Isolation and patience on a quiet Gaza farm

Fares Akram

BEIT LAHIYEH, GAZA STRIP (AP) — I haven’t spent more than a single night at my family’s farm on the northern edge of Gaza since an Israeli airstrike killed my father there over a decade ago. But the arrival of COVID-19 has upended our notions of danger and refuge.

During the three wars and countless skirmishes fought between Israel and Hamas since the militant group seized power from rival Palestinian forces in 2007, the borderlands were the front line. Israel would carry out airstrikes, shelling and sometimes full-scale incursions, usually in response to Palestinian rocket fire.

During the wars, Israeli strikes could happen anywhere, at any time. But I felt a little safer in Gaza City. I assumed that media offices were less likely to be targetted.

The virus has different rules of engagement.

It preys on crowded areas where it can leap undetected from one host to another, quietly carried by human breath. Since the first cases were reported late last month, Gaza City feels much more dangerous, with every crowded sidewalk a potential source of contagion.

A broader outbreak in Gaza, where two million Palestinians are confined in a narrow, impoverished coastal strip, would be catastrophic. Our health infrastructure has suffered from years of conflict and a blockade. There are only around 60 ventilators, and most are in use for other ailments. As the virus invaded country after country, many Gazans hoped we would finally enjoy some benefits from the blockade. But a couple of Palestinians returning from Pakistan tested positive, and now authorities have reported 13 cases.

On a recent grocery run, I saw streets and markets bustling. Hamas has closed schools, mosques, wedding halls and cafes, but few people appear to be social distancing. We are accustomed to sheltering at home during wars, but Gazans have never faced an enemy like this.

I stocked up on food and cleaning supplies and returned to the farm, where I am isolating with my mother and sister. It’s a pleasant change from the city, where I live in a small apartment and the power is out for more than 10 hours a day.

We awaken to the smell of orange and clementine blossoms from the orchards outside, and songbirds instead of car horns. Nearby, the heavily guarded frontier is quiet. In the pandemic, Israel and Hamas appear to have found a common foe.

Conflict, though, is never far from my mind.

I was born and raised here. I have spent my career reporting on the blockade, the wars and the astonishing resilience of my fellow Gazans.

As tranquil as the farm is now, I cannot forget that it was here where my father, Akram al-Ghoul, was killed. On January 3, 2009, an Israeli bomb killing him and another relative. Human Rights Watch, where I was employed at the time, sent a letter to the Israeli military seeking an explanation. We have yet to receive a response.