Life after death in Gaza

For a man who lost 11 close relatives during the Israeli offensive in January, Moeen Deeb is remarkably philosophical. Donald Macintyre meets him and other survivors of Operation Cast Lead

There were several reasons why Moeen Deeb left his satisfying $800-a-month job as a telephone engineer at PalTel not long after the end of Operation Cast Lead in January. But one was an inability to cope with the daily, pitying, looks of his workmates. "I did go back to work but I couldn't continue," he says. "People saw me as someone who had lost all his family. I had a big feeling they were thinking of me as someone who would always need support."

Though Mr Deeb, 40, is not the self-pitying type, the reaction of his colleagues was understandable. For among the many thousands of Gazans bereaved by the war, few lives can have been as shattered as his. Alerted by phone, he had rushed back from work on the afternoon of 6 January to find the family home in Jabalya hit by two Israeli 120mm mortar shells in the same series of attacks that killed up to another 30 civilians outside the UN Al Fakhoura school a mere 100 metres away. The 11 dead included five of his six children, aged between four and 22, his wife, his mother, one of his brothers, two of his nephews, and a niece.

Five months later, Mr Deeb, is struggling to adapt to his unfathomable loss. He says he has lost 40lbs since 6 January. "I don't eat normally and I don't sleep at night." But he adds that life has to go on. "We have to deal with what is on the ground," he says. He was one of the survivors interviewed last week by South African judge Richard Goldstone, currently conducting an investigation ordered by the UN Human Rights Council into possible war crimes by Israel and Hamas during the Gaza operation. An earlier inquiry ordered by the UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon and led by the respected former British head of Amnesty International Ian Martin – with which Israel co-operated but then rejected as "patently biased" – found that the "undisputed" cause of the deaths of civilians in the vicinity was the Israeli mortars which landed outside the school and in the Deeb compound. Mortars, rarely if ever used in Gaza by the Israeli military before, are widely regarded as less accurate than artillery fire.

Mr Deeb also left work because of the responsibility he felt for his now fatherless 23-year-old nephew, confined to a wheelchair after losing both his legs in the attack. "I am responsible for everyone," he says. Adjustment has also been painfully slow for Mr Deeb's surviving son, Bakr, 18. Having left school in the tenth grade, Bakr hasn't got a job - though he has recently got his driving licence and the possibility of being a taxi driver. "And he has a fiancée now, which has given him something to be busy about. It could compensate in some way." The fiancée is only 16 and Mr Deeb had wanted the couple to wait, but has allowed them to marry next year now that, "everything has been turned upside down".

Money is less of a problem for Mr Deeb than it is for most other Gazans. Along with a friend, he invested his early retirement pay-off in a small plastics venture in Egypt. He says it brings in a better return than his salary and allows him to stay at home to help look after the family of his dead brother Samir – though not yet enough to afford the scarce cement needed to repair the gaping hole in the wall left by one of the shells.

Like others in his position, he says he has received €1,000 for each dead person from the Hamas de facto government along with $2,500 a head from the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah. Mr Deeb, who is still seeking to sue Israel through an Israeli-Arab lawyer in Nazareth, explains: "I accepted but none of it compensates for even a fingernail of my children," adding that he has not spent a penny of the money. "There is a future to think of," he says. One about which Mr Deeb is anything but optimistic.

Back in February when he first spoke to The Independent Mr Deeb explained that he used to be a member of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine – the very first faction to endorse a two-state solution back in the seventies. Then he said taht all he wanted was, "for the Israelis to get out of all Palestine". Now he is calmer he says: "I would accept two neighbouring states." Although he believes America has the power to pressure Israel – which he calls the "51st American state" – he doubts it will happen and he equally complains that the Hamas government lacks a "political horizon".

Yet there is something remarkable about the capacity of some bereaved Gazans to cope with their losses. Maysa Samouni, 20, was one of those who say they were ordered the previous day by Israeli troops to take shelter in the warehouse in which 29 civilians – mainly Samounis – were killed by Israeli shelling early on the morning of 5 January, when three of her husband's male relatives ventured out of the door to bring an uncle to what they thought was safety.

Mrs Samouni, whose husband Tawfiq was killed and whose one-year-old daughter Jumana lost three fingers, gave precise – and often inevitably gruesome – testimony by telephone to the Israeli human rights organisation Btselem the next day: testimony which has held up in every subsequent inquiry by reporters and human rights organisations.

One shell killed the three men, and as Tawfiq, a former bulldozer driver who was trying to make ends meet by running a grocery business from his home, ran to help, another missile hit the roof, killing another 26 people. Even today she swiftly corrects a reporter's reference to 30 being killed in one of the worst events of the war. "It was 29," she says, adding of her testimony, "details are important."

She says the worst moment afterwards was going back to see the destroyed houses of the family she married int. "I didn't recognise it," she says. Matter of factly, she says of the first shell: "I am sure the Israelis had orders to shoot and kill anything that moved. The men [who stepped outside the building] were wearing sweaters. Maybe they thought they were resistance." Mrs Samouni, now living with her parents, adds, "It took me a month to cope with the new situation. But then I had no other option but to continue with the rest of my life. You have to look to the future. Nothing will come back. The dead are not going to come back to life." So Mrs Samouni will now go to Al Aqsa university to study English full-time in September.

Equally resilient in his own way is Khalil al Jadili 16, whose two legs were amputated after what the family insist was a "random" shelling attack which at 3.10pm on 16 January killed his younger bother Mohanad, 8, and destroyed with shrapnel the left eye of another brother Abdel Hadi, 15, as they all sat in their grandmother's house across from their own home in the crowded Bureij refugee camp in central Gaza. Before leaving through Egypt for the Czech Republic where he hopes to have artificial legs fitted, Khalil, who had been a keen footballer and basketball player before the attack which changed his life, said: "I hope to come back walking." Although his mother Nabila, 39, says Khalil, has been "very angry" a lot of the time since then, all the family, including Khalil, smile cheerfully in the presence of visitors and joke about Khalil's recent decision to take a photograph of himself having cardboard "legs" fixed to his stumps and clothed them in jeans. "I wanted to see what I would look like with artificial legs," he explains." Nabila shows a mobile phone picture of Mohanad's dead body, and says "He was just a baby." But even then she remains calm.

The family, who long to move to a bigger house where the now wheelchair-bound Khalil can have his own room, are desperately poor and his father Amr says he no longer pushes the cart around the local streets – by hand and not even with a donkey – from which he used to sell brushes and cleaning fluid. Because of the two-year- old blockade, he says, "I have no products to sell." But though exhausted by the endless struggle to secure passports and treatment abroad for his two injured sons, he admits it has at least kept him busy. "I seem to be running all the time," he says. Meanwhile Mrs Samouni will continue to take her daughter Jumana to see her in-laws every week. "After all, she belongs to them too," she says. It is perhaps the only moment she shows her sadness. "I was happy with the Samounis," she says. "I had good relations with them."

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