Free to Go on the Roof in Khan Yunis

Until five years ago, the home of Abu Al Abd in the Khan Yunis refugee camp in the Gaza Strip was in the 14th or 15th row of homes from the border between the camp and the industrial area of Neveh Dekalim. Now, it's in the fifth or sixth row. All the other rows have been wiped off the face of the earth: new or renovated tall buildings, or low ones that date back nearly to the hijira (the expulsion and flight of Arabs from Palestinian villages in 1948) and are made of clay and asbestos and tin sheeting. Until a few weeks ago, it was extremely hazardous to climb onto the roof, which looks out "over all of Palestine," as one of the neighbors says.

Until one week ago, for the past five years, no one dared stay up on the roof for any length of time to look at the surrounding landscape: the sea, the green areas of the farmers of the Muasi tribe, the red-tiled homes of the settlements, the plastic sheeting of the greenhouses.

"That's where their military airport is," said Abu Al Abd, pointing slightly northward. "The helicopters landed there, and then they'd come up here and fire on us."

Until a week ago, he continued, "we would go up, hide behind a concrete pillar, breathe a little sea air, maybe hang up some laundry really quickly and then go down." The soldiers in the large number of posts guarding the Gush Katif settlements viewed any significant stay on the roof as "observation," which sometimes led to warning shots in the air and sometimes to death.

Yesterday, however, Abu Al Abd stayed on the roof for a long time. The children down below, children of the narrow alleys who were born in the sand, dared to approach the gate separating Khan Yunis and Neveh Dekalim even though it has been blocked for a month. For the past five years, only those whose identity cards gave their address as Muasi - the area in which the Gush Katif settlements were built - were allowed to pass through. Relatives needed special permits to visit, even when their children lived there, and they could not always get them. Sick people and doctors needed permits; bringing in medicines entailed planning and coordination. And there was a minimum age, even among the 5,000 residents of the Muasi: those under 35, or sometimes 30 or even 25, could not leave, or were not allowed back home. And during the many days when the gate was closed completely, anyone who got too close, who dared to approach the ruins of the houses that the Israel Defense Forces demolished for the protection of Neveh Dekalim, risked being the target of warning shots. The IDF Spokesman's Office would then explain that they were "sorry about the shooting but it was in accordance with policy because there was no prior coordination with the IDF."

Yesterday, thankfully, for a whole day, not a single shot was heard in Khan Yunis: not from the armed fighters, who were not to be seen, and not from the many IDF posts, some of which were already dismantled. It was so quiet yesterday on the edge of the refugee camp that one could even imagine that footsteps could be heard from a mile away. For five years, in the name of defending the residents of Gush Katif, the IDF prohibited residents of Khan Yunis and Rafah from going to their beach and their sea. Wafa, Ab Al Abd's four-year-old daughter, has never even dipped her toes into the sea, never walked on the wet sand. "Take me to the beach," she used to ask her father without understanding why they couldn't go when it was so close.

The prohibition will remain until the last of the soldiers has left the Gaza Strip, so Wafa's first visit to the beach will have to wait a while longer. Nevertheless, a sense of relief floated about this tortured city yesterday.

The road from the southern Gaza Strip to the northern part was open, unlike last week when the IDF closed it at various times during the day and opened it up only at night.

Life was normal yesterday, near the empty settlements, free of the fear that reigned during the past five years of frequent gunfire from the IDF's posts.

"We are happy," said Abdallah, who worked in one of the settlements until a week ago. His friend added, "Happy but afraid." Afraid of the uncertainty. A person hopes for a better time, and that isn't promised to us at all."