Not forgetting the war that never ended in Gaza

Nearly one year after Israel’s onslaught against Gaza, the wounds are still fresh. The Independent has published a detailed accounting of the carnage:

Hilmi Samouni still hopes at some point – “inshallah” – to go back to his old job as a kitchen assistant in the Palmyra, Gaza City’s best known shwarma restaurant. But unlike his 22-year-old brother Khamiz, who is working once again in a car paint shop, and his 20-year-old cousin Mousa, on a two-year accountancy diploma course at Al Azhar University, Hilmi, who is 26, found that he couldn’t cope when he returned to the Palmyra after the war. “Everyone there was very supportive,” he says, “but I couldn’t do good work.” Unlike Mousa, who also lost his parents, and Khamiz, Hilmi saw the bodies not only of his father Talal and his mother Rahme but also of his wife Maha, age 20, and their only son, six-month-old Mohammed, among the 21 killed in the shelling of the warehouse in which they had been ordered by Israeli troops to gather. It still bothers Hilmi that he has no pictures of any of them; they were burnt when the family home was fired on the day before.

Now Hilmi mainly potters round the house, set amid devastated orchards and chicken coops in the southern Gaza City district of Zeitoun. The graffiti in English and Hebrew on the interior walls, left by the men of the Israeli army’s Givati brigade, are the only relics of their two-week occupation of the building – a gravestone drawn beside the words “Gaza we were here”; “One down and 999,000 to go”; “Death to Arabs”. Has the family deliberately kept the graffiti visible? “Yes, but anyway we didn’t have paint to cover them,” he says. One of Hilmi’s duties is to help look after his dauntingly self-possessed 11-year-old sister Mona, who turns the pages of artwork inspired by her memories of the morning of 5 January 2009. “This is me cleaning the face of mother who is dead. This is my father who was hit in the head and his brains came out. This is my dead sister-in-law. This is my sister taking the son from my sister in law…”

The warehouse shelling commemorated in Mona’s artwork was one of the worst of many attacks on civilians in Gaza by Israeli forces between 27 December and 18 January. The Israeli military offensive had been a long time coming but still the multiple Saturday-afternoon bombing raids with which it began came as a surprise. The stated purpose was to halt the rocket and mortar attacks – 470 of which had spread undoubted fear through the border communities of southern Israel since an Israeli raid on Hamas ended an uneasy but largely effective five-month ceasefire in early November 2008.

But if the timing was a surprise, the unprecedented ferocity of the onslaught on Hamas-controlled Gaza was even more so. More than two weeks into the war, the Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni would boast in a radio interview that “Israel … is a country that when you fire on its citizens it responds by going wild – and this is a good thing”.

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