Defeat and defiance among Gaza’s newest refugees

Defeat and defiance among Gaza’s newest refugees

Hamas’s leaders promise victory from the safety of Shifa hospital, while civilians are desperate for a roof over their heads

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Palestinian families leave their neighborhood to a safer location as Israel's army continues shelling the area of Khan Yunis, in the southern Gaza Strip on July 24, 2014. (Photo credit: Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)
Palestinian families leave their neighborhood to a safer location as Israel's army continues shelling the area of Khan Yunis, in the southern Gaza Strip on July 24, 2014. (Photo credit: Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

‘A”, a taxi driver, lives in Beit Hanoun in the northern Gaza Strip, just opposite the Israeli border fence. He has seven children. On more than one occasion during the Second Intifada, he heard bullets shrieking around him as Israeli forces battled Hamas. But the ferocity of this round of conflict has shocked him. The lone shots became full-fledged battles, with shells, rockets, and more.

On Monday, he decided he’d had enough.

“We took everyone, not only my kids. Sixty people, everyone who lives in our family compound. We moved to a big house under construction, in one of Gaza City’s southern neighborhoods. It’s not a fully closed house. There are no windows or doors. But, at least there’s a roof.”

I tried to understand how they’re getting by, if they have enough food.

“Ya habibi,” he said laughing, “what food? We have nothing here. We don’t even have anything to eat for iftar (the evening meal at the end of the Ramadan fast). There is no running water or electricity, and the most critical problem is that there are no bathrooms; this is an unfinished house so it’s not connected to the sewers and there are no toilets.”

‘On the day after, nothing will happen,’ says A.

The neighborhood where A. moved his family could find itself on the front lines if Israel decides to expand its operations and dissect Gaza. But A. is staying optimistic. “Things will be ok, Inshallah. It’s almost a holiday (Eid al-Fitr at the end of Ramadan), we hope that this whole story will be wrapped up by then.”

He’s not impressed by the achievements Hamas has been touting to Arab media. “Forget it, they’re laughing at us every time. We go into war with you (Israel) and we know that on the day after, nothing will happen. That’s what they did to us in 2012. They promised us victory and nothing happened. No victory, no nothing.”

But at this stage, it’s possible that A. is in the minority. Another of Gaza’s residents, Shirin, sees things quite differently. “We paid a huge price. We have 600 dead. But I’m telling you, no one wants Hamas to stop now. Gaza chose resistance, not negotiations, because we saw that Israel isn’t serious. Abu Mazen [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas] failed, and we will see if Hamas’s way or Abu Mazen’s way wins out. I am convinced that Hamas will bring about the end of the blockade.”

“Don’t misunderstand,” she adds, “we are all tired of this war. But we are not ready to give up. Why should we give up? Our demands are basic, nothing out of the ordinary. Why shouldn’t we have a port or an airport? Why can’t we bring all kinds of goods into the Strip when we have a shortage of so many items?”

She doesn’t sound angry at Hamas, not for firing rockets from populated neighborhoods and not for digging tunnels near schools.

‘Israel will give up soon. Your military action failed,’ says Shirin

Shirin says the situation is bad in her home as well. “We have barely any electricity, maybe three hours a day. And when there is no electricity, it means that there is no water in the tap. It’s impossible to go out to buy things for fear of being hurt, and many people here don’t have any income at all, and I’m not only talking about the unemployed. There are a lot of people who earn daily salaries, in all sorts of temporary jobs. Now everything is stopped, so people don’t have money.”

I asked her if she and her friends are aware of the possibility that the conflict could continue for weeks because of Hamas’s demands. “It won’t continue for much longer, because the fighting is causing significant damage to Israel and the Netanyahu government. Even more than to Hamas. That’s why Israel will give up soon. Your military action failed,” she charged, “and the number of children you killed proves it.”

A’s family in Beit Hanoun is not out of the ordinary. All of Gaza City is experiencing changes in its demographic makeup. It’s a real migration. More than 100,000 people have sought shelter in UNRWA schools. But there are tens of thousands of others who moved to other neighborhoods. The tony Tel Al Hawa neighborhood on the sea, Gaza’s Ramat Aviv Gimel, became the prime destination. The city’s residents figure that the IDF will refrain from attacking the multi-story buildings in the neighborhood, since hundreds of people live in each building.

In other neighborhoods near the border with Israel, there is a mass exodus: Beit Lahiya, Shejaiya, Zeitoun, Izbet Abd Rabo, Big and Little Absan, Hiza, from north to south. For example, the family of a friend in Gaza decided to leave their house in the most dangerous neighborhood these day, Shejaiya. Forty-five souls moved to a relative’s house in the Shati refugee camp, known for its poverty and overcrowding. A few hours after they set up in Shati, an Israeli air force missile struck an adjacent house.

The father of the family used the Arabic phrase, “We escaped the rain and moved under the eaves.”

An injured Palestinian boy is carried into at Shifa hospital in Gaza City on Sunday, July 20, 2014 (photo credit: AFP/MAHMUD HAMS)
An injured Palestinian boy is carried into at Shifa hospital in Gaza City on Sunday, July 20, 2014 (photo credit: AFP/MAHMUD HAMS)

One site that turned into a shelter for 20,000 people is Shifa hospital. The streets around the hospital are full of civilians. Everyone is cramming into the hospital and surrounding area in hopes that Israel will not bomb it. These thousands of new refugees will, it seems, celebrate Eid in Shifa, unless there is a dramatic development in the ceasefire talks.

Among the many refugees in Shifa, one can find television crews coming to interview senior Hamas members. Sami Abu Zuhri, Mushir al-Mitzri, Fawzi Barhoum (who once worked at a car-wash in Ramat Gan and talks about it with pride), as well as Islamic Jihad spokespeople who have found semi-official shelter in the hospital, are giving interviews for Arabic TV channels. Again and again, they promise that “the resistance” will win, that Hamas will keep fighting, and that “we will strike the Zionist enemy.”

Behind them, protecting them, stand the ambulances and refugee families. An example of true leadership.

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