Sifting Through the Fallout Death Hangs over the Gaza Strip after the Fighting
More than 160 people died in the eight-day Gaza war. And though the fighting may have stopped, the dead and the nightmares remain. Survivors and victims' families say they want revenge.
Hussam Ashi, a driver in the Gaza Strip, admits that he lied. He couldn't bring himself to tell his six-year-old son Hatim that a war was going on, or that rockets were pointed at them. He avoided the explanations that necessarily follow from such sentences, explanations burdened with the experiences of at least three generations.
Instead, he told his son that there was a party outside, which explained the fireworks and the noise -- an eight-day party. During those eight days, Hatim would sometimes comfort his father when he came from work looking depressed. "Papa," he would say, "don't be sad. We're having a party."
The war is over, leaving behind more than 1,200 wounded and 160 dead, but a charred odor still hangs in the air. Drones circle above like insects stuck inside a room, unable to find their way out. The rocket contrails have disappeared from the sky, and yet this sandy strip is still sealed off, day and night, by a 52-kilometer (33-mile) wall equipped with remote-controlled weapons stations and surveillance cameras.
The fishing boots are heading out to sea again, but they are not permitted to cross a line three nautical miles offshore, which is guarded by Israeli navy warships. The dead from past wars are buried in the dry earth below. Here in Gaza, air, water and land are barriers, not possibilities. There are no airports, train stations or ports through which someone wishing to get away could leave the Gaza Strip. Even in times of peace, Gaza feels like a prison.
The Law of Revenge
"We're just guinea pigs," says Gaza Health Minister Mufeed Mkhallalati, one of the few representatives of the Hamas government to make public appearances during the war. Every evening, wearing a white doctor's coat, he stood in front of the Al-Shifa Hospital, where the Israelis believed Hamas had one of its command centers, as the dead were being carried out.
"We are guinea pigs, and the Israelis are testing their weapons on us," says the minister. "I was a surgeon for three years, and I come from Gaza, but I have never seen anything like this before."
He is talking about third-degree burns, corpses that look like mummies, amputations after explosions and bodies that were brought in in fist-size pieces.
Mkhallalati says that he is a doctor and doesn't want to say much about it, but adds that the law of revenge exists all over the world, and that it's a good law. "We are certain that the Israelis will meet a worse end than our fate," he says. "It's the way of the world." He doesn't mention the hundreds of rockets Hamas fired into southern Israel.
Motorcades now drive through the streets, which were abandoned until recently, children hand out sweets and sing victory songs, and Palestinians shoot into the air to celebrate, sometimes inadvertently taking even more victims. The blood-spattered shoe and shredded jacket of one of six alleged Israeli spies, who were shot to death in broad daylight, still lie on Nasser Street in the center of Gaza City. The Hamas radio station will later claim that the men were carrying "high-tech equipment and cameras" to pinpoint targets for Israeli rocket attacks.
Members of Hamas allegedly questioned the Palestinian "traitors" working for the Israelis before they were executed. They then chained together one of the six men's feet, tied the body to a motorcycle and dragged it across the asphalt -- to deter copycats.
It's an archaic way of defiling corpses, not unlike the description in Homer's Iliad of Achilles dragging Hector's body with his chariot around a grave. Hamas leaders and the police have made a point of condemning the act, and they say that there will be an investigation, but many in the city agree with the executions.
Although the fighting has stopped, the dead and the nightmares remain. Parents in the refugee camps say that their children wake up screaming at night, after dreaming about Israelis invading their houses, destroying everything inside and killing their brothers, or about getting locked up during attacks and not being able to get away.
Killed By a Drone
Half of the 1.7 million people in Gaza are children. According to Palestinian sources, about 30 children died in this eight-day war, out of a total death toll of more than 160, half of them civilians. One of the dead was 43-year-old Zaki Kadada, the son of a fisherman. Kadada was 1.70 meters (5'7" feet) tall and was born July 3, 1969. His blood group was O positive, and he had light-brown eyes and black hair. At least that's what his identification card said -- when he was taken to the hospital, he had no head.
He died in his SUV in the southern part of Gaza City at about 3:30 p.m. on Tuesday, a day before the ceasefire, after midday prayers, after a cup of tea, and after telling his children to stop playing and do their homework. He was on his way to a funeral when he was shot and killed by a drone. Perhaps it was even the pride of the Israeli air force, the new "Eitan" drone, named after a Hebrew word meaning "strong." The Eitan weighs more than four tons and has a wingspan as large as that of a Boeing 737.
When they brought him to the hospital, on that deadly afternoon of last week, the crowd of curious onlookers was so thick that the paramedics had trouble lifting the body from the ambulance. "Martyrs are the favorites of God," they shouted. Then they laid him out in the morgue, behind the video screen Hamas used to show propaganda videos glorifying the heroic acts of its fighters.
When his nephew Taufik came to identify the body, he was only able to recognize the headless body by his mobile phone. He was a good man, a civilian and a hero, says Taufik, and he leaves behind a wife, a mother, 10 brothers, four sisters, four daughters and three sons: Shaima, 16, Jihan, 15, Muamin, 11, Mohammed, 9, Basan, 7, Hala, 3, and Yussuf, 7 months.
Hala, named after the halo of light around the moon, was up all night asking where her father was, says a cousin. He's in paradise, she told the little girl, but Hala didn't understand.
'They Will Never Stop Killing Us'
The body wasn't washed with soap, clear water or rosewater, or wrapped in three shrouds, as is normally the custom. Because Kadada died violently, as a martyr, a shaheed, he will be buried in the blood-soaked clothes he was wearing when he died. For devout Muslims, the bodies of martyrs are fragrant even without rosewater, and their path leads directly to paradise.
When asked about Kadada's death, a spokesman for the Israeli army says it was a targeted strike, and that there were terror suspects in the car. He points out that there was a second explosion after the strike, suggesting that there were weapons in the car.
The second explosion, if there was one, was the fuel tank, say the victim's family members. Besides, they add, everyone in the neighborhood knows that Kadada was not a terrorist but a civilian, the bodyguard of a politician with Fatah, the moderate movement, which now has only little influence in the Gaza Strip. Furthermore, the man he was supposed to protect was in Ramallah when the drone strike hit the car.
Kadada is carried to his grave the next day. The family doesn't go to the main cemetery, because it's too close to the Israeli border, but to the small, muddy and crowded Sheikh Radwan Cemetery. Hundreds have come to the funeral, their heads bowed. There are no women, as is the Islamic custom. The men stand around the grave, smooth out the earth and bring stones to the site. "Zaki," says one man, "all the men here love you!" Then he pours water onto the soil and says: "Drink."
A cousin says the prayer, his palms held up to the sky, as drones monitoring the cemetery pass by overhead. "They will never stop killing us," he says, "but this remains the land of God, a free country."
In the family's house in the western part of the city, on the Mediterranean, his mother sits with other women. Sirya Kadada, 80, has just lost her son, the best boy one could imagine, she says. She is weeping as she picks up a mobile phone with a photo of her son on the screen. "Habibi, Habibi," she says, "my darling, my darling." Still weeping, she kisses the screen. By now everyone in the room is crying.
How does she feel about the people who killed her son? She stops, looks up and says: "We hope that God will take revenge on these people."
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan