Twilight Zone / 'Like chickens in a cage'
Shooting in the streets, executions in neighbors' homes, fears of flour running out, of Ehud Barak, of an uncertain future. A friend in Gaza reports from the field by phone, day after day.
We'll call him M. For years he was our faithful taxi driver. Together we went to Rafah after every bombing; together we went to Beit Hanun following every barrage. In his ancient yellow Mercedes - 350,000 kilometers without cleaning the cylinder head - we cruised the streets of Khan Yunis and Sajaiyeh after the Israel Defense Force's insane operations there. We visited the home of the mathematician Dr. Nabil Abu Salmiya, where he, his wife and seven of their children were killed in an Israeli air attack; we went to the homes of the farmers in Beit Lahia where seven other children were killed and four others lost their legs in strawberry-fields-forever. Our last trip together was to the Indira Gandhi Kindergarten, for the funeral of the kindergarten teacher, Najwa Khalif, who was struck by a shell before the horrified eyes of her young charges.
In January the gates of the Erez checkpoint were closed to Israeli journalists by IDF order. Since then, we have spoken only by phone; this week we spoke a lot more than usual. M. knows us well. For years he worked plucking chickens in Tel Aviv's Hatikva market. Once, as we drove between the IDF's terrifying tanks on the dirt roads of Beit Hanun, he quoted, for good luck, the kaparot prayer (connected to Yom Kippur), which he had learned as a boy in the market. Until then, we were able to use his name.
This week M. asked not to be identified by name: People in Gaza are now afraid to speak to Israelis by phone. For four days last week he didn't leave his house for fear of the shooting. This week, when a partial post-coup quiet descended, he went back into the streets, looking for fares for a shekel, in order to provide for his children. We spoke this week, hour after hour, day after day. He told me what he was experiencing as a resident of Gaza, who is affiliated with neither Fatah nor Hamas, who dislikes them both equally, and dreams of the great days of hatikva ("the hope") in the Tel Aviv market.
"This is it, we're done for - halas (enough)," he whispered into the phone last Friday evening. "We are like chickens in a cage, like the ones in Hatikva. I remember how we used to take them out, chicken after chicken."
That day he left his house for the first time. "I go out in danger and come back in danger. I see the picture here. We keep hoping something will change, but nothing ever changes. It just gets shittier. We were happy when the [Palestinian] Authority came, but look what happened? Now Fatah is finished and the Hamasniks came. What do they want? What will be the end? What will happen to us? We don't know."
Late Friday afternoon, he scraped up one last trip to Erez. An American, the principal of a private school, was fleeing from Gaza to Michigan. Erez had been picked clean by looters, and a few disgruntled taxi drivers were sitting around, arguing about what would happen.
"Everyone is wondering what will be," M. told me from the ruins of the place where we used to meet almost every week. "The Hamasniks have taken and taken - and have taken over. But who will supply us with gas for the cars? With food? We still have supplies, but what will happen in a week? In two weeks, what will we eat?"
Two days earlier, his neighbor had been executed: Jamal Abu Jidian, a Fatah man. Fifty meters from his home. M.'s children didn't sleep all night. "Shooting like rain, like a flood. They burned the house and there was a whole commotion. Don't ask - bombs, every minute a boom. The children are scared and I tell them that it's far away, that it will soon end, but it doesn't end. Almost four days, Hamas people against Fatah people."
Suddenly, M. too came under fire at Erez. "I don't know who is shooting," our reporter on the spot said, "but there is an Israeli tank at the place where we used to go out together and you would show your ID. The Israelis want to make sure no one comes close. Shabbat Shalom."
The next day he went into town. There was panic shopping on Omar al-Mukhtar Street. "People aren't afraid as they were a few days ago," was the report, "but they are cleaning out the shops and the gas stations. Everyone is filling up because the word is that Israel will close everything off."
From the deserted Erez checkpoint I talk with M. "I am on Ali Nasser Street, on the way to look for diesel fuel. I've already been at four or five stations and they told me there is none. Finito. Someone told me to go to Bahalul's gas station, and that's where I'm going. I have maybe NIS 20-30 worth of gas in the tank. That's all. Another 30-40 kilometers and I'll have no fuel left.
"This was the first night I slept and didn't hear anything. I'm wandering around the streets and everything is all right; people have even started to stop at red lights. Normal, everything is normal. Yesterday I worked for NIS 1. We'll see what today brings. There is food in the house, but it will soon be finished. Look, there's no shortage yet, there is still food in the stores, but people are cleaning out the flour. Do you remember how everyone grabbed flour when Karni [border crossing] was shut down? It was the same yesterday. I remembered that time, when you asked me: Why didn't you call and we would have come and done a story? Yesterday it was like that again. People cleaned out the pitas and the flour.
"I have a [cooking] gas canister that's empty and the second one is about to finish. I don't buy flour; I buy pitas from the bakery. My wife told me: Buy flour so we will have a reserve. I said: What for? I will buy ready-made pitas. If they finish, they finish. So far they haven't. I don't know what will be in another week, if there will be a shortage, but I'll call and let you know."
When M. reached the gas station he said he would end the conversation so people wouldn't hear him speaking Hebrew. Suddenly he remembered something else: "I wanted to ask you something. Do you think the Hamasniks have a device they got from Iran that listens in on every Jawal [Palestinian mobile phone]? I wanted to ask. It's driving me crazy. So I will know what to say, so I don't mess up. They say they have a machine like that."
A little later: "I found diesel fuel. Now I have a full tank. I filled up for NIS 225. Full. A lot of people came to buy white diesel - what you call kerosene. They heard on the radio that Israel wants to cut off the electricity and the water [to Gaza], so they are looking for white diesel, to have reserves at home.
"I am going to do a few more fares, so I can come home with money for the kids. People are worried. Everyone here is worried. What will be next week? In another two weeks? People heard that Israel gave Abu Mazen [Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas] the tax money [which Israel collected for the PA, but had frozen] and that he will pay the salaries. And if he doesn't pay? How will we eat? Some say Abu Mazen won't leave us, he will look after us. Others disagree."
Later: "Hamas says that after they made this revolution against Fatah, the people should be happy because they have rid us of those criminals like Jamal Abu Jidian and Samih al-Madhoun and Mohammed Ghraib, the biggest criminals in Fatah. They say: Mabruk [congratulations] to our nation for being rid of these criminal types, and we also say Mabruk to Fatah for being rid of them, because not everyone in Fatah is a criminal - only the people we got rid of. So the Fatah people say: Fine, all right, if you say that, why did you make a revolution against the whole of Fatah and take everything from us? You took the cars and the Kalashnikovs, the bases. You even let your people, the Hamasniks, into the homes of Abu Mazen and [Yasser] Arafat, to steal everything. If all you wanted was to get rid of the criminal types, you could have negotiated with us and not made this revolution against us. I think that's the picture for now."
M. gets back to me in the evening: "I drove in the direction of Beit Lahia and saw a lot of people in the street. What's going on, I asked. They told me Hamas sentenced someone to death. Rashid Abu Ajina. That means that for Hamas, he's criminal. They say his hands are dirty with blood. They haven't finished with him yet, they want to finish him off in a few minutes; there's a lot of people in the street. As soon as I heard that I got out of there. I don't want to hear, I don't want to see."
The next morning: "From what I hear, in the end they decided to have mercy on him. Do you hear the cars honking? Everything is quiet and normal. But there is no more diesel or gas. Good thing I filled up yesterday. Maybe it'll last me four days, a week. I will drive very slowly and I won't go to Rafah. I try not to leave Gaza, because that uses up diesel. I'll drive around the city, and what I use up, I use up.
"People are talking about Ehud Barak, that he is now defense minister and is threatening to enter Gaza and liquidate all the Hamasniks. So people are really afraid. He is a disciple of Yitzhak Rabin, he will have no mercy on us, he will liquidate us - that is what people fear. There are people, Gideon, who say: Why did Abu Mazen remember only now, after Hamas took everything? And why is Israel giving him the money only now? Israel is also to blame for this revolution. They wrecked everything before Hamas took over the government, and now they want to strengthen [Abu Mazen]? Why only now?"
A new day, another report: "The situation is all right. People are only worried that Israel will close us off. There is no fuel and no cigarettes. Today I heard from Hamas people that they want journalists to come to Gaza, to see the situation and to prove to them that things are quiet. They are ready to send security forces to escort every journalist up to Rafah, to see that the killing between the families that went on under Fatah is finished and how everything is quiet.
"Yesterday I sat next to two people, one Fatah and one Hamas. The Fatah one said: I hope the Israelis come back and throw us all into the sea. That's what we deserve. The Hamas one said: The whole thing took just a week. Now wait and see what will be. The situation is all right - there is no shooting, everything is calm, you can walk about freely, without fear. Wait and see."
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