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Slow recovery from wounds of Gaza conflict

Akram Abu Harbid and his sons
A year after the conflict, victims on both sides of the border are struggling to get on with their lives

By Tim Franks
BBC News, in Beit Hanoun and Sderot

When Akram Abu Harbid speaks, the words come in a quiet torrent. They speak of hope crushed, of a life broken.

Mr Abu Harbid, 46, lives in an almost rural area of Beit Hanoun, in the north of the Gaza Strip.

His front garden, where we speak, is partly shaded by a vine. Our conversation is pocked by the sound of distant gunfire, from an Israeli tank, just over the border - attempting to enforce a buffer zone inside Gaza.

An Israeli missle strike in northern Gaza, January 2009
The Israeli military assault lasted three weeks

One week into the war, on 3 January, Mr Abu Harbid and his 19-year-old son Mohammed, were leaving the mourning tent, across the street from their house, for a cousin who had been killed earlier in the Israeli offensive.

It was 9pm. Mohammed told his father that he needed to go to a friend's house to collect a book he needed for his college studies.

"I heard a bang," Mr Abu Harbid says, in a flat voice.

"I went outside. A man, who was injured, was running down the road, shouting, 'Mohammed Abu Harbid is dead!'"

Mr Abu Harbid, along with a cousin of his, went to carry the injured man inside. And then there was a second missile strike.

Say goodbye

"I felt I'd lost something. I was conscious. Then I realised my right leg was gone." Around Mr Abu Harbid lay the dead and the mutilated.

GAZA CONFLICT CASUALTIES
Total Palestinian deaths:
1,409 (PCHR)
1,387 (B'Tselem)
1,166 (Israeli military)
Palestinian children killed:
326 (under 17, PCHR)
252 (under 16, B'tselem)
89 (under 16, Israeli military)
Palestinian civilians killed:
916* (PCHR)
773* (B'tselem)
295 plus 162 unknown (Israeli military)
Israelis killed:
3 civilians
10 security forces (includes 4 by friendly fire)
*Figs exclude about 250 Hamas police officers

PCHR=Palestinian Human Rights Centre, B'Tselem=Israeli human rights group

In hospital that night, he asked that his dead son be brought to his bedside, so that he could say goodbye.

"He was like a brother, my best friend. He had no political affiliations. From elementary school onwards, he would get more than 90% in his tests. He was a good and polite boy."

A year on, Mr Abu Harbid says he remains in pain.

His right leg was amputated above the knee. Shrapnel still floats around his left leg. When he walks, on crutches, it hurts too much to go beyond 50m at a time.

That, though, is just the physical pain.

"Since the war in Gaza, I've lost any hope. No-one has offered me any financial or psychological help."

Mr Abu Harbid used to be an electrician.

"I need an artificial leg so that maybe I could do half my job. Now, I spend most of my time at home. I don't feel normal. I am disabled. I feel sad for my family, when they look at me."

Mr Abu Harbid says that it is not just Israel which bears responsibility. "I want to call on everyone - the Americans, the Europeans - everyone, with a sense of humanity."

"Animals have a better life than us."

Forced

At the end of Mr Abu Harbid's road, past a chicken coop and some raggedy trees, you can see Israel.

Geut Aragon
There's always the thought that it might start again, you never really heal
Geut Aragon

It is this proximity which, Israeli ministers argued, forced Israel's hand in launching the war.

According to the Israeli army, between 2002 and the end of Operation Cast Lead in January, Palestinian militants launched 10,365 missiles into southern Israel.

In January 2008, one of those missiles hit Geut Aragon's house, in the town of Sderot.

Almost two years later, Mrs Aragon, 36, answered the doorbell to her small house, in her white nurse's uniform. She had just finished her shift at a nearby hospital.

We climbed the stairs to see the room, where, almost two years ago, she had been playing with her four-year-old son, and the five-year-old daughter of a neighbour.

"There was no alarm. There was just one big boom. The qassam [missile] came into this room."

Mrs Aragon was badly injured. She says that she was in such deep shock that she was not aware how badly, until she saw the expression of disbelief and horror on her son's face, as he looked at her.

Only then did she realise there was blood pouring from her head.

'Untenable'

Four pieces of shrapnel had lodged beneath her skull. She was operated on that evening.

The surgeons decided that they had no choice but to leave one shard of metal embedded in her brain.

Just under a year later, Israel launched Operation "Cast Lead".

The United Nations says about 1,400 Palestinians were killed, along with 13 Israelis.

"I'm very sorry for them [the Palestinians]," says Mrs Aragon.

"Just like I'm very sorry for myself and my children, and a lot of people who live here in Sderot, who were living through very difficult years of terror and bombing."

Mrs Aragon says that she remembers feeling, back then, that the Israeli government had to do something.

It was untenable, particularly for children she says.

In 11 months since the end of the war on 18 January, the Israeli army says that 248 missiles were fired from Gaza towards southern Israel - far fewer than before the war.

But Mrs Aragon says that the relative quiet has not helped her escape a trauma which led to her taking 18 months' sick leave.

"That day I will never forget, never. We're trying this last year, with the quiet, to do things that we couldn't do before.

"But inside, in your soul, you don't completely feel safe. There's always the thought that it might start again. You never really heal."



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