‘The Two Longest Hours of the Gaza War’

Amira Hass
Amira Hass
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Damage by Israeli airstrikes in Gaza, May 2021.
Damage by Israeli airstrikes in Gaza, May 2021.Credit: AP Photo/John Minchillo
Amira Hass
Amira Hass

We left Dr. Reem when she and her husband were staying in an apartment that served as a refuge, along with other family members, some distance south of their home on Lababidi Street in the Al-Rimal neighborhood of Gaza City (“Gazans Ran for Their Lives – and From the Israeli Army’s Sinister Phone Calls”).

They arrived at this apartment last Monday evening, after the Israeli army announced that it intended to bomb a target in their neighborhood, warning that the bomb would cause “collateral damage.” In other words, it would endanger the lives of anyone living in the neighborhood, in addition to the destruction if would wreak.

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Reem and her family were among some 2,500 people who immediately evacuated their homes, only to discover, on Thursday night, two hours before the cease-fire took effect, that the place of refuge they had found had also become a potential target of collateral damage.

Reem is a heaven-sent gift for a journalist who depends on descriptions of events conveyed by phone. Even when the bombs could be heard nearby, and with an exhausting and frightening day of work behind her, she responded, described and added details and insight even without being asked. Her descriptions were so detailed and fluent that I felt almost as though I was there next to her. Aside from the fact that it’s impossible to really feel such paralyzing fear, minute by minute.

On Friday morning, May 21, after the cease-fire took effect, I realized that Reem had called me about 15 minutes past midnight. I waited a few hours, in order not to wake her, and phoned. And then her fluent descriptions took me from Al-Bireh to Gaza and a few hours back in time.

“I think that at 11:30 P.M., Abu Obeida (the spokesman for Iz al-Din al-Qassam, the military arm of Hamas), announced that the cease-fire would begin at 2 A.M., May 21. We know that the Israelis always go crazy shortly before a cease-fire. And so do our people. That’s true. We knew that if Israel took advantage of the time remaining in order to bomb and kill more Palestinians, our side would also respond and launch rockets. And then Israel would intensify its assaults, and who knows who else would be killed and wounded.

“We were sitting in our temporary apartment, eight people, waiting tensely for those two-and-a-half hours to pass. The clock didn’t move. Suddenly, it was about 12 midnight, we heard voices, shouting, cries from the street. It turned out that the mukhtar of the building next to us had received notification by phone from the army that they were going to shell his building.

An aerial view of a destroyed building after it was hit last week by Israeli airstrikes, in Gaza City, Saturday.Credit: Khalil Hamra,AP

“That is when I called you,” Reem continued. “The residents started to leave, to run, to scream. And we also left, breathless, without energy. For a moment we didn’t know which direction would be safe. In the end we decided to travel two or three kilometers to the west, in the direction of the Shifa Hospital. We assumed that they wouldn’t bomb it.

“Other people were driving or running in the direction of the hospital. On the way we passed an elderly women, limping, with someone supporting her. We stopped, and she said that she had just undergone hip-replacement surgery. I offered her a ride and she got into the car; we crowded together. We remained the whole time in the hospital’s parking lot. Those were the longest two hours in the entire war. When we returned to the temporary apartment, it turned out that meanwhile a warning missile had been fired at the roof of the neighboring building from a drone. But the building wasn’t hit by additional missiles.

“Now we’re back home. I was so happy to return to the garden and our doves. They didn’t die, although we hadn’t fed them for four days. Like us, they also know the meaning of sumud (steadfastness).”

Reem and I have known each other since the early 2000s. She doesn’t have to amend her thoughts or prettify her words for me. On Wednesday, when we didn’t yet know when the present nightmare would end, she told me: “What’s happening to us is beyond human capability. Generation after generation, the Nakba (catastrophe of 1948) continues. Wherever we go, the Jews persecute us. But they won’t eliminate us, that’s impossible. They must understand that. We aren’t (American) Indians. We’ll stay and we will multiply. Nor will we forget. The 6-year-old son of Abu al-Khatab, who remains the sole survivor of his family – how will he forget? The child who remains from the Abu al-Ouf family, 10 years old, how will he forget his family? How will he forget that the Jews killed them?

“We won’t surrender. Generation after generation. We will stay and multiply and multiply. But not like this. The world – they’re criminals. What is all this silence? (U.S. President) Joe Biden says to ease up on the assaults. What does it mean to ease up? Hit me only in the stomach, only in the leg? I don’t believe that there’s any nation that’s going through what we’re going through. We don’t believe in parties, in Hamas or Fatah. They can go to hell. But we have faith in God, in our people, in our land, in our homeland.

“Look at the Palestinians in Al-Quds (Jerusalem). People don’t forget their origins. And look at those from ‘48 (i.e., the Palestinians who are Israeli citizens): These are the third generation. They are being called Israelis, but they’re Palestinians and they don’t forget their homeland or their people. We are their extension and they are ours. We will not forget. The Jews bombed us, torched our land, evicted us, killed, demolished our homes. What more remains for them to do?”

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