Friday, February 6, 2009

No place like home

GAZA STRIP- Within seconds A'amer al-Dayeh lost his parents, two sisters, three sisters-in-law, three brothers and 12 of their children. The youngest, Sansabeel, was 3 months old. The oldest, Ali, was 11. It happened on January 6, when an Israeli plane bombed Dayeh's house between 5:30 and 6 A.M. He is now living with relatives, his home destroyed. For four years he lived in the West Bank, where he studied education at An-Najah National University in Nablus, and worked in a Palestinian Authority security agency under Yasser Arafat. For a month in 2002 he was trapped with the Palestinian leader in the Muqata in Ramallah during the Israeli siege on the PA headquarters.

On the morning of Tuesday, January 6, during the 60th hour of the Israel Defense Forces' ground offensive, soldiers had already deployed among the houses in the southernmost section of the Zeitoun neighborhood, a few kilometers from where Dayeh lived, and from which the frightening noises of explosions and gunfire emanated for two days. Many people started to flee.

On the narrow, densely built-up street, a rumor spread that the IDF was going to bombard the house of the Dayehs' neighbors and that the Red Cross had informed the family. Local residents, including the Dayehs, left their homes in a panic and started heading west. But then someone called the Red Cross, which said there was no talk of any such action, "and everyone went back, including our family."

Dayeh's father, Fayez, 60: "We are like everyone else, we will stay in our home." One brother and his family, who live on the upper floor, preferred to stay with relatives. On Monday evening the whole family gathered for a meal on the ground floor, where the parents and their unmarried children lived.

"There was no power. Dad turned on a small radio to listen to the news. There was no gas. Mom baked pita over the fire. We all ate together and then the brothers and their families went up to their apartments," A'amer Dayeh recalled.

Early in the morning, the father and one of his sons, Mohammed, went to pray at a nearby mosque. "At 5:30 all kinds of explosions in the air started again," Dayeh said. The father returned home and was heard calling the family to come downstairs because the shooting was becoming more intense. Mohammed, the father of four children - the youngest, Yusuf, 2, the oldest, Amani, 6 - was a little late coming home and stood rooted to the spot next to the house where his little children were when it collapsed into rubble.

"He did not understand what he saw," said a neighbor - who also saw, "without understanding" - how the four-story dwelling "turned into a sandwich." Dayeh and his brother Radwan were on the ground floor, in a side room. They were not sleeping because of the explosions and shooting.

"Suddenly I felt the heat of the missile," said Dayeh, whose face was scorched. "I felt that my body was shriveling and under pressure, and then the whole structure collapsed on me. At first I lost my sight. When it returned, I found myself buried under concrete with my brother next to me."

A leg and an arm

The neighbors knew he was there because a leg and an arm were sticking out. They started to clear away the rubble. Radwan was still breathing, but died three days later. The neighbors brought in a bulldozer to look for survivors. The rescue work went on for the rest of the day, at the end of which bodies and body parts of only 11 family members had been found. Some were under the rubble, such as Dayeh's brother Iyyad, who was found hugging two of his children.

The force of the blast had thrown others from the house; their bodies were found on the street and in neighbors' homes. A week ago a leg was found protruding from the rubble and it was buried, like the bodies, in old family graves.

One of the results of the IDF bombing attacks last month was the large number of families that lost many members in one blow - most of them in their homes. Ba'alousha, Bannar, Sultan, Abu Halima, Salha, Barbakh, Shurrab, Abu Eisha, Ghayan, Al-Najjar, Abed-Rabo, Azzam, Jebara, El Astal, Haddad, Qura'an, Nassar, El A'alul, Deeb, Sammouni. And this is not the whole list of names.

In the first week of the offensive it was clear that the IDF was warning families which of their members had been singled out as a target and giving them time to leave their homes. With the exception of the family of Hamas activist Nizar Rayan, who preferred to remain in his house and be killed with his wives and children, the great majority "loves life," as one person said of himself and other Gazans.

The warnings were issued by calls to mobile phones or land lines. In Rafah people tell how the phone rang in a house in the Jneineh neighborhood. An elderly aunt spoke to an anonymous caller, who ordered everyone to leave at once.

"But we are not the ones you are looking for," people in Rafah mockingly remember the woman's argumentative tone. "You are looking for the house of his brother, whose storeroom was once, a long time ago, rented to [Hamas operatives]." The caller insisted that everyone leave. They did and the houses of both brothers, next to each other, were bombed.

Even if that story is partly apocryphal, it shows that people started to look for reasons that their lives might be in danger, even if they were not Hamas members but affiliated with Fatah, or hated Hamas. It shows that people inferred that a worthy target in the IDF "target bank" might be a building where one of the rooms or apartments had been used by Hamas in the past.

For example, G. and his family left their home in a refugee camp because the woman next door was one of the wives of a Hamas man. In many cases, close relatives of people who assumed they were "marked men" left their homes beforehand. One of them was apparently Issa El-Batran, from the Al-Boureij camp.

According to a Fatah man from the camp, the IDF already shelled Batran's house about a year and a half ago. As a Hamas activist, Batran had also been imprisoned for a few months by the Preventive Security forces of Fatah when that organization ruled the Strip. His family, including a brother in Fatah, did not comment on these details. They said his wife and five children - three girls and two boys - were killed on Friday, January 16, as they entered their evacuated home briefly to pick up some clothes.

'Warning missiles'

In the last two weeks of the offensive the IDF warned people that their homes were going to be hit by a small "warning missile" fired by a drone, not meant to be lethal. A few minutes later, the air force dropped a bomb or fired a real missile. But in the case of Batran, one of the small missiles - according to family members - hit the house when two of the children were on the balcony and the others were in the next room or near a window. Issa and his year-old baby, Abed al-Hadi, were in a different room and were not hurt. In the mourning tent the baby, who was still breast-feeding, held out his hands to every veiled woman who entered. He was looking for his mother.

In the home of Fayez Salha, in the Beit Lahia neighborhood, a warning missile struck the roof at 3:30 A.M. on January 9. The neighbors and relatives say they are not aware of anyone in the house who could have been considered a potential target of the Israel Air Force. On the contrary: Salha's sister-in-law had come to stay with them because she felt his place was safer than hers. The family rushed to get out of the building, but not everyone made it. The missile struck six minutes after the warning. The mother, Randa, was killed with her four children, aged 14, 12, 4, and 1. Also killed was the sister-in-law who thought the house was safe.

People very quickly concluded that no home was safe. An early example was the home of the A'bsi family in the Yibneh refugee camp in Rafah. On the evening of December 28 the children were still distraught over the previous day's bombing attacks. True, the attacks were "lighter" in Rafah than in Gaza, but there, too, public buildings were targeted at 11:25 A.M., as dozens of children were in the streets.

So Ziad A'bsi and his wife, I'faf, decided to gather everyone in their bedroom in this typical refugee home (a covered yard surrounded by rooms built from coarse sand and concrete, with an asbestos roof). The bedroom faced the yard, not the road. Only 18-year-old Mahmoud decided to sleep in his room, which faces the street.
Sidqi was the child whom the father and older siblings liked to pamper. Ziad, who had bought him chocolate just hours earlier, saw him sleeping on the mattress with his hand under his cheek. Next to him was a ginger cat that never left his side. They watched a little television and went to sleep.

I'faf was drowsily breast-feeding baby Na'ameh when a bomb landed on her out of nowhere. It was nearly 1 A.M. Three homes of known Hamas activists in the neighborhood were bombed that day. They and their families were not in the houses, and survived.

As far as is known, in one case the telephones of the family of one "marked man" were turned off. The IDF did not stop its search until they found a relative. He was ordered to tell the "targeted" family to leave their home. The family was saved.

A'bsi, who owns a cement factory that has been idle for two years because Israel has banned the import of cement to Gaza, has no connection with Hamas. He came back from Saudi Arabia in 1995 "together with the peace, and the peace killed my children" - Mohammed, 12, Ahmed, 11 and Sidqi, 4.

When the bomb struck and created a deep crater exactly where the bedroom had been, Ziad, his wife - still with baby Na'ameh in her arms - and Sidqi were hurled into the air to the roof. An iron rod pierced Sidqi's throat and killed him. Ziad and I'faf and two of their three daughters were wounded. His wife is still in shock.

The bodies of the boys, Mohammed and Ahmed, were found on the road. Sidqi's cat insists on remaining in the house, amid the ruins, the children's school notebooks, torn clothes, smashed furniture and asbestos fragments.

No response to Haaretz's questions was received from the IDF Spokesman by press time.

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