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The ghosts of Gaza: Interview with a front-line resistance fighter

Aug. 16, 2014 4:11 P.M. (Updated: June 12, 2015 10:56 A.M.)
By: Yousef Al-Helou
The sound of explosions and gunfire have fallen silent after over a month of all-out Israeli military assault on Gaza, bringing an end to the bloodshed that since July 7 has killed at least 1,980 Palestinians, the vast majority civilians -- as well as 67 Israelis, 64 of whom were soldiers.

A series of ceasefires including the current five-day agreement have helped the smoke and dust clear from the horizon, and despite Israeli violations -- including firing on two different Palestinian fishing vessels -- the current peace seems likely to hold, if just for a while.

Scenes of utter devastation across Gaza demonstrate the lethal force Israel has used during its attacks, which have included the destruction of homes, hospitals, schools, mosques, and many other civilian structures. The wiping out of entire families sheltering in their homes, the killing of patients in their hospital beds, doctors, paramedics, United Nations humanitarian aid workers, and members of the press, meanwhile, have elicited calls for investigations into possible war crimes.

Throughout the entire assault, meanwhile, Palestinian fighters remained in their bunkers and hideouts confronting invading Israeli troops, taking up sniper positions, launching rockets, and fighting invisibly like ghosts in evacuated neighborhoods.

Amid the recent calm, Palestinian resistance fighters have slowly emerged from their underground locations for some rest after more than a month of fierce fighting against invading Israeli forces.

After repeated attempts, Ma'an got a hold of Abu Muhammad, one of the fighters from the Fatah-affiliated al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades.

Security and caution are essential during military escalations, so being hidden from camera-equipped drones is a tough mission for Palestinian resistance fighters, especially when being interviewed.

Abu Muhammad -- not his real name -- is 40 years old and a father of five children, the oldest of whom is 10 years old. He has been engaged in the fighting since the start of Israel's large-scale offensive last month.

He said that he had told his children he was traveling out of Gaza for medical reasons in order to obscure his disappearance -- and in case something happened to him. But his wife knew from the beginning that he was off to the war front to serve as a resistance fighter and might never come back.

"I miss my family very much, but I am on a duty to defend my people and retaliate against the invaders' attacks that killed hundreds of civilians," Abu Muhammad said.

"I try not to contact them a lot -- when I speak to my children, I calm them down and say that things will be alright. My wife starts crying whenever I call; emotions run high. I try to make my calls very short."

Although the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades is the armed wing Fatah, Hamas' political rival, during times of Israeli attacks all factions and parties become united under coordinated command.

Wearing a black and yellow face mask and carrying an automatic rifle, Abu Muhammad told Ma'an that he has been a fighter for the past twenty years.

He also stressed that he opposes Fatah's relinquishing of the armed liberation struggle in favor of endless negotiations, the strategy of the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.

"Our enemy only understands the language of power. Look what has happened over the last twenty years of peace talks: more colonization and land theft, killing and destruction," he said.

"Now look how the resistance is imposing its conditions (on Israel)," he said, referring to Hamas' insistence that the eight-year Israeli siege be lifted as a condition for any long-term peace agreement, which Israel is now considering.

"The resistance is an asset to the Palestinian people," he added.

When asked what he thinks of Israel's main condition for an end to hostilities -- the disarmament of Palestinian resistance factions -- Abu Muhammad's response was unequivocal: "Whoever agrees to this condition is a traitor."

"We have the right to resist and defend ourselves," he continued. "Our enemy has nuclear warheads and the most advanced weapons in the world; why is this entity allowed to arm itself? We are under military occupation and have the right even under international law to resist the occupiers."

Approximately 1,980 Palestinians have been killed and over 10,000 injured in the last month of Israeli attacks. The vast majority of those killed were civilians, including more than 450 children according to the United Nations.

A number of fighters were also killed, though it is not yet known how many of the victims were combatants and to which factions they belong.

Soon after an earlier Egyptian-mediated 72-hour humanitarian ceasefire went into effect, al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of Hamas, published a story about 29 of its fighters who took part in fierce clashes with Israeli forces and managed to stay alive for several days inside a tunnel 25 meters deep in the eastern part of al-Qarara near Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip.

Al-Qassam said in the report that each fighter ate only half of a date every day and drank only half a cup of water.

While Hamas has in the past been accused of exaggerating its claims -- particularly regarding the numbers of soldiers it has killed -- during this war it was of the most reliable sources for accurate accounts of the fighting on the ground. The Israeli military, in contrast, consistently delayed the release of information and downplayed the losses of its fighters, which reached staggering proportions not seen Israeli forces were kicked out of Lebanon in 2006 by Hezbollah.

Israel says that 64 of its soldiers were killed and more than 1,000 were injured throughout the course of the fighting. The fiercest confrontations took place near the border in northern and eastern areas of the Gaza Strip, including Beit Hanoun, eastern Shujaiyya, and areas east of Khan Younis and east of Rafah.

Although Israeli forces have withdrawn from Gaza's cities and talk of a permanent ceasefire looms large, the resistance fighters of Gaza remain deployed across the field, vigilant in case of a collapse in negotiations.

Abu Muhammad said that he would not return back to his family until the battle is officially over, but added that he cannot wait to hug his children and have a meal with his family upon his return.

"We will not rest until we liberate our occupied land," Abu Muhammad said.

"Resistance is a winning card. Politicians, especially Fatah leaders, must understand that the olive branch will not liberate Palestine. We gave the olive branch and peace process more than 20 years, but we still live under Israeli occupation."

Yousef Al-Helou is a Palestinian journalist and a Reuters fellow at Oxford University in London. Follow him on twitter.

Journalist Mohammad Awad in Gaza conducted the interview.
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