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Daoud Kuttab

Daoud Kuttab

Posted January 17, 2009 | 04:55 PM (EST)

In Gaza: Mostly Phone Terror But Some Encouraging Calls


My cousin Sami Awad's uncle Emile Farah, his wife, three children and an aunt live in the Rimal neighborhood in the center of Gaza city. Thursday was a day of terror for them as well as the Awad's in Bethlehem. A number of militants seem to have been trapped just outside the housing complex that the Farah's live in. A four hour exchange took place leaving those living in the high rise building living in sheer terror as they were seeing their deaths with every shelling of their building.

Sami's job was to call his relatives every five minutes. He told me that every time he talked with his uncle or relatives, the terrified relatives would say that this might be the last time that we talk to you. He told me that he knew they were trying to get away from the fire exchange and every time Sami dialed the phone number he was scared that no one would answer and he would be unsure whether they were killed or that they had escaped the shelling. This uneasiness continued from noon on Thursday till about four in the afternoon. After four terror filled hours (with children crying in the background of many calls) the shooting finally stopped as the militants appeared to have succeeded in escaping the entrapment they had found themselves in. Sami's uncle who is a retired UN worker finally succeeded in getting a UN vehicle to take the family to the home of his in-laws in a different, not necessarily safer, part of Gaza.

The story of Sami's relatives brought home to me two major and unusual problems in Gaza. First, the simple fact, that unlike any other war or military conflict, there is absolutely no place for people to run to get away from the hell of the fighting. The borders are closed as the blockade from the north and east are totally sealed by the Israelis. To the south the situation is complicated. If the Egyptians open the borders without any restrictions, they will be accused of violating an international border agreement (that require European and PA forces on the Rafah crossing. Also opening the southern borders
without restrictions would cause many to accuse the Egyptians of contributing to the creation of yet another refugee situation. Half of the Palestinians living in Gaza are themselves refugees who left their homes in what is now south Israel in 1948 and have not been able to return ever since.

Another problem that I have been thinking about a lot has to do with family strategies. Without shelters, so many families have witnessed multiple family members dying or being injured as a result of a missile falling on their homes. In times of war, the military often spread out so that no single missile will cause multiple deaths. But for a scared Palestinian family, huddling together seems like the natural way for emotional comfort. A cynical approach at family strategies might call for families to spread out so that some members of any particular family can survive.

One of the staff persons working with me got a call that one of her friends running away from the fighting was hit by a missile killing a mother and her two children. Another Gaza family paid a price for huddling together. The terror of this family was sadly transmitted live on the phone. The unfortunate phone caller was a Palestinian gynecologist. Dr. Izzedin Abu Aish who worked in an Israeli hospital and was on the phone with Israel's channel 10 when his home was shelled causing the death of three daughters and a number of other relatives. A number of others were injured. As I was driving back from Bethlehem to Ramallah I heard the heart wrenching story as it was being told on Israel Radio's Arabic service. I was struck how the story related on the Israeli radio ignored the unjustified killings and was paying more attention to the fact that Israel had allowed the doctor and some of the remaining injured children and family members to arrive at the same Israeli hospital where the doctor was working.

Another interesting use of phone was done with the help of the Internet and the international community. When the Israelis dumped thousands of leaflets with a phone number to call if you wanted to give away the location of Palestinian fighters, someone put the phone number on the Net and thousands of calls started pouring on the Israelis from peace supporters telling the army intelligence person on the other side of the phone to stop the attacks on the people of Gaza.

On the positive side, some encouraging phone calls have been arriving on Palestinians. Upbeat sounding phone calls have been coming to Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank from anonymous Arab callers in Egypt and Libya. The callers, who seem to be choosing phone numbers randomly just to make statements of support to any Palestinian they can reach. My daughter, Tamara, received such a call from a Libyan caller who wishes Palestinian victory and made statements of support and encouragement. Another phone call to one of my colleagues in Ramallah came from an Egyptian Islamist-sounding caller. My colleague gave them the phone number of a secular left wing friend of hers in Gaza.