Gaza’s Beit Hanoun: A ghost town left in ruins

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A Palestinian woman walks amid destroyed buildings in the northern district of Beit Hanoun in the Gaza Strip during an humanitarian truce on July 26, 2014. (Photo: AFP-Marco Longari)

By: Bayan Abdel Wahad

Published Monday, July 28, 2014

A house in Gaza is more than just a shelter; it is almost a nation on its own. Building a home in the Strip is like a dream that generations, from grandfathers to grandsons, try to achieve. However, in an instant scores of those dreams are turned into ashes.

Gaza – Ismael al-Zaanin found that crying was the best way to express his sorrows after losing his home during random Israeli artillery shelling that targeted civilian houses in Beit Hanoun, north Gaza, and turned this agricultural area into a ghost town.

Zaanin, a man in his thirties, banged his head repeatedly times against the wall to be able to grasp the enormous destruction he saw before him. An entire neighborhood had been destroyed, and residents could no longer locate their own houses. They walked over the rubble, seeking a place to sit back and cry over their lost memories.

This Palestinian man, along with thousands of other families, was forced to flee Beit Hanoun about a week ago under the threat of missile attacks, preceded by phone warnings and flyers dropped from the sky urging residents to evacuate the area under the pretense of wanting to spare their lives.

This time, Beit Hanoun residents were luckier than their fellow citizens in al- Shujayeh, in east Gaza. Living in a border area, they perceived the danger after experiencing such events many times in the past - during the years of the intifada - so they decided to retreat early. Some families however, stayed behind, and their bodies were later retrieved from under the rubble during the short truce that was announced on Saturday.

As Gazans learned that the UN sponsored truce was coming into force and was expected to last from 8 am until 12 hours later, crowds of displaced locals raced against time to check on their homes and properties, only to be struck by the size of the tragedy.

Blood mixed with gunpowder emanated from the outskirts of the town and its small alleys. As rescuers dug through the rubble, searching for bodies, people surrounded them in the hopes of hearing some moaning from under the debris. Unfortunately, none of those who were buried under the ruins of their own homes, came out alive on that day.

The mother of Mohammed al-Kafarna stood still as she stared at the decomposed body of her son who passed away under the ruins. She tried to identify his face and cried out, “my dear son, why did they mutilate you… you were a blooming rose, my boy!” before fainting.

The body of martyr Kafarna was one among 13 bodies retrieved during the truce. But the most overwhelming part was the scene of utter destruction that prevailed in Beit Hanoun, a town of over 40,000 residents.

We went ahead, crossing some tens of meters toward the eastern outskirts of the town, to reach an area which seemed almost vacant. We arrived near Beit Hanoun’s high school for boys, and saw the land surrounding it covered with bullets and shell casings, revealing that a battle had erupted here between Israeli Special Forces and the men of the Palestinian Resistance.

Moving a bit closer to the demolished houses, we ran across a man in his twenties called Mohammed Najib. He led us under his wrecked building and showed us stains of blood sprayed all over the place. He said that this was the blood of Israeli soldiers who entrenched themselves down here before clashing with the Resistance, but we could not find conclusive evidence, like military equipment, to support his claim. However, the Resistance had announced a few hours before the truce that it had ambushed 10 Israeli soldiers in Beit Hanoun.

Here military vehicles left the trace of a large land passageway which led to a sand berm erected in the town’s main street. Apparently it was being used by Israeli tanks as cover from the Resistance’s shells.

In a scene that brought back the pictures of Palestinians fleeing their homes in 1948, an old lady called Om Samir Hamad and her sons emerged from their crumbling house, carrying a few of their belongings and some gas cylinders, as they headed back to the UNRWA school, now used as a shelter.

A pack of pillows fell from the hand of the woman and hit the asphalt road, now covered with shattered glass and rubble. Her son shouted, “we came here to get our jewelry and our money but they are gone with the wind, leave the mattresses and pillows and let us move on mother!”

“May God recompense us son, move on, safety is our reward,” the distressed mother said.

In the meantime, Abu Ahmed Abu Awde came out of his chicken farm. He was crying and praying to God as he calculated his losses, saying he lost 35,000 chickens when an artillery shell hit the farm.

Abu Ahmed pointed out that he has a large family made up of 10 members, and estimated his loss at about $20,000, in addition to two cars and the house he owned which was built over 500 square meters of land.

Although the Israeli army and its vehicles had retreated from the town, some of the houses were still on fire. The road that Al-Akhbar’s car took was blocked by a fallen utility pole.

However, the most painful scene in Beit Hanoun was the destroyed central hospital which closed its doors after it was targeted by a number of missiles, raising the number of partially destroyed hospitals and first aid centers to eight, according to al-Mizan Human Rights Center.

In a statement obtained by Al-Akhbar, the center denounced “the silence of the international community over the crimes of the occupation which encourages Israel to continue to commit war crimes against Gaza.”

As the night started to fall, people in the town ceased talking and gave way to cameras to capture the scene. Then, the distressed residents rushed to gather what was left of their belongings and boarded their buses, heading back to the shelter centers, now their sole refuge after over 30,000 families have lost their homes.

As reporters got ready to leave the place, displaced residents had one last thing to say: “We shall return to our homes.”

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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