Tag Archives: Gaza War

Celebrating Eid in Gaza amidst the rubble of war

I spent the Eid last year in Gaza, with families who experienced unimagineable horrors during the successive Gaza assaults. Today is 2 years since the 2014 Gaza war began. I re-post here what I wrote about Eid in Gaza last year for +972mag, holding in my mind and in my heart all who have been brutalized (in Gaza, in Minneapolis, in Baton Rouge, in Orlando, in Baghdad, in Istanbul, and in so many other places.)

Excerpt below:

Wafaa Awajah’s family had scarcely taken their seats in a circle of plastic chairs when her brother hitched up his pants to show me the scars on his leg from where he had been injured by an Israeli soldier. Another brother had also sustained injuries from the army; he, too, showed me his wounds. As Wafaa passed around a tray of chilled soft drinks and bowls of nuts and sweets (as is customary during the Eid celebration) a third brother told me of how years ago a settler had hit him with his car–intentionally, he believed–as he was riding his bike on the side of road. A fourth brother had been imprisoned on two occasions, not by the Israeli army, but by Hamas. “For speaking too much,” he told me with a grin, when I asked him why.

Read the rest HERE

Awajah kids on horse back

The Awajah children enjoying a horse and buggy ride during 2015 Eid in Gaza

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Bullet holes and grief

Dear friends,

Yesterday marks 10 years since my dear friend Amer Shurrab’s brothers were killed by the Israeli military in a military assault in Gaza the army termed “Operation Cast Lead.” Below, is what I wrote for WorldFocus.com after visiting Amer’s family in Gaza a few months later

Bullet holes, grief remain for Gaza family after war (first published in Sept 2009)


Abu Absal Shurrab stood in front of his red jeep and waved energetically when he saw me. I walked towards him. “Salaam aleikum!” we greeted each other warmly, and Abu Absal indicated that I should get into the jeep.

My heart stopped momentarily as he stepped out of the way and the vehicle became fully


Abu Absal stands next to the car that he and his sons were shot in.

visible. The windshield was splattered with bullet holes. This was the car Abu Absal was driving the day he was shot and his sons, Kassab and Ibrahim, were killed.


I climbed inside the passenger seat, trying to discreetly count the bullet holes as Abu Absal guided the car onto the road. Twenty that I could see, including the semi-shattered rear-view mirror. Abu Absal noticed my preoccupation.

Kassab was sitting exactly where you are now,” he told me. “Ibrahim was in the back seat, directly behind him. When the shooting started, I shouted for them to crouch down low. But the bullets went through the front of the car. I tried to replace the windshield, but because of the siege, there is no glass available anywhere in Gaza Strip.”

The final days of 2008 and the first weeks of 2009 saw a large-scale Israeli military bombardment and invasion of Gaza Strip. Israel termed the incursion “Operation Cast Lead,” saying it was intended to protect the citizens of the southern community of Sderot, 24 of whom had been killed by Palestinian rocket fire from Gaza over the past eight years.

According to a report released by the Israeli human rights organization B’tselem, 1,387 Palestinians were killed during the 22- day attack, over half of them civilians, including more than 300 children. Several thousand more innocent people were injured, more than 3,000 homes were destroyed and 20,000 were damaged. United Nations schools, clinics and other humanitarian facilities were bombed.

On January 16, 2009, towards the end of the onslaught, I received an email with the horrifying subject line: “Help me save my dad’s life.”

It was from Amer Shurrab. I’d known Amer for 10 years, since he was 14 years old. Amer is from Khan Yunis, Gaza, but had recently graduated from Middlebury College and had just moved to Washington, D.C.

With dread, I opened the email. Amer wrote:

“My father’s car was bombed today, he was in it with two of my brothers. My older brother 27 was killed while my dad 64 and my little brother 17 have been bleeding for over 14 hours and Israeli troops blocking ambulances access. Please contact any media outlets, your congressmen, senators, any international organizations and try to get them help.”

Several hours later, I got another email from Amer with more details about the incident and an update. The morning of the attack, his father and brothers had gone to check on their farm during the daily three-hour humanitarian “ceasefire.” On their way home, his father’s red jeep was bombarded by a hail of bullets from IDF troops who had commandeered a house approximately fifty meters away. Amer’s older brother, Kassab, was shot in the chest and stomach 18 times and died on the spot. His father was shot in the arm and his younger brother, Ibrahim, was shot below the knee.


Abu Absal shouted to the soldiers that he and his sons needed medical attention. They shouted back for him to call an ambulance. He did, via cell phone, but was told by the Red Crescent that the Israeli army would not permit them access. Abu Absal managed to contact media and human rights groups, who launched an immediate campaign to pressure the army to allow medical care to reach the wounded civilians. Nearly 24 hours later, the IDF permitted an ambulance to reach Abu Absal and his sons. By then it was too late for Amer’s younger brother. Ibrahim had already bled to death.


Abu Absal parked the jeep outside an apartment building in Khan Yunis. “Here’s where we live,” he told me. “Any time you are in Gaza, you should make this your home!” We climbed the steps and entered. Abu Absal introduced me cheerfully to his wife and his two daughters. Heaviness and grief was palpable in the home, especially in the eyes of Amer’s mother and sisters. Nevertheless, Abu Absal was determined that my visit be an occasion for happiness. He instructed me to sit in an easy chair, next to his.

“We must speak of many things!” Abu Absal said brightly. “Your visit is like a breeze of fresh air to the family. Only…” He leaned towards me and adopted the tone of a fatherly scolding. “You are not staying long enough! So early tomorrow morning we will visit the farm, before you have to return to Gaza City!”

“Do you go to the farm often?” I asked his university-aged daughter, hoping to engage her in the conversation. “Not really,” she replied, barely making eye contact.

“The girls no longer like the farm,” Abu Absal explained. “They blame the farm for the death of their brothers. After all, if we hadn’t gone that morning…” He didn’t complete the sentence.

The sun was just beginning to rise the next morning when Abu Absal and I climbed back into his battered jeep. The sandy roads of Khan Yunis were bathed in golden light and early morning silence. We turned off the main road after passing the European Hospital. Less than a minute later, we approached an intersection. Abu Absal slowed down. “This was where they were killed,” he said. “You see that brown house?” he pointed. “That’s where the soldiers shot from. I didn’t know they were there. If I had known, I could have taken another route…”

Amer had told me how close the hospital was to the scene of the killings, but seeing it for myself felt like a punch in my gut. Kassab could not have been helped, but Abu Absal and Ibrahim, even with their injuries, could have made it there, walking or crawling or both. But the soldiers had threatened to shoot them if they moved.

Ten minutes later, Abu Absal was giving me a tour of the farm, pointing out with love and devotion each fig and citrus tree, every pepper, the collection of bee hives. From the window of the elevated farm house, he asked me if I could see the fence and the military tower in the distance. I could. “That’s the border with Israel,” he told me. “I watched dozens of tanks roll into Gaza from there. I must guard the farm every day to make sure no one uses it to launch rockets. I don’t want the Israelis to have any excuse to destroy my farm.”

The destruction was not always related to rocket fire. The day before, I had filmed the remains of a school bombed by fighter jets, a clinic that had been shelled and a residential neighborhood reduced to rubble. I had also seen a mosque sprayed with bullets from a recent shootout between Hamas and an Islamic militant group. But in the midst of this destruction, I also witnessed resilience and ingenuity. I saw tent-dwellers whose homes were destroyed tap into a main power line, providing their families with electricity. I watched a youth soccer tournament and broke the Ramadan fast with families at sundown. Though people were going about their daily lives, loss and pain in Gaza still run very deep.


Abu Absal shows off his farm

Abu Absal tenderly showed me his baby eggplants nestled in rich soil. He offered me a ripe pomegranate dangling temptingly off a tree. A warm light glowed in his eyes.

“Your farm is beautiful,” I said, hoping my appreciation would further boost his spirits.

A cloud passed over Abu Absal’s face. He fingered the rubbery leaves of his olive tree silently. Finally he spoke, echoing, it seemed to me, the sentiment of thousands of Gazan civilians. Those who lost loved ones, their homes, their schools. Those who saw crushed in front of their eyes whatever hope they still nurtured, whatever shards of a normal life they had managed to preserve throughout decades of occupation and years of escalating violence.


“It is very beautiful here indeed. But the beauty means nothing since my sons are gone.”

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What I learned touring the rubble piles of Gaza

My latest piece (article + video) in +972mag on the physical, psychological and political challenges of defending human rights in Gaza during – and in the aftermath of – war. :

I crouched on the floor of the beat-up Mercedes yellow cab, so that I could film Yaser Abed Alkhafor at a better angle.  We were driving slowly through Khuza’a, a town near the southern Gaza Strip city of Khan Younes.

“We can see that the destruction in Khuza’a didn’t target only one place, but it is mass destruction targeting the whole area,” Alkhafor said, pointing to the destroyed homes lining the road.

Read the rest here!

And, watch the accompanying video below!

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Celebrating Eid in Gaza amidst the rubble of war

Wafaa Awajah’s family had scarcely taken their seats in a circle of plastic chairs when her brother hitched up his pants to show me the scars on his leg from where he had been injured by an Israeli soldier. Another brother had also sustained injuries from the army; he, too, showed me his wounds. As Wafaa passed around a tray of chilled soft drinks and bowls of nuts and sweets (as is customary during the Eid celebration) a third brother told me of how years ago a settler had hit him with his car–intentionally, he believed–as he was riding his bike on the side of road. A fourth brother had been imprisoned on two occasions, not by the Israeli army, but by Hamas. “For speaking too much,” he told me with a grin, when I asked him why.

I had arrived to the caravans where the Awajah family now lives in Beit Lahiya, Gaza a few hours earlier, in the midst of the flurry of excitement accompanying the preparation for Eid il-Fitr, the three-day holiday marking the end of Ramadan. The children were running around, brushing their hair, putting on their new Eid clothes. Meters away from us was the rubble of their home, destroyed in the 2009 war, finally rebuilt in 2013, and destroyed again in the 2014 war.

The two days I spent with the family were joyful, yet still penetrated by the horror that this family (and so many families in Gaza) have experienced. Little Ibrahim, at the age of three, is obsessed with playing Hamas and soldiers. “Hold the fire! Hold the fire!” his battery operated toy gun barks in scratchy English as the little boy crouches in the sand, taking aim at imaginary Israeli soldiers. His sister pointed to the small statue mounted on the toy gun; it was a soldier in a tank. “That’s the Israelis, not Hamas,” she said. “Only the Israelis have those weapons.” But Ibrahim stubbornly insisted that, tank or no tank, he and his gun were Hamas.

That afternoon, 17-year-old Omsiyat and 13-year-old Hala and I lay on a mattress atop the rubble of their home. The caravans were stifling but here, under a cloth canopy, the breeze eased some of the punishing heat. I wished, not for the first time, that my Arabic was better.  I was able to get the gist of what Omsiyat and Hala were telling me, pointing out which section of the rubble represented their bedroom, what their experiences had been during the war, what they think will happen in the future… but so many important details were lost in my lack of Arabic fluency. I don’t know how often these girls process their experiences about the war aloud. I don’t know if there was some benefit to them of vocalizing it, regardless of whether or not I could understand all of it.

“Do you have the film of me crying on top of the wreckage of the home? Can I see it?” Wafaa asked me later that evening. I plugged in my external drive with the footage I had shot six months earlier, when Wafaa had first led me on top of the rubble of their home. 7-year old Zikriyat sat on her mother’s lap as we watched the unedited footage together. I wasn’t sure how much Zikriyat was understanding of what her mother was saying on the video, words expressing despair and hopelessness. But when Wafaa (on the video) began to cry, Zikriyat burst into tears and buried her face in her mother’s lap. Moments later, Zikriyat pushed herself out of her mother’s arms and ran into the caravan, unable to watch or to hear anymore. “It was because I was crying,” Wafaa said. Wafaa almost never cried; Zikriyat may have never seen her mother’s tears before.

Wafaa took me back to the pile rubble, but this time, not to show me the destruction. She pointed to a small shrub at the rubble’s edge, battered, but clearly alive. “Ibrahim’s tree,” she said to me.  “I couldn’t believe it when Sobhi (her eldest son) found it, after we had cleared away some of the rubble.”

The olive tree had been planted by Awajah’s son Ibrahim, who would have been 15 years now old had he not been shot and killed by an Israeli soldier during the 2009 Gaza assault. (Three-year old Ibrahim, born in 2011, was named for his martyred brother.) The family had taken shelter under this tree when their first home was destroyed, just hours before the first Ibrahim was killed. When they rebuilt the home, they made sure that Ibrahim’s tree would be exactly next to it. A few days into the 2014 war, the family fled the dangerous border-area in which they lived, and took shelter in Gaza City. They returned at the war’s end, only to find their newly rebuilt home completely demolished. “When I was looking around the rubble, I went to Ibrahim’s tree.  When I did not see it, something from inside me fell on the ground,” Wafaa told me on the video 6 months ago. “This is a memory, I left it for Ibrahim. It wasn’t there anymore, they disconnected any tie to Ibrahim with this area.”

But, as the family discovered only recently, a small piece of the tree had survived the demolition, and, though trapped under the rubble for almost a year, had still survived. The physical connection between the Awajah’s martyred son and his home had not been totally severed after all.

The next day, Kamal (the father) took the kids and me to a restaurant in Gaza city to celebrate the 2nd day of the Eid, and then to the Unknown Soldier park in the center of Gaza City. There were children’s rides at the park, rickety and precarious, but rides nonetheless. The younger Awajah kids scrambled up on swings that (via manual power) circled around, and then rode on toy trains, and danced and sang during a horse-and-buggy ride we all took together around the perimeter of the park.

Kamal smiled to see his kids happy, playing.  “You see? Ibrahim has forgotten all about Hamas and the Israelis,” he said to me with relief, watching his three-year old laugh and kick his legs gleefully as the swing lifted him in the air and carried him around in a circle.

Awajah kids on horse back

The Awajah chlldren enjoying a horse-and-buggy ride to celebrate the Eid

ZuZu on swing

Zikriyat Awajah enjoying her Eid swing ride in Gaza City

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Gaza’s Mental-Health Crisis and the Trauma of Permanent War

Dear friends,

Below, please find an excerpt and link to my recent feature piece in The Nation, about the impact (especially on children) of chronic war in Gaza, published at the one-year anniversary of the 2014 assault.

I hope you will read, share, and look forward to hearing your thoughts, responses.

All the best,

Jen Marlowe


Gaza’s Mental-Health Crisis and the Trauma of Permanent War:
“The Jews shot me.” I was eating breakfast with 3-year-old Ibrahim Awajah in February 2015, in the northern Gaza town of Beit Lahia, when he made this proclamation. His father, Kamal Awajah, saw the surprise on my face.
“No, no, you’re the second Ibrahim,” Kamal quickly corrected the small, sandy-haired boy. “It was your brother who was shot, not you.”
The first Ibrahim, 9 years old, had been shot and killed by an Israeli soldier during the 2009 attack on Gaza, which the Israeli military named Operation Cast Lead. His parents and siblings witnessed the killing, along with the demolition of their home. The second Ibrahim, born in 2011, was named after his martyred brother. He has already lived through two massive military campaigns. He has also lived most of his young life in tent-like structures, first while his family’s house was being rebuilt after Operation Cast Lead, and then after it was destroyed again during the summer 2014 war.
Read the rest here.

Kids playing in the rubble of the destroyed home in Beit Lahiya, Gaza

Kids playing in the rubble of the destroyed home in Beit Lahiya, Gaza

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Maram. Karam. Kareem.

I don’t think I will ever forget what I saw and what I heard in Shejaiya, an eastern neighborhood of Gaza city that was reduced to rubble during the 2014 attack on Gaza. I will be posting here–all still in raw form–some of what I saw there, and some of the painful stories I heard.

sumud in shejaiya3boy in shejaiya2

Below: the site of a destroyed clinic. I was photographing Sabrina Ibrahem from PCHR, my colleague Fadi Abu Shammalah and a few people who were working on clearing out the rubble. As I was photographing them, Fadi photographed me.

Sabrina had just finished telling Fadi and me the devastating story of a mother pregnant with twins who was killed by a bomb, which ripped open her womb. Sabrina got on the scene to document right after it happened–she saw the killed mother and fetuses. She broke down crying as she recounted it to us…but yet here she is minutes later: strong, resilient, smiling. Sumoud.

shej crewshejaiya jen2I saw no reconstruction at the site of this destroyed clinic. What I did see was ongoing clearing of rubble. The system: Men and boys loaded the rubble onto carts drawn by donkey or horse. Then, the cart was pulled onto the main road, and the rubble was transferred onto a giant truck. When full, the truck drove somewhere. To do something with the mountains upon mountains of rubble collected:

clearing rubble from hospital

clearing rubbleThe only time I have ever broken down and cried during an interview was when speaking with Talal and Leila Al Helo. 12 members of their family killed in an airstrike on their home. Here is Talal, on the rubble of the home in which 12 of his family members were killed:

shej father on home 16b

Those killed included Talal and Leila’s 26 year old daughter:

mother of karam and kareem

And their three grandchildren: 2 year old Maram, and twin six month old boys, Karam and Kareem.

I promised Talal and Leila that I would do all I could to make sure that their story was known and that people remembered those babies, and knew their names. Maram. Karam. Kareem.

Karam Kareem Maram2

Leila showed me a video of Karam and Kareem, talking to each other in that special twin baby talk, filmed the day before they were murdered. Watching that video– Fadi and I both lost it.
Look at the pictures, and, please, say aloud those babies’ names:

Maram. Karam. Kareem.
video twin5 video twins3 video twins6

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Two doors, Daddy.

Many of you met the Awajah family through my film “One Family in Gaza,” telling their story from the 2009 attack on Gaza, in which their home was destroyed (the destruction began while they were still in their home) and their 9-year old son, Ibrahim, was shot at close range and killed.
When the family started rebuilding their home in 2012, the kids wanted the new home to be built with two doors.
“Two doors, Daddy,” the kids insisted, “So that when the Israelis destroy the home again, we can run away.”
Here is the Awajah family’s new home after the 2014 attack on Gaza. Complete with the escape door:

two doors, daddy

Below, are Kamal and Wafaa Awajah on the rubble of their twice-destroyed home. (Wafaa told me she had not cried at this second destruction of her home. Until this day, when I asked her to tell me about what happened.) :

kamal on rubble11wafaa on rubble9

And–hanging laundry on the ruins–a reminder of the resilience of Gaza:

laundry in the rubble1

laundry in the rubble2

This is 3 year old Ibrahim Awajah. He was named after his brother who was killed at age 9 in the 2009 assault on Gaza. Little Ibrahim has lived in tents and amidst rubble most of his young life. His family’s home was destroyed before he was born (the same day his brother was killed) and their newly rebuilt home was destroyed this past summer.

At breakfast one morning, he said (out of the blue): “The Israelis shot me.”
When he saw my startled look, he repeated it: “The Israelis shot me.”
“You’re the 2nd Ibrahim,” his father Kamal quickly corrected him. “It was your brother that the Israelis shot, not you.”
In this tiny child’s self-narrative, he heard his family talking about how Ibrahim was shot, and, since he is Ibrahim, he believed it must have happened to him…

ibrahim at night smilingwafaa and ibrahim by firelight

At night, Kamal made a bonfire outside the caravans that the family received just the week before I arrived, next to the rubble of their home:

feeding the fire Jen and Awajah kids betw rubble and moon there is light

The young children fell asleep by the firelight, and were then transferred into the caravans. (Kamal called me a few days after I left Gaza to tell me that the caravans were destroyed in last week’s storm. They are back in the tent.)

Here is 17-year old Omsiyat rocking her little brother to sleep, while 5 year old Lulu tries to fall asleep:

omsiyat rockig ibrahim to sleep lulu going to sleep

Nothing signifies “boyhood” so much as boy chasing puppy in play. But this 9-year old boy (Diyaa) is chasing his puppy past the giant crater left by an F16 bomb behind the tent where the family is now living:

diyaa chasing dog, F16 crater background

Kamal and Lulu walk down into the crater, demonstrating its depth:inside f16 crater

We had a birthday party for Diyaa, who turned 9 years old. The kids made seesaws out of the rubble and lumber:

see saw in rubble1 seesaw3 seesaw4

And, in the midst of trauma and heartache, there is love. Kamal gives little Ibrahim a kiss, from the rubble of their home:

kamal kissing ibrahim on rubble


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Gaza: Photos, reflections

Just got back to the U.S. day before yesterday after 2.5 months in Palestine/Israel, including 9 very intense days in Gaza. Didn’t post much while there…but now that I’m back, will be sharing many photos, many reflections; here, on Twitter and on my Facebook. More polished/produced pieces of writing and filming will come later. For now, the raw stuff:

Below: This photo of me was taken in Shejaiya, east Gaza City, on the rubble of what used to be a clinic. I have seen a lot of devastation in my life, but I have never seen anything like what I saw in Shejaiya. My camera (much less my brain) could not hold the scope and scale of the destruction:

shejaiya jen2

 Below: I met these kids as they were climbing in the ruins of their destroyed home, in Beit Lahiya, Gaza–very close to the border with Israel. Most amazing: they wanted to play and clown and have fun. Like all kids.

little boy climbing

kids scramblingkids beit lahiya2 boys climbing the walls boys beit lahiya1  boys with rubble and tents


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One Family, Two Doors, Nowhere to Run

(You can read the original of this article in TomDispatch.com)

No Exit in Gaza
Broken Homes and Broken Lives
By Jen Marlowe

Rubble. That’s been the one constant for the Awajah family for as long as I’ve known them.

Four months ago, their home was demolished by the Israeli military — and it wasn’t the first time that Kamal, Wafaa, and their children had been through this.  For the last six years, the family has found itself trapped in a cycle of destruction and reconstruction; their home either a tangle of shattered concrete and twisted rebar or about to become one.

I first met the Awajah family in August 2009, in the tent where they were living. I filmed them as they told me what had happened to them eight months earlier during the military invasion that Israel called Operation Cast Lead and said was a response to rocket fire from the Gaza Strip.

I had no intention of making a film when I went to Gaza, but after hearing the family’s story, I knew I had to.  I returned again in 2012 and have continued to stay in touch in the years since, realizing that the plight of the Awajahs opened a window onto what an entire society was facing, onto what it’s like to live with an interminable war and constant fear.  The Awajahs’ story shines a spotlight on what Palestinians in Gaza have endured for years on end.

What stuck with me most, however, was the demand of the Awajah children regarding the reconstruction of their new home in 2012: they insisted that the house have two doors.

What The Awajahs Saw

In separate interviews in 2009, Wafaa and Kamal Awajah told me the same story, each breaking down in tears as they offered me their memories of the traumatic events that had taken place eight months earlier — a night when they lost far more than a home.  The next day, a still grief-stricken Wafaa walked me through her recollections of that night, pointing out the spot where each incident had taken place.

On January 4th, as Operation Cast Lead’s ground campaign began, the Awajah family was at home.  Wafaa’s eldest daughter, 12-year-old Omsiyat, woke her up at around 2 am.  “Mom,” said Omsiyat, “soldiers are at the door.”  Wafaa jumped out of bed to look. “There are no soldiers at the door, honey,” she reassured her daughter. When Omsiyat insisted, Wafaa looked again, and this time she spotted the soldiers and tanks. She lit candles in the window so that the Israeli troops would know that a family was inside.

Suddenly, the ceiling began to crumble.  Wafaa, Kamal, and their six children fled, as an Israeli military bulldozer razed their home. No sooner had they made it outside than the roof collapsed.  As tank after tank rolled by, the family huddled under an olive tree next to the house. When dawn finally broke, they could examine the ruins of their house.

Just as the Awajahs were trying to absorb their loss, Wafaa heard nine-year-old Ibrahim scream. He had been shot in the side.  As more gunfire rang out, Kamal scooped up the injured boy and ran for cover with the rest of the family. Wafaa was hit in both hips, but she and five of the children managed to take shelter behind a mud-brick wall. From there, she saw Kamal, also wounded, lying in the middle of the road, Ibrahim still in his arms.

Israeli soldiers approached her husband and son on foot, while Wafaa watched, and — according to what she and Kamal both told me — without warning, one of them shot Ibrahim at close range, killing him. He may have assumed that Kamal was already dead. Despite Wafaa and Kamal’s wounds, the family managed to get back to their wrecked home, where they hid under the collapsed roof for four days with no food or clean water, until a passing family with a donkey cart took them and Ibrahim’s body to a hospital in Gaza city.

As far as I know, the Israeli military never investigated the incident.  In fact, only a handful of possible war crimes during Operation Cast Lead were ever investigated by Israel.  Instead of an official inquiry, the Awajahs were left with a dead son, grievous physical wounds that eventually healed, psychological ones that never will, and a home reduced to pile of rubble.

One Family in Gaza, Jen Marlowe’s award-winning short documentary film featuring the Awajah family
Life Goes On

When I met them eight months later, the Awajahs were struggling to rebuild their lives.  “What’s hardest is how to offer safety and security for my children,” Kamal told me. “Their behaviors are not the same as before.”

Wafaa pointed to three-year-old Diyaa. “This boy is traumatized since the war,” she said. “He sleeps with a loaf of bread in his arms. If you try to take it from him, he wakes up, hugs it, and says, ‘It’s mine.’”

“What you can’t remove or change is the fear in the children’s eyes,” Kamal continued.  “If Diyaa sees a bulldozer, he thinks it’s coming to destroy a house. If he sees a soldier, whether an Israeli or Arab soldier, he thinks the soldier wants to kill him. I try to keep them away from violence, but what he experienced forces him to release his fear with violence. When he kisses you, you can feel violence in his kiss. He kisses you and then pushes you away. He might punch or slap you. I am against violence and war in any form. I support peaceful ways. That’s how I live and raise my children. Of course, I try to keep my children from violence, and help them forget what happened to them, but I can’t erase it from their memory. The memories of fear are engraved in their blood.”

I thought about Kamal’s words as I filmed Diyaa and his five-year-old sister Hala scrambling onto the rubble of their destroyed home — their only playground — squealing with glee as they rolled bullet casings and shrapnel down the collapsed roof.

What moved me deeply was the determination of Kamal and Wafaa to create a future for their surviving children. “Yes, my home was destroyed, my life was destroyed, but this didn’t destroy what’s inside me,” Kamal said.  “It didn’t kill me as Kamal. It didn’t kill us as a family. We’re living. After all, we must continue living. It’s not the life we wanted, or had, but I try to provide for my children what I can.”

The Fragility of Hope

In 2012, I returned to Gaza and to the tent in which the Awajah family was still living. It was evident that the trauma of their experience in 2009 — along with the daily deprivation and lack of security and freedom that characterize Gaza under siege — had taken a toll. “I had thought that those were the most difficult days of my life,” Kamal said, “but I discovered afterwards that the days which followed were even more difficult.”

In 2009, Kamal told me that the war hadn’t fundamentally changed him. Now, he simply said, “I lost myself. The Kamal before the war does not exist today.”  He spoke of the screams of his children, waking regularly from nightmares.  “The war is still chasing them in their dreams.”

Most painful for Kamal was his inability to help his children heal. His despair and feelings of helplessness had grown to the point where he had become paralyzed with severe depression.  “I tried and I still try to get us out of the situation we are in — the social situation, the educational situation for the children, and the mental situation for me and my family.”  But their situation, he added, kept getting worse.

My 2012 visit, however, came during a rare moment of hope. After nearly four years, the Awajah family was finally rebuilding their home. Trucks were delivering bags of cement; gravel-filled wheelbarrows were being pushed onto skids; wooden planks were being hammered down. In 2009, I had filmed Diyaa and Hala playing on the rubble of their destroyed house.  In 2012, I filmed them climbing and jumping on the foundation of their new home.

“I am building a house. It is my right in life for my children to have a house,” Kamal said.  “I call it my dream house, because I dream that my children will go back to being themselves.  It will be the first step to shelter me and my children, away from the sun and the heat and tents, our homelessness.  The biggest hope and the biggest happiness I have is when I see my children smiling and comfortable… when they sleep without nightmares.”  Kamal added, “I can’t sleep because of my fear over them.”

For Wafaa, while the new home represented hope for their future, its construction also triggered flashbacks to that night of the bulldozer.  As she told me, “Bulldozers and trucks bringing construction material came at night, and, at that moment, it was war again. When I saw the bulldozers and the trucks approaching with big lights, my heart fell between my feet.  I was truly scared.”

Planning for the new house also provided Wafaa and Kamal with a poignant reminder of the fragility of hope in Gaza. “The children say to make two doors to the house,” Wafaa told me.  “One [regular] door and the other door so when the Israelis demolish the house, we can use it to escape.  We try to comfort them and tell them nothing like this will happen, but no, they insist on us making two doors.  ‘Two doors, Daddy, one here and one there, so that we can run away.’”

The Gaza War of 2014

After my 2012 visit, I periodically contacted the Awajah family. Construction was proceeding in fits and starts, Kamal told me, due to shortages of materials in Gaza and their lack of financial resources. Finally, however, in the middle of 2013 the home was completed and as the final step, glass for the windows was installed in February 2014.

Five months later, in July, the most recent Israeli assault on Gaza began. I called the Awajah family right away.

“The children are frightened but okay,” Wafaa told me.

The Israeli army had warned their neighborhood to evacuate and they were now renting a small apartment in Gaza City. During a humanitarian ceasefire, Kamal was able to return to their house: it had been demolished along with the entire neighborhood.

When I spoke to the Awajah family at the end of September, Kamal told me that rent money had run out.  Seeking shelter at a United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) school wasn’t a viable option, he said, because there were already so many families packed into each room. The Awajahs were back in a tent next to the rubble of their twice-destroyed home.

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2014: Kamal and his children on the rubble of their twice-destroyed home

The family’s situation is far bleaker than in 2009.  Then they were able to tap into an electricity source and there was a communal outhouse for all the tent-dwelling families in the area. This time, Kamal said, the area near their house was entirely deserted: no water tank, electricity, outhouse, gas, or stove for cooking. Their only possessions were the few items of clothing they managed to take with them when they fled. They were sleeping on the ground, he said, no mattresses or blankets to ward off the cold, only the nylon of the tent beneath them. The children had been walking several kilometers to fill jugs with water until villagers who lived nearby made their wells available for a few hours a day.

Wafaa told me that she was cooking on an open fire, using scrap wood scavenged from the remnants of her house. For the first week, the children returned home from school every day and, surrounded by nothing but rubble, began to cry. Seventeen-year-old Omsiyat briefly took the phone. Her typically warm and open voice was completely flat, no affect whatsoever.

Worse yet, Kamal still owes $3,700 for the construction of their previous house.  Though the home no longer exists, the debt does.  “We are drowning,” Wafaa said.

The Awajah family today

Drowning in Gaza

The Awajahs aren’t the only ones in Gaza who are drowning. The true horror of their repeated trauma lies in the extent to which it is widespread and shared. Nine-year-old Ibrahim Awajah was one of 872 children in Gaza killed in the 2009, 2012, and 2014 wars combined, according to statistics gathered by the United NationsOffice for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairsand B’tselem, an Israeli human rights organization. (There was also one Israeli child killed by mortar fire in that period.)

The flat affect in Omsiyat’s voice reflects the assessment of the United Nations Children’s Fund that nearly half of the children in Gaza are in urgent need of psychological help.  And Kamal’s desire not to move into a communal shelter is understandable, given that 53,869 displaced people still remain crowded into 18 UNWRA schools.  According to Shelter Cluster, an inter-agency committee that supports shelter needs for people affected by conflict and natural disaster, the Awajah family’s house is one of 18,080 homes in Gaza that were completely demolished or severely damaged in the 2014 war alone. A further 5,800 houses suffered significant damage, with 38,000 more sustaining some damage.

Shelter Cluster estimates that it will take 20 years for Gaza to be rebuilt — assuming that it does not face yet another devastating military operation. As the last six years indicate, however, unless there is meaningful political progress (namely, the ending of the Israeli siege and ongoing occupation), further hostilities are inevitable.  It is not enough that people in Gaza be able to rebuild their houses yet again.  They need the opportunity to rebuild their lives with dignity.

Kamal Awajah said as much. “I don’t ask anyone to build me a home for the sake of charity. That’s not the kind of help we want. We need the kind of help that raises our value as human beings. But how? That’s the question.”

There seem to be no serious efforts on the horizon to address Kamal’s question, which has at its core an insistence on recognizing the equal value of Palestinian humanity. As long as that question remains unanswered and the fundamental rights of Palestinians continue to be denied, the devastating impact of repeated war will continue for every family in Gaza and the terrifying threat of the next war will always loom.  The Awajah children have every reason to insist that their future home be constructed with two doors.

Jen Marlowe is a human rights activist, author, documentary filmmaker, and founder of donkeysaddle projects. Her books include I Am Troy Davis andThe Hour of Sunlight: One Palestinian’s Journey from Prisoner to Peacemaker. Her films include Witness Bahrain and One Family in Gaza. She blogs at View from the donkey’s saddle and tweets at @donkeysaddleorg.

[Note: To help the Awajah family rebuild their home, Jen Marlowe set up an Indiegogo campaign on their behalf, which you can visit and share by clicking here.]

Copyright 2014 Jen Marlowe

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Scanning the names

18 Israeli soldiers have been killed since the offensive in Gaza began.

It is clear to me that Israeli soldiers should not be in Gaza, and that, by being there, they are part of a horrific system of violence and domination in which over 500 Palestinians have been killed in the last two weeks, including entire families, children, women, elderly, disabled, and massive destruction done to civilian property and infrastructure.  I have commented on the horror of that in various ways here and here and here.

I also believe that when soldiers or fighters are killed, it is not the same as when civilians are killed, especially when those soldiers are an invading army leaving a trail of death and destruction in its wake.

But none of this changed my reaction upon seeing the list of names of the Israeli soldiers killed yesterday. I scanned each name and city of origin with my breath held, praying that it wasn’t someone I know, a young man or woman whose counselor I had been when s/he was a teenager, someone I had listened to music and cracked jokes with as I drove him/her  to the peace center in Jerusalem where I worked from 2000-2004.

Most of the young Israeli men and women who I knew and grew to love as teenagers served in the Israeli  military.  (A very courageous few became conscientious objectors and refused to serve.) Many still serve, some in combat units. I know at least one who is in Gaza right now. I am still connected to dozens of soldiers or former soldiers via Facebook or email. Several I count among my friends. All of them I care for.

Yes, they should not be in Gaza. I cannot–with any moral honesty–condemn the killing of soldiers as I would condemn the killing of civilians. I am not trying to make any claims of symmetry here–such claims would be blatantly false. My heart literally feels like it is bleeding for the people of Gaza right now.

And yet, I do hold my breath as I scan the names, praying the name does not belong to someone I know and care for. And, of course, even as I let out the breathe with a bit of relief when I find I recognize none of the names, I know that the names belong to people that others care, deeply, for, and my grief, concern and fear extends to them.

I hope the Israeli young men/women I know who are soldiers in Gaza right now emerge unharmed.  Equally, I wish (for their sake and for the sake of people in Gaza) that they play no role in harming civilians. Yet I know even before I write this that it is too late for that. Whether or not they pull a particular trigger that launches a particular shell or bullet or missile–just by being there, they are part of a system of overwhelming devestation and death.

What I wish more than anything is that the soldiers whose names I was scanning, the soldiers I know personally, and those I do not, were not in Gaza (or the West Bank) at all. I wish this for their sake, their families’ sake, and I wish it for the sake of the Palestinians who are suffering under this brutal assault. I wish they were in their university right now, or at their jobs, or at the beach, or on vacation. And that Palestinians had equal opportunities for education, work, recreation and travel.

I wish that the Israeli government (and the Hamas government and the PA as well) cared for the well-being, safety and security of their citizens/people more than they care for whatever political gain they think they will attain by continuing this assault, and turning human lives into political pawns.

As I write this, my email inbox pinged with the names of 11 fresh deaths of Palestinians who lived in a residential tower that was the latest target of an Israeli airstrike. I am nauseated by the news, quite literally.

And now I go to scan those names, feeling sicker by the moment.





Filed under Palestine/Israel