That was the day Israeli forces launched an incursion with the stated aim of creating a security zone after Qassam rockets fired into the Negev town of Sderot by Palestinian resistance fighters claimed their first fatalities.
Since then, Israeli tanks have had the northern Gaza village encircled – and the Basyouni family under virtual house arrest.
No one goes in, no one goes out, and there is little room for negotiation. Any movement may be met with deadly Israeli gunfire, as the past two weeks’ toll of 14 dead and some 90 injured testifies.
Occupation soldiers have been granting access only to a limited number of relief-agency vehicles, that too on the condition of prior coordination.
The main roads leading to the area have been closed off with large sand barricades and trenches, guarded closely by Israeli tanks and snipers. Currently, the only way to access the village is through a single dirt path controlled by an Israeli tank emplacement.
Field workers with the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OCHA) say the situation in Bait Hanun has “deteriorated significantly” of late.
The siege has already claimed 14
There is an acute shortage of good, with only one truck carrying foodstuff having been allowed to enter in the past two weeks. Moreover, tanks and bulldozers have moved into the centre of town, leaving most residents afraid to leave their homes.
“For over a week we have been under a siege from all angles. It’s extremely dangerous to leave or enter. People walk in between bushes and trees to try and leave town, and still tanks follow us and close any path we use,” one local resident told Aljazeera.net.
“It’s like a game of cat and mouse.”
Palestinians say what is happening in Bait Hanun is yet another example of the Israeli use of collective punishment, banned under international law.
Israel responds that the siege is being imposed in self-defence.
“We don’t dare leave
Rawhiya Basyouni, Bait Hanun resident and mother of nine
“You can’t expect us to just sit with our hands folded and do nothing. We have a responsibility to protect Israeli civilians wherever they are. If the Palestinian Authority won’t do anything about it, then we will,” said Israeli army spokesperson Eytan Arusy.
Asked why the entire village is suffering collectively for the actions of a few, Arusy said it is an attempt to prevent infiltration of Palestinian fighters from other areas.
“We are forced to go into PA areas to stop and prevent firing of these rockets. You have to understand this is a strategic threat that we must react to. And we will withdraw only when we are completely convinced that Qassam rockets are no longer being fired towards Israel and that such incidents will not recur in the future.”
Nightmare up close
Meanwhile, the situation in the areas outside of the centre of Bait Hanun, where Rawhiya Basyouni and her family live, is going from bad to worse. Israeli Special Forces have occupied the homes of several families there and kept their occupants confined to the four walls of the house. Residents who attempted to get out of these areas, known as al-Sikka and al-Firata, were shot at.
Bait Hanun’s siege began shortly
The Basyounis have been experiencing this nightmare firsthand. Israeli tanks have closed in on their home from all sides and razed the land around them, leaving their house in plain sight.
“We don’t dare leave the house, and even indoors we move with great caution. I’m risking my life by just going to the bathroom,” said Rawhiya over the rumble of Merkava tanks.
“Do you hear them? This is what they do all day. Move around our house. We are scared to death. We spent six days without electricity or water. My daughter had a fever of 40 degree (Celsius) plus. Had it not been for the Red Cross, God knows what would have happened to us.”
“We will withdraw only when we are completely convinced that Qassam rockets are no longer being fired towards Israel and that such incidents will not recur
Eytan Arusy, Israeli army spokesperson
Access to the worst affected areas is proving to be extremely difficult, even for aid agencies, OCHA field workers say. Only on Wednesday did Israeli forces for the first time allow the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine (UNRWA) to enter Bait Hanun and provide much needed relief to the several hundred residents – after receiving 10 appeals from the Palestinian Agricultural Relief Committee (PARC).
“The problem is, there are no practical assurances that they won’t shoot at you,” says Ibtissam Salim of PARC, who helped coordinate the delivery of the relief packages.
Salim’s fears are not unfounded: Israeli troops shot at the five-vehicle convoy marked with UN flags and symbols which went into Bait Hanoun to deliver food.
For the village’s entrapped residents, even basic services are now a luxury. Electricity and water were cut off for over a week and a half before being restored by the local municipality two days ago. In any case, Bait Hanun’s public-services infrastructure is already a shambles.
After Israeli bulldozers tore apart water mains and the sewerage network, contaminating drinking water supply to Bait Hanun, hundreds of children came down with gastroenteritis, according to the Union of Health Work Committees (UHWC).
Relief workers are hard pressed
Residents have had to leave their homes in the village and climb over road blocks erected by Israeli troops, to fill jerry-cans with potable water from municipality tankers. In many cases, they had to do so in the face of Israeli helicopter gunfire.
“Yesterday [Israeli troops] shot at us and we were unable to provide [residents] with water, even with prior coordination,” said Basim Masri of the Bait Hanun Municipality. “We had no choice but to retreat, leaving many residents without water.”
The Israeli incursion has also taken its toll on the area’s bountiful farmlands, a traditional supplier of fresh fruits and vegetables to the rest of the Gaza Strip and even the West Bank (that is, when the Karni industrial crossing would be open).
“Most of the area’s agricultural lands have been destroyed. Many
Initial estimates put the number of donoms, or square kilometres of land, razed by the Israelis at over 2500. On Wednesday, for instance, over 30 more donoms were cleared and, according to eyewitnesses, the army’s operations are continuing.
The destruction will have untold long-term economic implications, according to the Agricultural Relief Committee.
“Most of the area’s agricultural lands have been destroyed. Many of these farms are over 50 years old, and it will take years to rebuild them,” said Salim.
“The farms’ main crop was citrus. But they also exported apples, plums, peaches and other fruits.”
Bait Hanun residents say Israeli bulldozers have ravaged not only their farms but also their lives.
Residents have fetched drinking
Anwar al-Asamna owns a nursery that used to employ over 18 Palestinians. Now, he can barely feed his family, let alone pay his employees. Three days ago, Israeli bulldozers ploughed through the nursery, destroying the water generator and over 50000 of al-Asamna’s saplings.
“We don’t have water to keep the ones they didn’t destroy alive – they are all drying up,” he said.
“I’d prefer it if they had destroyed our house instead of our nursery. It’s easy to rebuild a house, but it’s very difficult to rebuild land that has taken 80 years to cultivate.”
Al-Asamna says he is now struggling to feed his 30-member household. “What can I say? Compensation can only come from God Almighty.”
“We are a farming
Husain Zaaneen, Bait Hanun cultivator
Another Bait Hanun resident, Husain Zaaneen, who lost several donoms to Israeli bulldozers, said, “We are a farming village – our livelihoods depend on farming.
“Without our farms and greenhouses, we have nothing.”
Some of the village’s largest and oldest farms have been reduced to barren land, he said.
“What is happening in Bait Hanun is a collective punishment, banned under international law,” says Mona al-Farra of the Union of Health Work Committees.
“It is a humanitarian catastrophe [and] its ramifications for the entire population will show themselves now and for years to come.”