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Five years on, a reporter from Gaza remembers the 2014 war

Opinion

It’s been five years since the last war in Gaza, yet at times I feel like it was yesterday. I walk around with memories on loop inside my head.  Sharp sounds give me flashbacks. Car backfires, popped tires, drones overhead, surged outlets all make me shudder.

My first experience of war-like conditions was in 2004 when I was 13. Israeli forces entered Jabalia refugee camp in northern Gaza where I lived for a two week operation during the second intifada that left 130 Palestinians and one Israeli dead. One day during that period  a journalist stopped me on the street in my neighborhood and requested a short interview.

I was nervous and shy, but I agreed. The journalist was American and another man translated what he said to me to Arabic. I remember two of their questions: “Does your father let you go to the area where there are clashes?” and the second question was “what do you want to do when you grow up?”

To the first question I gave a terse answer. No, I was not allowed to go to the clashes. To the second, I gave a detailed answer.

“I want to be a famous football player, I’m a playmaker like the French player Zinedine Zidane and I want to be like him.”

Everyone smiled at my answer and the translator gave me a bottle of juice, before I ran home to tell my mother that I was just interviewed by a foreign journalist and may become famous.

Days and the years passed. I did not expect to become a journalist, nor did I expect to stop playing football which had consumed most of my spare time in childhood. Now I only watch football.

A week before 2014 World Cup started my cousin came from Turkey after he finished college there. He gifted me a shirt of Germany’s team, therefore we decided to cheer on the German together even though I was a committed lifelong Brazil fan.

When football games ended, we started our regular follow-up of watching clips of the best plays. After three weeks, on July 8, 2014, the Gaza Strip entered a third war with Israel in the span of six years. At the time, I was working as a cub reporter for the Hamas-affiliated newspaper Al Resalah Newspaper, although today I am a freelance reporter.

One the war began, the World Cup, which was supposed to be the highlight of my summer, became an afterthought.

The newspaper’s management had prepared an emergency plan and we adjusted our movements to and from the office with additional safety protocols accordingly.

It was my first time working in media under such circumstances; in the previous war I was a high school student. My work was led by Mohammed Daher who was then the media editor for the newspaper.

The first week of the war I worked as a field correspondent. Every time I went out, I took a small black bag that included my notebook, pen, a pack of cigarettes, and the Germany team shirt because I thought it was lucky.

The second week’s schedule was different.  The team worked in rotations of three days on, one day off.

On the 13th day of the war when staff was with breaking news, I took a moment to watch a summary of the World Cup on YouTube. I wanted to see the German team’s victory. Daher then noticed what I was watching and said to me in a vinegar tone, “you’re not a child, you’re a journalist.”

I regretfully responded poorly and we had an argument.

On the morning of the next day, on July 20, 2014 the whole staff was in the office on time, except Daher.

The managing editor Mohammed Abu Qamar asked me to call Daher to see why he was late. I didn’t make the call immediately. Then I heard reports that  72 Palestinians were killed overnight in his neighborhood, Shejaiya in eastern Gaza.

For 30 minutes called and called but the line rang on and no one answered. At 4 p.m. I learned from a breaking television report that an errant shell from Israeli forces struck his house, collapsing the roof. Daher survived the blast but died days later in the hospital. Six more relatives including Daher’s one year old daughter and his parents were killed in the explosion. His wife Shamia, who was pregnant at the time, was the only survivor. 

Immediately myself and others from the newspaper went to al-Shifa Hospital to visit Daher who was in coma.

The steps towards Daher’s bed were heavy and slow. I asked him to forgive me. I have no idea if he heard me or not. Daher succumbed to his injuries eleven days later on July 31, 2014.

I remember that the medical staff al-Shifa told me they were only able to remove the bodies of the Daher family five days after the house was destroyed because of extensive fighting in the neighborhood. Israeli forces had started a ground invasion into Gaza and Shejaiya was one of the most wrecked regions during the entire war. The whole neighborhood, really a town in and of itself, was ostensibly flattened in a few days time.

Palestinians flee with their belongings from the Shejaiya neighborhood in the Gaza Strip to the center of Gaza City to seek refugee at a United Nations school, on August 19, 2014. (Photo: Ezz al-Zanoun/APA Images)

Palestinians flee with their belongings from the Shejaiya neighborhood in the Gaza Strip to the center of Gaza City to seek refugee at a United Nations school, on August 19, 2014. (Photo: Ezz al-Zanoun/APA Images)

Palestinians in the Shejaiya neighborhood wave a white flag as they flee to safety, on July 20, 2014. (Photo: Ashraf Amra/APA Images)

Palestinians in the Shejaiya neighborhood wave a white flag as they flee to safety, on July 20, 2014. (Photo: Ashraf Amra/APA Images)

At then end of the war the United Nations found 1,523 Palestinian civilians, including 519 children were killed along with 67 Israeli soldiers and 7 civilians including a Thai national.

I wished I never shouted at Daher, I wished I never watched that football replay.

One of the most frightening moments for a journalist covering the 2014 war was riding in a car. We had to take cars to cover stories about the aftermath of a bombardment and these experiences were fraught with danger. The previous wars in Gaza taught us that everything moving is an Israeli target, even medical staff in an ambulance or journalists marked PRESS. Reporters usually ride in vehicles marked “TV” on the roof with electrical tape, but that hardly quelled the prevailing sense of peril.

For me, every time I get into the car heading to work on a feature or documenting an Israeli massacre, I tried to hide my fear from my colleague, photographer Khaled Tema, who used to accompany me. I bet that I saw the same hidden fear inside his eyes as well.

On August 4, 2014, after an unforgettable day for me, I returned to the office with Tema and he started to edit a photo story. At around 1 a.m., he received a phone call after which he stopped talking and requested to leave the office. Later, we heard that his younger brother was killed in a drone strike.

But at that time we did not know what had occurred and tried to reason with him to stay in the office because we feared that he could be killed in nearby air strikes. After many trials he was convinced to wait. The whole staff working that evening slept overnight in the office. In the early morning hours myself and other colleagues accompanied Tema to the hospital, specifically to the morgue.

We left Tema there to grieve with his family and returned to the office to continue our work. News moves fast during war and we are not granted time to process losses. After two hours, we were surprised to see Tema come into the office holding his camera. He said then: “There’s no time to grieve, we need to hurry in documenting Israeli crimes,” and he continued doing his work in silence.

If the first lesson I learned about being a war correspondent was from Mohammed Daher who was right that I should have focused on my work over, the second lesson I learned came from Tema’s reaction.

Ten days before the war’s end in mid-August, I was busy at work when one of my neighbors called to say that someone from the Israeli military called him and warned his house would be targeted in the coming hours. That soldier requested he inform other neighbors to evacuate their homes as the camp house are very close to each other. This was not an uncommon phenomenon during the war, that a Palestinian would receive a phone call on their mobile from the Israeli army notifying them of a coming air strike. The neighbor told me he had tried to reach my family to tell them to evacuate, but no one answered. We live in Jabalia refugee camp, one of the more dense areas in Gaza.

I jumped out of my seat and ran to the car with the driver for the newspaper. After a few minutes we were on my street.

I could see dozens of neighbors running. That’s what an evacuation looks like. I darted inside my house and screamed for my mother. In a frightened tone she said, “we’re here. Hurry Hamza.”

I found my family hiding in the bathroom. It’s the only place at our house insulated by cement. My mother and four sisters were huddled together. I turned off my phone and stayed with them in the bathroom. After an hour, we could hear neighbors return to their houses. No air strike had occurred.

While our house was not harmed during the war many others were. We didn’t have the official numbers at the time, but the panic around us was because we could destroyed neighborhoods and overcrowded shelters. At the end of the war the United Nations reported Israeli forces damaged 60,000 homes in Gaza, of which 20,000 were completely destroyed. An estimated one-third of the entire 2 million population in Gaza lived in a home that was damaged during the war.

While all this was going on I still had to work. Interviewing Palestinians who had lost family members was the most difficult for me. I was confused as to what was the most appropriate way of asking. I didn’t have a sense of timing. I often wondered were my questions harmful? That thought circulated in my head often. I was afraid of harming the families more.

I remember early on I was eager to cover the war, especially after my colleague was killed. The war was 51 days long and by the last week I was exhausted. I really wanted to stop working and sleep. It was summer and our office was hot. I was beyond fatigued.

One night, in the middle of the night three days before the war ended, Israeli forces bombed two high rises in Gaza City, one of which, the Italian Complex, was 300 yards from my bureau. The blast injured 25. 

At the moment of impact the electricity cut, smoke and dust covered the office, and I heard shrapnel hitting the exterior. One of my colleagues started sobbing. I tried to open the door, but it was difficult because of the air pressure the missiles caused. After three trials, I opened it.

Despite how terrified we were at the time, now years later it sits in a place of dark humor. We process the trauma by joking about our reactions, especially the colleague who cried. I can see I’ve hardened in other ways. That Germany shirt I wouldn’t leave with, I think my mom ended up making kitchen rags out of it.

Hamza Abu Al-Tarabeesh

Hamza Abu Al-Tarabeesh is a freelance journalist and writer based in Gaza. He specializes in political analysis and social issues. He covered Israel's war on Gaza in 2014, Operation Protective Edge.

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9 Responses

  1. CigarGod on July 30, 2019, 11:36 am

    Very good to read your story.
    I think about the “errant shell” that killed your journalist friend.
    The Israeli’s seem to have a lot of those “errors.”
    Hospitals, schools, inordinate number of journalists targeted, children sniped in the head…

  2. Citizen on July 30, 2019, 1:58 pm

    Imagine Americans living like this. Meanwhile our tax dollars keep paying for it.

  3. CHUCKMAN on July 31, 2019, 9:51 am

    “Five years on, a reporter from Gaza remembers the 2014 war”

    Just a note on words.

    Sorry, but I can’t help it, I am always offended when anyone calls one of Israel’s periodic savage attacks on Gaza a “war.”

    “War” generally implies two forces of at least some rough equivalence. Otherwise, no conflict would take place, as the greatly weaker side would avoid a fight and retreat.

    But you can’t retreat when your home and neighborhood are being assaulted. And where do you run to when you live in a giant open-air prison surrounded by fences and automated machine-gun towers?

    No, you cannot dignify Israel’s ruthless assaults on Gaza with the word “war.”

    One side has jets, guided missiles, tanks, artillery, armored soldiers, and satellite intelligence while the other has hand-held weapons?

    That is the work of the worst kind of cowards, the work of heavily-armed men who kill trapped opponents and women and children and who blow-up homes.

  4. Misterioso on July 31, 2019, 10:58 am

    https://www.alternet.org/2014/08/gaza-residents-share-monstrous-allegations-abuse-israeli-soldiers/?paging=off&current_page=1#bookmark

    “Gaza Residents Share Allegations of Abuse, Claim Israeli Soldiers Used Them as Human Shields” Written by Max Blumenthal / AlterNet August 26, 2014

    EXCERPTS:
    “Mahmoud Abu Said could hardly speak about what happened to him when the soldiers first arrived to his neighborhood. His eyes filled with tears, the muscles in his face began to twitch, and his voice faltered. As the baby-faced, 19-year-old resident of Rafah in Southern Gaza recounted how Israeli soldiers used him as a human shield, torturing and then kidnapping him, he collapsed into a plastic chair.

    “’I feel so afraid,’ he muttered. ‘It’s not normal. I feel weak and I’m not myself.’

    “Mahmoud was among several residents of the Gaza Strip who provided me with testimony of being used as human shields by Israeli forces during their ground invasion in July. He is also among the young men from various locations around the besieged coastal territory who told me they were kidnapped by Israeli soldiers, taken to a prison in southern Israel, physically abused and interrogated about activity by armed resistance groups operating in Gaza.

    “The Israeli military and its international corps of supporters have accused Hamas of exploiting residents of the Gaza Strip as human shields, hoping to deflect from the whopping toll of civilian casualties they caused. But interviews with Palestinians from Gaza’s border areas revealed the opposite to be true: Israel has repeatedly used defenseless civilians to shield themselves from potential guerrilla attacks, brutally abusing young men like Mahmoud Abu Said during their invasion of Gaza. The practice is not only a war crime that violates international human rights law, it was outlawed by the Israeli Supreme Court in 2005.”

    “I met Suleiman Zreibi in front of the ruins of his home, which Israeli forces destroyed with a combined salvo of missiles and artillery shells. Behind him was the car his son once drove for a living. It too had been destroyed by Israeli shells, turned to a hulk of gnarled metal. ‘We’ve been suffering and it started more than 60 years ago, not yesterday,’ Suleiman Zreibi declared. ‘When I build a house, the Israelis bomb it. When I try to make a living, they destroy my business. When I try to have a child, they kill him.’

    “While Suleiman Zreibi escaped to a UNRWA school where he has been living for the past 40 days — ‘the life there is shitty,’ he remarked — Mahmoud Abu Said was kidnapped by the Israeli soldiers who used him as a human shield, taken to southern Israel and placed in a prison cell.”

    “When I left the Abu Said home in Rafah, proceeding through the rocky lanes that lined the shattered neighborhood, I stepped across the shards of spent Israeli munitions dumped indiscriminately on residents over the course of several weeks. Mortar shells, US-made Mark-82 500-pound ‘dumb bombs,’ drone missiles, and spent bullet casings. These were Israel’s calling cards in southern Gaza.

    “The harrowing visions of Rafah blended into the desolate landscape of Beit Hanoun, another border city Israel flattened during its ground invasion of Gaza, and where marauding soldiers forced an entire family to serve as their shield against guerrilla retaliation.

    “Trapped at Home in a Holy War
    The city of Beit Hanoun is situated in the northeastern corner of Gaza, just at the edge of the Israeli-imposed buffer zone and therefore in one of vulnerable areas in the strip. It is one of the first areas Israel destroyed when it mounted its ground invasion in July. When I arrived during a five-day ceasefire that began on August 14, the sound of gunshots marking the discovery of new bodies sounded in the distance. Thousands of residents had returned for the first time to the ruins of their homes to survey the damage.

    “The city was destroyed by Israel’s Givati Brigade, an infantry division led by the religious nationalist Colonel Ofer Winter. In a July 10 letter to his troops, Winter pledged a ‘holy war’ on the people of Gaza, vowing to punish them for committing the sin of blasphemy.

    “’History has chosen us to be the sharp edge of the bayonet of fighting the terrorist enemy ‘from Gaza’ which curses, defames and abuses the God of Israel’s battles,’ Winter wrote. He added, ‘I turn my eyes to the sky and call with you ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord.’ God, the Lord of Israel, make our path successful, as we are about to fight for Your People, Israel, against an enemy who defames your name.’

    “At the easternmost outskirts of Beit Hanoun, I met Abdul Rahman, a 50-year-old farmer who had lost almost everything to the Israelis. In 2005, Israeli bulldozers razed his citrus trees to extend the buffer zone, wiping out trees that provided oranges to the entire Gaza Strip. They then destroyed the wells he used to irrigate his land. And when they returned this year, they leveled his four-story home, killed his flock of 80 goats and incinerated the five tons of wheat he had stored. Bees buzzed all around us as we spoke, the remnants of an apiary Rahman had kept until it was obliterated by Israeli bombs. His fate was a reminder of the continuous, unrelenting nature of Israeli violence against the residents of Gaza’s border communities.

    “’In the blink of an eye, everything my father worked for 70 years was gone,’ Rahman said. ‘During the past month, I feel like I aged two years.’

    “Unlike in areas like Shujaiya, where residents were bombarded without warning, many of Beit Hanoun’s locals were able to escape ahead of the Israeli onslaught. When Rahman returned to his home during the first temporary ceasefire, however, he found rubble of his neighbors’ home littered with human flesh and dismembered limbs. Some had not been able to escape after all.

    “The dead were all members of the Wahadan family, one of the 89 families completely or mostly liquidated by Israeli forces in the Gaza Strip during the seven weeks of Operation Protective Edge. According to Rahman and several of his neighbors, Israeli troops from the Givati Brigade ordered the Wahadan family to remain in their home as the rest of the residents from the area fled, warning them that if they attempted to evacuate they would be shot. They were turned into human shields as members of the Hamas-affiliated Qassam Brigades staged period attacks on the occupying Israeli forces, attempting to dislodge them from the area.

    “Though Israeli forces knew the Wahadan family was still inside their home — they had ordered them to remain there, after all — they did not attempt to evacuate them when a bombardment was called in. According to Rahman, at least 10 members of the Al-Wahadan family were trapped in the house when it was attacked. All of them died and their body parts were not removed for 10 days.”

    “The ceasefire announced on August 26 has given the beleaguered residents a reprieve from the Israeli military’s ongoing assault. Almost every family I encountered in Gaza was touched by the violence, with more than a few left to bury their loved ones in abrupt mourning ceremonies. As a vaguely defined ceasefire sets in, they are left to wonder if they will ever receive justice for the suffering they endured.”

  5. Jackdaw on August 2, 2019, 7:51 am

    Ah yes, the 2014 War that begun when Hamas ordered the kidnap/murder of three Israeli boys.

    First blood.

    Who ordered the kidnap/murder? None other than the newly appointed Deputy Chief of Hamas, Saleh al-Arouri, who is the Hamas liaison with Iran.

    Hmmm…

    https://www.timesofisrael.com/report-israel-believes-hamas-iran-agreed-on-gaza-front-in-case-of-northern-war/

    The 2014 war with Hamas continued in spite of a negotiated ceasefire offer, which offer Israel accepted and Hamas refused.
    Oh, BTW, did you know that most of the Gazan casualties occurred AFTER Hamas refused the Egyptian brokered ceasefire?

    • Talkback on August 2, 2019, 12:07 pm

      Jackdaw: “Ah yes, the 2014 War that begun …”

      Ah yes, wars only begin after one or many illegal occupation soldiers or illegal setlers are kidnapped, injured or killed. The fact that Israel has been doing this on an almost daily base to Palestinians and has been keeping them under an illegal and genocidal occupation for more than half century is not something that you can’t handle psychologically.

      Not to mention that Israel killed 2,300 Palestinians and injured more than 17,000 (including 3,374 children, of whom over 1,000 were left permanently disabled) and all its warcrimes, including targeting inhabited homes, the policy of indiscriminate artillery fire at inhabited areas, and the policy of destroying farmland and thousands of homes without any military necessity.

      And this is inuring and killing is going on: “After the Supreme Court Praised the Open-Fire Policy, the Military Admits: We killed Protestors for No Reason”
      https://www.btselem.org/press_releases/20190724_military_admits_to_killing_protestors_for_no_reason

      Jackdaw: “The 2014 war with Hamas continued in spite of a negotiated ceasefire offer, which offer Israel accepted and Hamas refused.”

      Hamas rejected it in “its current form”, citing the fact thad it had not been consulted in the formation of the ceasefire and it omitted many of their demands. Israel would have continued with its criminal blockade and collective punishing of Gazans.

      Jackdaw: “Oh, BTW, did you know that most of the Gazan casualties occurred AFTER Hamas refused the Egyptian brokered ceasefire?”

      Sounds even more like state terrorism to me. Hamas refuses one of Israel’s pathetic “offers” and Israel kills even more to punish Hamas. But two days after it rejected ceasfire it offered the Israel a 10-year truce with ten conditions centred on the lifting of the blockade and the release of prisoners who were released in the Gilad Shalit prisoner swap and were re-arrested. It was not accepted by Israel.

      • Misterioso on August 4, 2019, 2:38 pm

        @Talkback

        Dealing with Jackdaw is like shooting fish in a barrel.
        Surely, Hasbara Central will have to dump him.

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