As Israeli tanks push deeper and deeper into the Gaza Strip from the north, south and east each night, we feel certain that come morning, Phase 3 of the Israeli offensive will be upon us. Yet the Israeli military seems insistent upon teasing the population, playing a ruthless game of terror against those living in neighborhoods that are at the forefront of the incursions, which are heavily bombarded each night. Each afternoon, four families of relatives who live only five minutes away from us gather their blankets, clothes and valuables and arrive at our front door, fearing that this will be the night. Each morning they return to their homes, thankful that, so far, only minimal damage has been done to their houses during the night. Each morning the Israeli military retreat to their original posts, on the outskirts of the neighborhoods. So far.
But others living here are not so lucky. One friend whose family and extended family live in the southern area of Gaza City told me that 10 homes have been evacuated and 120 people have fled to a small house, also in the same Zatoun district, but further into the city. They got out just in time. Last night the 10 homes were either bulldozed or set on fire. The evacuees have lost everything, but their only aims at this moment are to stay safe and stay alive. (See pictures of Israel's assault on Gaza.)
Even those of us who haven't been forced out of our homes are living in constant fear of having to do so, in daily terror of the Israeli military's next move. Israel has infiltrated the local news channels and radio broadcasts. While watching the news, we see the screen go black, and a message comes up for a few moments, saying something along the lines of, "You will witness our wrath." We turn off the television and turn on the radio, only to hear the transmission being interrupted as another message from the Israeli military comes forth: "Leave your homes for your own safety! Gather in the center of your town! This is the IDF [Israel Defense Forces]!" And even if you decide to give up both TV and radio, these messages will get to you through the phone. Almost all the residents of the Gaza Strip have been receiving recorded messages from the IDF over the phone, telling us we will pay a high price for the actions of Palestinian fighters. There's nothing we can do phones are indispensable; we need to keep in touch with family and friends.
As if to make sure that terror rains down on the Gaza population, Israel has been dropping thousands of leaflets from the sky, conveying various messages. Some of these messages advertise intensified attacks against the area, claiming that weapons and munitions stores will be targeted, while others warn of new methods of fighting to come. But perhaps the most perplexing and frightening of these notes are the ones calling on the residents of the area to leave their houses, urging them to cooperate with the IDF and contact it by e-mail or phone (both provided) to report "terrorist activity."
Such notes are baffling. They assume that the resistance is an organized army with bases, weapons-storage facilities and organized affiliations. Most people are confused as to who these notes refer to. The Hamas we know is a political, religious and social organization. Most of the population at large is uninvolved in that entity's military activities. (See pictures of life in Gaza under Hamas before the Israeli assault.)
The word catastrophe is on everyone's lips. People cannot help but recall the similar scenes from 60 years ago. But in 1948 the Israeli goal was the expulsion of the Palestinian people. This time around, it seems as though their goal is elimination.
So where are the residents of these areas supposed to go for safety? There has already been a massive influx of people from the northern half of the Gaza Strip into Gaza City, while the thousands of families in the southern and eastern areas of Rafah have left their homes to be destroyed by Israeli forces there, moving farther inward. Some people stay with relatives or friends. Almost every one of the 80 apartments in my building complex is already accommodating more than one refugee family, as are most homes in the city, and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency shelters are overflowing with people.
Many families have nowhere to go and end up staying in their homes. These people would leave if they could, but the Gaza Strip is sealed off from all directions and surrounded by the Israeli military forces. So while Israel claims to "warn" them prior to destroying their homes over their heads, in reality they are not giving them any other option. Many people feel that it would be more merciful not to give "warnings." That way, these people would not have to anticipate their imminent deaths.
Amid all this, some still have the presence of mind to act on principle. Some family friends who live in the Jabalia area, where the refugee camp is, left their home the first two days, then decided to go back at whatever cost. Part of their home has been bombed since, but they remain there with no plans of leaving. They prefer death to indignity.
Safa Joudeh is a journalist living with her family in Gaza City.