Occupied in Their Own Home
By Amira Hass

Amira Hass writes for the Israeli daily, Ha'aretz.  This article appeared in the Sunday, March 11, 2021 edition, and is used here with the permission of the author.

Amira Hass describes the plight of the Ayedi family in Gaza, whose home has been turned into an IDF military base.  Mr. Ayedi, a UN relief worker, describes what it is like to live under an occupation not just of his country and his land, but of his very home.

A wispy image pops up in a stretch of a road that runs between two citrus groves in Gaza.  The lush, verdant hues of the citrus and olive trees are accentuated by the person's black clothing.  She hobbles forward, swinging from side to side.  As she approaches, the cause of her odd motion becomes recognizable: She's drooped over a pair of crutches.

After about two hundred meters, the grove ends, and the dirt road is swallowed by tossed-up soil; deep, treacherous grooves are imprinted in the ground.  Some scattered, withered branches are all that remains of the spacious grove area that had been there not so long ago.  The woman has to find a way to cross the ravaged ground.  She has to find a ditch that isn't too deep for her crutches, and where she won't be bogged down by mud.

"My mother has rheumatism," her son Hussein explains, "And she has trouble walking."

The woman stumbles forward, still swinging from side to side, occasionally taking a short break to rest.  She has another 100 meters of thrown-up ground to cover; then there's a road to cross, one used only by army and Jewish settler vehicles; finally there will be a few dozen more meters of ditches and plowed-up ground in another area, which was once an orchard, before being obliterated by IDF bulldozers.

This last stretch of ruined earth leads to the woman's home.  This is the Ayeidi family residence.

As long as the woman remained on the far side of the paved road, nobody in her family was at liberty to lend her a helping hand, despite her crippled gait and nearly helpless plight.  Only when she started to climb the hill that leads to her home did two of her grandchildren run out to help and support her.  A third grandchild brought a chair for her to rest on.  The crutches, which were actually improvised walking sticks, fell to the ground beside the chair.  More relatives came out to welcome her—and to express relief that no IDF soldier had shot her.

The Ayeidi family has lived in this area since the 1948 Independence War period, when Arab families were expelled under gunfire from the Beer Sheva region, and fled to the Gaza Strip.  The family patriarch found work in citrus groves southeast of Gaza City.  As compensation for his labors, he received a small tract of land; and he settled on it, with his two wives and children.

In Gaza, the site is called A-Nasrah; Israelis refer to it as the area around the Karni-Netzarim road.  A few Palestinian homes are strewn around the site, cluttering around citrus groves.  All told, the extended family of 35 lives in two old structures, and in a new house built not long ago by one of the men, Hussein Ayeidi.

As violence mounted between IDF soldiers and Palestinians during the second week of October 2000, the army began demolishing structures in the Karni-Netzarim area (including some small factories and two residential homes).  The army also razed citrus and olive groves.  All told, the demolition work ravaged 17 factories and 50 wells, along with dozens of acres of agricultural land.  Two families whose homes were destroyed now dwell in tents erected by the Red Cross in an orchard on the other side of the road.

We'll bring you some food from the army

Four months ago, two IDF armed personnel carriers parked in front of the Ayeidi residences.  Soldiers posted in the vehicles fired at anyone who tried to move westward, toward Gaza City, or anyone (like Hussein Ayeidi) who tried to speak to other IDF personnel, begging them to understand that children had to go to school.  Bulldozers razed the road leading to the family homes; and they uprooted power lines, leaving the family without electricity and water supplies.  Hussein Ayeidi managed to secure illegal power cables from neighbors who live about more than a kilometer away, and he used them to restore electricity and water for his family's use.

Ayeidi family members believed that the disruptions caused by the IDF wouldn 't last.  But after about 45 days (Hussein can't remember the precise date), an IDF "officer came with a rifle and some of his soldiers and said 'we want to climb up to your roof.' He didn't show us any written order."

The soldiers weren't swayed by Hussein's remonstrations, and an IDF unit took over the roof.  The soldiers claimed a kitchen structure located on the middle of the rooftop, using it as living quarters; and they hoisted up "weapons of all shapes and sorts," along with ammunition crates, and water containers.  The soldiers tossed netting around the roof to conceal their activities; they banned family members from coming up to the roof; and one soldier was stationed on the staircase, to keep an eye on Ayeidi family movements.

Soon enough, the soldiers took charge of the family's routines, arrogating the right to decide who could come and go.  A family member had to obtain permission of the soldier on the staircase in order to leave the home, and enter the adjacent courtyard.  Before assenting to this simple request, the soldier would climb up to the roof to obtain authorization.  Sometimes the soldier would come back down and allow the family resident to leave, other times he would return and say "wait a minute, the officer's on the phone," or "the officer is busy."

When Hussein wants to enter his house, he isn't at liberty to use his own key and turn the doorknob.  Instead, he yells, "hello, hello, I want to enter."  The soldier comes down, opens the door, thinks for a few seconds, and then lets the homeowner enter.  If it's one of the women who lives there, returning after a shopping excursion, the soldier will check her bags.

Immediately after they took charge of the home, the soldiers ordered that at least four Ayeidi family members (an adult and three children) remain inside at all times.  "But these are children" Hussein responded.  "They want to play.  I can't keep them locked up inside."

"That's your problem," the soldiers retorted.

None of Hussein's closest relatives, not his brothers, nephews nor even his mother, can come over from their nearby residences and visit his house.  When food supplies started to dwindle, a few adults from the home were allowed to go off to Gaza City and purchase necessities.

But for the 35-member family, replenishing the food supply is no simple chore.  The ranking IDF officer prohibited the use of car or wagon for this shopping excursion.  "Do you want us to die of hunger?" Hussein Ayeidi asked the officer.

"We'll bring you food from the army," the soldier replied.

Ayeidi reckoned that he was joking, but in fact he was serious.  The army food came, but in portions that sufficed only for Hussein Ayeidi's part of the clan.  There wasn't enough for the relatives who live in adjacent structures.  The family tried to make do with the quantity on hand, but it simply wasn't enough.

Hussein Ayeidi kept complaining.  The army had no right to maintain a post where there are children and civilians, he says.  Ayeidi recalls: "The officer told me, 'you should be happy that we didn't demolish your house.' I asked, 'what reason would you have to destroy my house,' and he answered, 'we're here, and tear down structures without needing any reason.  So we'll either stay here in the house with you, or neither you nor the army will be here.  You should thank God that we've let your house remain intact.'"

In the end, the army did allow some Ayeidi family members to use a wagon for some shopping trips and return with enough food for the entire clan.  The wagon, however, wasn't a foolproof solution.  There was no way to trundle it up to the home; the entrance road has been destroyed.  To convey the supplies across this last stretch of the journey, family members had to carry bags of rice and flour and beans on their backs.

Keeping ears plugged

After several weeks, the army allowed family members to walk the mile to Gaza City, to Salah-al-Din Street, for specific purposes, be it to take an infant to the clinic, or to visit one of the older daughters, or to collect a son who had spent several nights sleeping at a nephew's so as to be able to walk to school.  Obtaining authorization for such departures is a rigmarole.  The officer has to be informed that a resident wants to go out for a few hours, and the officer then has to tell soldiers at all of the watch-posts in the vicinity that an Ayeidi has permission to wander off by foot.

Sometimes the message doesn't make the rounds properly, and a solder at a far-away post on the Netzarim-Karni road fires a few shots at the ambulatory Palestinian.  A few shots were taken at some children, and one woman, because of such communication failures.  A few times, the army apologized, saying that one of the soldiers forgot to relay the message.

Alarmed by these ominous mistakes, the Ayeidi family has organized a kind of counter-observation post, making sure that one person has an eye out on the citrus groves.  A family member might be headed back, and so the soldiers will need to be told that it's all right, it's only the mother, or a brother or son, that the person approaching lives in the house, that there's no reason for the soldiers to start shooting.

One discussion pertaining to the plight of the Ayeidi family has been held at the IDF-PA security liaison offices.  Hussein Ayeidi attended.  He says that a CIA official took part in the discussion, along with IDF officers and Shin Bet agents, and PA security personnel.

"I want to understand why you've turned a civilian home into an army base," Ayeidi queried.  "There are two armed sides in this conflict—why have I been thrust in the middle?  They're using me like a slab of meat, to protect the army.  We're prisoners confined in our own home.  Am I guilty just because of the height of my home?  There are a lot of tall hilltops in the area which can be used for watchtowers.  Why don't you put me on trial, and convict me because of my high home?  When we built the house seven years ago, we had Israeli and Palestinian permission."

An IDF officer told Ayeidi at the meeting that he was prepared to give him a permit to use his car to travel to work.  Ayeidi recalls: "I answered him 'first, even if you give me authorization to use the car, there's no road because you've destroyed it.  Second, what guarantee do I have that some IDF patrol won't turn up suddenly and start shooting at me, without knowing about the authorization?  And third, everyone will wonder why I've been outfitted with a permit that isn't given to anyone else.  Why don't you just leave the area?'  The officer replied that the army won't leave until there's a comprehensive solution."

Under present conditions, Hussein Ayeidi is unable to travel to his job with the UN Relief and Works Agency.  He's worried that something will happen to the area where he works while he's away.

He has two brothers who worked in nearby factories, which were demolished.  They now tend a flock of sheep, and raise some hens, which cluck and amble about freely in the yard, pecking at the ground.  A poultry house belonging to a neighbor was turned into rubble by IDF bulldozers.

IDF jeeps ramble across the road from the Ayeidi home, escorting some vehicles belonging to Jewish settlers.  Sometimes a jeep stops in front of the house to drop off an officer, or two containers of drinking water for the soldiers at the post.  Ayeidi family members don't know how many soldiers are stationed on the roof; nor do they know any of the occupiers' names.  Soldiers come and go at night, driving away in jeeps; the engine noise ruptures the nighttime silence, arousing the children.  As soldiers rumble up and down the roof, the house rattles.

The shaking is far worse when they fire shots from the rooftop.  Children awaken, frightened, and try to plug their ears.  Everyone in the house is worried about an accidental explosion in view of the ammunition crates on the roof.  Accidents, they know, happen.

"Four months have gone by," Hussein Ayeidi tells me, "and not a soul has come to visit.  You're the first." Atop the roof, a soldier is filming us.  His camera doesn't stop rolling.  "Even the Red Cross wasn't allowed here," Ayeidi continues.

Ayeidi says: "I told the officer: 'You're a smart man, look down the road, think of the future.  You're recruiting these children for the struggle against you.  We might sign a peace agreement, but they'll never trust you.  Personal dignity becomes national pride.  When you take away a man's pride, he'll stand against you - how could it be otherwise?  You are conquering us in our own home.  We're not in Tel Aviv or Be'er Sheva.  We left.  We're in Gaza.  At least, let us live here."

The spokesman for the IDF Southern Command responded to this report: "Due to the grave security situation, which the Palestinians have caused by laying several mine explosives and deliberately shooting at civilians and IDF soldiers, the IDF has taken some defensive measures in order to guarantee security for persons using the Karni-Netzarim road.  The rooftop post at the Ayeidi family home was set-up in order to prevent terror attempts.  The post was established for a clear military reason, in the context of present, armed confrontations, and it is warranted by public, international regulations.  The IDF does not impede the freedom of movement enjoyed by family members during daytime hours.  At night, departures of family members from the home are coordinated with the army, in order to protect their security in light of the proliferation of gunfire incidents....  For security reasons, the IDF does, in fact, make sure that at least two residents remain in the home at all times.  The entrance of Palestinians who aren't family relations is prohibited due to concerns about the entry of terrorists.  A mine that was detonated on the road shut down electricity in the house for a period of time.  This black-out was repaired by the Palestinians; and now there is a supply of electricity in the home.  Likewise, the road leading to the house has been repaired by the army" [This road repair work was done after Ha' aretz's visit to the site—AH].

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