Sunday, July 27
For the last two hours we’ve heard nothing but sonic booms and the sound of rockets and mortars. Shells have fallen on our street a few hundred yards from my father-in-law’s house, where my wife and I, and our five kids, are staying, and on the street behind us.
My wife, Hanna, is arguing with the kids over what to buy to celebrate Eid, the holiday that marks the end of Ramadan. She has forbidden them to go to the grocery store, and she’s adamant that they won’t visit the Internet cafes or the PlayStation shop near my father’s place. They don’t understand the impossibility of shopping at a time of war.
Last night, we all became convinced that the tank fire would soon reach the Jabaliya refugee settlement, where our families live. All night long the tanks fired on the eastern side of the camp. The buildings on our street creaked and lurched, as if about to fall. Everything shifts with each strike. It’s as if you’re an extra in a disaster movie.
I jump to the window. A funeral is passing in the street below. A corpse covered by a blanket is carried on a stretcher on the shoulders of mourners. Some are shouting in anger. The funeral enters the cemetery, and the sound of the mourners fades like a cry in a dream. I count fewer than 20 mourners. During the first intifada (1987-91), when somebody was killed by the Israeli army, the whole camp would turn out to pay its respects. Now there are so many strikes in the middle of the day, so many Israeli drones patrolling the streets, that few mourners are prepared to take the risk.
Last night we all received a recorded message on our cellphones from the Israeli army, warning the people of Jabaliya, Beit Lahiya and Beit Hanoun that attacks on their homes were likely and advising people to leave. To where? I wondered.
As I do every night, I head down a street that houses one of the United Nations schools that’s acting as a refugee center. I presume this street is safer than the others. The army wouldn’t hesitate to attack one of these schools — they’ve hit several in the last three weeks, most recently in Beit Hanoun. But in mad times, you develop your own logic for survival.
Suddenly, electricity lights up the entire neighborhood. This burst of light can often be a false dawn, but this time it stays. After more than 80 hours, electricity has finally returned. Back home, the family has already decided to stay up tonight, and use the electricity that they’ve all missed so much. Hanna says we shouldn’t watch the news or anything related to the war.
We watch a television drama for 30 minutes or so — Ramadan is the month of drama on Arab television, and Hanna wants to find out what happens to her favorite characters, even though she’s missed most of the series — before the explosions make it impossible to follow the dialogue. I suggest turning over to a local channel to find out what’s happening. Hanna refuses. She says she’s fed up with the sight of corpses and rubble. Finally, she storms into another room.
There’s an influx of newly displaced people coming down the street to the school opposite us. The murmur of their conversations and the cries of their children are audible from my window. They stream past us into the school. These schools are already full, of course. There isn’t room for a single new refugee, let alone hundreds. The man in the United Nations school uses a bullhorn to ask the occupants to try to make room. Ultimately, they have to.
I listen to their stories from my window. The light from missile attacks covers the sky. For a moment the whole neighborhood is illuminated.
We sleep in the corridor of the house, near the stairs. It’s safer there. Once the kids are settled they quickly drop off. Then a bomb strikes nearby and they’re awake again, terrified. Little Jaffa, our youngest, is screaming. But, amazingly, they fall asleep again very quickly afterward.
I lie awake till past 6 a.m., throwing my head down on the pillow in various positions, with no success. The light from bombs comes into the corridor, and stares at me. When I try to close my eyes the light still shines through my eyelids.
Mercifully, it is the sound of Jaffa that wakes me around 10 — the sound of a game she’s playing on my cellphone, a game she plays every morning.
Monday, July 28
Today is Eid. After a month of fasting, Eid is a sigh of relief. The kids get up early, awakened by the hymns and chanting from the minarets of the surrounding mosques, while the sun is still struggling to get out of bed in the east. Normally, at Eid the kids play in the streets, excited by the pocket money from their parents. Eid is what every child waits for all year.
Last night, we all spent about two hours debating what kind of Eid we were going to have. The kids all wanted to celebrate Eid as it should be. This means buying them new clothes, having their hair cut (even if they had it cut just a week before), letting them blow their pocket money on toys and sweets. “It’s Eid!” they insist. “It’s Eid!” That’s their logic. Our argument, Hanna’s and mine, is that there are many children who lost their parents and cannot celebrate Eid this evening, and it would be very upsetting for them to see other children celebrating Eid, while they cannot. What about the displaced people camping in the schools, we say, who don’t have anywhere to live anymore?
Our arguments are falling on deaf ears. I succumb to the pressure and agree to buy them one new piece of clothing each, maybe a haircut. But no sweets, no toys.
Last night, I spent three hours walking through the market. There was a rumor about an extended truce, another 24 hours. Nobody has any real information. The conclusion you come to is that Gazans no longer care if a truce has been declared or not. They will have their own truce on Eid.
Yesterday the market was full of people, mainly buying clothes. A few shops were open selling sweets and chocolates. I could hardly move, it was so packed. I tried to buy the dried, salty fish you’re supposed to have on the morning of Eid. The fish is dried and stuffed with salt months before. You fry it and cook tomatoes in the oil left over from the fish. After a month of fasting you need a salty meal to encourage you to start drinking water again frequently. The key to everything is how you cook the fish. That’s the secret.
We fry the fish this morning, but we have no bread to eat it with. The electricity is out again. Everything in the fridge has to be thrown out: meat, chicken, even vegetables. My father-in-law agrees to set off on his bike to the bakery in the center of the camp. Luckily it’s open, and he returns, after less than one hour in line, laden with warm loaves.
I haven’t drunk cold water for three days. The larger supermarkets have their own generators, but they don’t waste the power on cold drinks. My friend Faraj told me that another friend, Wafi, had brought some ice from relatives living in an area that still had electricity. He gave Faraj some. I asked him if he could spare me some for a glass of water.
Quarrels broke out last night in the market. Displaced persons from Beit Hanoun felt that the shops selling sweets and chocolates were being insensitive. Shouts were heard, punches thrown. No one was badly injured. We managed to separate the aggressors on both sides and get them to explain their position on the matter. We kept repeating a common greeting — “Thank God Eid came while you are safe” — to remind them of how lucky they were.
Tuesday, July 29
To see death — to touch it with still-living flesh, to smell its saliva, to feel it in your hands, around you, on every corner of the street. To witness its brutality, its vulgarity, its mercilessness. To watch as bodies are scattered about in piles in front of you, like discarded exam papers at the end of a school term. One leg here, one arm there, an eye, a severed head, fingers, hair, intestines.
We are having lunch. We have barely started, when the sound of the tanks’ mortars thunders through the house. I jump to the window, convinced that the tank is next door. It’s actually 75 yards away. I catch the flash of a second missile just as it lands and watch the first billows of smoke rising above the rooftops. The targeted house is right beside the mosque my father-in-law has just gone to pray in. I run there, forgetting that the shelling is still going on.
When I get there, the mosque, mysteriously, is closed and appears unscathed. Then, along with everyone else on the street, I turn toward the targeted house. The building has been devastated. Men are already busy collecting pieces of meat that have become separated from the bodies lying all around us. I see scattered organs, severed limbs. I have to pick them up. I touch them. We manage to gather five corpses, place them on sheets and carry them to some of the private cars that have arrived to offer help.
An F-16 comes in close again, booming above us, terrifying us all over again. Several women from the surrounding neighborhood have barely been able to drag their children off the street, after the first attack. Another explosion. It seems the F-16 has come back for more. We run like the wind in the fields. There are about a hundred of us. There are women running alongside me as well as men, holding on to their clothes and their head scarves as they run, running as fast as the rest of us. The kids are crying, trying to keep up with their mothers.
I run into my father-in-law at the end of a narrow street. He is trying to call for more ambulances. I use my phone to call my mother-in-law to reassure her that her husband is safe. The network is busy. Finally, ambulances start to arrive. Someone shouts angrily at one of the drivers that they’re too late. The driver replies that there are targets all over Jabaliya: “We can’t respond to every call at the same time!”
We return to the site of the second attack with the ambulance drivers, and once again offer to help them gather remains. One driver seems to be in charge, and explains that we should leave the scene and let his team do their work alone. The narrow street leading to the new bomb site needs to be cleared of people so ambulances can get down it. We move into the main street, but the alleyway is still too narrow for the larger ambulances to fit.
I open the back and side doors of the ambulance, then return to help carry the stretchers, laden with heaps of torn flesh. Everything merges with everything else. I push my stretcher load deep inside the ambulance.
The long black hair of a woman is carried, all in one clump, with part of her head still attached. The hair is matted with blood like the hide of a sheep when it’s just been skinned. The remains of her body are like pieces of broken glass. We carry the remaining stretchers to the ambulance, heave them inside, and then slam the door shut. We hit the side of the ambulance, and it speeds away. On that stretcher there were two corpses merging into one pile of flesh. My whole body was dripping wet.
I return home. Hanna is frightened when she sees the bloodstain on my white pullover. She checks me all over to make sure it isn’t from some unnoticed injury. She makes me remove my pullover and starts to wash it immediately. She doesn’t want to see a trace of death for a moment longer.
Clouds of thick smoke rise above the eastern edge of the camp, pursued by flames. Strange shapes are cast onto the sky, like the shadows of ghosts, hovering above the camp, waiting, watching.
I take a shower. I wash properly for the first time since the start of the war. I wash every part of my body, every inch. I spend longer than I ever have rubbing the foam of the soap into every corner of my body. I want to wash death clean off me. I want to remove any sign that it might leave on my body. I use every type of soap and shampoo I can find, all five of them. Nobody calls or bangs on the door, wanting to use the bathroom, nobody asks me to finish the longest shower of my life. Nobody complains that this shower might use up the last of the water in the tank.
Wednesday, July 30
Beside me now lies a piece of metal: razor-sharp, a single, twisted edge. It belongs to the rocket that struck the United Nations’ Abu Hussein school this morning, a few yards from my father’s house, killing at least 15 people. The shrapnel sits in front of the school’s door. Violent, even in the way it sits there. When I see it, I flinch, as if it’s about to spring back to life. Carefully, I pick it up, study its horrifying shape. It may have killed someone on its journey, before resting here.
The rooms in the front half of the school look as if they’ve imploded. Five houses opposite the school were completely destroyed. In the first room of the school scores of displaced people had been taking shelter — people who had already escaped death back in Beit Lahiya. Without doubt, like all of us last night, they would have been wide-awake. Like the rest of us they would have been sitting there imagining the rocket was about to hit their room. Everyone expects Death, every night. He’s a visitor who observes no rules, respects no codes of behavior.
In the morning, Hanna tells me there’s a rumor going around that they’ve hit one of the schools. Her worry is that our friends from Beit Hanoun will have been affected. Mostafa, my second son, thinks it was his school that was hit. He wants to come with me to see his classroom, inspect the damage. I refuse, point-blank. He asks if I can take a photo of his classroom so he can see what’s happened to his desk. I agree to this.
As it turns out the attack was not on Mostafa’s school, but on another, a few blocks away. Great hunks of concrete sit scattered around it when I arrive. Dust covers everything and everyone, making the displaced people still inhabiting it look white-haired and ancient. The water tanks that ought to be up on the roof now squat in the street. Water pipes dangle down from the walls like figures on a gallows. The mattresses that people had been sleeping on look like great sponges, dyed deep red, soaked. Each mattress could just as well be another body part. The cooking pot from which these people had been serving their dinner sits exactly as it was, with good food still in it. But no one will eat from it now.
The pair of shoes in the corner, the blackboard, the huge tree in front of the school, the clothes hanging out to dry in the playground, the benches under the tree, the notice board in the school assembly point, the clay pot in the front room, the blankets, the toilets, the broken tiles, the paintings on the walls of every classroom, the kids’ toys — each and every one of these has the imprint of death on it.
Part of my extended family has taken refuge in this school. I remember this fact only in the middle of wandering through the damage. I have two aunts who live in the very north of Beit Lahiya. Their sons and daughters, and their families in turn, had sought refuge in this school. I ask about them. They are not here. I phone my dad and ask if he has news about them. He informs me that my cousin Fathia’s husband and her son were injured and have been hospitalized. The rest of the relatives have returned to their homes near the border.
Many of the donkeys brought by the refugees were killed by the strike. Half a dozen lie in the road in front of the school. Their stomachs and intestines hang from their bellies. A seventh donkey is still alive, though critically injured.
Diab, my childhood friend, lives across the street from this school. I visit him and find him weeping at the loss of his cousins. I knew his cousins; they were our neighbors. With tears still rolling down his cheeks, Diab takes me to see the three ruined houses.
The fig tree in front of the homes is painted white with dust. Branches lie on the ground with fruit still on them, mocking us. Diab leads me through to a small room, where he clears a path through scattered children’s toys and points to the corner, where a 2-year-old boy was found, still alive. A little girl elsewhere in the house shouts happily that the big clock on the wall is still intact. This old clock hangs on the wall at the end of a very long, thin living room. The girl’s happiness is the only positive moment of the entire day.
The rest of the family has been injured. One boy is still hysterical after seeing the flesh of his father and his uncle, mixed together like meat in a butcher’s shop. They have yet to calm him down.
It is now the morning after perhaps the most difficult night of the war. The sky was lit up all night and the shells never stopped. As usual, it was all so close. As usual, we did not know where each rocket fell, exactly. We simply felt their reverberations and guessed where they might be coming from. My head was on the pillow for hours, but sleep never came.
Shells fell around us, closer and closer. Jaffa woke up at one point, when the explosions were closest. That was when they hit the United Nations school. The light in the sky caught her attention, and she said sleepily, “Papa, light!” and pointed to the sky. She did not know that death was carried in that light.
Now morning is here and everything is different. You see death on the faces of the people in the street. You feel it. This piece of metal — this fragment of a rocket in front of me, that has killed more than 15 innocent people — it reminds me of the light that Jaffa pointed to. It tells me Death is still around us, that it is not satisfied yet.
Thursday, July 31
Last night was the calmest since the start of the war. We heard very few bombs, and saw only the occasional flash or surveillance balloon in the sky. Except for one enormous, deafening boom at the end of the night, nothing worried us. The focus of the onslaught might have moved to other areas of the Strip, Rafah perhaps.
We slept as we hadn’t slept in a month. The electricity came on just before 11 p.m., so we had the pleasure of watching TV for a few hours. We watched a movie, then all fell asleep together. We started the night scared, as always, imagining the shells hitting us directly, cutting us all to shreds. I was looking at my legs, as I had the night before, imagining them and the limbs of my children chopped up and mixed up, like meat. Amid these familiar thoughts, I fell asleep.
When I wake up I don’t want to listen to the radio or phone a friend to ask about the latest developments. I want the morning to be like a normal morning, before the war. To start my day with a cup of coffee, to sip it in private for an hour. To look down from my window and watch the people in the street, to feel the pulse of the city around me.
I suggest to Hanna that we have a proper breakfast: hummus, foul, falafel. But after an hour of visiting all the restaurants in the neighborhood, my son Mostafa returns with the news that falafel can no longer be bought in Jabaliya camp. My father-in-law explains that this might be because falafel requires a lot of boiled oil, which in turn requires lots of gas. As there is still no clue when the war might end, everyone is saving every gas cylinder they have. Hanna suggests that the lack of parsley in the market might be another cause; parsley is essential for making good falafel.
My mother-in-law is watering her plants despite the shortage of water in the tanks. She keeps her plants in the living room in different pots arranged around the room. They make the house calmer, greener. There are 13 kinds of plants in this garden. Every morning she waters them and checks each leaf, remembers each one, and notices whenever a new leaf buds into life. She knows their length and their sheen. She always finds water for them.
A minute later she is complaining that our oldest child, Talal, is taking too much time in the shower. She finishes watering her plants and starts shouting at Talal to finish. From behind the door, he explains that he has only just started. She asks him to get out. It is enough to spend five minutes under the shower. Soon her plants are appreciating the water soaking into the soil around their roots.
I shave. The bathroom is very dark. The light coming from the little window is too feeble to shave in. I turn on the flashlight, and start shaving one-handed, shining the light at my jaw with the other hand. A Gaza TV journalist phones, making sure I will be ready in 30 minutes for an interview — they’re going to send me a taxi. After 10 minutes he calls to apologize that the taxi company has refused to send taxis to Jabaliya. They’re afraid their cars will be hit; Jabaliya is now a no-go zone.
I phone my friend Aed to ask about this. He confirms that he, too, has passed a very calm night, and he slept well. Aed has moved from his place on the north beach to his sister’s house in the quarter of Gaza City called Al Nasser. He asks me about Berri, the waiter at the Karawan Cafe — the most famous cafe waiter in Gaza. He is the best. “Is it open?” he asks, about the cafe. We decide to meet up and check. If not, we will look for another place to spend the morning. We have to recapture some normality, to reclaim some of the life we had before
In the evening, I meet Aed and suggest we try to find a restaurant somewhere that’s still serving falafel. But everywhere seems closed. Eventually, we try one called Akila, on Al-Wahda Street. It’s open and we both tuck in joyfully. Afterward we drive into the city, and try to take in the destruction on all sides. Broken glass seems to cover every square foot of the city. Few cars pass. Shops remain closed.
Many buildings have completely disappeared, as if a designer somewhere had Photoshopped them out of the picture — the designer being an F-16 pilot, a drone operator, a soldier in a tank.
Unfortunately the Karawan Cafe is closed, and Ranoosh Cafe likewise. There is no place to smoke a water pipe. Aed suggests that we take cold drinks and ice cream and go to our friend Salim’s house nearby. I find a shop, near Salim’s, where I can buy two bottles of cold water and two Cokes. The building opposite Salim’s has been completely destroyed. He hasn’t had water himself for two days. When we arrive he is working with other inhabitants in the building trying to fix the problem.
Salim’s building doesn’t have electricity; however, the building at the end of the street has its own generator. Salim and his neighbors have persuaded the occupants of the building on the end to run a line to theirs, just for a couple of hours, so they can pump water up to the tanks. But their attempts have so far failed as the line doesn’t seem to be connecting properly, or has some kind of break in it. Salim’s 70-year-old mother is fretting that the problem will never be fixed. It isn’t until 8 p.m. that the current is connected.
We eat ice cream, drink the Coke and smoke a water pipe, listening to the sound of the water tank slowly filling. We chat for a couple of hours, and then I leave him thinking about how to ration the water when the tank is full.
On my way back, I see people queuing in the hundreds to buy bread. Then the bombing starts up again and I rush back to Jabaliya. Hanna has been back to our flat to gather fresh clothes. The moment she got there, she tells me, an F-16 struck the building next to it — one surrounded by a small, beautiful orange orchard — destroying both.
Friday, Aug. 1
At the school next door to my father-in-law’s house, a United Nations organizer tells everyone that a three-day truce has been declared, starting from this morning, and the hope is that it will become permanent. He is not clear whether people should go back to their homes.
My kids are arguing with their mother about the usual: permission to go and play with their friends in the PlayStation shop near their grandfather’s house. In their eyes, there is no point in worrying. It is the longest break in the fighting so far, and people are starting to do all kinds of things once more.
On television, we hear of a Palestinian representative who has traveled to Cairo to negotiate the conditions of the cease-fire with the Egyptian government. My mother-in-law asks me, “Do you think they’ll come to an agreement?”
“I hope so,” I reply. She is not happy with my answer. She needs a definite answer. The war must end soon, she concludes, before it becomes a permanent component of our daily lives. When she hears the sound of the door closing behind the kids, she asks Hanna if she is sure it’s safe for them to go. Hanna is not convinced, I know, but says, “Of course.”
From the window of the living room I see hordes of people leaving the school opposite, heading north, west and east back toward their homes. Some have elected to stay, to “wait and see.” And many families have decided to divide in two; half going home to see if things are safe, to check on the house or the farm, the other half (including the children, of course) remaining in the school, should the first half fail to return.
It’s the same logic my friend Faraj is using when he distributes his family every night among different rooms of the house. His family of seven sleeps in three rooms. If a shell lands on one room, other members of the family will survive.
Yesterday, a farmer from the Sheikh Ejleen area, south of Gaza City, explained to me how he sneaked with his family back to the farm each morning at 6, to pick cucumbers, tomatoes, figs and grapes. The farmland is right beside the beach, and they work the fields in the early hours while the warships send missiles over their heads, toward the city. The grapes you get from Sheikh Ejleen are the best grapes you’re ever likely to taste.
Last night was one of the most violent of the war so far. Shells and rockets fell all through the small hours. Each night you become convinced the explosions are getting closer and closer, even if your rational brain knows they can’t always be. One of the rhythms of this war we’ve gotten used to is that particularly bad nights are usually followed by a truce, or an attempted truce. So it was a prerequisite that last night would be bad, being the eve of a three-day cease-fire.
It’s now 2 p.m. and my father-in-law is telling me the truce has just broken down. More than 70 people have been killed in Rafah. Hanna phones our oldest boys, Talal and Mostafa, on their cellphones asking them to return immediately.
“But the truce!” they argue.
“There is no truce.”
Saturday, Aug. 2
My throat hurts. It’s excruciatingly dry, and the discomfort has been joined by a pain in my chest and a weakness all over my body. When the sore throat started, Sarif, the pharmacist, told me it was probably sensitivity to all the concrete dust and smoke hanging in the city air.
Sarif is the owner of the Balsam Pharmacy. It is the oldest pharmacy in the camp, a business he inherited from his father. When I asked him two days ago, he assured me that my sore throat was normal given the amount of dust in the air, and told me not to worry. Hanna passed his pharmacy yesterday afternoon, and informed him that my pain was still as bad as ever. He gave her more medicine, which he promised would fix it. Yesterday morning, I could barely get out of bed, I felt so weak. So Hanna gave me the medicine in bed. Only at 3 p.m. did I get up and have something to eat.
My father-in-law informs me that the Israeli army might withdraw from one side of Beit Lahiya tonight. I had felt so sick during the night I wasn’t aware of what was happening. This is one of the miracles of falling sick in the time of war: Sleeping soundly and not noticing or caring about the world as it falls apart around you. That was how I passed last night, in pain but carefree.
But this afternoon I feel a bit more human. So there’s lots of news to catch up on.
My mother-in-law starts by lamenting the misfortune of her nieces, who had to spend the night on the street because of a drone attack. After the first rocket fell in the middle of the night, they fled into the street. They were lucky to be already awake when the first one struck; otherwise, they would not have been able to move fast enough to avoid the second, which hit the room they were in. They picked up their kids and ran. Now my mother-in-law’s brother is hosting some six families at his place, a total guest list of over 100! His house is beginning to resemble one of the United Nations schools.
The main mosque in the center of the camp was hit as well. The muezzin can no longer be heard. People avoid walking anywhere near the mosque now. In the old days, this was the only mosque in the camp. When I was a child I would pray there. It means many things to me; it’s central to my childhood memories and the person I was.
More than a hundred were killed in Rafah last night. This simple town on the border with Egypt, which has been quiet for most of the war, has suddenly become the center of a new wave of attacks. Israel has accused Palestinian soldiers there of capturing a soldier after a battle in which two other Israeli soldiers were killed. The Palestinians denied these accusations, so Israel broke the three-day truce and declared a whole new war on Rafah until the soldier was found. (It turned out he’d been killed in combat.)
Israel has been using local radio channels, hacking into the wavelength, to deliver its messages to Gazans. In the middle of listening to music at my friend Wafi’s house, we hear the broadcast cut short suddenly and the voice of an Israeli general threatening the people of Rafah. Any person walking in the street, any person driving a car will be hit. After the airwaves are given back to the station, we hear a flurry of new reports, including the head of a hospital in Rafah explaining that Israeli shells forced them to evacuate the hospital.
I can hear the sound of my kids playing cards with their grandmother in the next room. She has not felt calm for over a month. Nobody fears war more than she does. And yet she always manages to keep her composure. She is enjoying playing with the kids, despite the cries from little Jaffa.
It would seem that I have acquired a new job title: administrator of the Internet cafe. I spend more than an hour a day using the main, administrative computer in the cafe next to my father’s house. Power comes randomly — sometimes nothing for four days, sometimes only an hour in the middle of the day. I seem to have adjusted to this arbitrary pattern better than most, and have refined the timing of my arrival at the cafe through instinct and intuition.
Each day I’m there and ready, when it comes on, to check my emails, file my writing, and then, if I can, read the newspapers online. The manager of the cafe is very understanding and lets me use his main computer. In return I have to organize his online timetable for the use of other computers in the cafe.
For one shekel, customers can get online for 35 minutes. I have to go to the prepaid box and add their time. Some people prefer an open-ended slot. I simply need to double-click the box that marks that particular computer. I acquire little skills all the time. Customers shout out their requests to start or terminate a session from the front of the cafe, and I click the appropriate box accordingly, and carry on with my work. I have become an Internet cafe boy! The owner uses a huge generator. Most in the neighborhood bring their laptops, flashlights, cellphones to charge from there.
Hanna said that the first thing she wants to do when the war is finished is to go and see the damage in Beit Hanoun and Shujaya. The kids are screaming they want their iPads fixed. I just want to breathe clean air.
Sunday, Aug. 3
It’s an endless game. Nothing but a game. Last night, Israel announced the termination of its operations in some areas. But tonight four people from one family have been killed and others injured while asleep in a house that they fled to in my father’s district. Death followed them from Beit Hanoun, where they had lived peacefully for so many years, and tracked them down in Jabaliya. The rocket struck the very center of the house, bringing the whole block down with it. Concrete, shrapnel, bricks, great twists of iron, shards of glass — all collapsed into the same hole — announcing the end of this family.
The electricity comes on at about 1:30 a.m. Everyone in the house jumps from their beds. This is now a regular custom. All the kids plug in their cellphones to charge them. I plug in my laptop. My father-in-law checks to see if the water tank is empty. If it is, he has to turn the water pump on to fill the tank on the roof. Tonight is one of the few occasions when both the water supply and the electricity are working at the same time.
Water is the only thing that can awaken my father-in-law from a deep slumber. It is his only obsession. In other times, when there was only water and no electricity, he would fill every spare bottle or pot with water so that we had reserves for when the tank was empty. For a couple of hours, he watches and checks on the tank’s levels. My mother-in-law starts washing all the clothes. Everybody tries to make the best of the electricity before it goes off again. We know we have two hours at most.
At the beginning of the war, in the first days of July, you thought this would be for only a few days more. After the first week passed, you told yourself one more week, just one more. Two weeks in, I told my wife Hanna, “Don’t worry, a few days, no more.” You keep shifting your guesses forward and before you know it you’re talking months, and war still looks young and lively. It’s not going anywhere. We may not have many days left, but the war has got plenty of life still in it.
Despite the Israeli army’s announcement that the people of Beit Lahiya and the Bedouin village should return to their homes, most of them don’t return.
Jabaliya has become impossibly overcrowded since displaced people from the northern parts of the Gaza Strip arrived. Every house in the camp is currently hosting three or four families. Thousands of people wander in the streets, their trauma palpable. Some have been blinded, some are having difficulty breathing, some look lost in a kind of trance, some tremble and shake with every step. All of them offer a picture of the catastrophe.
Another funeral passes in the street below. The bodies of three victims are carried on stretchers. You can see from the outline of the flags stretched over them that these aren’t bodies, these are body parts. Slogans are shouted angrily. Then the shouts are swallowed by silence, and all you can feel is pain behind the silence.
While playing in the living room, the kids have broken one of the pots their grandmother keeps her plants in. They were running after each other when one of them threw a pillow at the other and hit the pot. This is the most devastating thing that can happen, from their grandmother’s point of view. The children fall silent, as she moves sadly to fix her plant, which has been uprooted. I say, “It is very young. Not to worry. It’ll be O.K.” She does not reply. She is too busy undoing the wrong.
The hum of drones has returned, I can hear them hovering over our heads, choosing their next prey. It’s very hot. Jaffa is crying. My mother-in-law warns the kids not to touch her blessed plants. I write an essay that starts with the words “We are O.K. in Gaza.” But it’s a lie, we are never O.K. Nonetheless, hope is what you have even at the worst of times. It is the only thing that can’t be stripped from you. The moment you give it up you lose the most precious thing that nature and your humanity have endowed you with. Hope is your only weapon.
Atef Abu Saif is a political scientist, a novelist and the editor of The Book of Gaza, an anthology of stories by Palestinian writers. These essays were written in the Jabaliya refugee camp, Gaza Strip, where he and his family live.