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Last Thursday morning, some 60 Israel Defense Forces soldiers invaded Hannan as-Siam's home in Beit Lahia and turned it into their base.

"I wanted to hug my youngest son, who was afraid, but the soldier aimed his gun at me. 'You want to use the telephone,' he accused. I wanted to say something to my husband, but the soldier said 'uskut' (shut up)," she said in a telephone conversation.

"They kept pointing their rifles at us, every time we moved, and told us to shut up. They forbade me even to take the children to the toilet. The children at first tried to hold it in, afraid of the many soldiers in the house. When the boy finally went, the soldier accompanied him with his gun aimed at him," she said.

The soldiers kept counting as-Siam's two boys, aged 11 and 16, and daughter, 18. The eldest daughter, 20, had an exam at the university and left early, two hours before dozens of tanks smashed into the family's garden in the township's as-Salatin neighborhood, destroying the fruit trees they had planted there.

Yesterday at noon, hours after the tanks and armored personnel carriers (apc) rolled out, as-Siam was still busy cleaning and removing the dirt and garbage left by the soldiers and assessing the damage. Broken furniture, cracked doors, cigarette burns on fabric and furniture, smashed glasses in the kitchen, walls sprayed with Hebrew slogans.

When they first got out of their tanks and entered the house, the officer told the family to collect all their cash and jewelry and keep it "so you won't say afterward we stole it." Later, before they left, when the father asked where the third cellphone had gone (they had all been confiscated with the take-over), the officer searched until he found it on one of the soldiers.

Apparently the IDF has not learned the lesson from previous invasions in Gaza and the West Bank, about stealing from the residents, Gaza residents say.

When Ali, as-Siam's husband, wanted to take a shower, the soldiers wouldn't let him, she says. He argued with them in Hebrew and said "when I was a prisoner in Israel I could go to the toilet, I could read, move around. Here in my own home I can't do even that,'" she recalls.

Ali negotiated with the soldiers in Hebrew to allow his wife and three children to leave the house on Friday morning. But the 24 hours had traumatized the youngest boy, who holds his mother's hand all the time, asking where his father is.

Ironically, the occupation of as-Siam's new house and transformation into a military base saved it from destruction. Numerous other houses, most of them new, in the neighborhoods between Gaza City and Beit Lahia have been destroyed. Some 5,000 people live in this area, refugees who invested all their savings in buying a plot to build on or an apartment in a new building. In some buildings the upper floors have been destroyed by shells and the walls on others have been riddled with bullets. Fences have been destroyed, trees uprooted and smashed, trenches have been dug in gardens and streets, water boilers perforated by soldiers' bullets. The army also sabotaged the power, water and telephone lines.