The short phone call that Hamouda Abu Amra received from a professed Israeli security officer at 11:15 p.m on November 13 was the fourth catastrophic change to happen in his rural life in Gaza.
The call still echoes in Abu Amra’s ears. “A heavy load is coming to your shoulders soon, uncle!” the officer whispered. “Evacuate your family in two minutes and don’t switch off your phone”.
“Naima, wake up darling, we must leave now, wake up the girls as well.” Abu Amra, 51, is often facetious, but his wife understood that this was no joke.
Naima Abu Amra says, “I woke up scared by Hamouda’s facial features. He was chilled and said, ‘he is on the phone, darling!'”
“We gathered, my family and my neighbors, 200 meters from the house. A drone fired a warning missile, then a warplane fired two missiles,” Hamouda said.
And in an instant a huge explosion turned the four-storey house into a deep crater surrounded by cactus and orange orchards, and the Hamoudas found themselves homeless, just 20 minutes after the call. The eight family members live now seven yards away from the crater in a tin shack, 500 meters from the Israel border in Deir al-Balah, in central Gaza.
The Abu Amras live in a farm adjacent to what Israel calls the “buffer zone” along the Gaza border. There are very few houses this close to the fence. But the entire area is in the line of fire, and the Israeli government says nearby groves are used for rocket fire.
The attack took place during a four-day wave of Israeli air strikes on Gaza in November. Israel has periodically bombed the Gaza Strip since the 2014 war, sometimes informing residents of the need to evacuate minutes before destroying targets.
A floor-length navy blue velvet dress and a worn scarf are the only surviving clothes from Naim Abu Amra’s wardrobe. “I am an old lady who feels embarrassment when I ask the neighbors to take a shower in their bath without being able to change my underwear,” Naima says. “Why did this happen? We are not guerrillas. All we have left are a hen and pigeon coop, and a donkey made deaf by the house bombing.”
The Abu Amras are now rebuilding their house for the fourth time in the last ten years. It was struck and razed in 2009, 2012, 2014 and again last month. The whole family spent 22 days in an UNRWA primary school during the seven week assault in 2014.
Why have they been subject to such attack? The Israeli military answer for their ‘frequent deliberate displacement’ is that that the Abu Amras are “border area residents”.
“They feel upset at us being here, but we will not leave, and we are ready to rebuild it again for the fifth time as long as my nickname is Abu Saber,” Hamoud Abu Amra said. Saber means Patient in Arabic.
“Didn’t he promise to give me a heavy load? I’m on it.”
Jehan, 21, the middle daughter, a law school student, remembers an Israeli foot soldier swearing at the family and threatening them by wiping his chin with his hand, after inserting a powder in drinking water bottles. The same powder was sprayed on a melon patch near the house. “He was spiteful and wanted to deliver a toxic message without using words. They want to vanish us from the area, but dad taught us to be stubborn girls.”
“We became experts in homeless life,” said Ettemad, 19, as she flipped through a family album photos lifted out the debris. “One might think we are just young ladies. But we helped to build this house block by block, lifting bags of cement to the upper floors without using male builders. But all those months of fatigue and dreams went down like sand.”
Ettemad, who used to teach traditional dance lessons for pupils in the area, felt sorry when she gathered the pupils again in a nearby house charity, and had to inform them that she had failed to dig out eighteen embroidered dance dresses that were buried in the wreckage, along with a makeup set that belonged to Jehan.
“I used to work as a makeup artist for any bride in the area,” Jehan said. “And yesterday I bought an eyebrow clipper, eyeliner brush and a single lipstick– hopefully to move forward.”
Both young sisters recall the last two hours before the house was flattened. “At nine p.m, we asked our brother to get a night supply of Pringles, snacks and Snickers, then we talked about Jehan’s unfulfilled promises to earn money to repaint the cement front walls of our bedroom,” Ettemad said. “Then a few hours later the walls were gone and not in need to repaint.”
I went back out to find the girls’ father and found Hamouda Abu Amra giving a hand to his son collecting dry palm fronds to feed the oven.
“I am not sad, but I do feel heartbreak when I recall my father’s trip to Israel’s Dimona city,” Hamouda said. “We drove for 40-50 minutes and came to a potato farm, and stopped by its gate, and my father said, “All that land belongs to your grandfather Hasan’. That is what really makes me broken, our unattainable legacy. And in exchange we live homeless in a tin shack.”