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Faced with Israeli shelling, Gaza neighbors band together - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Gaza's famous Zahra restaurant in the Al-Amal neighborhood of Khan Younis. (Asharq Al-Awsat)

Gaza’s famous Zahra restaurant, in the Al-Amal neighborhood of Khan Younis. (Asharq Al-Awsat)

Gaza, Asharq Al-Awsat—I watch in fear as explosions reverberate across the Al-Amal neighborhood in Khan Younis, in southern Gaza, where I live.

Gaza is now under Israeli fire for the third time in less than six years. This time, Israel has struck in the middle of Ramadan, when Muslims abstain from food and water all day long despite the scorching summer heat and the electricity outages here, which last most of the day.

Everyone in Gaza is struggling to survive, but people still try to go about their daily lives, standing by each other in solidarity and putting aside any differences and disputes.

One man, perhaps, stands out above the rest as an unofficial community leader: the owner of Gaza’s famous Zahra restaurant. Residents call him the “Guardian of the Night,” because he never misses a chance to look after the neighborhood. He is immensely popular in Al-Amal, and people here consult him about most issues: water and electricity stoppages, his opinion on the latest political developments, the bombings, and the number of casualties.

Each time the water supply is restored after a cut, he makes sure to call each household to remind them to fill up their water tanks.

Despite running the busiest restaurant in the area, he puts aside his business interests and opens his restaurant’s doors to those who are unable to make it to the market to buy food due to the heavy shelling.

He also gives away the dishes he is famous for, such as foul medames (fava beans), falafel and hummus, to the poor. He makes sure to deliver the food to their doorsteps a few minutes before iftar, when Muslims break their fast during the holy month of Ramadan. When there is enough to go round, he makes sure every household in the neighborhood gets a delivery.

Since the shelling began two weeks ago, Zahra’s owner has also opened his shop front to people who are fleeing Israeli shelling.

On one occasion, dozens of civilians, young and old, gathered at the restaurant waiting for the airstrikes to end. A moment later, booming from a speaker hung on the wall, the voice of a radio presenter was heard reading the news. People made sure to listen to the end of the bulletin, despite the fact they were witnessing the catastrophic events unfolding before their very eyes.

Residents here help each other out in smaller ways, too.

Women in the neighborhood get up early in the morning and gather at the doors of their houses to exchange news and analysis. Later on, they go in groups to the nearby vegetable market to buy some withered, but relatively cheap, produce.

“We hurry, because military jets shell anything that moves on the ground. We risk our lives instead of letting our young children or husbands go and be exposed to death,” said one woman, Sahira.

Food is usually a subject of discussion here—particularly recipes for inexpensive dishes to help families make ends meet.

“I explained to my neighbors how to prepare a quick, inexpensive and healthy dish made out of eggplants, tomatoes and bulgur. They all made it the following day. A day doesn’t pass in Ramadan when we don’t exchange small dishes. It is an old habit we are still keen on,” my neighbor said.

Many people here still go to pray in the mosque, despite knowing that Israeli aircraft have a habit of targeting places of worship. Women sometimes go to the special Taraweeh Ramadan prayers after iftar, too.

No sooner does the shelling die down than the residents of Al-Amal neighborhood meet to exchange news and assess their losses. When they hear of the shelling of a neighbor’s house, they rush to help to recover the bodies of the victims and move the remaining furniture.

This is what happened after the shelling of the Al-Hajj family, whose house was shelled while they were asleep. When the Mukheimar family’s house was shelled, their relatives immediately offered to host them. They also helped evacuate the house, taking the lightest and most valuable pieces of furniture and other belongings.

Abu Sami, who lives in the neighborhood, told Asharq Al-Awsat: “I used my own tuk-tuk to transport the neighbors’ luggage and furniture. They were asked to evacuate the house and received a warning before it was bombed. A number of the neighborhood residents and I helped them to sift through the rubble in an attempt to find anything that might have remained intact.”