For me, it began with excitement. As I leapt from my bed, I shouted to my mother, “It’s my birthday! It’s my 11th birthday! You have to buy me a cake!”
My mum hugged me, saying “How about having a little party?”
“Yeah, Mum, that will be grand!” I was practically jumping up and down.
My mother went to the other room and brought a piece of paper and a pen so we could make a list of supplies to buy: party hats, balloons, streamers and candles.
But first, I had to go to school.
“By the time you come back, the house will be all ready for the party,” my mother reassured me.
I went downstairs to fetch my cousin, Taha, whose family lives on the first floor of our building. He’s same age I am, and we always walked to school together. The school was quite far from our house, so we passed the time chatting, running after each other and laughing.
Just before we reached the school gate, we heard loud, very frightening noises. I thought perhaps it was a crash of thunder, since it was a cloudy day. The noise kept rolling, becoming louder and louder. “It should be raining,” I remember wondering distractedly. We rushed into school and found a student clinging to a teacher’s shirt and wailing. Another one hid in a corner, just few meters from the school door, hugging both knees to his head as if he was trying to shrink into a ball.
When I found my two best friends, Kamel and Ihab, we laughed until we cried, thinking the other students were scared of thunder. Then the headmaster’s voice echoed across the school through a microphone: “Every student must go back home immediately. Today is a day off.”
Still not understanding the situation, I was elated. What kid wouldn’t be happy to skip school on his birthday? I looked for my cousin but couldn’t find him. I ran the whole way home alone.
I found everyone in my family, including my cousin, sitting in front of the TV. Most odd! They were watching Al-Aqsa News, one of the most popular local channels, and I remember the correspondent saying, “Various civilian locations have been struck by the Israeli Air Force.”
As soon as my mum saw me, she grabbled me, looked me straight in the eyes and said,“Tareq, thank God you are here.”
“What’s going on, Mum?” I asked in bewilderment.
She replied brusquely, “There’s a war. I’ve called your father and told him he must come home.”
I thought, “What is war? Whatever it is, today is my birthday!”
I heard my father’s phone ringing (my mother calling) as he opened our door. The first thing he did was to anxiously ask whether my brothers and sisters were home.
I pulled on my mother’s dress, asking, “Have you got the birthday things?” Mum whispered in my ear, “Not now, Tareq! There’s a war on; we can’t party now.”
My birthday was being upstaged by this “war.” I still didn’t understand what that meant.
Living in Gaza for the next 22 days stole that innocence, however. The intensive assault that Israel called Operation Cast Lead seemed designed to destroy childhood optimism. For me, that moment came on the sixth day.
I was watching news on TV that night with my family. The sound of bombing was uncomfortably close. Then, suddenly, a huge explosion erupted; it felt as if our house was literally shaking. We rushed into the street and saw that the roof of our neighbor’s house had been hit. I learned later that this first blow was what Israel calls a “warning missile”—supposedly designed to cause just minor damage, giving the occupants time to escape before a more massive attack. We joined with others in the neighborhood, trying to help everyone in the house flee. But we couldn’t work fast enough. When the second strike came, three of my neighobrs were still inside. A child and his uncle were killed, and another member of their family lost both legs.
That night, I was still a child, but now had an “old soul.”
Footnote from a U.S. Congressional Research Service paper published February 2009:
Israel’s military achievements during the conflict were made at minimal physical cost to itself: 13 dead (four of whom were civilians and five of whom were soldiers killed by friendly fire). Palestinian casualties, according to the United Nations, included over 1,400 dead and roughly 5,400 injured, plus huge infrastructure and physical losses.