Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, July 2006, pages 10, 21

Special Report

"Then It Was Hell...": Israel’s Bombardment of Settlerless Gaza

By Mohammed Omer

Safiah Ghabeen with her children who were injured when Israel shelled the family home in Gaza on April 10. Her 9-year-old daughter, Hadil, was killed in the attack (Photo M. Omer).

LOVE CONQUERS ALL, the classical poet assures us, but if that were true, Mohammed Ghabeen, his pregnant wife Safiah, and their eight children would still be living in their modest cinderblock work-in-progress of a house in the agricultural outskirts of Beit Lahia in northern Gaza. Times have been hard for the family. Ghabeen, a small farmer lucky enough to have a bit of land and a greenhouse, lost most of this year’s harvest to the Israeli-imposed border closures, and was forced to sell his produce at local markets, at a fraction of the usual price, rather than exporting. Still, he had food for his eight children, and the promise of a new baby in a few weeks.

The family lives in one of the quietest parts of Beit Lahia—the only noises to be heard are the murmur of the irrigation lines in the greenhouse and the occasional barking of a dog. Even the sound of Israel’s near-constant shelling—2,000 shells fired into northern Gaza and Gaza City in the first two weeks of April—while disturbing, was safely distant.

Until Monday, April 10.

Mohammed was away on an errand, and the older children were home from school. Nine-year-old Hadil had brought her classmate Jackline Marouf, 8, to study with her. Then shelling—this time not a dull thud in the distance, instead much too close. Safiah gathered the children into the innermost room of the house, making them huddle together in the center, and covered her 13-month-old little girl, Rewan, with her own pregnant body.

Ghassan, 14, hospitalized with a spinal injury, was able to coherently explain what happened next: “We all ran into the shelter room,” he recalled. “Then it was hell. Rockets hitting the roof, black smoke everywhere, everyone screaming. Then I knew nothing until I woke up in the hospital here.“

Then his voice rises. “But what did we do wrong? We were just at home.”

Safiah, 8 months pregnant, still has trouble talking about it. Anger, despair, and constant tears distort her features. “I couldn’t protect her, I couldn’t protect my daughter Hadil, my own flesh and blood,” she sobbed. “Innocent, she was innocent, but the shrapnel tore her body into pieces. I couldn’t protect my baby Rewan, not even with my own body.” She is holding the baby, whose face is bandaged, scarred and bruised. Safiah herself suffered internal injuries, but her pregnancy is too far advanced for X-rays to be safe. Miraculously, she did not miscarry, and there was still a chance she could deliver a healthy baby.

Safiah insisted on coming home from the hospital for Hadil’s funeral. On the bier, her daughter’s face is badly bruised, her head swathed in big bandages. Her big brother Ghassan is quietly furious that he was unable to attend his sister’s funeral. “What did I do wrong to get injured like this?” he demanded to know. “Why was my sister killed? Why? Why was my mother so badly hurt?”

Now the Ghabeen family—parents and children Tahrer, Iman, Bassam, Moneer, Amnah, Rana, and little Rewan—struggles to regroup in what has become the scene of a war crime. Everything except the room in which they took shelter has been flattened—of that center room that failed to protect them, a few blood-stained walls still remain. Hadil’s friend, little Jackline Marouf, was also injured, but was no longer hospitalized. “The shell collapsed the roof and the walls," she explained. “A wall fell on me. There was a little hole and I climbed through it. I was crying, ”˜Please take me home!’”

One of the few things found intact in the rubble was the girls’ textbook—covered with blood.

In the house of mourning, the traditional tent a family erects where family and friends can gather to offer condolences, the same questions were everywhere: “What guilt did Hadil have? Why was she killed? How long must we watch our children murdered in front of our eyes?”

And while the family and neighbors asked, the shelling and attacks continued—as many as 300 shells on a single night—and the mourners had no answers. Meanwhile, throughout northern Gaza, in just one April week, 19 were killed, tens injured, and 175 people, including 105 children, were treated for shock, according to Dr. Mawia Hassanin, ambulance and emergency director at Al Shifa Hospital.

But the IDF wasn’t finished with the Ghabeen family. An Israeli officer, identifying himself only as “Gavi,” telephoned Mohammed Ghabeen to apologize and explain that Palestinian militants launching rockets, not his family, had been the intended target. “That is not true,” Mohammed told “Gavi.” “There has been nobody anywhere near here launching rockets for the last six months. You killed my innocent child, and my wife and all my children were injured.”

Then, as Mohammed explains it, the Israeli officer got down to business quickly. “Well, what do you want?” he asked. “Maybe a permit to work in Israel?”

“Trying to buy my silence,” Ghabeen explained. But he told the officer, “You killed my daughter. My daughter’s life and death is not for sale!”

Yet the world still seems to consider the lives of Palestinian children cheap. Western media pundits occasionally speak of an “asymmetrical conflict,” but the reality for Palestinians is that every and any attack on Israel is instantly condemned as terror, while virtually any atrocity Israeli forces commit against Palestinian civilians is either ignored or called “self-defense.” Who or what can protect Hadil Ghabeen and the tens of thousands like her in Gaza while the West seems determined to be deaf, dumb, and uncaring? 

Mohammed Omer reports from the Gaza Strip in occupied Palestine, where he maintains the Web site <http://www.rafahtoday.org>. He can be reached at <[email protected]>.

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