We are not stones

Palestinians drive past the destroyed Al-Jalaa Tower in Gaza City (Mahmud Hams - AFP)

Mosab Abu Toha

The Nation  /  May 24, 2021

Israel doesn’t seem to distinguish between a tree and a rocket, a human and a pile of stones.

Thursday evening, Egypt brokered a cease-fire between Israeli and Hamas that would start Friday at 2 AM. When that precise time came, thousands of Gazans marched into the streets, streets they haven’t walked in 11 days. I think they were celebrating not victory but survival.

I didn’t celebrate though. I’m not yet certain how safe we are after Israel stopped bombing residential buildings. Israel can still bomb us at any time. No one can know if they will be a victim of the next attack.

I looked at myself in the mirror, noticed how much I changed, my beard unshaved for two weeks. I then went on to count my family members, and called on my sisters to count theirs. On the first day of the cease-fire, the civil defense agency found a 3-year-old girl buried under the rubble of her house. The search for more bodies continues.

For me, it’s time to grieve for families who’ve lost all their members or who are now homeless. It’s time to try to understand what happened to us in the past 11 days.

I’ve never imagined that going shopping to buy diapers for my 1-year-old son and candies for my two other children would be so frightening.

“What if an Israeli drone starts dropping bombs near me while I’m out walking? Should I run instead of walk? No, maybe that will attract the drones’ attention to me, make them think I’ve done something wrong,” I would deliberate at the door.

My wife urged me to go, her voice interrupted by buzzing drones. The drones that never leave, that have filled Gaza’s skies for years, reminding all Gazans of the unceasing state of war and siege. The drones hover while I read, prepare food with my wife, change my children’s clothes, or take a photo of the sunset from our little garden.

Fear occurs frequently. A few days back, my wife said we needed some parsley, three lemons, and some lettuce from the garden to make salad. I hesitated before going down to pick these from the garden. “Do we really need to eat salad today? What if the Israelis think I’m there to fire a rocket? They don’t distinguish between a tree and a rocket, a human and a pile of stones.”

On the second day of aggression, they killed an 80-year-old man farming his land in south Gaza.

Yehia Ghaben, a young, handsome man whom I used to greet on my way to visit my sister in Beit Lahia, was killed while watering his plants and trees. He was left bleeding for hours. The Israelis prevented ambulances from rescuing him.

Yehia had a horse, which I used to watch as it had dinner at sunset when they both were back from the farm. I would smile to Yehia, and he to me. Now, Yehia is no longer there for the horse. Not for the trees and plants. Not for his young wife. Not for his family and friends. Not for me to smile to when I visit my sister.

Every morning, my 4-year-old daughter, Yaffa, begs me to buy some biscuits and lollipops. But I don’t want both of us to get hurt in case of air strikes outside. (As if home’s safe.)

Just like many Gazan families, my small family and I sleep in one place, while my parents and other siblings sleep in another. My younger brother has sent his wife and three children—the youngest is two weeks old—to stay with her family in a neighboring refugee camp. We’ve decided to separate our family after witnessing Israel bomb residential buildings, where whole families—parents, children, sometimes cousins—were wiped out while they slept. The Al-Tanani family, a young couple and their four kids, all younger than 10, were buried under the rubble of their house in north Gaza.

Friday, May 13, was the scariest night in Gaza, maybe since 1948. At 12 AM, Israel launched 450 air strikes on Gaza, mostly in north Gaza where I live. I’ve never seen a bomb burning even before it hit the earth. Or whatever it was hitting.

Yaffa screamed, “Daddy, it’s a bomb. I want to hide.” Her 5-year-old brother, Yazzan, grabbed a blanket and covered her: “Here you are. You are hiding.” That night, all of us, both old and young, men and women, wanted to hide.

At the beginning of the aggression, I posted that “the only three sounds I can hear are the drones, the ambulances, and the radio.” Now it hurts to add, “Israel has the right to defend itself.” Voiced, especially, by America. (And the Palestinians? Their right to exist freely and peacefully on their land?)

Sunday, May 16, Israel bombed five houses at 1 AM, killing 44 people, mostly children and women from one family. I watched a video of a man pulled alive from under the debris. What was this man thinking about? His children? His wife? His own injuries? His neighbors? All were dead.

Was he waiting for another bomb that makes sure no stone can breathe?

Mosab Abu Toha is a Palestinian poet, short story writer, and columnist from Gaza; he founded the Edward Said Library in Gaza and was a visiting poet at Harvard University in 2019–2020