“The first word that two of my sons, Wisam and Aser, said when they learned to speak was kahraba. It means ‘electricity’ in Arabic. Before they said ‘mom’ or ‘dad,’ they said ‘electricity.’ Because there is never any electricity there.”
Sharif Hamad is a young Palestinian from Beit Hanoun, a city in the north of the Gaza Strip, which finds itself constantly in the crosshairs of the Israeli army at every military offensive: it is the gateway to the Palestinian enclave.
The story of Sharif’s family is the story of Gaza itself: people, not just numbers. They have rebuilt their home twice since 2012. The first one was destroyed in 2014, in Operation Protective Edge. Then, they had to go on a tortuous road of obtaining permits, a grueling journey through the reconstruction system invented by the UN and the Middle East envoy Robert Serry, through attempts to get some of the little cement that Israel allowed to enter. “With my brother Raed,” Sharif recounts, “we used to collect materials from the rubble of the destroyed houses, whatever was usable. And we would clean them up.”
In 2016, their new house was ready: the times when their parents’ house was being used as an outpost by the Israeli army seemed long gone. “In 2005 [before the withdrawal of Israeli soldiers and settlers from Gaza], the Israeli military would always enter Beit Hanoun. Even in our house: it was high up and they used it as a lookout post.”
But the new home, “the place where one should feel the safest,” barely lasted five years. On May 19, 2021, an Israeli missile tore through it. The next day, a ceasefire between Tel Aviv and Hamas would be announced, after eleven days of the Israeli military operation that killed 248 Palestinians, including 66 children. Raed was among those 248 bodies.
Sharif, who has been in Italy since 2017, studying for a degree in Public and Cultural Diplomacy in Siena, received the first message from Gaza shortly afterwards. He was told that his house had caught fire and that Raed was dead. There was no word about the rest of the family. “Then I learned that my youngest son, Aser, was in the hospital. He is two years and eight months old.”
Only later did he manage to reconstruct what had happened: “On the day of the attack, Raed was at home with my mother, my sister, my wife Byader and our four children. My father was at my brother Wisam’s place, he insisted that the others should go to him: it was less dangerous, he said. I called them just before it happened, they were fine. Raed was lying on a mattress, resting: ‘I don’t sleep at night. I can’t sleep because if there is an attack, I have to be ready to take everyone and run away,’ he had told me.”
“The children were playing, my mother was in the living room and my wife was with Aser. Raed got up to open the window. At that moment, the missile struck. Byader protected Aser with her body. The house caught fire. Through the smoke, they managed to make it out. Raed didn’t. Not even his shoes were left of him. There are only the photos that his friends keep posting: there isn’t even one in which he’s not smiling.”
Because Raed was like that: he was an optimist. One of Gaza’s youth, which after 15 years of siege is losing even the will to dream, Raed still kept coming up with projects to attain happiness: “He opened an ice-cream shop, but he lost everything when the Israelis destroyed it in 2009. Then he opened a bakery, which was also hit. He tried to open a coffee shop near Al-Quds University: he served students coffee, tea, hookahs. After a year, after he managed to pay back the debts, the Hamas government bulldozed it. They said it was built on government land. In 2012, he launched a second-hand clothes store from Europe, but after six months Hamas blocked imports.”
He changed the merchandise and began selling different clothing. He managed to buy a car and save money for his wedding to his fiancée, Rim. And he took care of Sharif’s large family and children. Now, there’s a house to rebuild and wounds to heal. “Raed’s death changed everything. Over the years, I’ve tried to build a life outside for my children and family, for Raed too, who had never been out of Gaza. I feel an enormous void – I see him everywhere.”
Sharif is at work, and he intends to bring his family to Italy: Byader and his four children, Sham, 9, Wisam, 7, born in the middle of Operation Protective Edge in August 2014, Wana, 4, and Aser, the youngest, born when his father was already in Italy (“I’ve never seen him, I’ve never hugged him”).
For years, he has been telling them to leave and join him in Siena; but they always refused, they preferred staying in Gaza. “Now they are asking me to take them away from there, they don’t want to enter the house where they saw their uncle killed anymore. They tell me this again and again on every phone call. I have a job and I’m preparing the papers for family reunification, but you need an income of €15,000 per year. I can’t wait any longer: I’m afraid that ceasefire is very fragile.”