For one Gazan family, not much of a homecoming


Youssif al-Attar recovers a plastic bouquet of flowers from what remains of his home in the Beit Lahiya neighborhood of the northern Gaza Strip. (Max Becherer/Polaris Images for The Washington Post)

BEIT LAHIYA, GAZA STRIP — On Saturday, the residents of this war-ravaged town in northern Gaza began to trickle back to their homes, clutching their possessions and a sense of hope.

They had been given the best news since the war began almost three and a half weeks ago. Israel’s military had informed them that its operations in Beit Lahiya had ceased and that they could return. Not everyone did, of course, because mutual trust was understandably a rare commodity after generations of war between Israelis and Palestinians.

For many residents, what it really came down to was a choice: Do I want to continue to live in an overcrowded United Nations school, sleeping on blankets inside classrooms, with barely enough water to bathe? Or do I want to return home, sleep in my own bed and take a shower in my own bathroom, but risk facing another airstrike or artillery shells?

With the Israeli assurance, it was a no-brainer for the Attar clan.

“We were told by the Israelis to go back to our homes, that it would be safe,” said Abu Khalid al-Attar, a family elder. “And we believed them.”

On Saturday afternoon, the large extended family of farmers left the school where they had been seeking refuge, and which was run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), for two weeks. They hired cars, plopped their mattresses atop the roofs, piled in and headed back to Beit Lahiya, where the buzzing of drones had drowned the singsongs of birds — as in the other border areas of the Gaza Strip.

The Attar family’s houses were perched next to each other atop a hill with a view of the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon, the target of numerous Hamas rocket barrages from Gaza. The Attars were fortunate: Their houses were intact, and they quickly started to resettle, thinking their lives had turned a corner. It didn’t matter that they could still Israeli artillery, still hear rockets whizzing into southern Israel in the distance. They were finally home again, and Beit Lahiya was peaceful.

Until Saturday night, that is.

Jamal al-Attar’s blue cellphone rang. It was a familiar number with a “08” area code: Southern Israel, where the Israeli military has operational bases. And it was a familiar message: Evacuate your homes immediately. We are getting to strike Haider al-Attar’s house. You have five minutes to leave.

Haidar was Jamal’s brother, and he lived next door. The houses of two other brothers also were nearby. Jamal began yelling for everyone to leave. The men and women grabbed the children, and whatever belongings they could carry, and ran to a nearby mosque.

Minutes later, an explosion rocked Haidar al-Attar’s house, obliterating it. His brothers’ homes also were hit — so badly that they were rendered unlivable. Some family members, who couldn’t flee quickly enough, suffered minor injuries. No one was killed, relatives said.

An Israeli military spokesman was asked to comment on the Attar family's situation but did not respond by the time of publication.

On Sunday, the Attars walked through the rubble, hoping to salvage their possessions. All insisted that they posed no security threat to the Jewish state.

“All of us used to work in Israel,” said Jamal al-Attar. “We are not fighters. We don’t launch rockets from here. We are poor farmers, and we just want to work.”

All of them felt betrayed.

“They told us we could come back,” Mansour al-Attar said. “The Israelis tricked us.”

All wondered where they will sleep next.

“Now, we can’t even go back to the UNRWA school,” said Abu Khalid Al-Attar. “It’s full. Some other family has taken our places.”

Sudarsan Raghavan has been The Post's Kabul bureau chief since 2014. He was previously based in Nairobi and Baghdad for the Post.
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