To Live and Die in Gaza

On Sunday morning, I found out through a note my friend wrote on Facebook, that the Israeli Air Force was attacking my grandfather's neighborhood in Gaza. Safa, who lives near my grandfather in the densely-populated "Asqoola" in Gaza City, recounted the harrowing hours she spent terrorized by what she called "the constant, ominous, maddening, droning sound" of Apache helicopters flying above. "Outside my home, which is close to the two largest universities in Gaza, a missile fell on a large group of young men, university students," Safa wrote over the weekend. "They'd been warned not to stand in groups--it makes them an easy target--but they were waiting for buses to take them home. Seven were killed."

My family had been trying to speak with my grandfather since Saturday, after Israel began its onslaught on Gaza. But we haven't managed to reach him, perhaps not surprising since so many phone lines are down. "Hold one moment," is all we hear. A computerized directive from the phone company, one that sounds increasingly strident the more it's repeated. "Hold one moment." My mother hangs up in frustration, unable to ease her anxiety or clear her mind from worst-case scenario thoughts.

My grandfather moved to Gaza five years ago after living all over the Middle East for almost fifty years. As far as he was concerned, it was always a matter of time before he'd find his way back to his birthplace. He was born in Gaza City in 1933. Both of his parents died of cancer by his fifth birthday, so he was raised by four older sisters. The Gaza he knew during his childhood was transformed by the establishment of Israel in 1948. Following their forced expulsion from villages and cities across the country, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians streamed into the tiny coastal strip. Most of the refugees relied on assistance from the newly-created United Nations Relief and Works Agency to survive, and jobs were hard to come by. My grandfather was thus forced to move to other Arab countries so he could provide for his young family. By 1958, he had married my grandmother, a refugee from Jaffa whose father, a policeman, had been killed by Zionist paramilitaries ten years earlier. My grandfather took her and their one-year-old son to Saudi Arabia, where he taught Arabic to schoolchildren.

Leaving his beloved Gaza was painful for my grandfather, but he was left with no other choice. Because he was never allowed to become a citizen of any of the four Arab countries in which he worked and lived, my grandfather never felt at home. In his mind, they were transitory stops, temporary resting places on the way to Return. He would save as much as he could from his meager salary so he'd have enough money to take his family to Gaza for summer visits. After years of living modestly, he was able to buy a quarter of an acre of land on Gaza's coast near the Mediterranean Sea.

My grandfather was sitting in a cafe with a group of friends in the coastal city of Jeddah in Saudi Arabia when he heard that Israel captured Gaza in the June 1967 war. His face went pale and he fainted from the shock. The Israeli Army's occupation meant Gaza was lost. But in practical terms the news had another catastrophic effect: the Israeli military authorities decreed that any Palestinian who was not in Gaza before the war was not recognized as a resident of the strip.

My grandfather became a US citizen in 1999. By the time he passed his citizenship exam, his knowledge of American history and governance rivaled my own. Three of his children had moved here years earlier, and started their own families. Though my mother begged him to live here with her, my grandfather's dream of returning to Gaza never left him - and it was his American citizenship that helped him do just that.

When he finally moved back to Gaza, my grandfather changed. He stopped a lifelong habit of chain smoking and embraced the outdoors, faithfully tending the garden in his courtyard. He drank mint tea in his nephews' vineyard and ate from the fig trees he could only dream about years before. But he was also dismayed by the changes he observed. His hometown had become so overcrowded that trees were cut down to make room for more buildings. With more than 10,000 people per square mile, it has the highest population density in the world. (Considering Gaza's overcrowded environment, it is hard to fathom how anyone can argue that Israeli's aerial bombardment is focused exclusively on "Hamas targets.")

My grandfather, throughout his life, never belonged to any political factions, but like many Gazans he hoped that Hamas' election would bring back a semblance of law and order. Palestinian Authority officials had been dogged by allegations of corruption since they began administering Gaza and the West Bank under the 1993 Oslo accords. To many Gazans, the PA and its minions were no better than gangsters.

With Israel's draconian blockade of Gaza, imposed as punishment for the election of Hamas and backed by the US and Europe, my grandfather's life was transformed yet again. Medication to treat his diabetes was in short supply and because of a shortage of gas and electricity, his family was forced to use primitive kerosene burners for cooking. Bakeries now had to resort to baking bread with animal feed and sewage treatment plants were crippled as fuel ran out, forcing the water authority to dump millions of liters of waste into the Mediterranean Sea. Electricity was scarce, with homes receiving an average of only six hours a day. Unemployment shot up to 49 percent. Because of the border closures, my grandfather's nephews, who used to work in construction in Israel, now had no source of income. Israel's blockade caused a slow starvation of the entire population, as malnutrition rates spiked upwards of 75 percent among the strip's 1.5 million residents. As in most siege situations, children suffered the most from hunger and disease.

As missiles rain over Gaza, I can only imagine what my grandfather is thinking. Much of the territory's civilian infrastructure, including police stations, universities, mosques and homes, has been decimated. In the Jabalya refugee camp, five sisters, the eldest aged seventeen and the youngest only four, were killed on Monday as they slept in their beds when an Israeli air strike hit a mosque by their home. Their parents told reporters they assumed they were safe, since houses of worship typically are not military targets. The cemetery where the girls were buried was filled to capacity, so they were placed in three graves. A United Nations spokesperson said the killing is a "tragic illustration that this bombardment is exacting a terrible price on innocent civilians." The bereaved father expressed the sentiments of so many in Gaza in an interview with the Washington Post. "I don't have anything to do with any Palestinian faction. I have nothing to do with Hamas or anyone. I am just an ordinary person." A few days after the attack, I found out that the girls were relatives of our family friends in Florida.

I asked my mother why my grandfather did not leave Gaza while its gates were still open. Why he didn't leave before the siege, before life became unbearable, and before this latest bombardment. "Because that's where he feels he belongs," she said. "He was always homesick before. Gaza is where his parents were buried. It's where he wants to die."

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