Obliterated. Her family was obliterated. Little Mayar, a noisy rascal of a girl, runs back and forth through the guest room, harassing the goats, sometimes aggressively demanding affection and attention from her grandparents Makhrous and Dalal, sometimes being a cutie and posing for the camera. She understands only to some degree what happened in 2014. She lost her parents, and her only sibling, 5-year-old Moin.
She carried me in her arms from al-Abbasiyye13 people killed
Nabil’s immediate family was obliterated too, but unlike his niece Mayar, the 36-year-old is acutely aware of the loss. He lost his wife Shirin and four little children: Gheidaa’, Mustafa, Abdel Rahman, and Dalal. Nabil and his now 7-year-old son Baderaddin are the only survivors. Both were seriously injured, and Nabil’s left arm was torn off in the explosion.
It is the third day of Eid al-Adha, and Makhrous – Nabil’s father and Mayar’s grandfather – wishes us a happy Eid with tears in his eyes. For the Siyams this is a difficult day to be joyous. The holiday tradition is to visit your family or receive visitors such as your siblings and their families, your children and their grandchildren. A little bit more than a year earlier, in summer 2014, the house of Dalal and Makhrous was hit with shrapnel from a shell. Most of their grown-up sons and daughters were present in the house with their own kids, visiting on the occasion of Ramadan: 30 people all together. When the artillery fire neared their house, they all fled into the street. “As we ran for our lives, two missiles hit us, right in front of the gate to our house,” says Dalal.
On the third day of, the Siyams’ house is rather empty. We talk to the grandparents, while Mayar and her playmate, Moataz, run around. The little boy’s father Ayman, who also lost his wife in 2014, will stop by to give us buckets of flowers. “For Eid,” he explains and sits quietly in the corner, while Makhrous and Dalal recount all the times the family had to flee in the past half-century.
In Arabic a feast, festival, or holiday. The two Eid are the most sacred days in Islam: Eid Al-Adha is the holier of the two and commemorates the alliance between Ibrahim and Allah through sacrifice. Traditionally a sheep or goat is sacrificed during the celebrations. Eid el-Fitr marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan and the start of a feast lasting several days.
Makhrous and Dalal
“I am a Palestinian refugee from al-Abbasiyye,” says Makhrous Siyam,of the Siyam family. “By the time I finished high-school, I had already lived through three wars.”
Makhrous now lives in Rafah, in the Gaza Strip, where today there is an entire generation of kids that had experienced three wars by the time they finished kindergarten. He is as old as the occupation: ababy, one might say. His wife Dalal is the same age. They lived through the 1948 ethnic cleansing, though the memories they have of that are only those passed on by their parents, and through the 1956 invasion followed by the first short-lived Israeli occupation of the Gaza Strip, and then through the war of 1967, which they can recall with gruesome details.
In Arabic chosen. A leader of an Arab village or district within a town, or a number of extended families. Usually chosen or approved by consensus. The muhktar is responsible for managing the village or the neighbourhood, including mediating conflicts between inhabitants, maintaining peace and security, etc.
In Arabic catastrophe or disaster. It refers to the expulsion of approximately 700,000 Palestinians from their homeland by the Jewish militia before and during the 1948 war, which led to the establishment of the state of Israel. Palestinian refugees were never allowed to return, and hundreds of their villages were destroyed.
“When did we get married?” They first laugh at the question. But later, when the couple starts to search in their memories for dates, Makhrous says it was a year after the Six-Day War. “Yes, we got married in 1968. Dalal was my neighbour.” The Israeli offensives punctuate their memory and become a reference point: “The year I was born was the beginning of the Nakba. The year the Six-Day war broke out, I finished high-school. The year after the war, we got married.”
“It’s hard to remember., martyrs, martyrs, too many in my life; so many, they made me forget how many years have passed,” adds Dalal.
In Arabic shahid. In the context of the Palestinian struggle, it is common to speak of martyrs, regardless of the faith or religiosity of a person, when someone’s death has been caused by the Israeli occupation. In general, a martyr is someone prepared to die for their faith or beliefs, though the term shahid in Islam includes different circumstances, for example, people who died in natural disasters or women during childbirth.
The British Mandate
Palestine came under British mandate following World War I, after being a province of the Ottoman empire for 400 years. The mandate fixed clear borders to Palestine and formally charged the British administration with two contradictory tasks: one was to provide for the indigenous population and the second to establish a Jewish homeland on this territory.
“How did my parents meet? My father was already married, and had grown-up sons. One of them wanted to get married. So, my father went to this one family to ask them if his son could marry their daughter. But when he saw that woman, he immediately liked her and asked for her to become his second wife. That was my mother. And my half-brother ended up marrying her sister.” – Makhrous explains.
“One day they sold a bit of land they had in Rafah and went towards the coastal plains. They moved to al-Abbasiyye village: life there was supposed to be easier. My father and all his brothers did the same: sold the land here, and moved to Palestine. You know, this was just as it is today: people immigrate to Canada or Australia, but before they sell all their properties and then become citizens of that new place. When? Hmm, was it 1943? I am not sure which year precisely. Early 40s.”
Why did the parents of Makhrous felt they should leave Rafah?
British tax policy introduced in the early ‘40s forced many impoverished rural land owners to sell the little they had and move towards towns and cities to look for other work. [Palestinian Village Histories: Geographies of the Displaced, by Rochelle Davis, p.110]
“I am a refugee from Palestine. That my parents are from Rafah? No, it doesn’t change anything. Many people came to Palestine – from Syria, Egypt, Turkey, and everyone who was born in Palestine and forced to leave that land will tell you they are Palestinian. So I am a refugee from Palestine too. Yes, of course, you are right, Gaza is a part of Palestine. But the Palestine I am talking about now is the one that is gone.”
“No, they didn’t own any land in al-Abbasiyye. During the mandate my four uncles and my father used to work cutting the trees for the British army. Back then it was hard work, there were no electric saws. They also built the electricity and phone lines. The British needed a lot of wood.”
Why did the forests of Palestine nearly disappear?
During the Mandate, Palestine depended on imports of wood from Europe and Asia. During World War II, the imports ceased and the demand for wood grew: “A situation worsened by increased food demands and high prices, which led to more clearings and cultivation. The British Army, stationed in the country, was the biggest timber consumer, particularly the Royal Engineers; followed by match, then plywood, factories”, explains Roza I. M. El-Eini in Mandated Landscape: British Imperial Rule in Palestine 1929 – 1948. A special administrative body was set up in the early 1940s to protect the forests: a Utilization Section, which “ominously estimated that Palestine’s forests would be depleted within 18 months”, adds the author.
“Their house wasn’t made out of stone. They built a shack from aluminium. Because of the British planning regulations, it was difficult to obtain materials or a building permit.”
Nakba: The Catastrophe
“My father was still young when the war broke out in 1947.”
On 13 December 1947, Irgun, a Jewish militia, attacked al-Abbasiyye, alongside other villages in the area. 24 men disguised in British army uniforms infiltrated the village, setting bombs in houses and throwing grenades at others, while part of the group opened fire on villagers who were sitting at a cafe. They left behind them a car which exploded in the village. At least 14 people were reported killed in this attack.
What happened in al-Abbasiyye and with its inhabitants in the following months?
The village was attacked again in February 1948. At the end of April, Hagana (the Jewish militia and the precursor of the Israeli army) took control of the area. On 3 May 1948, in the middle of the night, another Jewish armed group, the extremist Irgun, attacked and occupied the village, forcing away its population of approximately 6500 people. Later that year the town was partially destroyed, leaving as the only reminder of what was once Al-Abbassiyya/Yahudiya a mosque, a shrine and a few houses which make up what is now known as ‘old Yehud’, the Jewish name given to the Israeli settlement built on the rubble.
This was the beginning of the ethnic cleansing of Palestine. The expulsion peaked in spring and summer of 1948, and still goes on in different forms to this day. Makhrous and his family were a part of an estimated 700,000 Palestinians who were displaced by the nascent Israeli forces, and forbidden from ever coming back to their homes.
“My mother was strong. She carried me in her arms, walking on foot, all the way from al-Abbasiyye to Rafah.”
When Makhrous’ parents and their family were waiting in Rafah to return back to al-Abbasiyye, around 4,000 Jewish immigrants settled in their former village. Dozens of ethnically cleansed villages were to be homes for the newly arrived Jews from Europe and the Middle East; their presence was a guarantee against any of the original inhabitants ever returning and an argument to support Israel’s territorial claims in future negotiations.
“In Rafah we lived in a refugee camp, in Block A. Five years, eight people, in a tent, and all of us dependant on aid packages from the UN. Only in the early ‘50s did the UN start to build houses. Very close to each other; people were cramped there. Bathrooms were shared by many families. Conditions were horrible. With time, they built schools and hospitals.”
While the Jewish immigrants who moved into Palestinian houses often tried to settle down as fast as possible, with much encouragement from the state, Palestinians didn’t want to take root in the refugee camps. For years, there was no attempt at providing more permanent infrastructure, because many had expected their return would be a matter of weeks.
1967: the Six Day War and the Israeli occupation of the Gaza Strip
Makhrous: “Would you like some coffee?”
Dalal: “No, no, I can’t because of my blood pressure.”
Makhrous: “Mayar, habibti, go to your father…. eee… uncle, yallah. There’s too much noise. So let’s continue with the story… We had just taken our last high school exam when the Six Day war broke out. We were asked to volunteer and stationed close to the farm lands. Suddenly, almost above our heads, a fleet of airplanes flew; they came from the north and were headed towards Egypt. Soon after, the tanks came. People were confused: the Israeli tanks arrived with Iraqi flags. Our neighbour went to greet them. He was shot dead. We didn’t know how to evacuate the dead and injured. We put one man on a donkey and hoped to find a doctor.
Why did the Israeli tanks have Iraqi flags?
There are a few recorded eyewitness accounts of Israeli tanks bearing either Egyptian or Iraqi flags during the 1967 war, both in the Gaza Strip and in the West Bank. It was not the only time in its history that Israeli forces have been seen masquerading as their enemies. Quite the contrary in fact. Since the general strike in 1936, it has been a common tactic, and was often deployed during the Intifadas [source: Kameel B. Nasser’s Arab and Israeli Terrorism: The Causes and Effects of Political Violence, Chapter 3: Israel’s Use of Arab Disguises]. In 1969, Israel conducted an entire military action, codenamed Operation Raviv, based on their disguise as Egyptians. In the recent years Israeli police have often used the ‘mistaravim’, undercover agents pretending to be Palestinian protesters, their role often being to turn the demonstrations more violent.
Dalal: “I was 20 years old at that time, I wasn’t married yet. A friend of my father came to our house; he had a donkey. He told us he was too tired and too old to run. He asked us to take the donkey and escape. ‘I don’t care if they kill me or not, I can’t run anymore’. So he stayed with his donkey and we fled. My mother led us out of the house, and we went to hide by the sea. We spent two days walking, searching for safety, hiding under guava trees, with planes flying over our heads. Our neighbours escaped a bit later and caught up with us. They told us our house was gone: the Jews blew it up. My mother’s only reaction was to say ‘God help us’. For 15 days we were hiding by the sea. One day, we heard the occupying army call out through megaphones that it was safe to go back, so we returned to our house. It was destroyed. The old man was dead. Someone told us that when the army came to blow up the house, the donkey started to bray, but the old man was asleep and it didn’t wake him up. West of our house grew two old orange trees. There was nowhere else to go. We sat under those trees and waited. After four days, the sons of the old man came to bury him.”
The Six Day War ended with Israel taking over huge swaths of territory. It imposed military occupation on the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, later annexing the latter two.
Makhrous: “From that time on, people relied on work in Israel, until 1992, when they started to close Gaza off. As I said, we got married a year after the war. I too worked in Israel. I had a family to take care of. Until the Intifada. The soldiers started to block the roads and make it gradually more and more difficult for us to reach our workplace.”
In the early ‘90s, Israel started to implement the first elements of the closure policy, long before Hamas came to power in 2007. “The years of the Second Intifada were difficult. No family went through those times without damage. My deaf nephew was killed and so was our neighbour. Many were sent to prison. But whatever we were spared back then or during the later Israeli offensives, caught up with us in 2014.”
The 2014 Israeli assault
On 8 July 2014, Israel begins its offensive against the Gaza Strip. Two weeks later, in the early morning hours, the Siyam family escapes their house as the shells are falling nearer and nearer. Just as they exit the house and start running for their lives, they are targeted from the air.
Two children, three-year-old Mayar and even smaller Moataz, make a lot of noise; they play with the glass door separating the living room from the roofed patio of the Siyam family house. The adults are unusually patient with them. The kids do not get scolded and when they call out for someone’s attention, they get it immediately. Mayar’s playmate, noisily crying, is Moataz, her year-and-a-half-old cousin. He was just five months old when his mother was killed in the attack. Mayar abruptly runs into the room and calls her grandmother, Dalal, ‘mama’. “What is it, my dear?” Dalal responds attentively. “Mayar doesn’t understand what happened”, explains Dalal.
But it seems that Mayar understands at least some of it. She used to cry a lot; cry and scream. She used to call out for ‘mama and baba’ (mom and dad), but her parents could not come to console her. Sometimes, running around the house, Mayar notices their pictures, hanging high on the wall, along with other members of the family who were killed. She stops in front of them, stares and starts making noises, mumbling to herself, her voice growing, until someone comes and picks her up, lifts her to the pictures, so she can give a kiss to her parents.
24 SEPTEMBER 2015
“And this is the life story of the mukhtar Makhrous Siyam. Today is the third day of Eid, so happy Eid.”
“A young man, recently married, came to me and said: ‘It’s the third day of Eid and I still haven’t tasted meat; meat has not entered my house.’ Of course we try to help; this is my job as a mukhtar. But this has to be the most difficult Eid I can think of. Yesterday I was mediating between two families who fought in the streets between each other. You know why? Because of ten shekels [2,3 euro]. If you think of how desperate people are, especially on the day of Eid… They are poor, poorer than before, and everything you need to celebrate Eid got so expensive: the meat and clothes… an overwhelming majority of the families in our area cannot afford to make the sacrifice of a goat or a sheep. But it’s our duty to share with them: as a mukhtar, I have worked with number of institutions, we gathered 200 portions of meat.”
A loud bleating interrupts the conversation…
It’s late, the muezzin is calling for prayer, and Makhrous wants to go to the mosque. He feeds the goats and calls a cab for us. We wait, talking about the growing prices of meat, fuel, clothes, and all the family problems he has to mediate as a mukhtar. It’s dark outside and electricity for Rafah area has been cut. This is how it is in Gaza: electricity is on for six to eight hours and off for the following six to eight hours. We hear honking outside – the taxi driver is letting us know he has just arrived. We say goodbye to Makhrous and Dalal. As we get into the car, I recognize the driver and his voice from Anne Paq’s photos and videos. She met his family almost a year earlier. It’s Nabil. I visited the Siyams’ house three times and never met him there. “It’s too difficult to sit at home,” he tells us, smoking a cigarette and driving, all with his one remaining hand, on the way to Gaza city.
People killed in the attack in Rafah
21 July 2014
- KAMAL MAKHROUS SIYAM 31, SON OF DALAL AND MAKHROUS
- MOHAMMED MAKHROUS SIYAM 27, SON OF DALAL AND MAKHROUS
- SUMOUD NASSER MUSTAFA SIYAM 26, MOHAMMED'S WIFE
- MOIN MOHAMMED SIYAM 5, MOHAMMED'S SON. HE DIED THE NEXT DAY AFTER ATTACK.
- SHIRIN MOHAMMED SIYAM 31, NABIL'S WIFE, DALAL AND MAKHROUS DAUGHTER-IN-LAW
- GHAIDAA' NABIL SIYAM 7, NABIL AND SHIRIN’S DAUGHTER
- MUSTAFA NABIL SIYAM 9, NABIL AND SHIRIN’S SON
- ABDEL RAHMAN NABIL SIYAM 6, NABIL AND SHIRIN’S SON
- DALAL NABIL SIYAM 9 MONTHS, NABIL AND SHIRIN’S DAUGHTER
- SAIDA HASSAN SIYAM 42, DAUGHTER-IN-LAW OF DALAL AND MAKHROUS; WIFE OF AYMAN MAKHROUS SIYAM; SHE DIED OF HER WOUNDS ON 14 AUGUST 2014.
- AMIN AYMAN MAKHROUS SIYAM 17, SON OF SAIDA AND AYMAN
- AHMED AYMAN MAKHROUS SIYAM 15, SON OF SAIDA AND AYMAN
- MOHAMMED AMIN SIYAM 15, DALAL AND MAKHROUS'S GRANDCHILD; HE DIED ON 18 NOVEMBER 2014 FROM HIS WOUNDS, IN TURKEY.