Opinion

Israel Killed the Family Next Door. I Don't Know How to Tell My Kids They'll Never Be Safe

Khalil Hamra/AP

At 5:45 A.M. last Tuesday the phone rang; it was the man who drives my children to school. Good morning, he said. Today there is no school. Why? I asked. They assassinated Baha Abu al-Ata, and the Education Ministry announced that school was canceled today.

The phone woke my son Karim, a third grader, who asked who had called. It’s Yihye, the driver, I said. He told me there’s no school today. He smiled as if he’d won a prize, and didn’t even bother to ask why school had been canceled. As we were talking I glanced at some news websites and understood that we were facing a new escalation, which might or might not be similar to the previous one.

When we began to hear explosions near the city, Karim’s spontaneous smile was replaced by a look of worry and fear. “Is it war, Dad?” he asked. I told him it wasn’t war and there was no reason to worry, everything would be OK. I wasn’t certain about my answer, but I didn’t know how to explain the essence of life in the Gaza Strip to my son. After all, in Gaza our fate is not in our hands. And every time we hear an explosion our thoughts start to race — where did the bombs fall this time? Who was killed? Who was wounded?

The kids were looking at me with worried faces that were begging me to protect them from fear and death. But how can we protect them? Where can we take them? There are no bomb shelters in Gaza, no safe place.

The dead bodies of members of a Palestinian family are seen at a hospital in Deir Al-Balah in the central Gaza Strip on November 14, 2019.
STRINGER/ REUTERS

That is the terrible feeling that consumes me with every escalation, the helplessness at being unable to protect what’s most precious to you. You go from room to room, trying to gain a little more time of laughter and mischief with the children, but every boom reminds you that you live in Gaza. Your mind replays all the memories, hopes and challenges, goes through what you tried to do and what you might be planning, and remembers that while death is not painful to the dead, it scathes the living.

On the night before the last day of the escalation, Thursday, I was woken at 1:30 A.M. by an explosion that shook the whole of Dir al-Balah. When I realized that the kids hadn’t woken up, sparing me their haunted looks, I let out a sigh of relief. But I asked myself if this nightmare was ever going to end.

At the same time I heard the ambulance sirens and the rumors spread like wildfire — they bombed a house with everyone inside it. It was the Asoarka family. Eight people lost their lives, including children. There were pictures of people like me, who were searching for the missing in the sands, pulling children out of their beds and throwing them on the mattresses of the dead. As if we were living in a different planet.

I remained awake and when the crime was revealed at sunrise, the shock was heavy. It was a helpless family that I knew well. A simple family that lived in tin shacks and had a hard life even without Israeli planes dropping bombs on them. When they finished removing the bodies it turned out that only two of the children, a 1-month-old baby and a girl, were still alive.

A picture of a Palestinian schoolboy who was killed in Gaza, is seen on his chair at his classroom in a school in the central Gaza Strip, on November 16, 2019. 
IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA/ REUTERS

News cameras were following the girl in the hospital; what happened, how do you feel, they asked. In my heart I answered for her — I lost my family, I’m alone, why did they bomb us? The girl told the journalists that she had been afraid and couldn’t sleep, that she fled with the first bombing and later the whole place was destroyed. I won’t see my father, my mother, my siblings anymore, I’ve lost all of them, she said.

I asked myself why the army had bombed this family. And then I read that the army explained there had been a mistake. A mistake? This is a terrible sin, a crime that should remain on everyone’s conscience, including the international community, which presumably will do nothing.

Every experience is meant to teach you something, even a war in Gaza. The lesson I learned was that life is cheap and worthless, an equation whose solution is zero. Because you might be the next mistaken target, life is meaningless. The work you love, your friends, the possessions you’ve accumulated, your clothing, the laughter of your children, your home, the plants you’re growing, even your morning coffee suddenly seem worthless.

The fighting has died down and there’s no way of knowing whether the next round is close or not. We’ve returned to “routine”: The electricity is still on for eight hours and off for the next eight hours, and there’s no potable water in our faucets. The unemployment and poverty rates are still rising, the economic situation is terrible; everyone is living with their own economic and emotional crises. Israel and the world are trying to ignore the situation and Gaza and deal with the symptoms. Israel has for years maintained a closure on the Gaza Strip, one of the most densely populated places in the world, and its trapped residents are expected to take responsibility for their harsh lives.

What’s the solution? The first answer that occurs to a prisoner is to run. Shall I follow in the footsteps of one of my friends and flee to Europe? There my children will wake up safe and ride their bikes to school, without fear or worry, in a country governed with justice, equality and the rule of law. Or perhaps I should wait in Gaza for my turn to be a target?

Despite everything Gaza lives in the hearts of Gazans, who yearn for freedom and peace. The boys and girls of Gaza are waiting for a better future and know that it is planted in the Strip.

Mohammed Azaiza is a Gaza resident and a field coordinator for Gisha – The Legal Center for Freedom of Movement.