By Craig Whitlock and Reyham Abdel Kareem
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, January 16, 2009
JERUSALEM, Jan. 15 -- The Abu Nihil clan, all 16 members, huddled on the living room floor of a friend's Gaza City apartment. All the windows were gone, shattered by explosions. Israeli helicopters churned overhead. But the family has decided this is as good a place as any to make its final stand.
The Abu Nihils have seen three houses destroyed since Dec. 27, when Israel launched airstrikes on the Gaza Strip and began a war that has left civilians with no safe place to go.
"Wherever we go, they are chasing us," said Tarik Abu Nihil, 31, a married father of three. "I've had enough. I'm not moving to another house. If we die here, at least we will die together."
Despite some close calls, no one in the extended family has been killed or injured. The family still has some food and some money. But like many Gazans, they are exhausted by 20 days of war and have become increasingly fatalistic, in spite of talk of an imminent cease-fire. "Wherever we go, danger will be waiting for us," Tarik lamented.
Gaza's 1.5 million residents are bottled up, confined to a congested strip of coastal scrubland that has absorbed a carpeting of bombs and shells for almost three weeks. Israeli and Egyptian guards have kept Gaza's borders tightly sealed to prevent a flood of Palestinians from escaping.
Ordinarily secure places have become risky. No one seeks sanctuary in the mosques, because Hamas fighters are known to store weapons there.
On Thursday, Israeli forces fired on the headquarters of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency and a Red Crescent hospital. Aid workers in relief convoys have been killed, and a U.N. shelter packed with 400 people struck by Israeli mortar fire. Officials of the world body have blamed Israel for targeting civilians; the Israeli military has blamed Hamas for effectively using those same civilians as human shields.
"The civilian population is caught in the middle of this conflict and suffering terribly as a result," said Maxwell Gaylard, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Gaza and the West Bank. "This is a conflict where the civilian population has nowhere to go, nowhere to flee."
The Abu Nihils knew they were in trouble shortly after the war started. Their home is on the west side of Gaza City, in the Tall al-Hawa neighborhood. It is a four-story, concrete building. Each branch of the family had its own floor: Grandparents on one, the three adult children and their families on the others.
The house sits next to a small sports stadium, favored by Hamas fighters as a place to launch rockets. So it was not a big surprise when Israeli warplanes fired missiles at the stadium after midnight on Dec. 29.
For some reason, the first two missiles crashed into the stadium but did not explode, members of the family recalled. Still wearing their pajamas, parents and grandparents gathered the children and dashed outside.
They managed to get a few blocks away by the time another missile struck the stadium. This one detonated, as designed. "I looked back at the house," Tarik said. "It was on fire everywhere."
The Abu Nihils kept walking until they reached a relative's house, about a mile away. It was a difficult escape. Tarik's mother, Samira, 53, was recovering from a back operation and could barely move on her own. His sister-in-law, Raja, 24, was eight months pregnant. Israeli fighter jets and helicopter gunships passed overhead.
The family arrived safely. The relative's house was already crowded with 12 people, but they made room for the Abu Nihils, who stayed for two days.
Then the Israeli warplanes started circling again. Explosions rocked the neighborhood. The Abu Nihils fled to the home of another relative in Gaza City. But there was bombing there, too. They stayed for a few hours but decided it was too risky and took to the streets again.
This time the Abu Nihils sought refuge in the home of two married doctors who were friends of the family: Samir Khaloud, an internist, and his wife, Ikhbar Kadoura.
Things remained quiet for a week or so. One day, during an afternoon break in the fighting, Tarik Abu Nihil and his father returned to their home to gather clothes, blankets and valuables that had not been destroyed in the fire.
But the doctors' house was also located in a risky area. On Sunday, as Kadoura was with her daughter in the bathroom, a large explosion destroyed a nearby building. All the windows in the doctors' house shattered. "It felt like it was raining glass," Kadoura recalled.
This time, in spite of the dangers, the Abu Nihils decided to stay put. They swept up the glass and covered the blown-out windows with blankets and curtains. At night, they sleep on the floor together in an interior room, which as far as they can tell is the most stable and secure part of the building.
No more trouble has come their way since then. But the family is visibly weary from shock and displacement. The young children ask their grandmother, "Is there a place we can go where the planes won't chase us?"
Samira Abu Nihil isn't sure how to reply. "It breaks my heart," she said. "Where should we go? How do you save children in a war like this? We want peace. We are tired. This is enough, really enough."
Abdel Kareem reported from Gaza City.