Gaza diary: Bombardment escalates – and my departure

Manahan describes his final night in Gaza and his departure from the bombarded territory.

Gaza after Israeli air strike
Drones delivered their mortal payloads, while "the Merkavas punched the sky with their lethal projectiles" [EPA]

Israel and Hamas may have agreed to a ceasefire that brought eight days of fierce fighting between Gaza and Israel to an end, but the tension the deadly attacks created, the damage and destruction it brought, will keep reminding the world about the wrath incurred on the people of Gaza. The attacks killed more than 160 Palestinians, including dozens of civilians, while injuring hundreds of others. Greg Manahan, an Irish peace activist, recounts his time spent in Gaza – from arriving shortly before the assassination of Ahmed Jabari to his departure after Israel’s assault was in full swing.

In part 1 of a three-part series, Manahan arrived in Gaza to do a film about an Irish ship attacked by Israel and went on to explore ordinary life and civil society in the small territory – shortly before Israel launched its Operation “Pillar of Defence”.

In part 2, Manahan went to hospitals and met people critically injured by Israel’s bombing machines. He saw hospitals lacking sufficient beds and equipment, medicines, medical disposables, and specialist expertise to cope up with the situation.

In this final and concluding part, Manahan spends his last terrifying night in Gaza as the Israeli bombardment escalated. He leaves Gaza. On the way, children give him “jagged, twisted and razor sharp” pieces shrapnel as “a gift from Israel”. He arrives in Egypt before finally returning to Dublin, Ireland.  

My host, Rizq, had assumed that the IDF would not invade. Nonetheless, we had a terrifying night – and in the morning, I knew, with very mixed feelings, that I would have to flee a situation that was, for my loved ones at home, far too dangerous to sustain. 

I started to pack at night as explosions continued to thunder outside. I was going home. At this stage, there were very significant thumps in the area. I discovered a scale for measuring the proximity of large bombs, CRUMP was in the distance, THUMP was within a few miles and BAAM was in the neighbourhood. Up until now, it was CRUMPs and THUMPs. 

Rizq was using my laptop to talk to a friend in Dublin, as I was gazing through the window to the fields at the far side of the olive groves in front of the house, when an enormous pillar of fire leapt from where I was looking. “Watch out!” I shouted as I covered my ears. BAAAAAAM. The entire building shook so hard that I thought the roof might come in. This was going to be a long night. 

Long sleepless night

In between bombs being dropped, I could hear the Merkava tanks once again manoeuvring. Was this the land force about to invade? My question was answered very quickly. Four of them opened fire one after the other. The rounds landed behind the houses we were in. 

After that, the Israelis arrived in a familiar pattern of terror. First the drone, the soft sound of a small propeller aircraft, then in the distance, the tearing sound of the F-16s. When I hear this at home, it’s “Are Lingus or Ryanair peacefully delivering passengers to their desired destination?” But in Gaza, noise of jet aircraft only delivers death and destruction. I braced myself. 

At about 11.30pm, we decided to attempt to sleep, but it was pointless. The drones and F-16s kept coming to deliver their mortal payloads. The Merkavas punched the night sky with their lethal projectiles. Fintan Lane and Zoe Lawlor, both on the MV Saoirse, sent me encouraging messages on Facebook and SMSes that helped to calm my fraying nerves. Sometime in the early hours of the morning, there was a lull in the assault. I took that peaceful opportunity to go to the toilet and texted Zoe that things were quiet. Within a minute, BAAAM. Rizq shot bolt upright in his bed.  

My strategy to try to sleep was to put in my noise reducing headphones and activating my white noise app. Great if there is a lot of ambient noise. It didn’t keep out the closer explosions, but at least I didn’t need to listen to and anticipate Israel’s aerial killers. Yet, every time I started to slip into sleep, my body would give a shot of adrenaline. My fight or flight mechanism was keeping me awake. 

At 4am, the call for prayer from the mosques rang through the air. There was something reassuring about this. The imams were going to work and it was a human voice. When daylight finally arrived, Rizq asked me to get ready and told me that he would be back in an hour to organise my departure. I took the time to have a shower and do some final packing. Jehad, my translator in the Abu Ridah family when Rizq wasn’t around, called up to invite me to breakfast.   

When I arrived into the living room for breakfast, there was an elderly man in the room with us. Abdul Faleem had seen me walking through the streets the evening before and wanted to meet me before I left. Rizq came back and had a brief chat with Faleem in Arabic. “I know you have packed your camera, but I think you should film this man,” he explained. Very quickly, I pulled out the essential kit to conduct an interview. 

His story was all too familiar. Two of his sons were in an Israeli prison, while the third, who worked for the old Israeli administration in Gaza, was shot dead by an Israeli soldier when walking home from work. 

‘A gift from Israel’

We said our goodbyes and walked out into a beautiful morning soiled by the sound of Merkava tanks spitting carnage across the border. 

One of the family members pulled up the car and we made our way, passed the sites of some the previous night’s explosions. Abu Omar, the jolly imam, greeted us there with the usual throng of inquisitive kids. They started handing me pieces of jagged metal. Abu Omar said “a gift from Israel”. This was shrapnel. Jagged, twisted and razor sharp, the idea that this making contact with living human flesh at very high velocity sent a chill down my spine. 

As we got into the car, I could hear sustained tank fire and then rockets being launched. A battle had commenced. The journey from Khuzaa to Rafah only took 20 minutes, but I was praying that the border crossing was still open. The thumping was still going on to the east of Rafah. There was a queue of perhaps 200 people, but an official came out and said, “Give me your passport, I will get you through quickly.” 

I was told to put my bags onto a coach that got us up to the main terminal building. After getting my passport stamped, the senior border officer told me to get onto the next coach crossing the frontier. He had jumped me ahead of the queue. I was a bit uncomfortable with this, as I didn’t want the privilege over others. Yet, I was relieved.   

The bus moved about 20 metres and stopped at the frontier gateway. There was an open air coffee shop at the gate, so we disembarked. People drank coffee as the war raged outside. 

Finally, we got through to Egypt. The Egyptians were bureaucratic and slow. We had arrived at Rafah at 0930 GMT. It was 1245 GMT when I finally walked out to be met by my driver. There is a stark difference between the fertile Gaza Strip and walking out into the Sinai desert. But the sudden change was a welcome one. It takes six hours to cross the Sinai to Cairo, including a half-hour meal break. 

I was dropped at Cairo airport where I changed my flights. My first flight was at 0400 GMT. I was tired and smelly after a long journey, leaving Gaza. I booked a hotel in the airport to get some rest and clean-up. In the event of arriving at my hotel room, I was being bombarded by emails from activists and media in Dublin. More and more people were dying in Gaza and the US were supporting the Israelis, and the British and Irish media yet again were giving a skewed account of the destruction taking place. In the end, I said, “Enough is enough.” 

I lay down on the bed, put in my headphones and cleansed my soul with Joni Mitchel. Her parting words to me – as I thought about all the families left behind to face the danger – were: “I really don’t know life at all”. 

Greg Manahan is a Dublin-based filmmaker and human rights activist. He covers many stories in the Middle East and Europe. He was in the Gaza Strip to complete a documentary about the Irish ship to Gaza that was intercepted by Israeli Naval Special Forces in 2011. 

Follow him on Twitter: @GregFManahan