Neighborhood Memories

The residents of a Gaza neighborhood have lost count of the shells and the bombs and the missiles that have fallen near their homes, killing friends and acquaintances, seriously injuring children from the school and destroying relatives' homes.

When I hear Israelis propose that a Gazan neighborhood be obliterated, I see Yafa, 15, in her neighborhood. I've known her since she was a year old. Always-curious eyes, now behind thin-rimmed eyeglasses, a slightly husky voice, bouncy and quiet, persistent, good in English and math, helps out at home and tries to calm down her two younger sisters - balls of energy who, unlike her, are talkative. She likes to surf the Internet and chat with her friends online. Within a range of hundreds of meters from her home, in Gaza City's Tel al-Hawwa neighborhood, a few houses already have been obliterated by Israeli bombs.

I remember the name of the neighborhood, of course: Saja'iyya. I have forgotten the name of the young woman who had just begun to publish her poetry: personal poems, in a minor key. The pages of the newspaper in which they appeared were laid out, with great excitement, on the table in the rented apartment.

"Obliterate a neighborhood," and even I don't know in which Khan Yunis neighborhood M., a dyed-in-the-wool feminist, lives. Her sharp, critical tongue is aimed at officials of every rank. She was the first woman I ever saw smoke a nargileh (water pipe) in Gaza. I believe she is among the few women who still go out bareheaded. Unfortunately, we have lost touch. I occasionally receive reports about her from a mutual friend, such as how close she was to a missile fired by an Israeli army helicopter.

Ask where the schools is and you will get to our neighborhood, Bassam once directed me. Later on, when I got lost in the alleys of the Jabalya refugee camp, he sounded impatient. "I forgot that you weren't born here," he said, and I couldn't tell whether he was being serious.

He taught me to drive against the traffic, when necessary. "If the whole world is upside down, then why should we go straight?" he would explain. I think that paving stones and asphalt have replaced the sand in the neighborhood's alleys since then.

I don't know whether people have yet painted the concrete walls of the apartment buildings that were put up in place of the original refugee camp shacks, turning the alleyways into narrow crevices. After all, for over a year we Israeli journalists have been prohibited from entering the Gaza Strip.

During one of the army's invasions of Jabalya, in October 2004, to fight terror and vanquish it forever, but really forever this time, the home of Bassam's parents faced possible obliteration, just as dozens of homes had already been obliterated, not by aerial bombardment but by army bulldozers. Other homes were severely damaged by shellfire. People fled from the bulldozers and the shelling. Refugees for a second time. That is why Bassam's parents and grandmother refused to leave their home.

An outdoor market that I recall as busy and crowded and colorful was laid out in the alleys of the neighborhood's northwest. There was always someone standing behind a mountain of guavas or bananas who knew Bassam and who served us fruit with a broad smile, seasoned with a bit of Hebrew. The neighborhood was also home to a cousin of Bassam's who worked in strictly kosher, Ashkenazi pastry shops in Jaffa until the work permits were obliterated. I wonder whether the pastry shop that he later opened in Jabalya, and which made rugelach and croissants, is still open.

In a typical home of Fatah activists, a family of refugees from Huleiqat village (Heletz), in Gaza City's Nasser neighborhood, it was suggested that I convert to Islam, so that I could go to heaven. It was the grandmother who worried for my future. When her son was a prisoner in an Israeli prison he saw, on television, soldiers arresting his own son and his wife trying to free him. That was in the first intifada.

Not far from them is the home of N., a teacher, and her family. I am always amazed to discover how girlish her face appears when she removes her veil to reveal her close-cropped hair. Her opinionated son, who is eight, has serious complaints about Hamas even though his father is an activist in the movement. When asked whether he is for Hamas or for Fatah, he says he is for Allah. But about a year ago, when fighting burst out between the two movements, he stopped saying that he was for Allah because he knew it would be interpreted as support for Hamas.

The residents of the neighborhood have lost count of the shells and the bombs and the missiles that have fallen near their homes, killing friends and acquaintances, seriously injuring children from the school and destroying relatives' homes.

Abu Aouni likes to sit outside his door, in the Shabura refugee camp in Rafah, in the neighborhood called Bureir, named after his village that was destroyed and on whose lands Kibbutz Bror Hayil now stands. Tall, with a voice that is hoarse from cigarettes (despite his bad heart) and the hands of a farmer, his memories crumbling the lost clods of earth. He, too, has stopped counting the number of houses that the Israeli army has obliterated in Rafah since 1967, even though his son, a field investigator for a human rights organization, carefully counts each such house and neighborhood since 2000.

Obliterating neighborhoods, what's new about that, people in Rafah ask.