Abu Saguer is a man of great affability. Because of his resilience, his wit, his tenderness with the children, it’s easy to think of his survival in heroic terms, but often he has periods of deep depression, disorientation and forgetfulness. “I’m not scared any more, I can’t explain it, I just don’t care. There’s one God, I’ll die only one time.”
The soldiers have decamped for the moment, but the family is never sure when they will come back. Part of their home has been lost to them. We walk through those rooms that the troops occupy. The curtains chosen with care by Abu Saguer’s wife long ago billow inwards, in unsettling contrast to the camouflage netting in front of the window. His gate is visible from here. I imagine him approaching across the broken ground, struggling with a bag of flour, stooping to unlock and open that little gate.
As we leave, Sue calls her base. Each visit must be registered with and approved by the District Civil Liaison (DCL). We hear that a doctor has been shot dead while treating a wounded boy at a crossroads in Rafah that we passed yesterday.
Entering Gaza for the first time at the Erez checkpoint, we saw some Israeli kids in army uniform â€” we’d seen them on the way from Jerusalem, hitchhiking or slouching at bus stops, dishevelled, their uniforms accessorised with shades and coloured scarves. Weapons were slung across their backs. They looked like they should have been on the way to school. One girl at Erez wearing eyeliner and lipstick, friendly with the implied complicity of “We’re on the same side,” said: “I’m laughing all the time â€” I’m crazy.” Most of them appeared indifferent, almost unseeing. We walked through the concrete tunnel separating these two worlds. In the eyes of their bosses, we are a menace because we’re witnesses. All humanitarian workers are witnesses. The UN has been on phase-four alert, the highest level before pulling out completely.
They’re a little tired of being shot at. We travel south from Erez toward Beit Lahiya through the area “sterilised” during “Days of Penitence”. That was Israel’s 17-day military offensive in northern Gaza that started on September 29, after a rocket fired by the Islamic militant group Hamas killed two toddlers in the Israeli town of Sederot, a kilometre away on the other side of the border. These home-made rockets have a five-mile range, so Israel sent in 2,000 troops and 200 tanks and armoured bulldozers to set up a 61/2-mile buffer zone and “clear out” suspected militants. Days of Penitence killed 107 Palestinians (at least 20 of them children), left nearly 700 homeless, and caused over $3m in property damage.
Towards the end of it, even Israeli military commanders were urging Ariel Sharon to stop. He wouldn’t listen. So there is not a building left standing that hasn’t been acned by shells and bullets, many of them with gaping mouths ripped out by the tanks. A vast area has been depopulated and ground into the rubble-strewn desert we find wherever we go. A Bedouin encampment has settled, impossibly, on one of these wastelands. Half a dozen smug-faced camels and a white donkey stand behind the fence waiting for Christ knows what; the air is heavy with their scent. The families have constructed hovels of sheet plastic, branches and jagged pieces of rusting corrugated iron. They look like the last scavenging survivors of doomsday. As we head southwest towards Gaza City, the Mediterranean Sea appears like a mirage, shocking in its beauty: Gaza’s western border.