Through four wars, toll mounts on a Gaza neighborhood
BEIT HANOUN, Gaza Strip (AP) — The electricity is out again tonight in what’s left of Zaki and Jawaher Nassir’s neighborhood. But from the shell of their sitting room, its wall blown open by Israeli missiles, twilight and a neighbor’s fire are enough to see by.
Here, down a narrow lane called Al-Baali, just over a mile from the heavily fortified border separating northern Gaza and Israel, cinderblock homes press against each other before opening to a modest courtyard below the Nassirs’ perch.
Until this neighborhood was hammered by the fourth war in 13 years between Israel and Hamas militants, the Nassirs often sipped coffee by a window, watching children play volleyball using a rope in place of a net. Other days, the couple looked out as relatives pulled fruit off the yard’s fig and olive trees.
Now they spend day after day surveying the wreckage of the May 14 airstrike from broken plastic chairs while awaiting building inspectors, the gaping holes in surrounding homes serving as windows into their neighborhood’s upheaval.
In the skeleton of one building, children play video games atop a slab of fallen concrete. In another, a man stares out from beside a bed covered in debris, ignoring the ceiling fan drooping overhead like a dead flower. The smell of pulverized cement and plaster dust hangs in the air.
Each afternoon, demolition workers arrive to hack away at this real-life stage set so that the Nassirs 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,” says Zaki Nassir, who lost a nephew from the household across the yard in the first war, another from next door in this year’s war, and whose home is still scarred by shelling during the third war.
The story of the Nassirs, their neighbors and the toll of four wars is Gaza’s story.
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Since 2008, more than 4,000 Palestinians have been killed in the conflicts, according to the U.N. While many were fighters for Hamas or other militant groups, more than half were civilians. Thousands have been injured. On the Israeli side, the death toll from the four wars stands at 106, officials say.
The Islamic militants, who reject Israel’s right to exist, have fired thousands of rockets across the border during the conflicts, operating from a maze of underground tunnels. Israel, one of a number of countries that label 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 Israel’s policy of degrading Hamas -- and inflicting a toll designed to undermine its public support -- makes little pretense of resolving Gaza’s deepening crisis. And international efforts focus only on relief and reconstruction. Meanwhile, each war has boosted approval of Hamas, often when it was flagging.
All told, the wars have done more than $5 billion in damage to Gaza’s buildings, roads, electrical and water systems, roughly double the Strip’s annual economic output. Nearly 250,000 homes have been damaged or destroyed.
The wars, coupled with a crippling blockade and the fallout of infighting between Palestinian factions, also have scarred Gaza in ways that can be difficult to quantify.
“It’s not (just) about you are losing a building. You are losing the hope that things will get better,” says Omar Shaban, an economist who runs a think tank in Gaza City. “Forty percent of the population was born under siege.”
Gaza’s crisis is rooted in events that came long before Hamas seized control in 2007. More than half of those packed into the Strip 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.
Six years ago, U.N. officials warned that wars and economic isolation had done so much to intensify Gaza’s “de-development” that it risked becoming uninhabitable by 2020. Since then, the Strip’s 2 million residents have endured yet another war, even as the economy teeters, with unemployment close to 50 percent, among the world’s highest.
“Every year we write that, OK, Gaza hit rock bottom,” says Rami Alazzeh, a U.N. economist who has studied the long-term costs. “And every year we repeat the same sentence because, actually, it gets worse and worse.”
The Nassirs and their neighbors, many holding on to memories of life before Gaza was so embattled, 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.”
Five decades ago, Zaki Nassir’s father moved his family to a plot of farmland in what was then a village. Today, three- and four-story homes along Al-Baali Street -- at the heart of that tract and named after Zaki’s father -- are filled with Nassirs.
“There were not a lot of residents here like there are today,” says Nassir, 47, recalling the family’s citrus trees, greenhouses and cattle. Some of his brothers were among the tens of thousands of Gaza residents who crossed daily to work in Israel. “Things back then were way better in those days.”
Even then, though, it was no paradise. Since the 1967 war that saw Israel take control of Gaza, the West Bank and east Jerusalem, the rights and movements of Palestinians have been dictated by Israeli security concerns. Critics call it a form of apartheid. That infuriates Israel, where Gaza is often spoken of as a foreign country, separate from the larger Palestinian conflict.
Over the years, the Nassir family -- 13 daughters and 12 sons born to two wives -- grew with Beit Hanoun, which today has a population of 57,000. Beyond the archway marking the entrance to town, an ever-present Israeli surveillance balloon hovers over the border wall, keeping the community under watch.
As the Nassir siblings married, they built homes on much of the family’s land, still a few minutes by donkey cart from fields of grain and fruit trees.
Until he was sidelined by a heart condition and the pandemic, Zaki Nassir’s job with the Palestinian Authority had him inspecting area farms and, more recently, working part-time at an agricultural college. Jawaher, 46, is expecting their ninth child in September.
Life in Beit Hanoun deteriorated sharply after Israel withdrew settlers and troops in a 2005 disengagement, isolating Gaza. Hamas, which had killed hundreds of Israelis in suicide bombings, filled the vacuum.
In 2006, militants kidnapped an Israeli soldier, prompting an Israeli incursion that destroyed roads in northern Gaza and flattened groves. After winning Palestinian legislative elections, Hamas prevailed over the rival Fatah party in a clash for control of the Strip. Israel and Egypt imposed a strict economic blockade.
Then, in the last days of 2008, Israel launched a major military offensive after heavy rocket and mortar fire by militants across the border. Soon the first war came to Al-Baali Street.
On an afternoon about 2½ weeks into the war, Israel’s military declared a brief pause so residents could gather needed supplies. Khaldiya Nassir was preparing the family’s remaining vegetables when her husband, Adham -- Zaki Nassir’s nephew -- announced he was taking his donkey and cart out to replenish the family’s supply of flour.
“We told him not be deceived. There is no truce. They are lying,” says Khaldiya Nassir, sitting at the entranceway of her house, a pale pink structure that runs the length of the courtyard.
Adham -- a cart driver prone to working long hours, often returning with boxes of mangoes for his six children -- went anyway.
On his way home that afternoon, 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. Moments later, a rocket obliterated his cart.
Evacuated to an Egyptian hospital, Adham died three weeks later.
His wife blames Israeli special forces. The Israeli military said at the time that he had been carrying rockets, but he was only carrying what they needed to eat, Khaldiya says.
For five years afterward, Khaldiya Nassir set aside much of the orphans’ assistance her family received through the Palestinian Authority, the Fatah-led government that still administers parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank. With it, she built a home filled with personal touches, like kitchen tiles illustrated with coffee cups and doors decorated with floral patterns.
This Ramadan, days before the war erupted, her children hand-cut paper hearts to celebrate. They still hang from the ceilings of rooms littered with chunks of concrete. Much of the house will have to be torn down, U.N. inspectors say.
“Everything is gone,” she says. “We cannot afford any more fear.”
THE FIRST WAR’S TOLL: About 1,400 Palestinians killed and 13 on the Israeli side. Homes damaged or destroyed: 60,000. Fifteen hospitals and 41 primary health care centers were damaged, two destroyed.
Among the casualties were two boys, killed when shells loaded with white phosphorous hit a United Nations-run school where 1,600 people were sheltering.
Phosphorous, used to create smoke screens, was a signature weapon of the first war, which ran from Dec. 27, 2008 to Jan. 18, 2009. Because it burns at up to 1,500 degrees, it caused devastating injuries.
Israel renounced its use in 2013.
With food and construction materials in short supply after the war, Israel continued its blockade, increasing pressure on residents confined to an area less than a tenth the size of the smallest U.S. state.
Israel bars nearly all Palestinians from exiting through its lone crossing for travelers -- a building faced with glass on its side of the border, but with steel doors and a caged enclosure on the Gaza side that give it the feel of a cattle run.
Undeterred by the restrictions, Zaki’s brother Jamal and wife Munira took savings from his job driving a taxi and opened the Abu Nashat Grocery, across the street from the courtyard. Jamal, once a construction worker in Israel, ran the shop along with Munira and two of their 12 children, while others drove the taxi.
As neighbors flocked in for cold drinks and other items, earnings grew to $3,000 a month, paying for family outings to Gaza beaches.
But peace was fleeting. In 2012, after months of Palestinian rocket fire into Israel, an Israeli air strike killed Ahmed Jabari, the leader of Hamas’ military wing. The war that followed lasted just eight days, beginning on Nov. 14; this time, the Nassirs and their neighbors were largely spared. But the conflict was never far away.
On Nov. 19, an Israeli bomb dropped on a home in the nearby Jabaliya refugee camp killed a 46-year-old school janitor and his children, ages 4 and 2. A day later, a missile strike killed a farmer and his two children as they gathered mint from their garden in the neighboring town of Beit Lahiya.
“We are the owners of this land, so why does this always happen?” says Kemal Al Kafarna, whose home a few minutes walk from Al-Baali’s courtyard had been strafed in 2008, then occupied by Israeli troops.
“We are not against Israeli people, the normal ones. We are against those who come to our country to take it.”
THE SECOND WAR’S TOLL: 168 people in Gaza, six Israelis. About 450 homes destroyed between Nov. 14 to 21, along with two stadiums and eight sport clubs; 10,000 homes and more than two dozen schools damaged.
The war marked the first time rockets fired from Gaza reached Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
In July 2014, three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped from a bus stop in the West Bank and found dead weeks later. Members of Hamas eventually claimed responsibility and Israel arrested scores of the group‘s leaders in the West Bank.
Militants responded by firing rockets from Gaza into southern Israel, igniting a crackdown that exploded into yet another war, from July 8 to Aug. 26. At seven weeks, it was by far the longest and most deadly. Israel launched scores of air attacks on targets throughout the Strip, then sent in ground forces.
In Beit Hanoun, residents were told to evacuate and seek shelter. On Al-Baali street, though, some were reluctant.
Jawaher Nassir, seven months pregnant, worried she might not be strong enough to flee on foot. Three doors down, 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.
There was little time to argue. With Israeli tanks firing on Beit Hanoun, residents of Al-Baali street joined a tide of people coursing toward a U.N. school providing shelter in Jabaliya. Every few minutes, Jawaher stopped to rest on the side of the road, her strength sapped by Ramadan fasting.
“But when we got to the school we found there was no room for us,” she recalls. “We had to stay in the stairwell.” The others assigned her the bottom step, while they crowded the floor.
The space became the family’s home for the next 51 days. Some 3,000 people took refuge at the school, including one of Zaki’s sisters, Wafaa Sihueil, and her husband Thaer.
Two weeks later, a barrage of Israeli artillery shells hit the building around 4:45 a.m. Parents and children lost each other in the smoke.
“We didn’t know what was happening,” Thaer Sihueil says, visibly upset by the recollection. “After the bombing stopped I started searching for my children. I found them screaming, ‘Here I am, Dad!’ And then I found my nephews.”
One of the teens was dead, his head bloody and disfigured. The other, his shoulder pierced by shrapnel, would survive for three months before dying of infection. More than 20 people died in the attack, one of seven on U.N. schools being used as shelters.
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.
Down the street, neighbor Akram Abu Amsha and his brothers also returned home. But their parents were not in the spot under the stairs where they’d promised to hide. Then the men turned to a narrow space between the buildings -- the most direct escape route, but one readily visible to drones.
“We found them in pieces,” Akram says.
THE THIRD WAR’S TOLL: 2,251 Palestinians dead -- about three out of four of them civilians, according to the U.N. Seventy-four people on the Israeli side were killed, including 6 civilians. More than 11,000 Palestinians and 2,400 Israelis injured.
The longest and most devastating of the four conflicts, it destroyed 17,800 homes in Gaza and damaged 150,000. It displaced 100,000 people and inflicted an especially harsh toll on Gaza’s children, killing 550, destroying 22 schools and damaging 118 others.
In the aftermath of the 2014 war, Khaldiya Nassir spent $12,000 mending holes in the ceiling of the house she’d only just finished building.
“This is where we find comfort, in our own place,” she says.
With the U.N. giving priority to rebuilding homes that had been destroyed, many neighbors had to pick up the bill for lesser repairs.
A few blocks closer to the border, Kemal Al Kefarna had difficult choices to make. Shelling had perforated the facade of his three-story home with scores of holes, from the front steps to the parapet.
With only enough to replace windows and fix the interior, he left the outside as is: “I will fix it in the future when I get money. Even if they destroy it again and again. And if they destroy it after that, my children will fix it.”
Seven years passed. But as he forecast, war returned to Beit Hanoun.
This May protests erupted over the anticipated eviction of Palestinian families from homes in east Jerusalem and Israeli restrictions on Ramadan gatherings. That led to a clash with Israeli police at the holy city’s Al-Aqsa mosque. Hamas demanded the forces withdraw by 6 p.m. on May 10.
An hour before the deadline, the home of Zaki’s older brother, Ali, buzzed with excitement over the imminent birth of his new grandchild. With a couple of hours of light left, another of Ali’s sons, 24-year-old Mohamed, told his parents he was going out to pick up grain his employer sought for his horses.
Just outside town, Mohamed pulled his cart alongside the field farmed by 23-year-old Mohamed al-Masri and his family. The men settled on a price for a few bags of grain as the al-Masri children played.
As al-Masri filled the bags, he says, he “heard the rocket coming.” A moment later, it exploded into the gathering, killing Mohamed Nassir, a companion and six members of al-Masri’s family.
Al-Masri, his right eye, abdomen and leg injured, says he “looked to the right and to the left and I saw the body parts of children. We had all been together just seconds before and now there were just (body) parts all around me.”
The Israeli military says the victims were hit by a rocket, fired by militants, that missed its target. Indeed, Hamas and other militant groups fired more than 4,300 rockets toward Israeli cities during the 11-day conflict. But Human Rights Watch recently concluded that the strike was delivered by an Israeli missile.
A half hour after Mohamed Nassir was killed, his brother’s wife gave birth to a son -- “a gift from God to mitigate the sadness,” Ali Nassir says. They named the baby Mohamed.
Three nights later, the Nassirs and their neighbors hunkered down, the sound of shelling cutting through the dark. In Zaki and Jawaher’s second-floor home, the couple and their children clustered in an interior room, away from any windows, the youngest boys sleeping while their oldest daughter studied for a college medical studies test.
Across the yard, dozens of relatives of Itzhak Fayyad packed into the four-story building he shares with his brothers, many sleeping on mattresses they’d carted from homes near the border susceptible to artillery fire.
A little after 12:30 a.m. on May 14, shouts from outside the Fayyad home warned of military fire to the east. Itzhak, 46, ran upstairs to reassure those sleeping on the roof, just as the first of seven Israeli missiles exploded into the courtyard.
The force flung Fayyad to the ground from a fourth-floor window, shattering his right leg. (Hospitalized in Egypt, his family says Fayyad faces at least two months of recovery.) Two buildings away, shrapnel and debris lacerated 27-year-old Shaima Nassir, who relatives say has since required four rounds of surgery to reconnect severed nerves.
Across the yard, the shockwaves flattened the Nassirs’ grocery and killed several horses and donkeys. Inside, bricks shaken loose from the wall fell on Jalal Nassir, leaving his back twisted in pain.
“I put my fingers in my ears and we were screaming,” says Lama Sihueil, Zaki’s 14-year-old niece.
“May nobody, neither Jews nor Arabs, ever experience such a night,” Fayyad’s brother, Khalil, says.
The Israeli military told The Associated Press it targeted Al-Baali because the area 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.
It is true that Israeli missiles did not hit any of the homes directly. But the force blew walls and ceilings apart and left deep craters in the street and yard.
Residents have returned to what’s left. Inspectors, though, say most of the buildings facing the courtyard will have to be torn down and rebuilt or require major repairs. Looking over the damage, they recall visiting some of the same homes after previous wars.
U.N. engineer Sayeed Abu Shaban has inspected destroyed or damaged homes since the first conflict. “You see the same thing every couple of years,” he says. “Unfortunately, only civilians pay the price. That’s here and in Israel.”
THE FOURTH WAR’S TOLL: More than 250 dead in Gaza, including 129 civilians, according to the U.N.; 13 deaths in Israel. More than 4,000 homes destroyed or severely damaged, and thousands more requiring repair.
Worst hit was densely populated Gaza City, where airstrikes destroyed a number of high-rise apartment buildings and 122 were killed.
If his father was alive to see what has become of Al-Baali Street, he would surely weep, Zaki Nassir says. Still, it’s home.
“Our memories are here,” Jawaher Nassir says, sitting beside a bare wall that used to hold photos of her children and of her husband receiving his diploma in agriculture.
U.N. inspectors say the building will have to come down. The Nassirs and their neighbors say they’ll rebuild. Until then, most sleep in apartments rented nearby or at the homes of relatives, returning each morning despite inspectors’ warnings not to spend time in the wreckage.
“They said it’s not safe, that we should be afraid,” Zaki says. He grins, reassuring a visitor that if the house begins to collapse, “I’ll hold it up so you can get out.”
But even after four wars in 13 years, and with every expectation that conflict will erupt again, he is staying put.
“We’ve been here for a month,” he says, “and so far, nothing bad has happened.”
Associated Press reporters Helen Wieffering in Washington, Wafaa Shurafa and Felipe Dana in Gaza and Josef Federman and Joseph Krauss in Jerusalem contributed to this story.