The last time my little niece Raneem saw her dad was when the Israeli shells were falling on the heads and houses of more than 10,000 Palestinians in Shujaiya, east of Gaza City, last summer. My brother Mohammed took the time to help guide many families to shortcuts in a desperate attempt to escape the flying shrapnel and debris.
Mohammed kept close to his wife, his baby son Hamza and his daughter Raneem. “I will be back. Soon,” he assured his weeping kids and worried wife. “I will be back. I promise.”
Bringing his family and many others to a relatively safer place, he thought he should go back to help others evacuate.
My brother Mohammed never came back.
He never came back. Not because he did not keep his word, but rather because the Israeli occupation has developed a policy of destroying people and their relationships. Israel made sure my brother Mohammed and a couple of thousand Palestinians would never get to see their family members ever again.
Ever since, Raneem has been asking about her dad. “When will Dad come back? Why does Baba not come back?” she keeps asking.
Only watery eyes and pained hearts answer her quizzical looks. However we try to distract her, nothing replaces a father, let alone a loving father who made his small family his own world.
We thought that taking Raneem to see the pile of rubble that was once our house might help her understand something until my nephew, Mohammed, went to see the house with his father, my older brother.
Little Mohammed kept nagging for more than a month. He wanted nothing but to go to Shujaiya and see our house. When he was there, when he saw all the destruction and ruin, little Mohammed dangled his head and said, “I wish I had not come.”
Taking Raneem and the little ones to see the pile of rubble our house was turned into is now out of the question. We are only counting on a speedy reconstruction process that will mitigate the pain and return the kids to their house.
A month after the Israeli onslaught, Raneem must have realized that her dad would not be coming back again. She approached my mother and said, “Teta, I dislike my dad. He does not come back.”
My mother has not recovered from Raneem’s remark. It was like her son was killed twice. But I can only imagine the psychological damage that has already caused Raneem, who has developed a tendency toward absent-mindedness, to talk to herself.
Two months ago her mom found her giggling and mumbling. When asked what she was doing, Raneem said, “My dad gave me candy.” Her tiny fist remained clenched for a long time.
Leaving wasn’t an option
But why did so many stay behind? Why did the people of Shujaiya refuse to leave despite Israel’s propaganda warning? This issue is not as simple as Zionist parrots and trolls suggest.
A Palestinian man’s house is his castle. Literally. Leaving was not an option when in 2008-2009 most of the people Israel murdered were in the city center where Israel suggested they go.
Leaving was not an option because Israel wanted more than 150,000 people to leave their houses and go to the streets and schools, where Israel also targeted them.
Leaving was not an option because we still remember the 1948 ethnic cleansing massacres against the Palestinians. Because leaving for Israel means that Palestinians never come back.
People stayed because it’s their land and their houses, and because we refuse to be dictated to by an occupier and a mass murderer.
People stayed because simply finding peace and protection in one’s own house is a very human act. And for that Israel sought to punish the whole Gaza Strip.
It was clear for us that Israel was tracing mobile signals and destroying houses where mobile signals emitted even if the signal came from a phone whose owner forgot it at home in the rush to escape Israeli shells.
When I read the comments that Israel was planning to carpet bomb Shujaiya like it did to some areas in South Lebanon in 2006, I thought people were kidding. But it turned out Israel had this childish, though hateful, grudge against Shujaiya since the 1950s.
Shujaiya was the last area to fall under Israeli occupation in 1967. Shujaiya has always produced fighters and civil servants and defenders of human rights. Shujaiya was a thorn in Israel’s side in the first and second intifadas.
We know Salem Shamaly because his execution was caught on camera. There are many Salems in Shujaiya.
I know of at least five others, four of whom are my relatives, who were shot at close range. They were not allowed to leave their houses. Neither the Red Cross nor ambulances were allowed to evacuate them.
My distant cousin Samy Alareer tried to leave the house to seek help for his two brothers, Hassan and Abdulkarim, and his son Fathi, who were injured by the indiscriminate yet systematic shelling. On his way to fetch help, Samy was shot dead. The other three were found dead in their house with empty bullet cases all over the place.
Israeli officials were quick to brag about the death and destruction they brought upon Shujaiya. Hundreds were slain and injured, many of whom will be permanently disabled. Avichay Adraee, the Israeli army’s Arabic-language spokesperson, bragged on Twitter that the Israeli army dropped 120 one-ton bombs on Shujaiya in the first two weeks of Israel’s 51-day attack.
Add to that the hundreds of shells and mortars with their huge error radius.
I do not have the words to do justice to the unyieldingly valiant, lion-hearted fighters of Palestine. They remained steadfast in the face of the most heinous occupation the world has known.
However, there is one thing the whole world should know: in face-to-face combat, far fewer Palestinian fighters were killed than Israeli soldiers. The heavily armed elite Israeli troops, supported with tanks, planes and high-tech equipment, were squealing when faced with Shujaiya’s modestly trained and minimally armed resistance fighters who defended their homes and families with skill and determination.
Israel’s response was to arbitrarily, yet methodically, destroy houses and shell densely crowded areas. Palestinian fighters rose to the challenge of battle imposed upon them. And they fought honorably and well.
They fearlessly stood for their people.
Betrayed by the world?
The cost of putting up a defense in Gaza is that all Palestinians in Gaza are being punished. Israel has tightened the siege on Gaza.
Egypt has tightened its siege on Gaza.
The Palestinian Authority has tightened its siege on Gaza.
The stupidity those parties are displaying is unprecedented. Collective punishment against Palestinians has never worked. And the rules of logic say, it is foolish to do the very same things and expect different results.
But Israel, in its arrogance, the PA’s Mahmoud Abbas, in his cravenness, and Arab regimes, in their complicity, seem to have agreed that a good Gaza is a starved Gaza.
With the delay of reconstruction and the clear complicity of Abbas and his cronies and the UN and its army of mercenaries living off the Palestinian plight, Raneem and Hamza and tens of thousands will never get to go back to the house where they lived their happiest days with the most loving person they will ever know.
Raneem will have to live with the horrible memories of seeing her house become a pile of rubble.
The likes of my niece Raneem and little nephew Mohammed are purposefully being punished by Israel and the international community — first by destroying their houses and lives, and then by providing Israel with the impunity and excuses it wants, and finally by delaying the process of justice. They want these little kids to live in ruins and destruction.
Ironically, Palestinian children are expected to grow up and like Israel or see a future where peace can be achieved when the murderers of their parents and destroyers of their houses go unpunished and unaccountable.
Unless Israeli war criminals are brought to justice and the occupation ends, my fear is that these children will grow up feeling that they were betrayed by the world. We owe it to them to change that vision.
This essay is included as an afterword in Gaza Unsilenced, an anthology co-edited by Refaat Alareer and Laila El-Haddad and published by Just World Books.
Refaat Alareer is also the editor of Gaza Writes Back: Short Stories from Young Writers in Gaza, Palestine.