By Hazel Ward
For AFP's team of Gaza-based journalists, a flare up of violence with Israel is nothing new -- with bombings, air strikes and death and destruction all part-and-parcel of living in this tiny strip of land. But covering this latest round of violence was tough, with round-the-clock Israeli air strikes hammering residential and business districts that were once thought of relatively safe, exposing AFP staff and their families to a new level of risk.
"This war was very, very dangerous. During the last war, there were about 2,000 strikes in 22 days. This time there was the same number in just over seven days," says 41-year-old Adel Zaanoun who has been working for AFP for 19 years.
Here in Gaza, they talk about "the war" – the bombing which lasted for seven consecutive nights and days and killed 174 Palestinians, and compare it with the previous "war" – a devastating 22-day operation over New Year 2009 which left 1,400 Palestinians dead. Though the numbers are incomparable, many of AFP's seven-strong team of three writers, three photographers and a cameraman, said they felt more threatened this time with the brunt of the air campaign focused on Gaza City and the north.
When the violence began on November 14 with Israel's targeted killing of top Hamas commander Ahmed Jaabari, "everyone knew it would be war," says Zaanoun. "It crossed a red line."
Photographer Mahmud Hams, 32, immediately arranged for his family to head south to stay with his in-laws, and he himself moved out of the family home in Tel al-Hawa neighbourhood to stay in AFP's offices in Rimal, an upmarket district in central Gaza City. In the last war, Rimal was a safe area," explains Hams, who has worked for AFP for nine years. "But this time it was hit very many times."
Although most of the staff felt safe enough to use the office during the day, everyone knew they had to be out by nightfall as it was simply too risky drive home after dark. But with the frenetic pace of the work, it wasn't always possible.
"When we left the office at 5pm every day, it was dark. The streets were deserted -- no-one was there. We were very afraid. Everyone who was moving was a target," said Sakher Abu El Oun, 47, who has been with the agency nearly 25 years.
AFP Photo/Majdi Fathi
Driving after nightfall was very dangerous, the risk being that the army would target you as a militant. "Every time you are out in your car, you think you are going to be hit. I drove very, very fast," says Hams. Zaanoun did things differently. “On the second day, I left the office at 11pm and I put all the lights on in my car and the windows down and I drove about 20 or 30kph so that everyone could see me," he explains.
Putting the car windows down is one way of avoiding injury from flying glass if there is an explosion nearby.
JOURNALISTS UNDER FIRE
Aside from hazards of moving around to cover an unpredictable bombing campaign, the risks heightened on November 18 after Israeli strikes on two buildings housing local and international media, both of them in Rimal. Eight journalists were hurt in the attacks which the military said had targeted Hamas communication devices located on the roof.
"When they hit the Showa & Hussary building very early on Sunday morning, we all rushed over there. The first rocket hit the Al-Quds office and everyone turned up to cover it -- we were about 20 journalists, mainly cameramen and photographers," says Hams. Al-Quds is a Palestinian television channel close to the ruling Islamist Hamas movement.
"The minute we stepped into the building through the front entrance, they fired another two missiles and all the glass blew out of the windows and came crashing down from very high," he said.
Two days later, an Israeli drone fired three missiles at the building where AFP's Gaza bureau is located, hitting offices just two floors above. Hams, who was staying in the office at the time, was shaken but unhurt and quickly found somewhere else to say. The building was hit for a second time 16 hours later in a strike which killed a toddler in the neighbouring tower block.
AFP Photo/Mahmud Hams
In Israel, air raid sirens are quick to warn of an incoming missile, giving people 15 seconds to find the nearest bomb shelter. In Gaza, there are no sirens, no bomb shelters and no safe places. When a missile is fired from an F16 or a drone, it is a matter of seconds before it hits, says Mai Yaghi, a 29-year-old reporter who has worked for AFP for five years, and who is currently eight months pregnant.
"There is no time to run or to hide anywhere. You hear the sound of a missile being fired and it is a matter of seconds."
FAMILIES ON THE FRONT LINE
She lives in 12-storey building in the Nasser neighbourhood, not far from two open spaces used by militants as a training ground. Early on, all her neighbours left the building, many of them leaving the city altogether.
"One morning, I woke up for my 5am shift and my brother was sleeping on the couch. I heard the sound of a missile being fired and I saw the fire go past the window. I didn't even have time to scream. I thought it was going to hit us and all I could think was that at least he would die peacefully in his sleep," she says. “It was very close, maybe 200 metres away."
All of the staff said the hardest part were having to cope with the demands of work alongside the constant worry about whether your family was safe. And when they did go home, they spent many sleepless nights, kept awake by the relentless air strikes which terrified their children.
"My daughter would tell me: No, no I'm not scared," Yaghi said of her five-year-old Yara, who would sometimes watch Mr Bean on YouTube as a distraction from the attacks. "One time she started to laugh hysterically, saying, ‘It's a balloon exploding in the sky!’ I tried to talk to her, but she always says she is not scared. I would like to know a bit more about how to help her."
Other families spent the week living in a single room, trying to keep as far as possible from windows which could shatter and cause injury, says Abu El Oun, who lives in Rimal. "For seven nights, all my kids -- 6 girls and a boy -- were sleeping in the living room because it only has one window, which was open all night. They were crying and the youngest was wetting the bed because he was so scared."
Zaanoun, who lives in Tel al-Hawa, said his eldest, Moussa, 12, spent most of the time on Facebook and Twitter, which helped him cope. But it was not the same for his nine-year-old twins.
"Ahmed is funny, he makes jokes all the time. If he heard a bomb coming, he would come to his mother or to me and say, ‘Dad, are you afraid?’ But Mohammed was totally silent. He didn't say anything at all," he says. "Every time there was a strike near the house, Ahmed would call me, saying, ‘Where are you? Where was it? Who was killed? Who was injured, who was the target?’."
Trying to work while keeping a close eye on the family was not easy, admits Mohammed Abed, who has worked as a photographer for AFP for 12 years.
"When you are working and shooting pictures, it is very worrying about your children, you are so much under pressure," says this 43-year-old father of six. "You want to focus on your work and on the pictures but every time there is a strike, you are calling to see if they are OK and they are calling you. So your mind is split," says Abed, who lives in the Sheikh Radwan neighbourhood. You know that your family needs you to be with them."
After two days, he decided to make sure he was with them after dark "because they were really suffering".
"I would switch off the scanner radio and I didn't let them hear me on the phone. I was trying to change the mood by buying them chocolates and sweets and telling them: No-one's dead, the war is going to finish very soon," he says. "I was lying to them."
His wife and his eldest son Anas, 18, did everything they could to amuse and distract the younger children with stories, baking cakes and watching videos. “But no television because it would make them more scared," he says. “In the first war, my wife was stronger. This time she was very afraid all the time. I wasn't afraid for myself, I have seen a lot. But I was very afraid for my children."