Friday, July 10, 2009

The Peace Neighborhood of Palestine

"Gaza: A Story" by Marryam Haleem / July 6th, 2009

They lived in a place called Peace. But then came the tanks and the guns. So they left, the white flag waving in the air.

Nestled in the north of Gaza, close to the Israeli border, Hay As-salaam (Peace Neighborhood) was in nature as in name: A quiet area outside the city. The land owned by a wealthy Palestinian (extended) family, the Abu Eida family. Their 10 family houses gave life to the neighborhood. All were new and large and beautiful, the oldest only built in the early 2000‘s.

Surrounding these beautiful villas were about 400,000 square meters of farm and orchards. Lambs grazed the land. Chickens pecked the ground. Throngs of varied trees stood tall all round: nuts and palms, citrus and orange–some over a hundred years old. Just down the lane were the family factories. These concrete mixing factories included the first and oldest ones in the Gaza Strip.

Situated as it was, on the border, Peace Neighborhood was one of the first places the Israeli army occupied during the December-January Massacre of 2009. Until that point of the Massacre, the families stayed in their homes, afraid to leave–as all in Gaza were.

On the 12th of January, Jihad Abu Eida received a phone call from his brother, telling him that the Israelis would let them leave their houses if they held up the white flag. So Jihad collected his wife and six young children and they left carried nothing with them but the clothes on their back and, naturally, the white flag.

They waited out the next week of terror, away from home and anxious to return. When the day of relief finally arrived, Jihad once again gathered up his family, this time with uplifted spirits, for they were headed home.

But home was never to be found again.

They returned to a graveyard. The entire land all around, as far as the eye could see, lay flattened. It was as if a giant plow came through and raked everything through.

“This was my home,” Jihad tells me as we stand in front of a heap of rubble. I look around, trying to detect some of the beauty he described. I see nothing. Just destruction. Not one tree still stands. There are heaps of rubble that used to be houses. Only the elevator shafts still stand in some.

One house stands, however. It is quite a handsome house. Or rather I can tell it used to be handsome, despite the broken brick walls and bullet holes, despite the broken pillars and crumbling balcony.

“The Israelis used it as a command post,” Jihad explains. That is why it remained standing. They were considerate enough, however, to leave their mark before they departed. The walls on the inside of the house are covered with maps of the area. They are also trashed with swear words and vulgarities. It was ransacked and looted of all valuables.

“They took all our gold and money and valuables before they bombed them,” Jihad explains as we walk around his “house.” Jihad picks out a bent and torn text book.

“That was one of my engineering books,” he says, fingering it delicately. And I wonder vaguely at the horrible misconception people back home have of the people here whose lives our money has destroyed.

Jihad studied engineering in San Diego, CA in the late 80‘s and 90‘s. He is an avid Lakers fan until now (he is still rooting for them to win now!). And he even named his oldest son Kareem after Karim Abdul Jabbar. This is the kind of person who American media vilifies.

“That was my driveway,” Jihad says as we walk on some rubble. I see bits of beautiful tile among the debris. A little way off I spot chunks of engraved columns.

“We have nothing left. Not one photo. Not my diplomas. Nothing. Everything is gone,” he says as we walk slowly among the destruction,

“That was my uncle’s house,” he points to another mount of rubble.

“Remember,” says a friend who is with him, “remember when we had breakfast their that time?” They laugh at the personal memory. I smile weakly, wondering at the their ability to still laugh amid the ruin.

Our media gets worse and worse by the minute here in Gaza. What sort of military “defense” bombs, with F-16, residential homes? Do people who supposedly fear for their safety occupy a house, loot it, desecrate its wall and shell it with tanks when done? Do they shoot and kill the harmless livestock and chickens? Do they uproot hundred-year-old trees? (Environmentalists, do you care?)

I watch in numb disbelief as Jihad tells me of that dreadful day they returned. This middle aged man’s voice shakes with grief. He was overcome with shock when he saw the place. They, none of them, could believe it. It was absolutely devastating. He thought he was going to have a heart attack from the horror. And all the family there with him. It was awful, he kept saying.

He never thought they would destroy the place at all, let alone destroy everything so completely. Because they are on the border, Jihad explains, the Israelis came to their place three or four times before in the past few years. Just last year they came and forced his family to stay in one room while they used the rest of the house.

“When they left, the only thing they destroyed were the fences,” he says. This time, he thought, it would be like that. But he was wrong. The destruction was total. The family lost everything. For the Israelis not only destroyed their places of residence and farms and orchards and animals, but also all their factories.

Jihad told me the estimate of their loss is 15 million dollars. That, I am sure, is an extremely conservative estimate. He said others are saying it is over 20 million and I think that is closer to the mark. But he holds 15 million, for he knows that for sure it is that much that is lost.

“It’s the tax we pay for being Palestinian,” he says. A heavy tax, indeed.

“We are fine with them are our neighbors,” he told me when I asked about the Israelis, “let us live together! But they don’t want us as neighbors. They are trying to drive us out. They want the land and not the people.”

When I asked him if this terrible loss made him want to leave Gaza. He just looked at me and stated simply, “Gaza is the only place for me. I have no other place.”

We visited one of the factories. Heaps of rubble and metal are scattered around. Jihad said it is much cleaner now than it was. They are trying to rebuild. But it is a slow process because of the siege. I asked him why they are rebuilding after this absolute loss.

“We must rebuild,” he said, “and if they come and destroy again. We must rebuild. We cannot just sit and cry and think about the past. We must look to the future.”

After touring the destruction of the once-upon-a-greener-time factory, we sit with his father and brothers and nephews and have tea. The talk is light and happy. I don’t understand how it could be so, with the signs of their grief all around. But they are a strong people, and inclined toward optimism. So we drink and talk and laugh.

As we get up to leave the “factory” and go back home, Jihad shakes hands with his father. When we get into the car and head out, he remarks on his parting.

“You see how I shook hands with my father just now to go home?” he asks. “I never had to do that before. We lived in the same house. But now he lives here and I live in middle of the crowded city. In a small, rented flat.”

The desolate land goes by in a blur. It wasn’t just the loss of property, and fortune, and future, I think to myself. They ripped the family asunder.

What is the excuse, I ponder now in the silence of a Gazan night, what is the excuse for a people who destroyed that place called peace?