A Palestinian dreams of new freedom in Gaza

When Israelis withdraw, he'll party, get home back

July 01, 2005|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

DEIR EL-BALAH, Gaza Strip - Like many Palestinians, Khalil Bashir remains puzzled about what Israel's planned withdrawal of settlers and soldiers from the Gaza Strip will mean for the chances for peace.

But Bashir is certain of one thing: Israel's withdrawal will allow him to walk up to the second and third floors of his house and perhaps get his best night's sleep in nearly five years.

Since November 2000, Israeli soldiers have lived on the upper floors of his three-story home, confining Bashir, his wife, Suad, and his eight children to the rooms below.

The Israeli military says it was forced to seize control of the house because it posed a threat to the nearby Jewish settlement of Kfar Darom, which could be easily targeted by Palestinian snipers from the upper floors.

Bashir says the Israeli soldiers patrolling the area asked him to leave many times. But the 54-year-old high school headmaster firmly declined. "I told them, `I am ready to do anything, but I am not ready to leave my house.'"

Bashir paid a price for his stubbornness. Israeli forces chopped down his family's 170 date palms, razed his greenhouses and toppled his farm buildings, actions the Israeli military says were necessary to clear the area to protect the settlement from snipers.

Until recently, Bashir was not allowed visitors unless Israeli forces granted permission.

The soldiers divided his home into zones for Palestinians and Israelis, much like the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The upper floors were designated as Israeli-occupied land that the family was forbidden to enter. Bashir's first floor was designated as Palestinian-only.

At night, the family had even less space. Most nights, Israeli soldiers would confine them to one room, where they would eat, study and sleep until they were allowed to leave in the morning, Bashir says. The family dubbed the room "the jail."

Under fire

Although Israeli soldiers controlled the property, Bashir learned that his home was not safe from Israeli gunfire. The windows facing the settlement were shot out so many times that he gave up replacing them long ago and now covers them with plastic sheeting.

In October 2000, Israeli soldiers shot one of Bashir's sons, Yazen, then 17, while he was fetching water in the front yard, wounding him in the leg, Bashir says. In April 2001, Bashir suffered head injuries when Israelis shot through his bedroom window while he was lying in bed.

In February 2004, Bashir's son Yussif, then 15, was shot in the back by a soldier while seeing off visitors from the United Nations staff. Yussif spent four months in rehabilitation in a hospital in Tel Aviv. The bullet remains lodged in his spine.

Through it all, Bashir refused to go, afraid that if he left he would never see his property again.

With less than two months to go before Israel begins its scheduled pullout from the Gaza Strip, tensions are running high. Israeli police officers evicted yesterday 150 Jewish extremists who had barricaded themselves in a hotel in a Gaza settlement to resist the withdrawal.

A day earlier, a Palestinian teen was hurt in a stone-throwing clash with settlers.

Wary neighbors

But Bashir appears confident he will soon have his property back. On a recent morning, he stood on his front steps and proudly welcomed a visitor. His fields and front yard are littered with toppled buildings and ruins of his greenhouses. The upper floors of the home are shrouded in camouflage webbing. An Israeli security camera surveys the neighborhood from his roof.

A high security fence and an Israeli watchtower separate Bashir's home from the military base that protects Kfar Darom.

On the other side of the fortifications, Gaza's 8,000 Jewish settlers remain the targets of frequent shooting and rocket attacks by Palestinian militants, and soldiers guarding the settlement remain wary of any movement in the area.

Shortly after the visitor arrived, an Israeli tank, stirring a cloud of dust, rushed to within 20 yards of his home, swinging its turret around so that its gun pointed at Bashir's front door.

No one in Bashir's family appeared to be alarmed at the intrusion.

"They are there and we are here," shrugged Bashir, a slight man with a shock of silver hair and intense eyes. As he sat on his living room couch, he spoke deliberately, pausing between each sentence, as though he were letting out rope.

He walked through each room on the first floor, pointing out bullet holes in his walls and doors, a piece of shrapnel embedded in the pages of his son's English textbook and the shattered glass left on his bed from the day in 2001 when he was injured while reading in bed. (He has left the room untouched like a crime scene for the past four years.)

Bullets and letters

His family keeps a collection of hundreds of bullet casings, pieces of shrapnel and projectiles they say were fired at their home by Israeli soldiers.

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