We are watching the sky, sleeping on the roof to escape the heat. I flatter the clouds’ beauty and am watching sporadic shooting stars when the first F-16 appeared from the direction of the sea. No sound, just a blinking red light quite high up. Three more follow. Their roar slowly becomes audible and they drop a couple of flares.
We trace their path, above us, chilling. The roar is normal, F-16s are normal, and reading in the news the next day that some part of Gaza was bombed is normal. They continue eastward and a bombing seems imminent. It is. A thick cloud of black smoke blots the dim lights of houses in eastern Deir al Balah where the F-16s have struck.
Their roar doesn’t disappear yet.
They’re bombing Khan Younis, Emad says matter of factly. Not a hard guess, what else are they doing up there are nearly 2 am.
He keeps working on his laptop and I keep sleepily tracing the sky, watching this time for their re-appearance not for shooting stars.
After a few minutes of re-contemplating the sky, we know precisely where they’ve gone.
Two massive blasts, the house shakes. They’ve bombed somewhere near the sea, which is only a few hundred metres away. I remember the shakes of the Ezbet Abed Rabbo house Leila and I were in when F-16s were flattening the area during the Israeli war on Gaza in 2008-2009. One directly behind that house, the walls ready to cave in; one across the lane some 30 metres away, leaving a massive crater.
The night sky is orange again, gone are the stars and romance.
He is hugging me, pushing my head down to the ground, protecting from any flying debris. Pointlessly he tries to protect me, but when the blasts are on you no amount of hugging and ducking will do.
A bit of confusion… to stay rooftop or run down to the ground. I remember when the Sharouk building with various media outlets was repeatedly hit by smaller missiles, not the one-ton F-16 crater-makers. The building danced and it felt like the stairs had turned into one long slide, to take us from the 9th or 10th floor down light speed.
The drive to see what happens next is strong, leaving us not wanting to abandon the roof. We stay, and soon his brothers appear to see where the blasts have hit. We go down to check on his parents, thankfully asleep, hard of hearingness a relief this time. We go back up and the orange has gone, its grey and starless now.
“It’s raining” says Emad. I’m confused, think he means the bombing triggered some weather reaction. Concrete dust flutters down upon us, the dry kind of rain. The ambulance sirens wail, the Red Crescent or Ministry of Health ambulances will be racing for the site. If they are late, the dead and injured will be piled into any car near the explosion that still moves. There is a sustained honking in Gaza that everyone recognizes as make way, we’ve got another victim here.
Now 3 of his brothers are rooftop with us and going over the blasts. For a Strip that has seen so many Israeli terror bombings over the years, this latest –comparatively far away at a few hundred metres –has hit a nerve even with these men putting on bravado. They are brave, of course, and endure psychological war in addition to actual blasts. Every time one of those fucking F-16s flies over us, it’s a reminder of the last war, or of previous attacks, or of random bombings, or of friends and family martyred in their sleep, cars, homes…
Everytime those F-16s intentionally break the sound barrier to create a bomb-like sonic boom, everyone within range instinctively remembers their own personal horror at whichever Israeli war or attacks.
His brothers are talking about their children, how one child clinched up into a ball in his sleep, how hard is for all the children. But their rapid banter betrays them: its hard for them as well.
In true Palestinian style they mask any fear they might be feeling—as any human should be feeling in these circumstances –with jokes and teasing.
Were you scared? they tease me. Yes and no. Once again numb from the fear, as I was during the 23 days of Israeli bombing Gaza in winter 2008-2009, but that horror of what comes next always exists. How many martyrs will there be? Inshallah none. Is this the start of the next Israeli slaughter of locked-in Palestinians or will that come tomorrow? What the hell will I do when I am not here… not like I can stop any of this, not like I can protect them any more than Emad’s loving attempt. How can I possibly ever leave here, when that next massacre is always looming from those Israeli war machines above and around us?
The Zionist news tomorrow will blather on about a strategic strike against terror. But rearrange their scripted words and you get the truth: it is a strategic terror against Palestinians, as always, and involved living, breathing, dreaming, working human beings below those terrorizing F-16s, breathing the dust of another bombed building.
Emad and I are sleeping, not sleeping but lying down, inside this time, not that that makes any difference. I’m thinking shit,shit,shit, how can I ever leave him and his family and my friends and everyone here? We’re both lost in our own heads, thinking about the blast.
Blast. Another one. It’s louder inside, because of the echo. Thankfully the windows are open; blasts like that shatter windows; we’d have a glass shard rain upon us this time.
His younger brother is coming back from work at his grocery shop, laden with yogurt and hummus for “suhoor”, the morning meal before fasting begins anew. His ears are ringing from the nearness of the bomb but he hides whatever anxiety he surely haswith grins and chatter.
They re-play the same jokes made on the roof earlier. It’s for Ramadan, they’re giving us fire-works, they’re making a party. They’re helping us wake up (we slept through suhoor yesterday, not even hearing the mild beating of the street drummers who circle waking people up for a meal and prayer).
Emad’s father is unplussed. He doesn’t feign bravado or joke, just sits a little sleepily and looks at his paper with the prayer times written down. He goes to the nearest mosque five times a day, including the early morning prayer. He’s lived a long, hard life, expelled from his farm land and village which is now buried under some Israeli name, reared a family in one of Palestine’s many, many, impossibly overcrowded refugee camps where families slept in tents for years until they improved to stifling concrete block homes with entire families in one single, dank room. He’s worked to educate his many, many sons and daughters. He’s lived through all the Zionist hell Israel dishes out, from his expulsion to the occupation and horrors that go with that to the sporadic bombings to the full-out invasions. He’s lost a son to cancer that couldn’t be treated properly because he couldn’t access the needed medical care outside of Gaza.
So when all of us are gibbering or teasing or mulling the last bomb blast, he is off somewhere in his head but his expression doesn’t betray it. And I think he’s only really concerned about being on time for the next prayer. A life of repeated drama is enough to render bomb blasts somewhat insignificant.
It’s the same target as half hour ago, but this time surely there are casualties, people who waited some minutes before going to see the damage. Israel, of course, knows this. During the last war on Gaza, first Israeli bombings would be followed just one or two minutes later, sometimes 5 minutes, by another bomb in the same place. Family and friends who’d come to help rescue bomb victims would themselves be torn apart by the second and third blasts. A technique guaranteed to get the bystander civilians who come to rescue, if not the medics.
We return to sleep, wary.