I’ve known Ashraf for 14 years. When I began working as a reporter on Arab affairs, he accompanied me on my journeys to Gaza until, in 2007 if I’m not mistaken, Israeli reporters were forbidden to enter the Strip out of fears for their safety.
Still, in those seven years we managed to accumulate quite a few shared experiences. There were cases in which my life was in danger, when Ashraf always knew how to steer me to safety, along with lighter experiences, visits to his family’s home in Beit Hanun, Iftar meals and more. In the past few days we had been in continuous contact and he told me his family had left their town near the Israeli border for fear of being hit and, like tens of thousands of others, had moved to a different neighborhood deeper in the Strip.
On Saturday, several hours into the humanitarian truce, I hoped he wouldn’t call me. Somehow I knew that if he called during those hours, it meant something had happened to the house. And the call came.
“The house is gone,” he said. “My house is gone and my sister’s which was next to it. They’ve destroyed it completely. Completely.”
I heard the sorrow in his voice and didn’t know what to say, how to console him. “Where am I going to go back to? I have no idea what to do now. We’re here at a friend’s house and I have nowhere to go back to. Everything that was in the house is gone: the furniture, the bedroom, the mementos, the children’s playthings. Do you understand? It’s all in ruins. I have nothing to do now. I’m in the street.”
“Ten days ago the Israeli army told us to leave for Gaza City. I heard the message, took my wife and nine children and moved to an UNRWA school. The entire family, 60 people all told. My parents, myself, my sister, my brothers, their children with their grandchildren and my children with my grandchildren. At the UNRWA school we sat for three days but the agency had nothing to give us. So I moved south. For ten days I was far away from the house. Last night I heard the army had hit the al-Masri family area hard in bombings. Today they said there is a truce. So I went out there and found it all destroyed. Nothing’s left. All three stories are gone. It looks as if the house was hit in a bombing and then a bulldozer came and finished the job. All of our things were there. Why did they destroy my house? In the first war [Operation Cast Lead in 2009] and the second [Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012] we left the house but no one came to shoot from near our homes because they knew not to mess with us. If someone did it this time, why am I being punished? I blame Israel. No one else.”
“I don’t have the ability to rent a house now. I can’t buy or rent one. We have no money for food. We are peaceful people, we’ve never had a problem. I’ve worked with Israeli and foreign reporters for many years. You know me, you’ve been at our house. Why did they destroy our house?”
Dahiyeh in Gaza
And indeed, the pictures that reached us Saturday from Shejaiyah, Beit Hanun, and the rest of the other neighborhoods confirmed what we already knew: Palestinian civilians are paying the heaviest price during this adventure that Hamas chose to embark upon. Entire neighborhoods were destroyed, dozens of bodies were discovered in the ruins, and tens of thousands of families were left without homes, without shelter. It looks like an earthquake. The residents, as stunned from the horror as the journalists who reached the area, are trying to digest, to understand, to figure out what to do now.
If Israel wanted to create the “Dahiyeh effect,” modeled on the bombing of the Hezbollah stronghold in Lebanon in 2006, then it has succeeded, perhaps even more than expected. The problem is that deterrence is fluid, abstract. At a certain point, if you strike the enemy too hard, he can become indifferent to the suffering, and may just develop a deeper hatred and desire for revenge.
With close to 1,100 dead and 5,700 injured, according to Hamas’s health ministry, the consciousness of Gaza has indeed been seared.
The Gaza population (a big portion of which, it must be said, supports Hamas) curses the day this escalation began. It is possible that the mass destruction will cause Hamas to think twice before it embarks on another armed conflict against Israel in Gaza. But the extent of the damage could lead to public pressure on Hamas not to stop fighting until it receives something tangible in return.
Hamas seems more apathetic than Israel about the suffering of people in Gaza. The head of the organization’s political branch, Khaled Mashaal, who lives in Qatar in a fancy hotel, preaches from his distant perch that the military wing, and the people in Gaza, should continue fighting. He went further and said he was ready to die to make sure the siege on Gaza doesn’t continue — easy to say when you’re far from the Israeli shells and the danger, and close to the mini-bar and the waterpipe. There was a reason, it seems, that Mashaal chose not to stay in Gaza after his visit in December 2012.
In Gaza, the organization does not look on this kindly. Last Tuesday, according to Palestinian and Arab sources, the Hamas leadership agreed to a ceasefire according to the American parameters. What held up the organization’s response, and ultimately led to the rejection, was Mashaal. Senior Hamas officials in the Strip, it turns out, knew that Mashaal’s speech on Wednesday would be extreme and would reject Kerry’s offer of a seven-day ceasefire. In their despair (and possibly because of technical reasons unrelated to Mashaal’s pronouncements), they turned to a well-known Hamas member, who tried to convince Mashaal not to be over-zealous. That didn’t work either.
The individuals who have been in touch with Mashaal in the past week tell a sad story of a corrupt and hedonistic leader who pushes his people not to agree to a ceasefire, all with Qatar’s backing and encouragement. Up to this point, the perception had been that the military wing is the problem, and didn’t want to accept a ceasefire. According to Palestinian and Arab sources, however, it is Mashaal, or “Abu al-Walid,” along with the Qataris, who has been preventing a stop to the fighting.