Seeing is believing
The disengagement from Gaza will spell relief for all of the Strip’s 1.5 million Palestinians. But it will be especially meaningful for the communities living closest to the settlements, many of whose homes were demolished and even occupied for periods of time.
I spoke with families living in the central Gaza Strip town of Dair al Balah, only a few metres away from the now-evacuated hard-line settlement of Kfar Darom, about their experiences of during the past few years.
All around them are signs of the havoc wreaked by the Israeli army in recent years: pockmarked houses; burned out buildings; demolished homes; razed greenhouses and farms; even a destroyed water well-one of three that served this refugee town of 60, 000.
One man's house, Khalil Basheer (along with his family of 9), is still occupied and guarded closely by an Israeli sniper. Basheer cannot acess the top floor, and I was not allowed anywhere near it by Israeli forces.
Another family-the Taleeni's- told me how Israeli troops who raided their house some months back in a seige of the area opted against entering it through the front door. Instead, they broke down the entire back wall of the house with their tank, running over their goats and chickens in the process.
Kfar Darom was the first settlement to be established in Gaza, sometime in the early 1950s.
An elderly man I spoke with-Hajj Ali Tawaysha- recalls when the first Jewish settlers came to Gaza, a stone's throw away from his house. He says he treated them as neighbours-serving them tea and even eating dinner together.
“We never imagined it would turn out this way. We were nothing but nice to them, treated them with kindness and hospitality, and this is how they repay us?”
Slowly, Hajj Ali said, more and more settlers came. And along with them, military fortifications. Sniper towers. Tanks. Apaches. And his 80 donoms of land surrounding the settlement became off-limits to him and his family.
During the past four years of the Intifada, Hajj Ali and his wife, along with their daughter Subhia, whose family who lives nearby, suffered greatly at the hands of the Israeli occupation.
Israeli troops would often raid and occupy their house for days at a time, kicking them out of the bedrooms, which the soldiers slept in instead, and forcing them to sleep on the downstairs ceramic tiles. The rooms were left defecated in. And when the soldiers went back to the settlement, they would take one of Hajj Ali’s boy’s with them as a human shield, pointing a rifle at his head the entire way.
“We have seen some horrible, horrible days,” recalled his wife.
Hajj Ali’s daughter, Sobhia, clearly still traumatized from years gone, told me how the washing machine on her roof was inaccessible to her. How she actually had to get “military clearance” and a "permit" to wash her clothes. She resorted to buying a new washing machine instead.
Eventually, she left her house for a few months, after one of her 13-year-old twin sons began to have severe psychological health problems-involuntarily urination, fits of crying, trouble speaking and sleeping-from the constant shelling around them. Neighbours convinced her to move back for fear that her house (a villa really, which they spent their life savings on) would be demolished.
She says she won’t believe the withdrawal is for real until she actually sees the sniper tower that still stands directly across her kitchen window, which rendered that side of the house inaccessible at night for 5 years, dismantled.
“For five years we were scared to even get near that window. The sniper was directly in our face, and a tank was standing at the door. We would bring our dinner to the living room, and wouldn’t dare go out at night. I peered through the window to see the settlers go. We were so happy.”
Subhia told me she resents the foreign media who descended upon gaza to cover the Disengagement, only to focus on the perceived suffering of the settlers leaving their homes.
“What about us? Where were they when we were being shelled? When we were placed under complete lock-down with a tank in our backyard? What about our tears?”
The evacuation of the settlers, says Sobhia, means she can finally sleep at night, "without fear, without crying.”
As we spoke, for the first time in years, her sons played football in an empty lot of razed farmland outside of the house-without the fear of being shot at.
“I want security; I want a new life; a government to care for us; I want the ability to live with dignity to raise my children. We’ve had enough.”