Sunday, February 1, 2009

Life in the border zones

Posted on the ISM webpage on: February 1, 2009

“If you stay here for five minutes, you will hear gunfire”, explain locals in Wadi Salqa. “They shoot at anything moving in the village”.

Palestinian radio stations have reported that people living in Wadi Salqa are scared to death. Arriving in the village, this seems no overstatement. “If you move beyond the end of this road, you will be shot”, explains Mohammad Abu Magaseeb, pointing to the end of the road we have just arrived on.

He takes us into his uncle’s house, situated just 1km from the Green Line - the electrified fence and military bases clear from the three-storey home. It’s a beautiful home, only partly finished, but it’s already been bombed. Tank shells were fired through the second storey during the war. They take us into the newly-furbished bathroom - the bathtub full of rubble and the southern wall missing. Somehow
the damaged mural of a waterfall on the tiling seems particularly tragic. No one is sure exactly when this shelling happened, because, like most other villages near the border with Israel, the entire village evacuated as soon as the War on Gaza started - drawing back into villages closer to the centre of the strip.

Mohammad’s uncle is lucky, however. Whilst his home is badly damaged, more than 30 houses in the village of 6000 people were demolished during the war, leaving 120 families (approximately 10% of the population) homeless. The rest of the 70 houses in the southern border area were damaged or partially destroyed. Mohammad and the neighbours who accompany us are clearly nervous to be in the house, especially to be near the windows, for fear of getting shot.

We move up to the rooftop, from where we can see the Green Line on one side, and the Mediterranean on the other. At this point, halfway between Gaza city and Rafah, the Gaza Strip is just 5 kilometres wide. “We are in a small cage”, one neighbour notes. They point out the destroyed houses in the south of the village, as well as a pipe factory that was attacked with tanks and Apache helicopters. In that neighbourhood, the only building standing is the village water reservoir. Al hamdalilah.

Whilst being in the house itself is considered dangerous, nowhere in the village is really thought to be safe. Certain types of behaviour, though seem to be more dangerous than others. “If any guy carries just a pipe in the village, they shoot at him”, Mohammad advises. “They can see everything. They have cameras and are filming everything that happens in the village. When guys have been arrested, they have been shown the footage that the soldiers have”. This intense level of surveillance takes place not just in Wadi Salqa, but throughout the villages close to the border. Beit Hannoun in the extreme north of the Strip, for example, has white, camera carrying, fish-shaped balloons floating above the border, looking for all the world like childrens helium balloons, filming everything.

The other sure-fire way of getting shot at in Wadi Salqa is to be within 1km of the electric fence, regardless of your age of what you might be doing there. On 26th January, Israeli forces shot a 13 year old boy who was working on farmland approximately 500m from the Green Line - an area that was previously considered safe. Yousef Al Akhrasi was shot in the back whilst he was working harvesting peas to help earn some money for his family, villagers advise.

Whilst we are standing on the roof, a tank appears on the dirt-road that runs behind the electric fence, and we are quickly ushered downstairs.

The extension of the “no-go” area of the village, from 500m to 1km from the Green Line, has been replicated throughout the Gaza Strip. In almost every border village, farmers are unable to enter their lands; families are unable to reach their (mostly destroyed) houses. Not only have their houses been destroyed, they now have no hope of rebuilding them. In Wadi Salqa, where the majority of the villagers are farmers, approximately 4000 dounums (1000 acres) of land have been effectively confiscated - hugely significant in the sixth most densely populated region in the world.

Wadi Salqa is a village living with precarity in the extreme. Whilst villagers will enter the town during the day, since the cease-fire approximately half are sleeping in other villages - with friends; relatives; friends of friends.

Visiting another house in the village, Salim’s house, gunfire starts. People shuffle to make sure the house is between them and the Green Line. His four year old daughter, Sara, shows us the cast on her leg - she broke it when she fell down, running from gunfire. His neighbour, Tubi, explains how he no longer sleeps at night - how he is kept awake by the shooting, and the fear of it. Tubi’s mother, whose house is even closer to the Green Line, hasn’t stayed in her house since the start of the War. It seems she has no intention of returning any time soon.

Salim shows us the gunshots holes in his house, and explains that they never sleep with only one wall between them and the Green Line. The bullets used can penetrate through walls, so the family always make sure they have at least two walls between them and Israel when they sleep.

“The cease-fire is for the cities - the centre of the cities”, he cries. “Not for the people near the borders!”.