‘If you hear the bombs, you’re still alive’

This Father’s Day, as the Israeli military is once again operating throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Samer Badawi reflects on loss, fatherhood and the last major Israeli assault on Gaza.

Family members gather to mourn Ibrahim Mansour, who was shot and killed on February 13 by Israeli forces while he was collecting gravel near the border with Israel in the Al Montar area of the Gaza Strip. (Ryan Rodrick Beiler/Activestills.org)
[Illustrative photo] Family members gather to mourn Ibrahim Mansour, who was shot and killed on February 13, 2014 by Israeli forces while he was collecting gravel near the border with Israel in the Al Montar area of the Gaza Strip. (Ryan Rodrick Beiler/Activestills.org)
I had intended today to write a reflection on what it means to be a father to three Palestinian children, how raising them has taught me to be humble about the limits of my own influence, and how heavy the weight of their inherited history. But that history, as it is forged, has a way of interrupting introspection, bringing the present into sharp — and sharply real — relief.

This Father’s Day, Israel launched night raids in the West Bank, killing 21-year-old Ahmad Arafat Sabbareen in Ramallah and reportedly abducting the speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council from his home in Hebron. At the same time, Israel launched airstrikes over Gaza, wounding at least three civilians, including a child.

All of this, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would have us believe, comes in “retaliation” for the alleged kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank’s “Area C” — an area representing more than three-fifths of the territory and which falls under complete Israeli military control. That alone should be enough to debunk Netanyahu’s argument that responsibility for the teenagers’ fate somehow rests with the Palestinians. A more forceful rebuttal would point to the fact that, as of April, 196 Palestinian children were being held in Israeli detention (not one of them so much as alluded to by the U.S. Secretary of State, who yesterday parroted Netanyahu’s accusations).

If logic is lost on Netanyahu, one wonders, at least, how he could have so quickly forgotten the lesson of his last major military campaign, the so-called “Operation Pillar of Defense,” which bombarded Gaza from air and sea for nine days, without respite. By its own admission, the Israeli military pummeled the 25-mile-long strip of land more than 1,500 times, or an average of seven times an hour, 24 hours a day.

At the time, I spent countless hours on the phone with friends in Gaza, hearing the explosions in the background. One of my friends, Jehad Saftawi, would stand at the window of his family’s home, staring toward the Mediterranean and into the darkness of another night without quiet. Each burst of artillery carried with it the possibility of death, and Jehad, his siblings, and mother — like the rest of Gaza’s nearly two million people — had nowhere to hide and nowhere to flee.

Jehad captured the sight and sound on video as part of an article he published at the time. In it, you can hear the trepidation, the menacing uncertainty, fed by news of massacres never too far away (like that of the Al Dalou family). You can hear a supplicant sigh at the end, affirming what he writes in the accompanying article: if you hear the bombs, you’re still alive.

Jehad spoke those same words to me last night, but his voice was calm, almost indifferent. “Tomorrow, my friend, we begin again,” he said. How did he get this way — so composed, so unfazed?

When I met Jehad in Gaza two weeks after “Pillar of Defense” ended, he showed me the evidence of Israel’s bombing campaign. There was unspeakable tragedy, like that of the Hejazi family. They had lost a son, Muhammad, in Ehud Olmert’s “Cast Lead” operation four years prior. A second son, born shortly after, was named in honor of his dead brother — and himself killed by an F-16, this time sent by Netanyahu, on November 19, 2012. That the second son was killed along with his two-year-old brother and father had left their mother in a speechless stupor, her remaining son, Mustafa, at the edge of her bed, under a corrugated tin roof in the Jabaliya refugee camp.

The Hejazi family in Gaza (Photo by Samer Badawi)
The Hejazi family in Gaza (Photo by Samer Badawi)

But there was also the absurdity of a pockmarked beach, where Israeli jets had dropped their payloads when there was nothing left to bomb. The intent, presumably, was to strike fear in the Palestinians of Gaza, to deprive them of sleep or any sense of security. But nearly two years on, it is the Israeli government which seems unfit to extend security to its own people. Furious at his own impotence, Netanyahu is prolonging it by exercising the same violence he resorted to over Gaza — this time including the West Bank in his deadly tantrum.

The lesson of his last fit of belligerence has not sunk in, it seems: a people hardened by oppression cannot be made pliant by their oppressor. When Netanyahu’s warplanes strafe Gaza again, and his tanks tread on the West Bank’s terraced land, I will remember Jehad’s calm voice as we sat along Gaza’s shore one chilly evening in November. He was showing me photos of his own father, who has been held by Israel for 14 years. Jehad is not permitted to visit him, but his father continues to be a source of strength and hope.

Really, no father could wish for anything more.