Letters from Gaza About Life Under Israeli Air
Strikes by US-Made F-16 War Planes
By Kenneth Ring
ccun.org, January 17, 2009
This article is based on a letter sent to a friend who had written me
toward the end of the first week in January to wish me a happy new year
as well as to express her concern for the friends she knew I was worried
about in Gaza following the Israeli invasion. I replied largely by
quoting from various documents from them in order to convey to my
correspondent as vividly as I could what my friends – and by
implication, most Gazans – had been experiencing ever since coming under
attack. What follows, then, are mainly some firsthand accounts of
life in the killing zone of Gaza.
First, here are
some excerpts from Hanan’s last note to me, a week ago — obviously, I
have had no word from her since. Of course, there is often no
electricity, no water, no cell phone service; it is winter there, but
people have to leave their windows open lest they shatter if there are
explosions nearby; families huddle together just to keep as warm as they
can. Under such conditions, how can I expect Hanan to write? And how
can I know what her silence means? Anyway, here are her last — but I
hope not her final -- words to me:
Dear friend Ken,
you so much for your concern and your noble feelings, I really
appreciate them. You can say that I am fine but my people are not, you
can never even imagine the destruction and the horror we're living in,
circumstances are the worstest, we haven't had electricity for two days,
and we just got some. It's actually 4 o'clock after
midnight, and it is an awful night. F-16 planes
are joining our children with their dreams or what have become,
nightmares. Sorry, I have no words to describe the situation here.
I am not sure whether you got my story [for a book I’m writing]
translated or not but believe me, it's nothing. nothing at all compared
Concerning professor Haidar [another friend of mine], I
haven't heard from him for days either and am concerned because he lives
in the middle of Gaza city, very near to the attacks. It
came to my knowledge that he had lived through a bad experience [he
narrowly missed death — I read about it later — and there was worse to
Again, thank you so much for your concerning feeling.
There is one thing I want you to know. In case something
happened and I didn't make it or haven't the chance to say so, I would
like you to know that you are one of my best friends ever, and that it
was a great pleasure for me to know you and to communicate with you.
I've really learned a lot from you and your forgiveness personality was
a source of inspiration and admiration.
Take care of yourself,
dear friend, and excuse me for this long message but it might be the
your little friend,
And my friend Haidar? After already having come close to death or
serious injury when a police building very near his house was blown up,
even worse times lay ahead for him. Here is the last I heard of him,
taken from an interview conducted on December 30th by a Canadian
journalist, Eva Bartlett, based in Gaza [published in The Palestinian
Chronicle and reprinted here by permission]. I have had no word from or
of him since.
I was lying in my bedroom when the first strike
happened, around 1:30 am. You know a strike isn’t just one explosion,
it’s a series of explosions. Boom, boom, boom, boom. The whole building
shook. I woke up and went to the bathroom first, and within 30 seconds
the second strike hit. F-16s were bombing the Ministry of Foreign
Affairs building, about 500 meters away. I could hear glass shattering
everywhere. I went back into the bedroom and saw glass everywhere, all
over the bed which is right up against the window. If I had been lying
there still, it would have shattered all over me, would have seriously
injured me, or worse, I don’t know. It was a very strong blast, and the
glass must have hit the bed with great force.
I brought a mattress into the living room, which faces the sea, and lay
down trying to sleep there. Moments later, I heard a huge explosion, the
third strike, this time from an area closer to the sea. The front,
sea-facing window exploded into the room, landing on the desk and the
floor, thankfully too far from where I was lying.
to call a friend who lives two buildings away from the Ministries. He’s
got five children, ages 5 to 15. He said they were okay, but the
children were terrified, screaming.
I went into the third room,
a spare bedroom, and saw that the windows were already broken. I looked
through the shards of glass and saw that 4 ambulances had come, as well
as 2 fire trucks. There were huge, black clouds. I was looking at the
ambulances and the people below when another strike against the compound
happened, the third series of explosions. Again, my building shook from
the impact. I heard people screaming, there was more smoke, fire, and a
terrible smell. I don’t know what… the smell of death, I guess.
The radio reported that my friend, Dr. Fawaz abu Setta, whose house is
just in front of the ministry compound, was buried under the rubble of
his home. I was stunned, it really affected me badly. He’s such a kind
man, and I couldn’t believe it. I called friends, I was so worried, and
15 minutes later finally learned that another friend had spoken to him:
he and his wife were okay, in the basement of their house, locked in
because something had fallen against the door.
The compound has
3 or 4 ministries, and each building has 8-10 floors. So I’d imagine you
need 3 missiles for each building. So far there’d been 3 sets of hits
against the buildings, as well as on-going strikes around Gaza City and
I could hear some of the explosions in Gaza’s
neighborhood, and the radio kept reporting the latest explosions. They
were everywhere: Shaikh Radhwan (a district of Gaza City, where my
brother and his family live. I started calling him, but he didn’t
answer), Zaytoon (another district of Gaza), Jabaliya, Beit Hanoon…
All the time the building was shaking, like an earthquake. These
were the loudest explosions I’ve ever heard. It was terrible,
frightening, confusing. And you know, you don’t know where to run, what
to do. I looked outside, but it was too dark, too filled with black
smoke… I don’t know what kind of bombs Israel is using, something
that creates fire, and very dark smoke. I could hear children
screaming in my own building, screeching from fear. My landlord is in
his 80s, and his wife had a stroke last year and cannot walk. They live
on the 12th floor. I couldn’t imagine how they were feeling then,
completely helpless, the power out, no way of escaping if our building
was hit, or even if it wasn’t hit, but just to escape the terror.
I took my mattress and went to the corridor this time, the last
place I could try. I lay down, and listened to the radio reporting the
latest. And I continued to hear blasts all over.
after the 3rd strike, they came back, to finish the job against the
ministerial compound. With the 4th strike, more glass shattered, what
was left of it. I rushed to the window closest to the attacks, already
shattered, and again tried to see through dark smoke. But I couldn’t see
anything, but could hear ambulances below, more screaming.
The electricity was off, the landlines down. No phone lines, no
internet, no cell phone connection. I had no way of speaking to anyone.
It was very isolating, terrifying.
It seems ridiculous to go
back to bed after all of this, to try to sleep. But there is really
nowhere I felt safe, so I went back to the mattress in the corridor. It
started raining, and I could see rain coming in the sea-view window, and
my bedroom window. I got up, tried to cover things… my laptop, my
stereo… I was just trying to save my things. And there was glass all
over the floor, I was stepping on it.
This morning, my nieces
came over, and when they saw my bedroom with the broken windows and
thick shards of glass where my head and body would have been, they were
horrified, started crying.
We still have glass everywhere. We
tried to clean… it’s everywhere. [Dr. Eid picks glass off the
couch, the floor, apologizing to me — this is the interviewer,
I heard later that they used more than 40 shells,
which when you add up all the strikes is entirely possible.
the attacks, the drones were all over, flying low, buzzing like huge
mosquitoes. The sound they make, it’s loud, grating, and you know it
means they’re considering what to do next. They were up there the rest
of the night, flying circles, coming lower, going back up, the pitch of
their whine rising, going away, coming back…They want to make there
presence felt. They are really saying to us, ‘we can do whatever we
want, with impunity.’
There’s only so much one can bear, you
know. You can’t think clearly, you know, I don’t know what to do.
People are afraid they might strike the Ministry of Justice and next
to it the Ministry of Education, just up the street, about 400-500
Update: 8 am, 31 December. The Council of
Ministers, hosting the Prime Minister’s Office, was targeted Tuesday
night at around 8:50 pm, along with the Ministry of Interior in Tel al
Hawa (just 500 meters from Dr. Eid’s home), which was targeted for the
3rd time. Both were completely destroyed.
After that, nothing but silence — again.*
These are just two of my friends. There are about 1.5 million Gazans,
all of whom have friends and family, mostly there, some elsewhere, and
they all have similar stories to tell. You can see why Gaza is so much
on my mind. And there is no end in sight. At least 55 more civilians
died today, and more than 600 have perished now. At least 800 children
have either been killed or wounded, and of course the hospitals,
completely under-supplied and understaffed for years because of the
Israeli siege, can’t cope. One Norwegian doctor, who has been working
there now for eight days, with almost no sleep and little to eat
himself, broke down in tears last night because of the children he can’t
help and can only see die. And then he has to tell their parents — when
they are alive to tell.
Yeah, not exactly a happy new year, but at least I’m not living in Gaza.
Yet I am.
[After sending this letter off to my friend, I added a postscript.]
I’ve just heard from another friend of mine there who, despite the
shortage of electricity and all the other hardships of life in Gaza now,
somehow finds the time to send me brief personal notes of reassurance
that she and her family are still all right – at least physically.
But here I will quote some excerpts from a longer commentary she wrote
for general distribution on New Year’s Day that provides a sense of the
way people can adapt to – and even laugh during – the most dreadful
conditions of life and death surrounding them. My friend Safa also
expresses her rage that so many people in the world continue to cling to
the most distorted and demeaning stereotypes of the Palestinian people,
which only adds to the emotional burden she has to carry in the midst of
being surrounded by carnage on all sides and having to live with the
threat that in the next moment she and her family could be obliterated
in an instant. Laughter and rage by turns in the shell-shocked
charnel house of Gaza.
It's interesting how, at the most
terrifying and horrific of times, we still manage to make light of the
events, and even enjoy a dark sense of humor that surprisingly comes out
not inappropriate and even the more amusing given the constant state of
tenseness and apprehension.
My 10-year-old cousin was eating a
sandwich when my younger brother, 12, looked at him and, quoting a line
from one of his favorite video games in his dead-on imitation of the
character’s voice, while being extremely amused by the fear in the
younger boy’s eyes, said "enjoy it, it could be your last!" I looked at
him for a second and began laughing almost hysterically.
another occasion, we looked around for my 12-year-old and 14-year-old
brothers during an intense bout of air strikes and realized that they
had snuck back to the living room, the room directly in front of the
area being bombed, and were watching a sports channel. "But we had to
see the scores," they retorted after being severely reproached. They're
becoming desensitized, I thought. I went through this before
while living in Ramallah in 2002. I laughed so hard, they had
become totally oblivious!
I've had a lot of time to contemplate,
the last few days, and looking at my siblings, I wonder how the rest of
the world envisions the people who occupy the most despondent and unruly
military zones in the world.
My younger brothers spend their free
time out with their friends, or playing basketball and soccer at youth
clubs. They are passionate about sports, play station, and music. They
play the guitar and are exceptional students. My brother who's in
collage is obsessed with computers and gadgets, he's an engineering
student who comes up with the most ingenious projects for his classes.
He listens to music and plays the guitar and prays regularly. He's an
honor student who has big goals and big dreams.
understand why I am infuriated when I see how we are portrayed on
television. Hordes of bearded, teeth-gnashing, stone- throwing
blood-thirsty savages in rags and tatters. And please don't blame me for
feeling utter rage against the state of Israel that has been
intentionally targeting the unwary, guiltless, promising children and
youth of the Gaza Strip in its vicious attacks over the past 5 days.
Already, between 40 and 50 children are dead while hundreds lie in the
hospitals, seriously injured or disabled for life.
The people of
Gaza have been suffering for decades under systematic and tyrannical
oppression by Israel, the latest of its measures has been the siege and
closures imposed on the strip that have completely devastated the
livelihoods of Gaza residents and caused the economy to fall into an
unprecedented and crippling depression. The people of Gaza have long
been denied the means that have been afforded to the residents of
countries with the same, possibly less, resources. And yet the amount of
resourcefulness and zeal we demonstrate is a testimony to the potential
of progress and advancement that lies within us….
So while being
cooped up in the house, watching local news stations when we have
electricity, still in a state of disbelief, I wonder if the rest of the
world would be so harsh in its judgments if they had the opportunity to
understand. I wonder if people would as easily accept the
unsubstantiated claims that the engineering faculty building of the
Islamic university, which has been flattened during the attacks, was a
workshop that produced qassams, if they had seen my brother’s reaction.
When he came back from a walk to the university building the next day,
his face was white as a sheet and he had tears in his eyes. "It’s all
gone,” he said, “even the project (electric car) we've been working on
all semester." We'd seen pictures, I didn't know whether to laugh or
cry. Did he seriously have any hope that the car had survived?
few hours ago, the home of one of Hamas' senior leaders, Nizar Rayan,
was struck by 4 missiles. Not only was the entire building flattened,
killing all who were in it, but several other buildings surrounding it
looked like they were about ready to collapse. It is said that there
were over 19 deaths, most of them women and children, and scores of
injuries. The entire street was littered with debris and rubble. We saw
the images on TV, children being lifted from beneath the rubble,
headless corpses loaded into plastic body bags, the whole works. We sent
a taxi to pick up my aunt, whose home lies 100 meters away from the
Rayan building, and had caved in due to the attack. She and her children
arrived, shaken, but all in one piece.
Today the temporary halt
of rocket fire coincided with the restoration of power to our home, at
least for a few hours, at about 5pm. My brothers went to their rooms and
played their videogames, I sat on the couch and read, and my sister went
to take a nap. We tried to busy ourselves with regular daily activities
in a situation that is anything but commonplace.
These are some letters from Gaza, written in the midst of war by those
who are on the receiving end of the violence and who, because they are
sealed into one of the most densely-packed regions of the world, have
nowhere to flee. Inside their prison they can only wait – and
hope. And we, who remain on the outside, can only do the same,
hoping that our friends and their families will survive and waiting for
the world to act to bring this inhuman and criminal onslaught to an end
before more lives are lost and Gaza becomes one continuous heap of
rubble and shattered dreams.
* I have learned just today –
January 11 – from Eva Bartlett that my friend Haidar is in fact still
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