From atop her two-storey home in the northern Gaza Strip village, only a few hundred metres away from the border with Israel, she points resignedly to the 26 donoms of her family’s land that armoured Israeli bulldozers flattened recently.
The only evidence that an orchard once existed here is an uprooted orange tree, it fruits withering on the branches. The tree lies in the shadow of a large sign that declares: “These trees were donated to the people of Bait Hanun by USAID. Please take care of them!”
Like Um Muhammad’s family plot, tens of thousands of donoms of farmland on which stood an estimated total of 42, 000 trees were razed since Israeli forces began a 37-day siege of Bait Hanun in early July, turning Gaza’s traditional breadbasket into little more than barren land.
Their stated aim: Stopping Qassam rockets from being fired into Israel after the home-made missiles claimed their first Israeli fatalities – in the southern city of Sderot.
Israeli troops have since withdrawn, but they have left behind a devastated village. In addition to the untold agricultural toll, roads have been ripped out; factories, wells and homes destroyed; and sewerage and water-supply systems wrecked.
The idea, said an Israeli army spokesperson, was to put pressure on Palestinian fighters. The more rockets you fire, the more land we destroy, the more residents of Bait Hanun will resent you, the theory went.
The collective punishment policy
It was a strategy that by the Israeli intelligence community’s own admission, failed to deliver.
A day before redeploying from Bait Hanun, Israeli commanders conceded they had not managed to stop the Qassams from being fired. Forty of them were launched despite the military crackdown, they said.
The Qassam is a simple, short-range steel rocket filled with homemade explosives and developed by Hamas during al-Aqsa Intifada. It lacks a guidance system and is thus wildly inaccurate.
Yet it is precisely the device’s primitive quality – that it is so easy to prepare and launch but difficult to locate with radar or satellite – that has had the Israeli army struggling to find a way to stop it. Resistance fighters typically set up the rocket and leave the site in less than a minute, witnesses say.
None the less, a debate is taking place in Palestinian circles around the wisdom of using Qassam rockets.
Hamas leaders insist they have a right to defend themselves, and this means using any and every means of resistance at their disposal, including Qassam rockets, “until Israel stops its aggression against the Palestinians”. Only then, said a spokesperson for the movement, will they review their long-held position.
But Palestinian critics of the Hamas strategy say the rockets are simply not worth the trouble they invite in the form of Israeli collective punishment.
In addition to their inaccuracy, the crude missiles cost some $1000 apiece to put together – by Hamas military sources’ own estimate.
“Shooting rockets from Bait Hanun creates an excuse for a new occupation … . The Palestinian interest is more important”
Palestinian Interior Minister Hakam Balawi
“Some of the means of resistance need to be reconsidered in light of their effects on our people. We need to keep in mind the overall goal and benefit of our nation and country,” Marwan Kanafani, an MP, said at a recent gathering of the Palestinian Legislative Council’s political committee, which was asked to draw up a report on the political chaos in Gaza.
In addition to cost and accuracy disadvantages, the Qassams provide the Israeli army with the pretext they need to reoccupy Palestinian towns, the committee concluded.
“Shooting rockets from Bait Hanun creates an excuse for a new occupation and the citizenry is helpless. There is no vision or purpose to the missiles; the Palestinian interest is more important,” said Palestinian Interior Minister Hakam Balawi in his testimony to the committee.
The report stressed the legal right of the Palestinian people to resist occupation of their lands within the 1967 borders, but called for an end to the Qassam attacks as well as resistance operations inside Israel.
Last but not least, the rockets are controversial because they are often aimed at targets beyond the “Green Line” marking the border of the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
From their vantage point in the makeshift barracks in an open field in the northern Gaza Strip, members of the Palestinian Preventive Security Force have their own views on the Qassam question.
They are required by the Palestinian Authority – under pressure from the Israelis – to stop any fighters they see firing the rockets at Israeli targets. So far, they haven’t had to.
Uprooted orange trees testify to
But Abu al-Nimr, chief of his unit, spoke in a very matter-of-fact way about the Qassam. “Our rockets cost more than $1000,” he said. “They are more expensive than even a Tomahawk missile: our rockets cost thousands of donoms of land.”
One of his subordinate added: “I’m for political resistance over military resistance.”
“We have to try and find alternative solutions – solutions that work,” he said.
While the costs and gains of Qassam attacks are debated at the political and administrative levels, on the ground residents of Bait Hanun say the time for debate is over – the damage has already been done.
Abo Awad lives in al-Farata, a small elevated area in the northeastern edge of Bait Hanun that bore the brunt of the Israeli siege. He was unable to leave his house for 37 days at a stretch, a period during which he was totally dependent on the ICRC for drinking water and food supplies.
One of Abo Awad’s sons points nervously to Israeli tanks that still surround the village – even if from a distance and partially camouflaged under a sand bunker. Somewhere overhead an Israeli drone whirs menacingly.
A rocket attack on an Israeli city
The Negev city of Sderot – the place where Qassam rockets claimed their first Israeli victims and which Abo Awad remembers as the Palestinian village of Najd according – is visible on the horizon. Apache helicopters can be seen hovering overhead the colony.
Abo Awad is undeniably bitter, but his quarrel apparently is not with Palestinian fighters. “The Qassam rockets aren’t the main reason for Israeli raids. That’s just the excuse they needed to justify it,” he says.
Abo Awad said Palestinian fighters had not fired a single rocket from his farmland and yet some 150 donoms belonging to him were completely destroyed by Israeli forces. Not even the water well was spared, he said.
“Life has no taste anymore after what [the Israeli army] has done to my land. Before, I might have opposed the firing of the Qassam rockets. But now, what’s left to cry about? It’s all gone,” he said before pausing to take a deep breath.
Abo Awad’s verdict on the Qassam issue is echoed by many Bait Hanun’s residents: If the Israeli army’s strategy is to deter Palestinian fighters or pit residents against them, their plan has backfired.
Abo Fahd said he has lost some 18 donoms (“my little bit of heaven on earth”) to Israeli bulldozers.
He says it’s only natural for any resident of Bait Hanun not to want their land to be used as Qassam launch pads.
Rich farmlands have been turned
“But now it makes no difference, I will personally invite the fighters to fire the missiles from my house. You see, the Israelis made the mistake of collective punishment,” said Abo Fahd as he stood under the shade of a banana tree that had somehow escaped the Israeli onslaught.
The Bait Hanun farmer believes the Israeli army’s true goal is to cripple the Palestinian economy through destruction of its agricultural sector.
“They know that it will take years to re-harvest Bait Hanun. It will most likely turn from an farming village to a residential area. This is their goal – not stopping Qassam rockets,” Abo Fahd said.
He said differences between Hamas fighters and residents over proximity of rocket-launch sites to houses, usually get settled through compromise.
Abo Fahd’s description of the situation was backed by the widow of a Hamas fighter killed at the outset of the Israeli military operation.
She said if neighbours ever had a problem with her husband’s selection of a rocket or a mine site, he would promptly move away in deference to their wishes.
Granted not all resistance fighters are so cooperative, but for their part most Bait Hanun residents seem willing to face the consequences in the form of Israeli military retribution.
“We can’t always say ‘no’ to them. It’s a resistance after all, and we are willing to sacrifice for the greater Palestinian cause,” said one farmer, standing in the middle of what until recently were lush citrus groves.
‘We accept the reality,’ says Um
Um Muhammad, whose family’s 26 donoms are now littered with flattened orchards, takes a slightly more nuanced position.
“I want them to continue firing Qassams, and so do most residents here. You should see the way they cheer and whistle when one goes up,” she said.
“Of course I would prefer if they did from outside Bait Hanun, but what can we do? We accept the reality of our situation: We are under occupation.
“In a strategic sense, the [Qassam] rockets are now the only thing we have going for us.”
Um Muhammad explained her point using an old Palestinian saying: “Even if they don’t hit their target, at least they cause a big racket.”