When Hamas quietly vacated its training camp next door, the Shama family grew nervous. Then the Israeli airstrikes came. Was it all a plot to sabotage the visit by Mahmoud Abbas to Gaza?
The Shama family, stuck between the anvil of Hamas and the hammer of Israel
GAZA STRIP // It has now become a foregone conclusion for the Shama family. Every time a rocket or mortar is fired into Israel, the land at the back of their house in the Twam area of the Gaza strip will be attacked in retaliation.
Consisting of a few low-rise buildings and dusty open fields, the area, known as Force 17, has been a training facility for Hamas security personnel. It was bombarded in the opening salvo of Operation Cast Lead, Israel's devastating three-week assault on Gaza that began in December 2008. And then, after being partly rebuilt and reused, it was again pummelled last Monday by three Israeli airstrikes.
Ahmed Shama, 28, and his uncle Moayin, 30, took their usual precautions during the most recent attacks. Their family of 17 moved to the far corners of their small compound of unpainted cinderblock shacks, as far away from the Force 17 land as possible. The family survived the attack, but the buildings were not so fortunate.
"The flames were six metres high," Moayin said as he showed the stress fractures crisscrossing his home's walls caused by the exploding munitions. Its roof is bowed, the foundations are sagging, and the bathroom is notably sinking.
The damage could be expected. But the family could not help but notice the absence of Hamas personnel at Force 17 in the few days before Monday's strikes. "We used to see a lot of people training there, running around," Ahmed said.
And then they left - suddenly. "We did our best to try to stay relaxed after they left," he said.
But, inevitably, the fear set in. And then the strike came, on Monday, and then Ahmed's questions about the Islamist group: what, exactly, did Hamas know and when did they know it?
"At least they could warn us if they think there is going to be airstrikes, evacuate us, do something to protect us," he said a few days later as he toured his damaged home, which cost him US$10,000 (Dh36,700) to build, much of it loans from friends.
"They only came after the attacks to see if we were OK."
Many did not expect that the recent flare-up of violence with Israel would bring Gaza to the brink of war again. Then, last Saturday, militants fired dozens of rockets at Israel, jeopardising a two-year truce between Hamas and Israel.
Gazans point to Hamas as much as they do Israel for the cause of the recent violence, given that the group so firmly controls the cloistered Palestinian enclave. Both are accused of deliberately escalating attacks against each other in order to scuttle a proposed visit here by Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president and the head of Hamas's main Palestinian rival, Fatah. The topic of the visit was reconciling Hamas and Fatah - an idea that Israel and, it seems, Hamas loathe.
Raed Meshrawi, 38, who works in banking, lives near a bombed-out facility in northern Gaza once used as an intelligence base, known here as the Mukhabarat building. It was destroyed during Cast Lead and, on Thursday evening, struck again by what residents said was a particularly powerful bomb that shattered windows in Mr Meshrawi's two-level home. A day before, he noticed the trail of rockets launched by militants near the building, something he had not seen in several months. "Hamas has the power to stop people from doing this [rockets], but they chose not to," he said
The militants usually take cover in the surrounding neighbourhood, Mr Meshrawi said, exposing residents to Israel's wrath. "Believe me, if I had a weapon, really I would kill them if I saw them shooting a rocket," he said, calling their activities not resistance but a deadly nuisance.
At the Shama household, Ahmad and Moayin also suspect that the exchange of rocket and missile fire was planned far in advance. Sitting in plastic chairs at the entrance of Force 17 over the weekend were two Hamas policemen who admitted receiving orders, a week before last Saturday's opening barrage of rocket strikes, from their commanders to remain outside the facility.
"We were told to stay away," one of them said, nonchalantly.
That admission did not impress Ahmed, whose heavily pregnant wife, Iman, 24, said she was seriously discomfited after Monday's attacks. "Nobody told me. We could see them [Hamas personnel] leaving, but nobody told us," he said.
For now, though, the family is thankful that everyone is alive. They feel they have narrowly escaped death twice. The first time was on December 27, 2008, during Cast Lead when Moayin's wife, Siham, 28, and his son, Mohanned, 5, were trapped under the rubble of their bombed-out building after the first of several strikes. Ahmed had just pulled them out when another Israeli missile hit Force 17 again, tossing them all into the air. "I saw them flying next to me," Ahmed recalled of their miraculous survival.
Moayin now considers Ahmed a hero. But he said he was taking no chances. About a month ago he said he went to a Hamas police station to ask if they could train somewhere else.
"I felt they were putting us in danger," he said.
"They never responded to me."