Gaza villagers brace for new Israeli offensive

Fawzi Abu Jarad is preparing to move and the 62-year-old former shepherd wants to bring his entire extended family of 28 people with him.

He won’t go far, however. A resident of Gaza, he can’t go far. But he will go deeper inside the Gaza Strip in search of some safety, however illusory. Anywhere is safer than home for the Abu Jarads.

Home is the Bedouin village of Um al-Nasser. Located in the far north and almost flush against the boundary with Israel, it is not only an impoverished, isolated and underdeveloped part of Gaza. It is also directly in the line of any invading Israeli army, should another offensive start.

Um al-Nasser’s villagers have been there before. On 17 July 2014, just around sunset, the Abu Jarads and other families found themselves trapped in the village when it became one of the initial targets of the Israeli army’s ground invasion at the outset of that phase of Israel’s 51-day assault on Gaza.

More than 3,600 residents were then forced to evacuate and the village was badly damaged. According to local residents, the first casualty of the Israeli ground invasion was from here: Muhammad Ishtawi, 28, a member of Hamas’ armed Qassam Brigades.

According to Ziyad Abu Fraya, village mayor, 100 homes were completely destroyed during the war, another 100 were damaged, while two mosques out of three were demolished and an EU-funded Children’s Land project, meant to cater to war-traumatized children, was razed to the ground.

In the line of fire

Um al-Nasser is not big and it is not developed. Mostly farmland, the village’s built-up area spans just some 800 meters. Most of the houses here are cheaply constructed of corrugated iron, sheet metal and tarpaulin, similar to Bedouin villages elsewhere.

In 2007, the village briefly hit the headlines when a water treatment reservoir burst, flooding the village, killing four and damaging homes.

Its location some 500-700 meters from the boundary fence lies within an area Israel has unilaterally declared a no-go zone and leaves residents at the mercy of regular shootings targeting shepherds and farmers.

Muhammad Abu Jaame, a 59-year-old farmer, was shot and killed by soldiers while working his land in southern Gaza near the boundary with Israel earlier this month.

Its proximity to the boundary also means that should there be a new Israeli offensive, Um al-Nasser, if 2014 is anything to go by, will again be in the way of invading Israeli forces. And residents of the village worry there might be another conflagration soon.

Certainly, the Israeli media is regularly full of speculation about another Gaza offensive, not least since the Israeli military often issues warnings to Hamas that it is “playing with fire,” whether because of rocket fire or someone being cheeky with a laser pointer.

When the Israeli troops came in 2014, families spent eight hours holed up in their homes. The military, said Silmi Abu Muammar, head of the village council’s emergency committee, would not allow the Red Crescent to evacuate families. In the end, residents took matters into their own hands, held up white flags and walked to displacement areas – mostly set up in United Nations-administered schools – leaving almost everything they owned behind.

It is the reason Abu Jarad is keen to leave now. “I’ll not wait for a fourth war to see my family displaced again,” he said, referring to the preceding massive assaults in winter 2008-2009 and November 2012. “My grandchildren experienced the fear of death three times before and I’ll not let that happen again.”

The former shepherd is still bitter over the 2014 displacement. No one, he said, paid attention. They were so cut off journalists couldn’t tell their stories and even “ambulances could only wait at the outskirts.”

Trouble at the edge

Fatima Abu Jarad, 14, remembered how she froze as they fled. Interrupting her grandfather, she spoke of “shells and shrapnel” flying over her head. “At first, I froze. I was not able to move.” She was brought to safety by an older brother, who returned and carried her on his back.

Um al-Nasser’s residents had to shelter some 40 days in UN schools in the Jabaliya refugee camp, according to Abu Muammar. They were distributed into classrooms, 45 villagers in each, over five different schools.

“I couldn’t wash my three children for two weeks, there just was not enough water,” said Sultana Abu Rashed, 48. “I thought I was dying slowly. I hope we never live those conditions again.”

No one wants to relive those days and Abu Muammar says the village council has already coordinated with UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestine refugees, to prepare in case of another escalation. The council has delivered the UN body a list of names, ages and genders of villagers in order to ensure that should another evacuation be necessary, there is enough space.

In the meantime, everyone’s anxiously following the news. While 2017 may have seemed largely quiet from the outside, Gaza is never far from violence. Headlines may have been made by rockets fired from Gaza after US President Donald Trump’s Jerusalem announcement in December, but there is a constant level of violence, most of it from Israel into Gaza.

In December alone, eight people were killed in demonstrations protesting the Trump announcement and the Palestinian Center for Human Rights also reported 12 shellings and 77 shooting incidents in boundary areas, injuring 484 people, among them 96 minors.

In January, Israel destroyed what its officials call an “attack tunnel.” This one was reportedly leading from Gaza into the Egyptian Sinai. The lack of response by Gaza’s resistance groups, wary that Israel is poised for a full-blown conflagration, is keeping tensions and uncertainty high as it gives the impression that Hamas has calculated that another war could be imminent.

Yahya Musa, a Hamas legislator, told The Electronic Intifada that any escalation would not be forced upon Gaza but that continued bombings also would not go unanswered.

“If they want escalation, we’re ready for it.”

An ill wind with a chance of death

Analysts are divided over prospects for a full-blown conflagration. Omar Jaara, an Israel affairs professor at An-Najah National University in the occupied West Bank, argued that war was “only a matter of time.”

Israel is the one who is controlling the situation here. The resistance will not stay silent in front of Israeli attacks on its weapons, especially the tunnels which are a strategic weapon of Hamas. Any continued threat to this weapon will lead to a fourth war.”

Wesam Afifa, a journalist and director general of the Gaza-based al-Aqsa media network, suggested however that Israel is not interested in another war because it is already achieving its objectives, notably on Jerusalem and the US embassy, and doesn’t want to rock the boat.

Israel is afraid of escalation in Gaza in light of popular anger against Trump’s decision. That could easily spread to the West Bank and Jerusalem.”

Nevertheless, he conceded that the context in Gaza is “unique.” Any misstep, by any party, Afifa said, could lead “towards a brutal fourth war.”

Abdullah Armalat, 31, tends his extended family’s 70 camels and two cows. A shepherd, like his forefathers, he too has prepared for the eventuality of war. In Jabaliya, four kilometers away, Armalat has rented a large garage to house his livestock should it come to that.

His contingency plan is a result of bitter experience. In 2014, he lost 60 sheep, he said.

Israel doesn’t differentiate. Humans, animals, or plants, they’re all targets. I lost my livelihood in the last war and I’ll lose it again.”

Fatima Abu Jarad, the young teenager who froze in fear during the 2014 onslaught, had no compunction about the choice facing her. “I’d rather leave the place I was born and raised in. I don’t want to die.”




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