursday as we sat on a plastic tarp picking plucking purple olives of supple branches. “Why did Israel destroy the groves?” he asked.  “To destroy the economy of Gaza. Why the resistance? Because of the occupation.”

I had asked Saber on earlier occasion why the olive trees in Gaza were so skinny.  In the West Bank, they’re very big, I explained.  He informed me that these trees were new, and that Israel had bulldozed the beautiful old olive trees of Gaza in 2001 and 2002. “Israel does not have a culture of peace,” explained Saber. “They have all of this advanced technology, why do they kill children like this?”

Nine year old Yara, who wants to be a doctor when she grows up expressed a similar sentiment on Wednesday, “They [the Israelis] are always occupying us. They threaten children.”

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Honeymoon in Gaza

I had just finished off a plate of homemade bread knaffe yesterday with a family in the south of Gaza, when we got the call: farmers in Beit Hanoun, a village in the north of the Gaza Strip, requested that ISM volunteers accompany them to pick olives near the buffer zone.

The buffer zone.  I had heard of this area back in the fall of 2002 when I had come to the West Bank for the ISM’s first olive harvest campaign.  Back then, Israeli two-ton Caterpillar bulldozers were crushing homes, orchards and all other life forms to create this dead zone between Gaza and Egypt.  Israel displaced more than 10% of the population of Rafah, Gaza’s sourthernmost town, at that time, making Palestinian refugees from 1948 refugees yet again.

Today, this unilaterally-imposed 300 meter buffer zone extends all around the sliver of land that is the Gaza strip, to the north, east, and south, an effective kill zone for all who dare enter it. (To the west is the sea, also patrolled by the Israeli navy).

Nonetheless, I was excited about the idea of going out with the farmers. I love picking olives! I love being out on the land, feeling the hard purple and green fruit pop off the branches and onto a tarp spread on dirt below. And besides, we weren’t going inside the buffer zone – those trees were long gone – just in some area nearby.

L, the woman who had baked the delicious knaffe snack, and J, her husband, had also lost the majority of their farmland to the dead zone. J had just finished telling me about it, and L was quizzing me about my love life.

“Do you have any children?” she asked.

“No,” I said.

“Why not? Children are wonderful. I have five.”

I provide the response that seemed easiest at the moment. “Well I just got married a few months ago.”

“You should be on your honeymoon!” she exclaimed.  “Where is your husband? Your husband should be here!”

Alas, I’m not sure if she really believed I was married, and I promised that next week I would bring photographs of my wedding.

The next day, Saturday, our group head to Beit Hanoun to pick olives.

“Be prepared to get shot,” said Saber, the founder of the Local Initiative of Beit Hanoun, an organization which works with farmers in the buffer zone to resist the Israeli occupation through nonviolence.  “The Israeli army, they don’t distinguish between foreigners or Palestinians,” he added, pointing to the fluorescent yellow vests and megaphone we had brought along.

Then why are we here, I wondered. Surely not for our physical prowess in picking olives. But I understood that he was making sure were fully appraised of the situation. The task may seem mundane, but here there is always a risk.

We drove out to the edge of Beit Hanoun, where the trees suddenly stopped and nothing but barren land lay between us and the border.  It was a sunny day in Gaza, and if you squinted your eyes and looked really carefully, in the distance, army towers could be seen, and beyond them, the town of Sderot in Israel.  Surely, there could be no danger from the Israelis back here, I thought, we are much farther back than the designated 300 meters.

Turns out I was right and I was wrong.

Mohamed Ashure Shimbari and his family had already begun picking olives by the time we arrived, on a small plot of land next to a cement block house. Every time the Israelis invaded Gaza, they locked the family in a room, and used their house as a base.  And though we were indeed, 800 meters from the border, the area was far from safe.

We began picking olives, and the elderly farmer who owned the land seemed exhausted, not from picking olives, but from living life in Gaza.  J too, though in his mi-50s and younger, had had that look as well. After his family had lost everything in 1948 and fled to Gaza, J had managed to by farmland after working in Israel for over twenty years, as an electrician, a restaurant worker — “everything” — only to see it taken yet again.

In this area of Beit Hanoun where we were picking what was now the barren buffer zone, ten years ago been filled with orchards of lemon, orange, grapefruit and olive trees.  There were also greenhouses of tomato, eggplant and cantaloupe.  Saber pointed all around, explaining what was where and how there was no clean water.  I couldn’t imagine it.  It was like pointing to the Sahara desert and saying, “ imagine these sand dunes are jungle.”

We picked for a couple of hours, occasionally breaking for tea, when someone called out “jeepat.”  Jeeps.  Israeli army jeeps were patrolling the border.  Then came a tank.  A few people stopped picking, to peer at the tank.

“What’s it doing?” I asked.

“Showing they are strong,” one of the young Beit Hanoun volunteers answered.

The army was relatively far away, but apparently, one never knows if the Israeli army will shoot at you. Since Operation Cast lead in 2009, the U.N. estimates that Israeli tank and gunfire killed five Palestinian civilians, three of whom were children and injured twenty in areas near the buffer zone.

After we stripped the trees of their olives, we dumped them into large, 40 kilo bags and then head back into town.  The day passed without incident, as it should have, but it was no honeymoon.

The food in Gaza is wonderful . . . if you can afford it.

This food here is really good. I mean seriously, delicious.  Although Israel bulldozed all of the olive trees (as well as houses) within the “buffer zone” —  300 meters from the border, Palestinians in Gaza have still found ingenious ways to survive, like planting wheat close to the buffer zone where trees once grew.  Because of Israel’s blockade, if its not grown here, it likely came from Egypt through the tunnels.  The first time I came to Gaza, I thought everyone was trying to cheat me.  Why was a bottle of water or a can of Coke so much more expensive than the West Bank  or in Israel?  The shelves were bare and I survived largely off power bars. And then I realized that was the cost of living in Gaza: it had all come through tunnels.

A family seven generously invited me to eat lunch with them today and then took me around the remains of their farmland.  Above is a photo of the delicious fish maclube we ate, as well as the most interesting iteration of a shwarma sandwich I’ve had to date.  The maclube, which means “upside down” in Arabic,  is a dish of rice with other vegetables and usually chicken.  The shwarma was layered into a wheat flatbread, stuffed with extra fil fil (chili) per my request, wrapped like a burrito,  flattened on pan and then sliced into hand-sized pieces.  That’s salsa on the side, though I’m pretty sure the Palestinians have a different name for it.

Shwarma Quesadilla with Salsa