Friday, January 2, 2009

Fares Akram: Dancing missiles, singing drones – what a way to begin the new year

(Article from The Independent)

Friday, 2 January 2009

I don't know how I fell asleep, after a tense and trying end to the final hours of 2008. After all, Wednesday was the fifth day of Israel's bombing onslaught and a false alarm had sent us scurrying into the basement of our apartment building in panic. But, in any case, I woke abruptly when my mobile bleeped with a new text message. "Look outside! F-16s smiling for you. Missiles dancing for you. Drones buzzing and singing for you. Because I asked all of them to wish you a Happy New Year."

Again and again into the early hours of 1 January, the mobile sprung into life and the same cheeky message from a half a dozen friends reached my inbox. Across Gaza, people were exchanging the same greeting to mark the turn of the year, the dawn of 2009. I wondered why so many bothered with the joke. Perhaps by now, with food running out, hospitals in despair, and the prospect of this conflict escalating rather than scaling down, people are just desperate to find something to smile about.

At the start of December, I had planned with two of my friends to celebrate the new year in the Museum, a new cultural place opened this summer on the Mediterranean coast in the west of Gaza City. But in the middle of 27 December, after I watched Israeli warplanes launching the start of a new wave of violence, I realised that all our plans were shattered.

As I watched the Palestinian security compounds, mosques and houses being hit by heavy rockets, I prayed the violence would stop as usual after a few minutes, before the armed Palestinian groups responded by stepping up rocket-fire into Israeli border towns in retaliation. But the minutes became hours, days and now are completing their first week, with the offensive widening, more aggressively, yesterday claiming the life of the first top Hamas commander. Meanwhile, the crude Hamas rockets are hitting deeper than usual into Israel.

Al-Mathaf [the Arabic name of the Museum] itself sustained huge damage after the headquarters of the former Palestinian intelligence, located 70 metres away, was bombed six times on the second night of this war.

In the past, we celebrated new year in various places such asal-Deera. Last year's event coincided with the anniversary of the establishment of Fatah, the secular Palestinian movement led by the moderate President Mahmoud Abbas. Any festivities we might have had were marred by Hamas cracking down on supporters of Fatah, its bitter rival.

At the time, my wife and I were engaged, and her father was worried that we may get hurt if we went to spend the night outside, due to the violent clampdown on the streets. It was the first New Year's Eve to fall under Hamas's rule. He was also worried that Hamas may also clamp down on the celebrators because only a few sectors in Gaza celebrate what is a non-Muslim occasion.

This year, for obvious reasons, the usual places were closed from the first moment of the attacks that turned Gaza into chaos in the day and a ghost city after dark.

Ok, I said, we'll have a small occasion at home, but that was also impossible, as the house shook whenever planes dropped a bomb within 10km of our neighbourhood. And electricity was so scarce anyway that we barely got six hours in 24.

As the sun set on the last day of 2008, the attacks became fiercer, gunboats firing tens of missiles along the beach. Then an alarming report reached us saying that Israel had notified residents that a Hamas-run school in our neighborhood would be bombed. It was not until midnight and after we had moved down to the underground floor of our building that we realised the reports were false. By then, New Year's Eve was forgotten amid all the chaos.

Not a promising start to 2009.

The writer is a Gaza-based human rights researcher and journalist

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