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Foe of Hamas wonders why Israelis destroyed his Gaza home

Raid el Atmnah, 37, stands in rubble that used to be his home in Gaza. He was ordered to leave and returned to find the rubble.

JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times

Raid el Atmnah, 37, stands in rubble that used to be his home in Gaza. He was ordered to leave and returned to find the rubble.

GAZA STRIP — He appeared suddenly, a tall, bearded man with an expression both eager and desperate.

"Do you remember me? I worked with you."

And then, "Please come. I want to show you my house."

I had not recognized him — he used to be clean-shaven — but soon realized it was Raid el Atmnah, a teacher and newspaper editor who had been our interpreter when Times photojournalist John Pendygraft and I were in Gaza in 2006 to cover the Palestinian elections.

Now we were back, come to see what had been a middle-class Gaza neighborhood before Israeli tanks and jets blasted much of it to smithereens in January during a three-week war with Hamas.

Raid led us past the charred hulk of an old Mercedes-Benz and up a hill of broken concrete, twisted rebar and crumpled metal. He bent down and picked up a small piece of flowered ceramic tile.

"This is how I know my house," he said.

He had built it just two years ago, after moving from a more crowded part of Gaza where an Israeli airstrike killed 20 relatives in 2006. He thought his family would be safer here, in the quiet Abed Rabbo neighborhood on the edge of green farm fields separating the Gaza Strip and Israel.

But then war broke out. Huddled together, Raid and his kids peered through the one-way mirrored glass he had installed in his new house — he was clearly proud of that glass — and watched the approach of Israeli tanks, followed by F-16s, helicopters and blimplike drones, cartoonish in their fat white bulk. For three days they watched until finally they were told to get out.

When they returned, there was nothing left.

"Why did they do this?" he asked. "I don't have any support for Hamas. There were no fighters here."

We believed him. In 2006, Raid told us he belonged to the rival Fatah Party and feared he would lose his job editing a Fatah newspaper if Hamas won the elections. But he was the consummate professional, translating the many statements of dissatisfaction voiced by Gazans fed up with what they saw as the corrupt, incompetent Fatah government that Raid himself worked for.

Hamas, of course, won and seized control of the Gaza Strip in 2007. That led to an Israeli blockade of Gaza that grew ever tighter as militants fired hundreds of rockets into southern Israel. A six-month cease-fire ended in December with more rockets and finally war.

But was war necessary?

Writing this week in the Jerusalem Post, Gershon Baskin, co-CEO of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information, disclosed that for more than two years he had been in contact with a "senior Hamas personality" in Europe over the release of Gilad Schalit, the Israeli soldier captured by Hamas and held in Gaza since 2006. The Israeli government knew of those contacts and gave him permission to continue, Baskin says.

Ten days before the war began in December, Baskin wrote to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and other Israeli leaders that Hamas was willing to open a "direct secret back channel" for a deal that would include renewal of the cease-fire and a prisoner exchange for Schalit. Baskin waited for a response but heard nothing.

"When the war broke out," Baskin writes, "I understood that the decision to go to war had already been taken and that the government preferred to teach Hamas a lesson rather than negotiate a new cease-fire and the release of Schalit."

Today, with Hamas still in power, still holding Schalit, still proposing the same deal as before, Baskin wonders: "What did this war achieve?"

"Israel spent $1 billion on the war, caused some $2 billion worth of damage in Gaza, more than 1,000 people have been killed, thousands of lives have been destroyed. What is the result? More hatred, more extremism and more support for fanatics and their ideas on both sides of the Gaza border."

Now renting a shabby apartment and faced with starting over, our former interpreter isn't a fanatic. But he is angry — at Hamas and Fatah for fighting each other, at Israel for destroying the house where he thought he would raise his youngest kids, 2 and 4, in safety. Amid the debris he couldn't even find a razor to clear his stubble.

But he pulled something from his pocket.

"This is the key for my car. I want to teach my kids that I had a car and I had a house."

Susan Taylor Martin can be reached at susan@sptimes.com.

Border to stay shut

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Sunday that border crossings with Gaza will not be fully opened until a captured Israeli soldier held since 2007 is freed. "Hamas must think twice if they think we will open borders before Gilad Schalit is returned home and healthy," he said. Egypt is trying to mediate a long-term truce between Israel and Hamas, which insists that border crossings must be opened as part of the deal.

Associated Press

Foe of Hamas wonders why Israelis destroyed his Gaza home 02/15/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 18, 2009 10:28am]

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