(Blog: January 13, 2009)
By Matthew Kalman
JERUSALEM - Ella Abukasis was a popular, fun-loving, 17-year-old schoolgirl from Sderot in southern Israel who doted on her 10-year-old brother Tamir. On January 15, 2005, she was walking Tamir home from the local youth club when the "Colour Red" sirens began began booming across the town, giving them 15 seconds to take cover from an incoming Qassam rocket fired from Gaza.
Ever since the Hamas reign of terror began, Ella had looked after the little boy, sleeping alongside him and taking him everywhere. But on this Saturday afternoon there was nowhere to hide. Ella lay her brother down next to a wall and shielded his body with her own.
Seconds later, a Qassam rocket slammed into the street beside them, sending shards of jagged metal and debris scorching through the air.
Tamir escaped with relatively minor injuries, shielded by his guardian angel, but Ella took the full force of the blast.
She was rushed to hospital in a coma. Three days later, doctors declared Ella brain-dead and she was disconnected from life-support. She never regained consciousness.
Tamir was released from hospital the day his sister died, but neither he nor his parents have recovered from the senseless loss of their wonderful girl.
"He still has shrapnel lodged in his head and psychologically he has been scarred for life," said their father Yonatan, 50, the only member of the family who can bring himself to talk about the tragedy.
"Every time there is a boom of another rocket, he can't take it. He can't sleep. His childhood has been stolen from him. Only when he goes away from Sderot can he relax. At home every sudden noise makes him re-live that terrible nightmare," said Abukasis.
Since 2001, 3,984 rockets and 3,943 mortar shells have been launched at Israel from Gaza, many of them at the sleepy lower-middle-class town of Sderot just across the border. It has now reduced to a ghost town.
Egypt brokered a truce that took effect last June, but the Palestinians still fired 223 rockets and 139 mortar shells from the Hamas-controlled enclave.
"I wish people around the world would understand that people have been dying in this town while Hamas fires without restraint. I don't think they get it. If all those people in London went out to demonstrate support for Hamas, they just don't understand the hell we have been going through for eight years. I'd like to invite all those demonstrators to come here and see the conditions we are living under," said Abukasis.
"It's a nightmare. There is nothing worse than feeling unsafe in your own home. All the time we sit and wait for the next rocket. We cannot lead a normal life. We cannot take the kids out to play. We can hardly leave the house at all. Every day, we are living on the edge," he said.
Abukasis and his surviving family still live in the same house, where the memory of Ella hangs heavy in the air. They have opened a youth center in the town dedicated to her memory.
"We will stay here. Hamas has only one thought – to drive us out, but they won't succeed," he said.
Abukasis believes that Israel had no choice but to invade Gaza, after Hamas refused to renew the six-month truce.
"I support it," he said. "You cannot allow this quasi-state to subject its neighbours to the point where we are living in fear every day. We cannot let a bunch of terrorists control our lives and tell us when we can go to school or work, or when we can go out.
"It's a shame the Israeli army didn't act sooner. It would have saved many lives on both sides.
"I hope we don't stop half way and withdraw based on some promise from Hamas. These people cannot be trusted. If they still have their missiles at the end of this, they will only attack us again. We must see this through to the end. We must put an end to Hamas and destroy all their weapons," he said.
At a house in Gaza City, Mohammed Darabeh was mourning the death of his wife Mojod and wondering about the fate of his five young daughters. She was killed and the girls aged 4 to 12 were injured when an Israeli shell exploded next to their ramshackle house in Beit Lahiya, scene of intense fighting all week.
"We had taken cover in one room of our house. I went to the next room to bring some water and there was a huge explosion. I think a bomb fell next to the house and shrapnel ripped through the walls. They are only thin. Mojod was killed instantly and the girls were all taken to hospital," Darabeh said, his mood switching between disbelief and fury as relatives came to offer their condolences.
"Why did this happen? What did she do? What did we do? There were no fighters. No-one was shooting from there. I received no warning, and even if I did, how could I leave with my family through the middle of the fighting? We have nowhere to go," he said.
"The Israelis want to drive us out of our house, to drive us from our homeland," he said. "They took our land, now they want more. They want to throw us into the sea. But we will never leave. We will stay and our resistance will win. We will not move from here even if they kill us."
But a few miles away in Sderot, Yonatan Abukasis said the people of Gaza had no-one to blame but themselves.
"I know they are suffering now on the other side, but they brought this on themselves. They have to take responsibility. I didn't elect Hamas, they did. They attacked us. They killed my daughter and no-one paid them back. Now, finally, we have to defend ourselves. They must understand that anyone who threatens us, who kills our children, is in danger.
"If they want to live normal lives, good lives, all they have to do is stop firing. We don't want to fight them," he said.