GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) – On Friday morning, a military airstrike crushed my family’s farm in the northern Gaza Strip in a jagged mass of metal and shattered trees. An Israeli bomb hit the yard, carving a crater in the earth and leaving rubble in its wake.
Conflict, once again, has struck home.
The first Gaza war taught me that while our lush citrus grove might offer some respite from the congestion and hardships of city life, it is no refuge. A previous Israeli airstrike killed my father, Akram al-Ghoul, on January 3, 2009. As the fighting raged, he insisted on sleeping on the farm to tend the cattle and chickens and to cultivate the trees.
In all, six of my relatives, three close friends and several colleagues died in the three bloody wars and countless battles between Israel and Hamas. Every time violence breaks out and I report as a journalist about people who have lost their homes, their children or their lives, the memories come back to me. I always think, “It could be me.” When thunder bombs, buzzing buzzes and pounding artillery refresh the pain and trigger the old fear, I take refuge in work.
The Associated Press office is the only place in Gaza City where I feel any bit safe. The IDF has the coordinates of the skyscraper, so it’s less likely that a bomb will crash it. But on a deeper level, it’s talking to the people of Gaza, working to make their voice heard from a territory they cannot leave on their own, it keeps me sane. When I tell the world what’s going on here, I find a little solace.
Still, the work comes at a cost. The last outburst of violence has already exhausted me. I can’t imagine covering another year 2014 – the year of Gaza’s worst conflict, which killed some 2,200 Palestinians. I can’t imagine going back to those seven sleepless, hellish weeks of bombing, bloody hospitals and overflowing morgues. I may not have a choice.
As the terrible nights progress now, I feel lucky to be here alone. My wife and two daughters live safely in Canada. As Gaza marked Eid al-Fitr, one of the biggest Muslim holidays, in the shadow of war this week, my daughters no longer jumped out of bed, screaming at falling bombs, huddled terrified in the dark . Instead, they feasted on chocolate and tried on new clothes.
Sometimes when their absence is excruciating, I have regretted the choice to send my family abroad while trapped in this stranded enclave, unable to see them without months of paperwork. But it is weeks like these, filled with concern for my mother and sister who also remained in Gaza, that bring certain and pure relief. At least my daughters are out of danger.
I know their hearts remain in this piece of land. After sharing photos of our destroyed farm on Friday, my 9 year old called me crying. The explosion had knocked down the tree she had planted three years ago and had cherished ever since.
Like my father, I grew up in Gaza City. Her father grew up just across the border and, like hundreds of thousands of other Palestinians, fled the 1948 war surrounding the creation of Israel. A decade later, he started planting citrus in Beit Lahiya, in the northern Gaza Strip.
His nostalgic desire to live as close to the border as possible – to his home village in what is now Israel – placed the farm in what may be one of the most dangerous corners of the land. Seen from the height of the roof, the Israeli border looms as a disturbing sight, with fortified fences and troops with guard towers.
The Gaza Strip the world knows today – impoverished, under a crippling Israeli-Egyptian blockade, still mired in conflict – was not the Gaza Strip of my youth. People can’t believe it when I tell them how, as a teenager, before the second Intifada broke out in the early 2000s, I flew from Gaza airport (yes, airport) in Istanbul for a day of press conferences and return within 24 hours.
Today, thousands of Palestinians wait weeks before hearing authorities shout their names over a crackling loudspeaker to pass the iron gate known as the Rafah Passage in Egypt, where a grueling journey through the the lawless desert of northern Sinai awaits them.
When the Palestinian uprisings caught the world’s attention, I immersed myself in journalism with my uncle TV producer, Marwan Alghoul, a source of fascination and inspiration. Moments of hope for my homeland punctuated my career; in 2005, just after Israel’s withdrawal, promises of massive aid flooded the tiny territory. Egypt opened Rafah and for once I imagined living a somewhat normal life.
But two years later, the militant Hamas group seized control of Gaza and conditions turned from bad to worse. The group pledged to confront Israel, which imposed a land, sea and air blockade.
Now, even as my daily life is documenting the tragedies of the endless conflict between Hamas and Israel, the people of Gaza often urge me to pit hope against the experience, to believe in a better future. Destroyed by three wars, I stopped following their advice and found hope only by planning a distant life.
The conflict never really changes. With Israel and Hamas locked in a violent loop, so much remains static. After an airstrike hit my uncle’s house in 2014, he patiently waited for compensation to rebuild. Three years later, the installments flowed and he was able to complete most of the repairs.
On Thursday evening, a shell from an Israeli tank crashed into his house.
Fares Akram has been the PA correspondent in Gaza since 2014.