by Chris McGreal | 4 October 2005 | The Guardian
The first soldiers to arrive on Khalil Bashir's doorstep in Gaza five years ago explained the new geography of his home in terms he understood only too well. His three-storey house was to be like the West Bank, the Israeli officer said, with its areas of divided security and administrative control.
The army designated the living room as "Area A", after the part of the occupied territories where the Palestinians have control, and told all three generations of the Bashirs, from 81-year-old Zanah to her five-year-old granddaughter, that they were confined there for most nights and sometimes for much of the day. It was the only part of the house they could still call their own.
The bathroom, kitchen and bedrooms were "Area B", where Palestinians administer themselves but Israel has security control. In the Bashir home that meant soldiers had priority and the family had to ask permission to cook or go to the toilet.
And then came "Area C", where the Israeli military government runs everything and the Palestinians have no authority. The soldiers warned the Bashirs that all of their home above the ground floor was Area C and if they ventured up the stairs they would be shot.
The Israeli army then set up a machine gun post on the terraced roof facing into Gaza's Deir al-Balah neighbourhood, surrounded it with sandbags, barbed wire and camouflage netting, and took over the lives of Khalil and Suad Bashir and their eight children.
"Occupation is getting up in the morning to make tea and finding a soldier in your kitchen making coffee," said Mrs Bashir. "Occupation is when I wanted to go to the toilet, a soldier had to go with me. I wasn't allowed in my bedroom. I looked in on my way to the toilet one day and there was a soldier with no clothes on in my bed. Occupation is your son walking around with a bullet in his back even after the soldiers have gone."
The day the soldiers moved in to Mr Bashir's house he vowed that no matter what they threw at him, he would not hate; his energies would go into trying to understand and, in his words, love the Israelis. Mr Bashir, a headmaster, began by leading hundreds of his pupils in a chant for peace each morning.
"I witnessed three wars and two intifadas and now I'm thinking of my children's future," he said. "I don't want them to see war and the only way to prevent that is to overcome the mountain of suspicion. We are destined to live together with the Israelis. We have to change our mentality. If we let our wounded memory guide our future steps we will have only pain."
There has been much to test Mr Bashir's resolve over the past five years. The military tried to prise the family out of the house. It made a wasteland of the greenhouses and fruit orchards, including 170 palm trees, that provided their relative wealth. Soldiers wounded Mr Bashir with a mortar and shot and injured two of his sons, leaving one with a bullet lodged next to his spine and in danger of paralysis. They also killed the family donkey.
For the last few weeks until the Israelis finally left Gaza last month, the family was confined to the living room day and night while the army prepared for the withdrawal. Even the children had to knock on the door for permission to go to the toilet.
It all happened because the Bashir home had the misfortune of being 20 metres from the Jewish settlement of Kfar Darom, an outpost of religious Israelis. When the Israeli soldiers arrived during the first few weeks of the intifada, they wanted the family to leave the house altogether. But the Palestinians learnt during Israel's 1948 independence war that if they abandoned property the Israelis would take it or destroy it.
"This place is the cradle of my childhood," Mr Bashir said. "I don't want to commit the mistake my people made in 1948. I don't want to be a refugee."
At first he thought that being confined with the soldiers would provide an opportunity to break down the suspicion and persuade them that there were Palestinians who believed in peace and coexistence. But he found them unwilling to listen, or under orders not to. "They behaved professionally but they didn't leave room for human contact. Their orders were not to be friendly with us," he said. Mr Bashir was regularly forced to strip to his underwear on his own doorstep before entering the house, often in front of his children.
In November Mr Bashir's mother, Zanah, died. The family wanted to adhere to religious rituals of washing the body and watching over it for three days. "The soldiers told us to get the body out of the house immediately. I said I would rather die than do that," he said. The army gave ground.
All the time, Mr Bashir preached understanding - even when it generated the suspicion of armed groups such as Hamas. Then last year a soldier on Mr Bashir's roof shot his 15-year-old son, Yusuf, as the pair waved goodbye to a United Nations team that had come to check on their welfare.
Another son, Yazen, had been shot in the leg in 2000 by a soldier while collecting water to douse a fire in the garden caused by an army flare. That injury was not life threatening; the bullet that struck Yusuf in the back was far more dangerous. It lodged close to his spine and left him unable to walk for a year. Doctors have told him not to do even moderate exercise because the bullet could shift and damage his spinal column, so Yusuf's parents won't let him play sport or swim in the sea.
"This is what occupation has left us: a bullet in my son's back," Mrs Bashir said. "If we try to remove it, it could paralyse him. But the doctors say that if they leave it there, in a few years it is going to do more damage. It is like a timebomb from the occupation."
The Israeli army has admitted responsibility for shooting Yusuf, although it has yet to explain why the officer, a captain, fired. Yusuf says he emerged without bitterness after receiving treatment in an Israeli hospital. "I have to divide the Israelis [into] the soldier and the citizen," he said. "The citizens gave me the medical care in Israel. The soldiers just obey the orders. It was just one person who made me suffer but many many of the same people, the Israeli people, gave me my life back.
"I spent a long time of my life with the soldiers. Before they shot me I used to regard them as nothing, as not important to me. I used to feel about them as something that wouldn't hurt me but after I was shot I started to think about what I can do to make sure I was the last one who was shot."
Yusuf travelled to the US with Seeds of Peace, an organisation that brings young Israelis and Palestinians together to try to humanise them in the each other's eyes.
Last month, after the soldiers hauled off the machine guns and finally drove away, Mr Bashir ventured up the stairs of his home for the first time in five years. What he found was a relatively small thing compared with the shootings of his sons and the destruction of his orchards, but it left him flummoxed for the first time since the soldiers arrived: placed around the walls were the Bashirs' cooking pots, each with a pile of human excrement in the bottom.
"The moralistic army used our cooking pots as lavatories," Mr Bashir said. "They dominate my bathroom and they use the toilet all the time. So why did they behave in this way? They used our cooking pots and they left them behind deliberately. They gathered everything, even empty bottles, sandbags and took it with them. But they left this as a souvenir."
Mr Bashir grappled to understand and reluctantly concluded that it could only be explained as a deliberate and provocative mocking of everything the soldiers knew he stood for.
"I am not angry. I am disappointed." he said. "I am disappointed because I didn't expect the Israeli army to behave in this way. I used to tell my friends that in spite of everything, the Israeli army is civilised. I really have to think about that now."