Life in Gaza's Courtyards: Displays of Pride and Sacrifice

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GAZA -- The graffiti on the cinder-block walls deep in the Sijaya neighborhood of Gaza City chronicles the recent history of the Jabari family.

Inside a courtyard, there are faded remnants of "Congratulations from the uncles," from the April wedding of a son of Ahmed al-Jabari, the commander of the Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas, whose assassination last week was the beginning of the latest round of intense battle between Israel and the Gaza Strip.

On the wall outside, the colorful Arabic script reads "Welcome hajji, Abu Muhammad," a reference to Mr. Jabari's return from a pilgrimage to Mecca last month. Nearby, the freshest paint pronounces a message from the troops: "Rest in peace. The mission has been accomplished."

As thousands paraded through the streets of this bomb-blasted city on Thursday afternoon holding portraits of Mr. Jabari in jubilant celebrations of the cease-fire agreement with Israel, his widows, mother and sister sat in the courtyard surrounded by 20 female relatives, praising God.

"Allah give him a big honor because he is going to go to paradise; thanks for God for all this," said Eman Hussein, one of Mr. Jabari's two wives. "All this happened because this is from our God and this is the work of Jabari and the fighters here in Gaza. Thanks for God. It's a big victory."

The women said they had passed every day since Mr. Jabari's funeral in the courtyard. They sat on plastic chairs in a rectangle, wearing brown or black abayas and plain white or gray head scarves. Children scurried in and out. Mr. Jabari's mother held a tiny one in her arms.

"It's not a problem to sacrifice," said his sister, Um Aiman, 60. "We have to sacrifice all people to reach to this victory."

***

Another courtyard, another day. This one was grassy, scattered with glass shards from the windows of the home in the neighborhood of Al Nasser that had been blasted out during the obliteration of the nearby headquarters of the Hamas prime minister a few days before.

Five well-dressed young men sat, also on plastic chairs. They said they were supposed to be taking exams at the Islamic University this week, in political science or public relations or engineering. Instead they were smoking, laughing and guessing the make and model of weapons they heard coming in and going out. "They are trying to stop our lives," said Luay Ouda, 32, who is working toward a master's degree in political science. "With our laughs and sitting here, we resist."

They were far from fighters, these men in their expensive jeans. The luxurious home of Jerusalem stone they were sitting outside belonged to Adli Yazeroi, 52. He is one of about 70,000 people in Gaza who collect salaries from the Palestinian Authority -- Mr. Yazeroi is assigned to the prime minister's office -- but have not actually gone to work in five years, since Hamas took control of Gaza after having won elections, because they are presumed loyal to the rival Fatah faction.

But the young men were boundless in their support of Hamas, especially its Qassam Brigades' successful firing of rockets deep into Israel this week. "From 1948 until now, negotiations and political talks have done nothing for us; the only thing that will stop them is bombing back," said Arafat al-Haj, 29, who is also earning a master's in political science.

"The last war, they slaughtered us and we just screamed," he added, recalling Operation Cast Lead, Israel's air and ground offensive that killed 1,400 people here four years ago. "This time, we put the knife farther away from our necks."

Saif al-Yazeroi, an aspiring public relations student and younger cousin of the homeowner, painted the picture. "You saw in Tel Aviv, all the people are in shelters," he said. "For the first time, the Israelis are hiding now, not us."

The homeowner weighed in. "Israel has always taken the battle into other people's land," he said. "The rocket that hit Jerusalem, the Israelis went to the shelters, and the Palestinians went to see the rockets."

This was Tuesday, the war still raging. The streets were yet quiet, most families huddling inside, perhaps sending the men to market at midday to replenish the vegetable bin. But the students said they were not afraid.

"It's not the first time," the younger Mr. Yazeroi noted.

"The house is not safer than the street," Mr. Haj added.

A few minutes later, the air exploded with the sound of a missile landing nearby. Everybody flinched, then laughed a little more.

***

Hazem Sarraj, at 61 already a wise old man with a white beard, is an eye doctor and respected Islamic preacher. After a 2007 stroke, the metal crutch that attaches to his left forearm is not quite enough to help him walk, so a young disciple holds up his other side.

Still, he joined the cease-fire celebrations on Thursday afternoon, making the rounds to greet the people. He stopped to shake hands at the Saed Juice Shop, across from the bombed government complex on Omar al-Mukhtar Street, which was doing a brisk business pulverizing sugar cane sticks into frothy green, 75 cents per plastic cup.

Dr. Sarraj said he had lived in Spain for 17 years. He used to watch the families there on Sundays sitting outside with picnics, children playing. But there are no public parks to speak of in Gaza, and "most of these children are handicapped," Dr. Sarraj said, the exaggeration understandable.

He spoke first in Arabic, through a translator, then in English, broken but clear. He recalled that when he had left Gaza years ago to live abroad, the travel documents issued by the Israeli government said of his nationality: "undetermined." And then he further recalled his childhood here in Gaza before the Israeli occupation in 1967, seeing cows shipped in via the Mediterranean from Somalia, each one branded with the country's name.

"Cow, animal, with nationality, and a man -- doctor -- without anything," he said. "Therefore, all the airports in the world see you, undetermined, treat you like a terrorist."

Fares Akram contributed reporting.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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