Gaza’s West Side Story: A Painful Account of an Unlikely Friendship and How Hamas Destroyed One Palestinian Family
On Wednesday afternoon, July 29, Hilel K waited for his wife outside the delivery room in Asaf Harofeh hospital. She had just given birth to a baby girl.
It had been a long night for Hilel. He had driven home to Lod at 5am after having had the misfortune of being in Eshkol at the exact time that the mortars fell the night before, killing four Israeli soldiers and wounding several others. A truck driver who immigrated from County Derry, Ireland, when he was 17, Hilel is no stranger to peril.
A few days back, on July 22nd, Hilel posted a personal account of his friendship with a Palestinian from Gaza on his Facebook profile. The post, in Hebrew, triggered hundreds of shares but also sparked vociferous reactions from right-wingers, left-wingers and Arabs from Israel and elsewhere.
This is Hilel’s chilling story:
* * *
I met Basim in Los Angeles. It was during a convention celebrating the 90th anniversary of Harley Davidson. I was wearing a shirt with Hebrew writing on it and I noticed somebody looking at me oddly.
I can’t remember exactly how we began to talking. When he told me his name was Basim I sensed an initial recoiling within me, but once we began to talk about motorcycles, our mutual passion, Basim opened up more and more.
He had come to California from Gaza. Shuja’iyya to be exact. He worked as a construction worker in Israel for years and saved up money to learn electronic engineering. He’d been in the US studying for two years. He told me he’d lived in Tel Aviv for a long time, working in construction and in restaurants. And as per the Israeli custom, Basim and I too, quickly figured out who our mutual acquaintances were.
Our friendship blossomed. We would meet up once in a while for a sandwich, because he didn’t drink. “It isn’t allowed!” he’d say, and I would sigh, accepting with disappointment, that a night out at the bar with Basim wasn’t possible.
A short while thereafter, he introduced me to Farah.
Farah came from a wealthy family in Bethlehem that had made its fortune from selling souvenirs to Christian tourists. They also owned a small hotel.
Farah studied in Birzeit [University in Ramallah] and had come to Berkley as part of a student exchange program. She was an exceptionally intelligent young woman. It was entertaining to watch Basim’s advances toward Farah.
Eventually I had to leave California and return to Israel. We stayed in touch on the phone. Basim was enthralled by the pre-Oslo-Accord atmosphere. “Your general Rabin is a real man. You’ll see. He’s destined to do something great here,” he’d say.
I was a skeptic and I told Basim let’s wait and see.
But he turned out to be right; the Oslo Accord was signed.
The following week, all excited, he called to tell me that his brother was coming to Israel with PLO personnel, and that he, Basim, was returning to Shuja’iyya.
“I have a surprise for you,” he said, “Farah and I have decided to get married. Her family were a little resistent, but Inshalla [God willing], it will all work out.” Sadly, I couldn’t attend the wedding.
Over the ensuing years, Basim told me about how Gaza was being built, and about Farah’s first pregnancy, about the large sums of money that her parents had given them to build their home, and about her family’s pleas that they leave Gaza and move to Bethlehem to live closer to them.
And then, the second Intifada began. I called Basim to see how he was doing. Ironically, I called him while I was in reserves service, standing in an armored personnel carrier and surveying Ramallah. His tone was decisively unfriendly: “That Sharon pig of yours has come to ruin everything.”
I didn’t know how to respond. I only asked that he take care of himself. He mumbled something vague and hung up.
Our conversations became less frequent. One day he told me that he had had it with the Palestinian Authority and its corruption. “They drive Mercedes’ and, you know, if we didn’t have money from Farah’s parents, we wouldn’t have anything to eat. I have been unemployed for six months and of course we can’t work in Israel. The SOBs are taking everything for themselves,” he complained bitterly. “But luckily, now there’s Hamas. And they will fix the corruption. I’m going to vote for them in the elections.”
I was upset. I told him that with all due respect, I didn’t trust them. They seemed frightening to me. Basim didn’t agree. “The Hamas are religious. Honest people, not like the pigs from the PA. Do you know how much they give to charity? Just here in Shuja’iyya, they renovated all of our elderly people’s homes.”
“Basim,” I said, “it won’t come without a price. They have an agenda.” We argued, and Basim went out to vote for Hamas.
In Hamas’s initial days in power, Basim told me about how they began to put everything in order. How they expelled criminals from Gaza (by “criminals” he meant Fatah members). And then the Qassam rockets began.
It was hard for me to speak to Basim while Hamas was firing at Sderot from his home city. I pointed out to him that there are civilians in Sderot, and he said: “What do you want? You guys are shooting at us too.”
Little by little the phone calls became more scarce. Usually, he was the one who would call. And then one day, after he I hadn’t heard from Basim for a long while, I decided to give him a call.
Although he wouldn’t admit it at first, he eventually told me that conditions were getting worse and worse, and that Hamas was beginning to establish a horrifying tyranny in Gaza. “No one is allowed to open their mouths,” he said in a painful whisper. One day he called me, really worried. His eldest son, Hadi, joined the Hamas youth. Basim had tried to prevent it, to no avail. He understood that the kids were being brainwashed, and he had no interest in his son becoming a Shahid (a martyr). “I invested a lot in this boy. I kept him far from the low-class youth we have here. He is a straight-A student at school. Why? Why does he want to go with them?”
Operation Cast Lead fell upon us out of nowhere. As always, when I spoke with Basim, I asked him to be careful. I told him that the IDF was going in to bulldoze Hamas. His reaction was: “Kulo min Allah (It is all from God).”
I was called up for reserve duty in Gaza. The zone I was positioned in was fairly removed from Shuja’iyya. I was in the neighborhood of Zaytun when I received a call from Basim. He sounded frightened. “Hamas is on the roof of my house,” he said in a terrified whisper, “and the Zionist tanks are shooting at everything here. A tank is going to come any second and slam a shell into my house.”
“Run away from there!” I told him, “Take Farah and the kids and run away, run away to Zaytun; it won’t be so bad there.”
“I’m scared,” Basim told me. “The Hamas guys told us that whoever runs away from the house will be declared a coward and will be sentenced… I can’t.” I tried to talk to people I knew. I didn’t even know which of the houses belonged to Basim, and the commanders in the zone couldn’t understand what the crazy reserves officer wanted from them. They couldn’t comprehend his incessant nagging about a house that could not be hit.
Operation Cast Lead ended and the phone conversations from Basim resumed. He began to tell me of the real Gaza – Hamas’s Gaza. People who had dared suggest that maybe something wasn’t right there were disappearing in the middle of the night. New laws that had people thrown into the two new prisons that Hamas had built for crimes like “adultery,” “treason”, and the gravest of all, “cooperation with America or the Zionist enemy.”
Basim spoke about how his eldest son was being forced to partake in shooting practice, about Hamas members who raped young girls who were then thrown in jail for adultery. Girls who walked around without head covering were being beaten up in the middle of the street. Members of Hamas were riding motorcycles, Land Rovers, and Mercedes that had been stolen from Israel, wielding clubs and pouncing on whomever they fancied, sometimes just beating them up for the hell of it.
During Operation Pillar of Defense, Basim’s house was hit, and his roof was ruined. I was despondent as he recounted to me how all of the gifts Farah’s parents had given them, like antique furniture and exquisite rugs, had been destroyed. Basim told me that he wanted to repair the house but that there was no cement. “Hamas has the cement”. And when I asked what Hamas was doing with so much cement, he remained silent.
He repaired his roof with planks and wavy tin.
“One day it will all be ok, inshalla, and I will fix the roof properly. The only cement available comes from the tunnels in Rafah, and it costs a fortune. But really soon, they say there will be more cement.”
The following week Farah called me. She spoke to me in English, as she always did, but this time her voice was laced with panic. “They took him,” she yelled into the phone. “They took Basim, they took my husband, what do they want from him? Allah knows. Basim’s father, Abu Faisel came over. He tried to stop them from taking him. They beat him with clubs. An 80-year-old man! I am afraid of what they will do to Basim… Sa’adini, ya Allah, Sa’adini! [Help me God, Help Me!]”
“What did they arrest him for?” I asked.
“They said that he is cooperating with the Americans and the Zionists. That he had been in the US and now he is trying to poison the youth… but I know the truth, it’s because he didn’t allow our son to participate in a Hamas youth activity. Ya Hilal (this was the way Farah referred to me), I am afraid!”
Basim was in Hamas’s hands for roughly 3 months and was released after the family raised enough money to grease the proper wheels. When Basim finally spoke to me, he sounded like an old man. His son, Hadi, has alienated himself from Basim. He called the latter a traitor and a “collaborator of the Zionists”.
“He doesn’t respect me anymore,” Basim told me, with great pain in his voice.
He was afraid that Widad, his 17-year-old daughter, would be taken by force. While Basim was in prison, Hamas police forces went to their home and confiscated all of Farah’s jewelry that had been earmarked as dowry for the girls. Farah called me herself one day, again, an unusual step for a Muslim woman.
“Basim would never tell you this himself,” she said, “but in prison he was beaten badly. His legs were broken and he is hardly able to function at all. In fact he is crippled and using a cane.”
About eleven days ago, I had my last conversation with Basim. I begged him to escape, it didn’t matter how. To Egypt, to anywhere. He laughed bitterly: “Hamas won’t ever let me leave. And the Egyptians are preventing passage into their area, other than urgent cases, which means not at all. Where can I go?”
Since that conversation I have been trying to contact Basim and Farah. I have had no success. They don’t answer the phone… and they do not respond to Facebook messages either. (Basim never accepted my friend request, he said he didn’t want any trouble.)
* * *
Hilel posted a call out to anyone with leads in Gaza who might be able to shed light on what became of Basim, Farah and their 5 children. But by the next day, he had his answer. This was the second Facebook post, dated July 23, 2014.
* * *
I hope you read my last post. Unfortunately, here I am writing the second part of the story today. A second part that I never imagined I would ever be writing. I had hoped for a happy ending. Throughout the night that passed since my previous post, I held onto the thought, the hope, that I would receive a phone call from Basim and Farah today and they would laugh at my fussing over them and would reassure me everything is alright. Unfortunately that isn’t what happened.
I received the phone call at just before 6pm this evening. I was in my truck. It was Farah. As I’ve mentioned, Muslim women don’t typically call men, so I knew she had important news.
News I desperately hoped I wouldn’t ever receive. Basim was killed the night before last.
A few of Hamas’s armed troopers stormed their home to shoot at the Jews from within it, and of course they forced its dwellers to remain inside.
It was difficult to catch everything Farah was saying, but eventually I understood that Basim had implored with the Hamas troopers for over an hour to allow Farah and the children to leave. Eventually they agreed, but Basim had to stay. An hour or two afterwards, a military bulldozer was sent to flatten the house with everyone in it
There was no way to retrieve Basim’s body from underneath the rubble or to know if he survived. Logic suggests he did not, but I still want to believe he did.
Farah fled to Rimal, to the home of Faissal, Basim’s brother.
Her son Hadi had fled and joined his friends in the Hamas brigades. A couple of days passed and Farah received word about Hadi from his friends. They told her that when they gave Hadi a Shahid’s (martyr) weapon, he had blood on him. And then the Hamas commanders sent Hadi to shoot at the Israeli soldiers.
When I close my eyes, I can picture Farah’s description of the scene vividly. The way Hadi emerged out from the hiding place, screaming “Allahu akbarr!”, charging towards people he was taught for years were the devil, sub-human, who ought to be destroyed and not seen as a human creature at all. The Zionist Enemy. I can see it vividly because in my years of service I saw it several times, but I never imagined it would be the son of a friend. The boy whom I had held in my arms when he just an infant.
He didn’t stand a chance.
Farah told of how the Israeli soldiers stood over Hadi’s body and checked that he was dead. It was agony to listen to. Basim had once told me about how Hamas taught youth in Gaza that the Jew was a danger to the human race, that Jews only know how to rape and murder, to pillage, that they sleep with pigs and dogs, and yes, even the old tale about matzot made of children’s blood wasn’t left out.
My heart broke, as if Hadi were my own family member who fell in a battle. It was a double slap in the face for me, because I knew that had he have succeeded in his mission, our own soldiers would be lying dead right now instead of him. I felt trapped in an insane emotional loop.
The ensuing words that Farah said came at me like cars in the fog… Widad, her eldest daughter, took the news very badly. She is at home on tranquilizers. Little Naima still asks when Daddy is coming. Within a few days both Farah’s husband and eldest son died, and she doesn’t even have bodies to bring to a grave for a proper burial.
I stopped on the side of the road. The news was too horrible for me to drive. All of the years I knew Basim flashed before my eyes. The way he promised me he would be the one to open up the first Harley Davidson shop in Gaza, or that our kids would play together on the beach in Gaza (“the prettiest beach in the world” he told me, “a lot prettier than that Tel Aviv of yours”.) His happiness during the Oslo Accord days, and the immense disappointment during the days that came after.
We never talked about the first Intifada. He never asked me what I did in the army, and I tried not to think about what he might have been doing. We tried to make that part of our lives invisible, but it seems that in spite of our efforts, the Middle East has rules of its own. We’re destined forever for repeat matches, and the tournament does not end when the players descend into their locker rooms, but rather it ends when they bleed to death on the field.
“Now what?” I asked Farah. “What are you going to do?”
“I am going to move away from here. There is no way that I can stay in Gaza after all of this.”
“To where?” I asked, “To your parents? To Bethlehem?”
“I have a brother in Germany. I plan to take the children and fly over there. I don’t see a future here.”
“I thought you would never leave Palestine. What happened?”
“The Palestine I dreamed of died with Basim and Hadi. You were a captain in the Israeli army, right?”
“I hope you can tell your generals to kill Ismail Haniyeh and all of his dogs who ruined our lives. They sent Hadi to die and brought the Zionist tanks here, and they run and leave us here to be run over by them!”
At this point the phone was grabbed out of Farah’s hands by Basim’s brother Faissal. He spoke to me in broken Hebrew that sounded so vulgar in comparison to Farah’s refined English.
“You the Zionists. The dogs. You killed my brother and son of his. You spilt blood of them as if they are sheep. You do not call here anymore, you dog, son of a whore!”
There were a few more curses and the conversation was cut off.
I found myself still holding the silent phone to my ear a full fifteen minutes later.
And that’s how the story ends.
No happy ending. No heroes riding into the sunset. Just a common, dime-a-dozen story that probably happens every day.
Meira Marom contributed to this report. Editor’s note: This article is based solely on the testimony of Hilel K. The details have not been independently verified by The Algemeiner.