He and his 21-member family live in the northernmost region of Gaza's recently declared "no-go zone", where surviving has become a delicate balance of dodging artillery fire and sheer luck.

Less than 700 metres away from an electric fence and the wall that demarcates Israel's border with Gaza, his house sits in an area closely monitored by unmanned drones and is subject to a barrage of artillery shells almost every day.

Directly across from Abu Salah's house, at the end of an unpaved dirt path that once led to his farm, is an Israeli army watchtower manned by a sniper, who fires "warning" shots at us as if to remind us of his presence.

Below the watchtower is an Israeli tank equipped with a camera that monitors the family's every move.

"He doesn't like you being here, as a journalist. It's normal - he shoots day and night, but particularly when visitors come," Abu Salah, 40, casually says of the sniper.

No-go zone

In an attempt to stop armed Palestinian groups from firing rockets into Israel, the Israeli army declared the area - including Abu Salah's home - a "no-go zone" late last December.

The zone stretches 2.4km into Palestinian land and incorporates an area where three Jewish settlements stood until they were demolished when the Israelis pulled out of Gaza last summer.

The border fence and sniper
tower in the background

Israel says armed Palestinian groups were using the area in northern Gaza to launch rocket attacks on southern Israel.

Since that time, mobile Israeli artillery batteries have fired several thousand shells into the area, killing several Palestinians, damaging homes, and leaving Palestinian farmlands inaccessible to their owners.  

Earlier, an Israeli army spokeswoman said the artillery fire was "in direct response to [Palestinian rockets]".

Israeli forces are allowed to direct artillery fire to within 100 metres of civilian homes, greatly increasing the danger to residents in the area.

Two Palestinian children have been killed and dozens injured as a result.

Six Israeli and Palestinian human-rights organisations petitioned the Israeli High Court to revoke the order, but this was dismissed.

Warning

The decision to establish a "security strip" to protect Israel against Palestinian rocket attacks came three months after Israel withdrew all Jewish settlers and troops from Gaza.

The Israeli army dropped thousands of fliers from aircraft shortly before the zone was declared out of bounds.

The leaflets, in Arabic, accompanied by a detailed map indicating the confines of the zone and signed by the Israeli army command, say: "The army is prepared to wage intensive operations in the north of the Gaza Strip against terrorist elements who fire rockets into the territory of the State of Israel.

"For your security you are warned to avoid the sectors indicated on the map from 6pm (1600 GMT) December 28 until further notice.

"Those who disregard this warning will put their lives in danger. Know that the terrorists have made you hostages and human shields, and safeguard your interests."

Staying put

Many Palestinians have fled the buffer zone for safer pastures, but Abu Salah's family refuses to leave. And it has paid the price.

"At one point, they arranged it with the Red Cross so that I could leave my home safely, in order for them to demolish it. But I refused. Where will my family and I go? We are forced to stay and protect our land so we will not face another hijra (exile)"

Saeed Abu Salah

"At one point, they arranged it with the Red Cross so that I could leave my home safely, in order for them to demolish it. But I refused. Where will my family and I go?

"We are forced to stay and protect our land so we will not face another hijra (exile). On a daily basis, they dropped leaflets telling us to vacate the northern areas. Many had no choice but to leave, and had alternative options in the city (Gaza). We have no such alternatives."

Abu Salah's orchards as well as poultry, dairy, and fish farms were destroyed late last year.

In addition to destroying the entire second storey of his home and his farm, shell shrapnel wounded his 21-year-old son Eid, who after 14 operations, still requires surgery to dislodge fragments near his heart.

"They shell us round the clock. If not by land, then by air or sea. It never stops. If it does, we think something bad has happened," he quips.

His house is surrounded by the vacant rubble of demolished homes and destroyed wells.

No compensation

According to Abu Salah, the United Nations Development Programme estimates the total losses to his farm, which once employed more than 30 Palestinians, at nearly $500,000.

With the help of human-rights organisations, he filed a case against the Israeli army demanding compensation, but to no avail.

Abu Salah says the shelling has
caused his children much distress

An Israeli army spokesperson told Aljazeera that "we've come across many such 'stories' of people not being able to access their farm land", but provided no further information.

The spokesperson did not comment about Abu Salah and his family.

Aid organisations stepped in and helped Abu Salah erect a zinc-sheeted shed on his land, which acts as a de facto "red line" demarcated by Israeli military authorities as a no entry zone.

His three horses, one still bleeding from a bullet wound to the thigh, guide themselves to graze in the area that he is kept from entering. But even they know their limits.

"They don't get near the sniper or the border, they know when to stop," he says, laughing.

His horses fare better than his cattle: They have all been killed by artillery fire.

"But we just can't afford to buy any more cattle. Or plant any more trees. Why should we? The Israelis will just destroy them again," he says, staring at the ominous tower in the distance.

Children's fears

The shelling occurs as frequently as 10 times a minute on some days, but has no set pattern. Sometimes, says Abu Salah, they fire 20 shells within a 15 minute span or a total of 300 shells a day. Other times they do not fire for several days.

The explosions are so loud they can be heard in Gaza city several miles away, where they shake houses and rattle windows.

Abu Salah says the trauma of the shelling has caused some of his younger children to wet themselves.

"They used to be so afraid ... the young ones still are," he says, pointing to the youngest of his 20 children, his blue eyes sparkling as he blushes and runs away.

Violent vases

Despite his situation, or partly because of it, Abu Salah has immersed himself in a new-found hobby - collecting and decorating spent artillery shells.

Artillery vases: Turning the ugly
into something beautiful

Over sage tea and sweet, strong coffee, Abu Salah displays his "museum of Israeli war artefacts" - a living room full of 55kg artillery shell casings he has converted into vases, decorated with an arrangement of brightly coloured plastic flowers.

The vases have made him somewhat of a celebrity in this impoverished strip, and Abu Salah can barely keep up with the demand.

"I give them away as gifts. People like them for some reason. Maybe it's the contrast of making something beautiful out of something so ugly and destructive," he says as he walks under archways neatly trimmed with a belt of 7mm bullet casings and past shelves displaying spent flares and missile shrapnel in his home.

After sunset, the family remains hemmed in the southern-most corner of the home and huddle together in one room for safety, far from any windows.

"This is our reality. This is our fate. And we will bear it out, but never another exile - I will stay here till they bury me in my grave."

All photographs by Laila El-Haddad