War is Gaza’s recurring nightmare

Adam Geller and Fares Akram
Associated Press

Beit Hanoun, Gaza Strip — From the shell of their sitting room, its wall blown open by Israeli missiles, Zaki and Jawaher Nassir have a window into their neighborhood’s upheaval.

In one building’s skeleton, children play video games atop a slab of fallen concrete. In another, a man stares out from beside a bed covered in debris.

A resident of Al-Baali Street cleans a room inside her home, heavily damaged by airstrikes in Beit Hanoun, northern Gaza Strip, Friday, June 18, 2021.

Until this neighborhood was hammered by the fourth war in 13 years between Israel and Hamas, the Nassirs often sat by their window, watching children play.

Now they watch demolition workers hack away at the wreckage so they and their neighbors can start rebuilding — again.

“We have no peace in our lives and we expect that war can happen again at any time,” Zaki Nassir says.

The story of the Nassirs, their neighbors and the toll of four wars is Gaza’s story.

Since 2008, more than 4,000 Palestinians have been killed in the conflicts, over half of them civilians. The Israeli death toll stands at 106.

The Islamic militants, who reject Israel’s right to exist, have fired thousands of rockets across the border. Israel, which considers Hamas a terrorist organization, has repeatedly hit the Strip with overwhelming firepower that, despite its high-tech precision, continues to kill civilians.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has likened Israel’s periodic offensives to mowing an unruly lawn. But the wars have done more than $5 billion in damage to Gaza’s buildings and infrastructure.

Nearly 250,000 homes have been damaged or destroyed.

Gaza’s crisis is rooted in events that came long before Hamas seized control in 2007.

More than half its population are from Palestinian families who fled or were driven from what is now Israel during the 1948 war over its formation. But the recurrent fighting and the blockade of recent years have made life in Gaza far worse.

“It’s not (just) about you are losing a building. You are losing the hope that things will get better,” says Omar Shaban, who runs a Gaza think tank. “Forty percent of the population was born under siege.”

The Nassirs are all too familiar with that narrative of despair. But they resist it, even after a fourth war.

“This is what we have,” Zaki Nassir says. “We have to live.”

A family sits inside a makeshift tent built among the rubble of their home, destroyed by an airstrike in Beit Lahiya, northern Gaza Strip,, Monday, June 14, 2021.

Five decades ago, Zaki Nassir’s father moved his family to a plot of farmland in what was then a village. Today, homes built on that tract are filled with Nassirs.

Life in Beit Hanoun deteriorated sharply after Israel withdrew settlers and troops in a 2005 disengagement.

After winning Palestinian elections in 2006, Hamas clashed with the rival Fatah party the following year and seized control of Gaza. In 2008, Israel launched a major offensive after heavy fire by militants.

About 2½ weeks into that war, Israel’s military declared a pause in the fighting so residents could gather supplies. Khaldiya Nassir was preparing the family’s remaining vegetables when her husband, Adham — Zaki Nassir’s nephew — announced he was going out to get flour.

On his way home, a woman flagged him down, pleading for help with her wounded daughter. As the 38-year-old Adham carried the girl from their house, he was wounded in the neck and back by a spray of gunfire.

Evacuated to an Egyptian hospital, Adham died three weeks later. His wife blames Israeli special forces.

Khadra Nassir holds her newborn grandson, Mohamed Nassir, named after an uncle who was killed during the recent 11-day war in Beit Hanoun, northern Gaza Strip, Thursday, June 17, 2021.

Afterward, Khaldiya Nassir set aside much of the orphans’ assistance her family received to build a home filled with personal touches. After the latest war, much of it will have to be torn down, U.N. inspectors say.

“Everything is gone,” she says. “We cannot afford any more fear.”

The Nassirs were largely spared by the next conflict, in 2012. But their neighborhood’s reprieve ended when war returned, less than two years later.

In 2014, three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped in the West Bank and found dead weeks later. Members of Hamas eventually claimed responsibility and Israel arrested scores of its leaders in the West Bank.

Militants responded by firing rockets into southern Israel, igniting a crackdown that exploded into a seven-week war. In Beit Hanoun, residents were told to evacuate to shelters.

Some 3,000 people took refuge at a school, including one of Zaki’s sisters, Wafaa Sihueil, and her husband Thaer.

Palestinians walk at night along Al-Baali Street, next to homes heavily damaged by airstrikes during an 11-day war between Israel and Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza, in Beit Hanoun, northern Gaza Strip, Monday, May 31, 2021.

When the war ended in late August, the Sihueils and others returned to a war-scarred neighborhood. Zaki and Jawaher found their home littered with shrapnel, with cracks crossing the ceiling and a hole that funneled in rainwater. In his brother’s home next door, an incendiary shell had scorched the ceiling black.

Three doors down from the Nassirs, neighbors Fauzi and Neama Abu Amsha told their sons that they were staying put, insisting that at 63 and 62, the Israeli military would never see them as a threat. Jawaher Nassir, seven months pregnant, worried she might not be strong enough to flee on foot.

“When we got to the school we found there was no room for us,” she recalls. “We had to stay in the stairwell.”

They returned home 51 days later to find their home littered with shrapnel, with cracks crossing the ceiling.

When neighbor Akram Abu Amsha returned, his parents were not in their hiding place under the stairs. Then he and his brothers looked for them in a narrow alley, readily visible to drones.

“We found them in pieces,” he says.

Khaldiya Nassir stands in her home, heavily damaged by airstrikes in the recent 11-day war in Beit Hanoun, northern Gaza Strip, Thursday, June 17, 2021.

This May protests erupted over the anticipated eviction of Palestinian families from homes in east Jerusalem and Israeli restrictions on Ramadan gatherings. A clash with Israeli soldiers at the holy city’s Al-Aqsa mosque touched off the latest war.

Three nights into the fighting, the Nassirs and their neighbors hunkered down, the sound of shelling cutting through the dark.

A little after 12:30 a.m. on May 14, shouts outside warned of military fire to the east. Neighbor Itzhak Fayyad, 46, ran upstairs to reassure sleeping relatives just as the first Israeli missile exploded into the courtyard. The force flung him out a fourth-floor window, shattering his right leg.

Across the yard, the shockwaves flattened Jamal Nassirs’ grocery. Inside, bricks shaken loose from the wall fell on Jalal Nassir, leaving his back twisted in pain.

“May nobody, neither Jews nor Arabs, ever experience such a night,” Itzhak’s brother, Khalil Fayyad, says.

The Israeli Defense Force told the Associated Press it targeted the area because it sat atop an underground tunnel belonging to Palestinian militants. The Air Force had used “precision weapons” to demolish the tunnel, while avoiding civilian casualties, it said.

Chadi Nassir, 7, sits on a donkey cart as his brother, Mahmoud, loads it with belongings from their damaged house in Beit Hanoun, northern Gaza Strip, Sunday, June 13, 2021.

While missiles did not hit any homes directly, the force blew walls and ceilings apart and left deep craters. Inspectors say many facing the courtyard will have to be torn down and rebuilt or require major repairs.

Until then, the Nassirs and their neighbors return each morning despite inspectors’ warnings not to spend time in the wreckage. Even after four wars in 13 years, and with every expectation that conflict will erupt again, they are staying put.

“Our memories are here,” Jawaher Nassir says.