Middle East

UNWELCOME VISITORS

When Israel soldiers took over most of Khalil Bashir’s Gaza house, he refused to move out

JONATHON GATEHOUSE August 22 2005
Middle East

UNWELCOME VISITORS

When Israel soldiers took over most of Khalil Bashir’s Gaza house, he refused to move out

JONATHON GATEHOUSE August 22 2005

UNWELCOME VISITORS

Middle East

When Israel soldiers took over most of Khalil Bashir’s Gaza house, he refused to move out

JONATHON GATEHOUSE

IF ALL GOES according to plan, Khalil Bashir will host a massive party one day soon. He is already busy inviting friends and family he has rarely seen over the past four years, the other townspeople of Deir al-Ballah in the Gaza strip, even his soon-to-be-former Israeli neighbours. Chances are the latter group will not come—the years of violence flowing back and forth across the high walls of Kfar Darom have left no love between the settlers and nearby Palestinians. But Bashir’s ebullience will not be so easily discouraged. To him,

the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza means just one thing—he’ll finally get the top floors of his house back.

Troops from the Israel Defense Forces have occupied the second and third floors of Bashir’s spacious family home since December 2000. The property, located in the shadow of a machine gun tower, 20 m from the walls of the settlement, has been ravaged. Bullet and shell fire have aerated its cinder blocks. The 10 greenhouses, 170 palm trees and orange grove were pulled down and plowed over to create a military buffer zone. Camouflage netting and razor wire protect the observation post on the building’s roof, with its commanding view of the area.

Bashir has resisted in a non-violent, but particularly stubborn way. He rejected of-

fers from the Israelis to buy his property. He refused orders to move. And when the soldiers finally came to take it over, he would not leave. Instead, the school principal, his wife, their eight children and his aged mother spent much of the past four years sharing the main floor.

At night, the family was frequently confined to the living room under armed guard, forbidden to leave even to use the bathroom. During the days, they lived under strict conditions—no unauthorized visitors, limited access to the property outside. “I did not want to make the same mistake my people made in 1948,” says Bashir. “They left their houses and now they are refugees.”

Bashir says he has no idea why the IDF chose to occupy his home. But there is a long history between his family and the neighbouring settlers. Kfar Darom is one of the oldest Jewish outposts in Gaza. Established in 1930, when the area was under British control, it was given up a few years later during a period of unrest. In 1946, it became a kibbutz, but was again abandoned after a siege by the Egyptians during the 1948 war. The Israeli military has been on the spot since 1970, and the settlers came soon after. Although Kfar Darom is one of the first communities scheduled to be evacuated when the pullout begins on Aug. 17, none of its 73 families have so far accepted the government relocation package. The settlement has also been the repeated target of attacks by militants. In 1992, the community’s rabbi was stabbed to death. In 2000, a roadside bomb hit a settler convey outside its gates, killing two. The next year, one of its IDF defenders was killed by a Kassam rocket fired from Deir al-Ballah. Although Bashir swears no attack was ever launched from his property, the settlers and soldiers know it as “the sniper house.”

Bashir and his family have paid a heavy price for their obstinacy. After the rabbi’s death, a mob of settlers broke in and destroyed his home. He rebuilt it. When the current intifada flared up in the fall of2000, the field surrounding the building was set ablaze. The IDF shot one of Bashir’s sons in the leg as he tried to put it out. In April 2001, after a CNN camera crew visited, a rifle grenade hit the house, and Bashir was wounded by shrapnel. In February 2004, his son Yosef, then 15, was shot in the back by soldiers as he and his father stood outside waving goodbye to three UN staffers who had come to visit in a clearly marked vehicle. Yosef lives with constant pain.

Through it all, Bashir has remained one of the few in his neighbourhood to preach tolerance. Every morning, he leads his 1,800 students in a chant for peace. “I have forgotten and forgiven everything the Israelis have done against me,” he says. “If we insist on letting our wounded memories guide us, we will never go forward.” That’s why the coming celebration will be open to everyone. His hope is that the pullout will teach everyone some new lessons. lifl

The pullout means Bashir (middle) is going to get his damaged home back