28 Jul 2014

‘Israel doesn’t understand – we’re a nation that can’t be crushed’

The call to prayer started when it was still dark. There’d only been three or four explosions audible overnight, so people came on to the streets quickly, the women into the courtyard, men and boys onto the vast carpet of the Al-Umari mosque.

There’s a mixture of looks on people’s faces, ranging from devout to simply stunned.

“They are trying to crush the nation,” the imam says, in his sermon. “They don’t understand we are a nation that can’t be crushed.”

They’re the kind of words you hear from people who’ve in fact been crushed, but here amid these ancient arches, and on this day, they’re more than rhetoric.


Because it’s quiet: yes the drones are in the sky, yes there’s the crack of tank fire just past the shattered apartment blocks of Shejaiyah, and the occasional rattle of small arms.

But something has, for now, cranked the intensity of the war down. Overnight, Barack Obama called on Israel to cease fire immediately. The Israeli PM, Binyamin Netanyahu rejected it out of hand. The reason why is understood by the smallest Palestinian child skipping in this medieval yard.

If Israel stops now, Hamas wins a massive moral victory. Netanyahu said as much, on US TV. A poll today says 89 per cent of Israelis want their army to carry on fighting until they “topple Hamas”. It’s a fantasy – and a sick one because, to make it happen, you would have to fill these streets with civilian corpses, and on a scale far in excess of the 1,062 deaths so far.

Ameera, aged 15, has lived through night after night of bombing. “I am not frightened,” she says. Why not? “Because I am Palestinian. Palestine will be free, and I say again Palestine will be free, and I am not afraid of any Israeli.”

‘I will blow myself up’

Outside the mosque, I meet a man in his 50s. “My home’s destroyed and I have lost two children, three and five years old, and my wife. Two other children are in the hospital. One lost his arm.”

He has that slightly hazy smile people wear when they feel things around them are unreal. What will you do now I ask him?

“I will blow myself up. I will wear a suicide belt and I will blow myself up. I have nothing to live for.”

When you see the rubble of a Palestinian house you have to understand what it means to men like that. People here don’t keep their money in banks: the wives buy gold, and the gold is used to finance children’s education, the family health bills. Everybody I’ve met who’s lost their home has lost some or all of their gold as well.

The property itself, the cinder blocks and wire and mortar, has been built floor by floor – often by extended families. Their entire live savings have gone into what is now a pile of rubble. And there will be no compensation: there’s no effective state and due to the Israeli blockade not even the right to import cement.

In an earthquake zone, you get camps set up, rescue teams go in. But the civil authority here, run by Hamas, is in constant danger of being targeted. I saw electricians in hi-vis, trying to reconnect a power line, scuttle down from their cherry picker after an Israeli warning.

At the edge of Shejaiyah my Palestinian adviser made us stop. Though people were wandering in and out there was deathly quiet: “You can’t go down,” he said. “Unlike you, they are crazy. They don’t care now whether they live or die.”


If the fighting stops now, or there’s a formalised truce, let’s draw a snapshot of the situation.

There are 1,062 Palestinians dead in Gaza, of which Israel claims 250 were combatants. Two Israeli civilians and 43 soldiers have been killed.

Israel has advanced military positions up to maybe 2km inside Gaza, and has reduced Shejaiyah in east Gaza, and most urban space north of Jabalia to shattered ghost towns.

Israel claims to have discovered 32 tunnels and destroyed 15. What we don’t know is the number of dwellings destroyed. Nobody can get in to count them; probably nobody ever counted them when they were lived in. Unitar/Unosat, an agency of the UN, estimated 600 structures destroyed in Shejaiyah alone: if we say one structure contains four to six families there must be thousands of dwellings destroyed.

The IDF has tweeted a graphic saying: “Why did homes turn to rubble? Because Hamas uses civilian homes for military purposes.” It’s an accusation the Hamas leadership constantly denies, as Ihab al-Ghousein, its spokesperson, did to me on Sunday.


But even if it did, destroying thousands of homes, making tens of thousands homeless, to destroy 15 tunnels, is going to be hard to defend if anybody ever has the guts to drag the IDF in front of an international judicial body.

Its early days, and it’s Eid. But if things stay like this, and peace solidifies under diplomatic pressure from Obama, then, notwithstanding the massive physical price Palestinians have paid, it will be hard for the Israelis to claim anything for Operation Protective Edge other than a miserable, embarrassing and self-defeating fiasco.

Because I’ll add one thing: I’ve been in Muslim countries where there is radical, inward-looking and conservative Islam, with rhetoric playing to prejudice and ignorance – and this does not feel like one of them. Hamas may rule it, but the political spirit of Palestinians in Gaza is complex. And because the Hamas and Islamic Jihad fighters are not in evidence on the streets, maybe we’re getting a better picture of this than when they’re policing the community.

So, when an ordinary guy pats his sleep-deprived four year old son on the head, and says “he will fight them”, this too is not rhetoric.

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