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Selma Cook

  

gazaUmm Anas Huggi accepted Islam in the United States over 25 years ago. She married a Palestinian hoping to improve her knowledge and understanding of the religion. They have seven children and she and her children have lived in the Emirates and the US, as well as in Gaza from 2005 to 2008. She is now settled in Egypt but in the recent air strikes on Palestine, sadly, two of her brother-in-laws were killed. Also, many of her neighbours in Zeitoon were killed and her house in Zeitoon was partially destroyed but used by Israeli forces.

 

Visit to Gaza

Umm Anas first went to Gaza to visit relatives in the late 1990s. At that time her oldest son was twelve and the youngest was two. She remembers, “We went for six weeks and it was peaceful then. We did not feel the violence.” At that time, Israel still had several settlements in Gaza. “The Israelis would go into Gaza and get medical treatment from Palestinian doctors. One Israeli woman told me that she goes into Gaza because the best dentist she knows is there,” recalls Umm Anas.

Under normal circumstances the Palestinians deal with the Israelis as customers in their shops and clinics and treat them well. There would only be animosity if the person had a gun or showed signs of violence.

 

What spurred off the violence? Umm Anas comments, “People develop hard feelings when they lose family members, or their farms get bull-dozed and destroyed.”

After her first visit to Gaza she and her children went to the Emirates, then back to the States. Her husband had settled in Canada and she decided to go to Gaza and stay for some time. “We went back to Gaza in 2005 because my mother-in-law was old and sick and needed help. She was asking for me. She loved me very much and I loved her. The Israeli settlement was still there for the first six months after we arrived,” she says.

 

Umm Anas also thought Palestine would be more Islamic for her children than life in the States. She notes, “It was more Islamic because we could hear the call to prayer. The kids prayed more readily and it was a more spiritually motivating environment despite all the obvious problems. Also, the Palestinians are pleasant and respectful. They treat people with good manners, greet each other, help each other, and Gaza has a religious feel to it. Neighbors are good to each other and you feel you are being respected.” Umm Anas never felt afraid walking at night or letting the children play outside unless there was threat of air strikes or faction fighting. Under normal circumstances Gaza was a safe place to be.

 

American and in Gaza

The people of Gaza are not really exposed to Western culture and young children rarely see foreigners except perhaps for people working at NGOs and the United Nations. Umm Anas says, “As an American, the younger children were amazed when they saw us and wanted to talk to us because they do not see many foreigners. They were intrigued by us. They would wave and call us ‘Ameriki’. It was not just because I am a Muslim, they treat non-Muslims well too. People from NGOs I used to work with were always saying how they are treated with hospitality and warmth.” Many Palestinians welcome change and hope for a brighter future but so often things falls apart.

 

 
Is Peace Possible?

There are some elements of Palestinian society that are hopeful there will be a resolution but not everyone thinks like that. Umm Anas comments, “Hamas, Jihad Islamiya and other staunch groups only see what is revealed in the Qur’an as their hope. They see that at the end of the world, near the Day of Judgment, there will be the Armageddon and ultimate peace. They do not see that it is possible to achieve peace with Israel before that. There may be periods of peace and calm but they are transitory.”

 

However, other elements of Palestinian society see things differently. They hope for a truce and calm so they can rebuild their lives. Gaza is potentially a prosperous place but unless they organize themselves and have one national identity – instead of several splinter groups – they will not achieve it. Umm Anas comments, “They are determined to fight to the bitter end. These people have suffered great losses. They lost farmlands, family members and many have been crippled because of injuries. They only see the bad that has happened in their life so they put it in their mind that there is nothing else to lose.”

 

When asked what message she would like to give to the Palestinian people, Umm Anas says, “I’d like to tell them to unite and become one nation, not this broken thing we have now. I wish they seek a peaceful life so they can have a semblance of peace for their children. I would like to see them have their own government even if it is under Israel but I must say that I am afraid of that. They need to let their children be children and enjoy their innocence. They need some peace for their children, even if it means compromise.”

 

Current Crisis

Israel destroyed the settlement and moved their people out. This set up the situation that currently exists. With Palestinians herded in Gaza, Israel does not have to worry about hurting their own people. Umm Anas remarks, “We are like fish in a barrel, so Israel does not have to worry about hurting their own people. Only Palestinians will get hurt now.”

 

During the first peaceful six months in Gaza in 2005, Umm Anas and her children were enjoying their time with the family, sitting in the farm and eating fruit grown on their own trees. Then after the Israeli settlement was dismantled and emptied, there were hostilities on both sides and it escalated. The Palestinians were throwing rockets and the Israelis were bull-dozing farms. “It was hard to know which came first, the bull-dozing or the rockets. Tensions were rising, and there were several air strikes and then there was a truce. We stayed inside during the air strikes. The air strikes would last one or two days hitting several targets then they would do several flyovers. We would always try to stay inside. One time, I was working on the eighth floor teaching a class of women and Israeli soldiers did this sonic boom with their jets. This frightened everyone and the glass blew in. Lots of women in Gaza had miscarriages because of the stress, anxiety and shock. These booms were a new terror tactic that did not involve missiles. They did this for about three months then finally stopped because of international pressure,” recalls Umm Anas.

 

In the beginning of 2006, Hamas came into power and this was a time of celebration for many people in Gaza. They thought there would be a lot of changes. Umm Anas remarks, “Hamas has a reputation for helping people, providing doctors, building schools, and helping the poor. Then the faction fighting began between Hamas, Jihad Islamiya and Fatah. The whole year was on and off, first there was faction fighting with Islamic groups trying to round up people to support them. I was worried about my teenage boys and kept them busy with school or got them busy building our house on the farm. They went to work with their uncle who taught them welding and other skills. We always tried our best to keep them busy during the hostilities.”

 

Umm Anas notes that they were more nervous about Israeli attacks and that although during the faction fighting they may be hurt by a stray bullet, this was nothing compared to Israeli attacks as they have more sophisticated weapons and do not hesitate to use them on anyone – young or old. “When we used to hear the planes coming, we would count to ten and then ultimately hear the bombs drop. Even now in Cairo when we hear planes flying over we feel afraid,” observes Umm Anas.

 

Could Have Left

 

“I could have left but I was stuck there,” says Umm Asas. She had her American passport but the children’s passports were with her mother-in-law in her safety deposit box and her husband would not let her take them back. He was in Canada. The US embassy in Jerusalem could not help as they needed her husband’s signature and he refused to give it. Her mother-in-law passed away in January 2008 and she hoped that then they would have the passports but this did not happen. Umm Anas recalls, “Hamas broke the border between Egypt, Gaza and Rafah and they did major damage to it. This was our chance. The American embassy in Jerusalem advised us to try to get to Cairo.” She prepared her children. They had two bags and a blanket. She recalls, “We wanted to run through the role in the wall but it was too muddy to run! The hole in the wall was so huge. Hamas kept bombing in down. You have to admire their determination. If someone stopped up a place in the wall, they would just bomb down another place.”

 

At the edge of the wall, the family saw an Egyptian taxi and the driver was trying to get his car out of the mud. He lived in Rafah on the Egyptian side and they asked him to help them. He said that if they help him get his car out of the mud, he would drive them to Cairo. “The boys got his car out of the mud and he kept his word and stayed with us through all the check points until we got to Cairo,” remembers Umm Anas.

 

At the first check point the family had to turn around and go back to Rafah. They went to the police station where they were treated decently. They had to do a lot of paper work because the children did not have passports. There were many border crossings on the way to Cairo. “It was a hassle,” recalls Umm Anas. The first low- level officer would take the paper to a higher level and so on and each border crossing took a lot of time. The fastest time they got through was about two and a half hours. The last one took over six hours. “We were treated nicely but had to stay in the taxi and were not allowed to get out of the car or talk. After the third check point we called the US embassy in Cairo. We were worried because at each border crossing a decision would be made whether or not we could continue our journey or have to go back,” says Umm Anas. She did not talk because as a white American woman it might complicate things. Eventually the family arrived safely in Cairo and managed to settle there.

 

Killer Air Strike

Umm Anas and her children did not find out about the recent air strike until they received a call from the son of her brother-in-law who lives in Cairo. He had received a call from Gaza saying that one of her husband’s brothers had been killed by shrapnel near the Red Crescent hospital in Gaza during the recent killer air strikes. Normaan Huggi had been visiting his brother who was dying of cancer at that time and went out to get some pain medicine for him from the chemist. On his way a missile fell and he was killed. Then on December 29, 2008 another missile hit the hospital where the other brother was, and he died. Umm Anas remarks, “The Israelis are even bombing hospitals! And they bomb when the children are being let out of school – children walking in the streets. All this is planned for high casualties.”

 

Normaan Huggi was 53 when he died. “My brother-in-law helped us a lot when we were in Gaza. In the beginning he helped us build our house which was near his. He would bring us fruit from his trees and we would sit and have tea on his front porch and the children would play,” recalls Umm Anas. He has a wife in Gaza and she is expecting a baby in spring. “Her children are small and she will not be able to work the farm alone so we are worried about her,” says Umm Anas.

 

When the family left Gaza and came to Egypt, Normaan Huggi would call to see if they were ok. “He wanted to help us but he was poor and had nothing to give. I asked the Rafah border people to let him get through but they would not let him. They do not usually let adult males through the border either way,” says Umm Anas.

 

The Future?

With both brothers now dead, the family does not have anyone to help them.

“I’m planning to go back to Gaza for a visit as soon as things settle down,” says Umm Anas. “I’ll go with my older son. I need to see if I can do anything to help, even if it is giving some blood. I want to help my sister-in-law and try to settle her somehow and get her some aid through the agencies. Normaan was never a rich man. He was hard-working and generous with what he had but he did not have anything to support this family except his farm and she can not work it as she is.”  

 
While speaking to her sister-in-law in Gaza for a few minutes, she counted six bombs.

 Inspirational