Mohammed Dawwas: Life in Gaza: 'Hungry, freezing, and terrifying'

A Palestinian journalist's diary highlights the devastation brought to his family, his city and the lives of many thousands trapped by Israeli bombing ahead of yesterday's ground assault

Sunday 04 January 2009 01:00

When the bombing of Gaza started last Saturday, the Palestinian journalist Mohammed Dawwas, looking from his seventh-floor window, saw his nine-year-old son, Ibrahim, rushing home from school near the police academy that was destroyed in the very first air raid. This is his diary for a week that was to end in invasion.


Ibrahim is too frightened to go out with his brothers to play. He had been doing an exam when the bombing started yesterday and I was stuck in the lift because of yet another power cut. He arrived back, shaking and crying. When I went to get some food he said, "please baba, don't go out." We had a call from the doorman in the building at around 7.45pm telling us we should get out because the Red Cross had given a warning that the Al Kinz mosque next to our building in Omar Mukhtar Street was likely to be destroyed. There were about 100 people down in the yard. You could hear continual explosions some way away. My brother-in-law Mahdi came in his car and said let's go, so we drove off to stay at my father-in-law's house – my wife and the eight kids staying in one room and me in the TV room. We drove in convoy, going down two one-way streets the wrong way to avoid going near the Palestinian Legislative Council building [which was destroyed three nights later]. It was completely dark except for our headlights. It was frightening.


When I got back this morning I opened every one of the windows and all the doors except the front one so they wouldn't be smashed by the explosions. Streets in Gaza City are mostly deserted except for people moving from one house to another and people travelling to the bakeries where there are long queues for bread. There is wreckage everywhere.

I interviewed Dr Hamdi Rashid, 45, who had just come off shift at Shifa hospital frightened and shocked by sight of the five Balousha girls killed in Jabalya today. He said the hospital had to move patients either to private hospitals or to their homes before they are ready because there are no empty beds. And he said the night before last all the hospital's front windows were shattered by the bomb that destroyed the Shifa Mosque.


Ibrahim asked me: "How much does it cost to travel outside Gaza?" I was telling him we have to wait and see, when my phone rang. It was a recorded message from PalTel [the Palestinian phone company] saying it had nothing to do with the messages being left by the Israelis on people's phones telling them to leave houses with wanted men or weapons. My son Ismail, who is 11, always goes to buy bread but today he refused to go alone. So I drove him and on the way he said: "Baba, don't drive near any mosques." He was afraid we might be bombed because several mosques have been attacked. When he we got the bakery he had to wait for two and half hours to get the sack of loaves they are allowing each family. When we got home Ibrahim started asking me: "When the crossings open, is it easy for everyone to leave?" The weather is freezing and we have no power – except for two to three hours a day – and no cooking gas. We're put blankets round us to keep warm. I do have a generator but I've only got five or six litres of fuel and I have to conserve it. I use it just long enough to heat the water for my wife and the girls to have a shower and to charge my mobile, which is very important. As mosques with Hamas connections are getting attacked we're worried again they are going to bomb the one next door. So we went back to my in-laws' house in western Rimal, behind Shifa hospital.


New Year's Eve. We're in a routine now, staying with my in-laws at night and coming home in the day. Instead of having fireworks or going out to restaurants and coffee shops, we have Israeli bombings. We heard that [Hamas de facto Prime Minister] Ismail Haniyeh's office in the Tel El Hawa district had been bombed. It was where I interviewed him just after he became Prime Minister. It was quieter today in Gaza City, and for the first time since the bombing started I went to the main vegetable market near Palestine Square. It was less busy than usual with everyone coming quickly, buying their stuff, and getting out. Prices have sky-rocketed with tomatoes up from one shekel a kilo the day before the bombing to two shekels, and hot green peppers, which last week were one shekel for 250g, are now three. The shops are all shut so there is less available. Going back I forgot the Soraya [main Gaza city security compound] had been bombed. We had to take a detour round it. Until the bombing there were lots of police, including traffic police, around, but now there are none. When I got home Ibrahim came to me again and asked: "When they let the journalists come in, I want to take $100 from you and go abroad." It brings tears to my eyes when he talks like this. Before we left for my in-laws, my brother Abdul Qadr called me from Qatar and said: "This was what happened in 1990 when I was in Kuwait and Iraq invaded. You have to do the same. Do what the kids want and then they'll feel safer."


This is the worst day. Last night I couldn't sleep at all for the bombings. When we got near the Ministry of Health on the way home two guys told us not to drive further down al-Wada Street because they might be about to bomb the ministry. Some of the kids wanted to see the PLC building which had been destroyed the previous night. It's New Year's Day, which is the anniversary of the formation of Fatah in 1965. When we got there we all remembered the first time Arafat spoke after coming back [from Tunis] to Gaza in 1994. Everyone was happy, optimistic; it was something great. This is crazy.


Thursday night was the calmest night. It's the only night I slept right through. But I woke up worried. I had a message from Maan news service the previous evening saying that all foreigners in Gaza were being given the option of leaving. So I thought there would be a land offensive. I decided not to go to Friday prayers. At the mosque where my in-laws go, prayers only took 10 or 15 minutes instead of the usual 45. One of my brothers-in-law suggested that the whole family eat together today – the first really proper meal we had had all week – meat kebabs. I hadn't had a shower or shaved all week. The doorman from my building rang me to tell me the power was on so I went home with my two daughters. But when we got back the power went off again. I changed my clothes.


This morning I found a leaflet outside our building. I'm assuming that they're not meant for us because it says in Arabic: "To the residents of the area. Because of terrorist activities from your area against the state of Israel, the Israel Defence Force will react immediately and operate where you live. For your safety you are asked to evacuate the area immediately." I don't believe they are going to bomb this building because no rockets are fired from here. But it is a kind of psychological warfare. It frightens people here. Today I've just used a kerosene stove to heat up a pan of water and had a really good wash and shave. I'm about to leave to go back to my in-laws because its getting dark. And it's still freezing.

Day by day

It was a shock, but no surprise, when Israel launched its heaviest air attack on Gaza in decades on 27 December. Before Christmas Hamas declared it would not renew a six-month truce with Israel, saying the Israelis had failed to lift their blockade on Gaza. Israel blamed Hamas for failing to end rocket attacks or halt weapons smuggling. The first day of the assault killed 227 Palestinians, but did not halt the rockets, with one Israeli man killed.

Sunday A laboratory at the Islamic University and 40 smuggling tunnels connecting Gaza to Egypt are bombed. Five sisters are killed in their sleep during an Israeli night attack on nearby mosque in Jabaliya.

Monday Air strikes intensify, with Hamas-run Interior Ministry bombed. Hamas fires rockets deeper into southern Israel. Defence Minister Ehud Barak warns Israel is engaged in war "to the bitter end".

Tuesday Hamas encourages militants to respond to Israeli attacks with "all available means". Rockets reach Beersheba – the farthest to date. Israel says attacks signal "long weeks of military action". US and EU call for ceasefire.

Wednesday UN Security Council considers resolution calling for immediate ceasefire, but Israel rejects it. Israeli tanks move towards the Gaza border. Office of Prime Minister Ismail Haniya and Hamas buildings are attacked.

Thursday Air strike kills the hardline Hamas leader Nizar Rayyan at his home in Gaza. More than 30 rockets fired into southern Israel. Aid agencies warn of humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

Friday Israel bombs mosque claimed to be "terror hub" used to store weapons. Tanks mass on Gaza border. Palestinian death toll reaches 424, with four Israelis killed by rockets.

Yesterday Another senior Hamas commander, Abu Zakaria al-Zamal, is killed in an air strike. Israel launches artillery bombardment of Gaza in preparation for a ground assault.

Reaction: How world leaders responded to a week of aggression

Gordon Brown, Prime Minister

'It is vital that moderation must now prevail'

Tony Blair, Middle East envoy

'We need to devise a new strategy for Gaza'

George Bush, US President

'Hamas has... no intention of serving the Palestinian people'

Condoleezza Rice, US Secretary of State

'We need a ceasefire that is durable and sustainable'

Barack Obama, US president-elect

'Closely monitoring events'

Hillary Clinton, US secretary of state in waiting

'No comment'

Ban Ki-Moon, UN Secretary-General

'Strongly urge... an immediate stop to all acts of violence'

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