Steven Aiello

Gaza Perspectives 4: Who Am I Fighting?

This is the fourth personal narrative from Gaza, that of a life-long fighter confronted with the reality of terrorism targeting children and other civilians . Names and certain biographical details changed. The previous post is available here: ( )

This is Ghanim’s tale:

“I was born in 1996, in Khan Yunis, where I’ve spent most of my life. I am the eldest of 5 children.

My father works for the government in Gaza. My mother stayed home with us children. I can’t even recall my first meeting with fighters and people of the resistance. My parents have told me many times that I was a just a baby at the first meetings. It has been a natural part of my life. My family is a family of fighters and high-positioned leaders and commanders. Sometimes I wonder if I ever had a choice NOT to become who I am today?

But of course I must have. My younger brother (16 years old) isn’t a fighter, nor does he wants to. And we had a very similar childhood.

For my whole life Gaza has been on its own, meaning separated from the rest of Palestine. I remember walks with my father around the area of the barrier. He would lift me up and point, saying “this is also our land, but now it is infested by enemies.” As a child my 2 year younger brother and I would play “enemy and hero”, meaning one was the enemy and one was the hero. And we used sticks and rocks to fight one another with.

As a 4 year old, I went to school. Besides learning to write and read, I also learned strategies for fighting. That same year the al-Aqsa intifada began. I remember only a few things, seeing rockets being fired, protests, stone throwing and hearing that actual enemies lived inside Gaza as well. I was too young to understand it all, but old enough to learn to hide fear. My father was not home much, and my mother was pregnant then. I had to take care of my terrified brother. I remember that I was scared but I did hide it very well, wanting to be as much of a hero as my father and uncles.

It’s not possible for such a young child to hate. I don’t remember that I ever did. I was more doing what everyone else did and learning from who to be afraid.
I remember silly things, or what I was told later: I often asked my parents not to turn off the light in my room, and I checked extra carefully around my room and our apartment – to be sure that no enemy were hiding in there. I was told that if I didn’t behave, then the enemies would come and take me away.

On a big screen I remember they showed pictures of enemies being killed; many left the room. Before my mother was able to cover my eyes, I saw a man waving his hands from a window and they were covered in blood. For years my parents said I remembered wrong. I said anyhow over and over again that I remembered it. My uncle in the end said that it was a heroic act with the slaughter of enemies. And that the blood was from a fighter who despite being injured was strong enough to show himself as a fighter. I wanted to be like him. I wanted to be like Aziz Salha.

From ages 6-10 I was in a regular state-owned school. I worked hard to become one of the most respected children. I have always been good at identifying the weakest and most vulnerable, and taking advantage of them. One of many things I learned at an early age was to never show weakness, to be strong and to be a true fighter. Without that, you can never survive. And one needs to survive long enough to be able to fight the enemies.

All that lead me to become a fighter. The enemies were now called Jews or Zionists. All of Palestine belong to us Palestinians, as an excuse to take our land, and to try to kill all of us.
The story about the Holocaust came back on and off. What that was, I never knew and for sure didn’t ask. All I heard was about was the Holocaust being fake. No one ever said what it actually was. I learned to not care about it, since I “knew” it was something made up in order to have excuses to steal Palestine and to murder us all.

I have always seen those who doesn’t fight for Palestine as weak people. They must be protected; they don’t understand what danger they are in. That I learned, not from regular school, but the afternoon training class.

If you would have asked 8 year old Ghanim who the enemies were, the answer would be this: “All are enemies, every single one over the age of 12, be they Jews, Christians or Muslims, doesn’t matter. And all of them need to be killed. Everyone that lives outside of Gaza and the West Bank.” Innocent people among the enemies, didn’t exist. I don’t remember when I was confronted with the fact that the enemies had children. Probably around age 5? 6? I didn’t believe it anyways. Took years before I accepted that as a fact.

Years 2001 – 2003 were the years of heroic missions made by fellow Palestinians against the enemies. Many enemies died, and the enemies had even showed fear! That in itself was huge. I knew that the missions had something to do with the fighter dying during the fight [i.e. suicide attacks]. That was sad; I wanted to be able to say thank you, for the heroic act. I was very active as a junior fighter, training every day to become stronger, faster and more in control of myself.

My dream was to be a fighter first, and then after some time, to die on the battle field.
Anyway, it was during my few years in regular school that I realized that not everyone wanted to become fighters. That annoyed me, and I gathered people around me to convince those to start fighting. This resulted in the principal calling my parents telling them that I was scaring the other students. There were even students that didn’t dare to go to school, because of me.
My dad said it was good, I need to prove I am somebody. Mom said that I shouldn’t scare my classmates, I needed to take care of them. They don’t understand the meaning of fighting.

I didn’t calm down at all, I went more to the mental torture of them. Something I am not proud of today. I used to threaten them with consequences, if they told their parents. Something I have later found out, had a very damaging effect on them.

I would say that as a child I was very angry, but had a clear goal in my mind, to fight, fight, fight, fight, fight, fight. To prove to my whole family that I was as good as my relatives and my father. Also a very strong older brother who would protect my younger siblings from danger.
An enemy to me was of course a typical armed IDF soldier. That was all I had seen. And in my naive mind, that was of course what every enemy looked like.

Year 2003 on my way back home I for some reason decided to sit by the stairs and do something. When I heard something under the stairs, I was curious of course and went down to see what it was. It took sometime before I saw another child there. It was dark so I didn’t see the child much. I remember I said “Hi” and reached out my hand. I saw it was a boy, and he backed deeper into the hole under the stairs. I got irritated that he was not answering, so I grabbed him and dragged him out. He was skinny, dirty, all bruised, with swelling and blood. He didn’t speak, and looked terrified.

From his shaking I understood that he was cold, and he had tears in his eyes. For some reason I didn’t see him as weak at that moment, I was just wondering who it was. He didn’t reply to anything I said. I decided to keep him secret.

I didn’t understand how serious it actually was. Anyhow I took extra food and water with me to school and went to his hiding place. In the beginning I had to feed him and help him with drinking. I took some clothing from my younger brother and gave it to the boy.
After many days he said some words. He told me his name is Ahmad, that he is 5, and scared.
I sat under the stairs with him many times a day.

One day I remember clearly: that was when I asked him where his mom and dad was. He started crying, really hard and climbed up on my lap and cried. My first wish was of course to push him away from me. But that cry came straight from his heart, and I decided to let him cry. Didn’t bother to say how weak he was.

After some weeks, because of my parents being suspicious, I told my dad that I had found a friend who was hiding under some stairs. And that he had no parents. My dad was completely in shock and was angry. He told me to show him immediately where the boy was. I showed him; Ahmad got terrified and in panic ran away. A bit later my father got ahold of him, and asked him a lot of questions. He went to the officials and found out who Ahmad belonged to. Not sure exactly what happened there. I haven’t asked.

But anyway, my father told me to not make up stories like this. Ahmad of course had parents, and they hadn’t reported their child missing. Ahmad anyway was a fact, and we couldn’t ignore that. To me he was like a new brother, I treated him as an object. My father told me to stop acting like I owned the boy. “He’s a person” he told me many times. And course I knew this. A very vulnerable child, who only spoke to me.

So in many ways I have raised him, as much as a child can raise another child. My family helped him with clothing, food, education and somewhere to sleep. Often I feel that it was because of you little buddy, yes I speak directly to you Ahmad, that I decided later on to be a teacher. And it was because of you I learned to take better care of other people. I worked hard on making you become a strong person, a true fighter, in its true meaning.

I am not going to tell you operation by operation, because we all know them very well and what happened. I started in battlefield (meaning fighting during an operation) at age of 12. My first tasks were to help with rocket launching and force people up on rooftops.

People ran around in panic on the streets, screaming and crying, trying to get places to hide. Some ran towards the beach and ocean, like that was going to help. Anyway about forcing people up to the roof, you probably have heard all about it. And how they screamed and cried etc. But who tells the stories about those who jumped? It was the first time I saw people die, right in front of me. In panic from seeing us fighters, they ran towards the edge and jumped down to a sure death. Sometimes if they were too scared, I could push them down stairs. One thing that got me angry was to see tears, and the reaction of fear. I felt that I do all this for you, and you don’t do anything to help.

Besides all that, people were talking more about suicide bombings. That civilians had died in them. I said that it can’t be true, there are no civilians living there. Only enemies! They can’t have children, because they are no actual people. Just some kind of monster beasts, looking like people. It is hard to explain exactly what I mean.

At 14 years old the real physical and mental training began. For 25 weeks I was away from home and in a camp, with other 12-18 years olds. I had several friends with me. From 6 am – 3 pm we had physical training. It was really hard and only the strongest was able to do it. I loved it; a lot of my anger was expelled there.

At the camp there was just as many hardcore fighters as me, ready to get into real battle but also to save the non-fighting people. We spoke often about them, sometimes wondering why they wouldn’t want to fight? But no one took time into asking them why not.

At the time of physical training we had commanders who were true fighters. If you became tired, they would hit you. I was lucky to already be in good physical shape from often running together with my father in the evenings. But even I started to feel a taste in my mouth sometimes, but I didn’t complain, continued to run, climb, jump, crawl, run, climb, jump, crawl, run, climb, jump, crawl, over and over again.

The first lessons were about our own control, I heard about puberty and new emotions, new life crises and growing up. That no one should be a slave to his emotions. Hunger has to be ignored, since in Gaza you rarely eat anyways. And during battle one could just go away and eat. Every morning at camp we got bread and before the lesson, soup. That was enough.

Need to go to the toilet had to be controlled and held inside as long as possible. And that we had training for, had to think away the pain and urgent need for it. We were able to delay it 1-2, even 3 hours sometimes.

Sleep was something that had to be done when time was available. Minimum 5 hours a night or day (if night training) of sleep. Learning to fight sleep and be awake 19 hours in a row, wasn’t hard at all. Never to show yourself tired to anybody.

Laughter was allowed if controlled, not totally losing the mind and focus. Which was hard, but in the end all of us were more serious and had a harder time to smile. Even today, 4 years later, I have a hard time allowing myself to laugh and smile. One needs to not smile and laugh, one learns fast to keep it all inside. And in the end it is all automatic, that feeling before laughter is there but right then, you turn it off and throw it into a black box and lock it.

Anger had to be kept under control, which was my real huge issue. Even at camp there were the weak ones, and I found them instantly. I tried to make them stronger but they took it the wrong way and complained about me. Saying I was too violent. The commander told me I need to scare the enemies, not my fellow fighters. But something inside made me extremely angry when I saw weakness, and it’s still like that.

A lot I think I’ve learned from my father and uncles. My father has a very hot temper and lost control many times. For the smallest thing he could for example start speeding the car, to an extreme. So we almost crashed. He yelled, and if you were in his way, you got smacked.
He always told me to be stronger and I was becoming stronger indeed. I have to prove I am strong, and others have to stop being so sensitive.

To be worried was a big NO, same with scared. With extreme training and mock situations, we learned to face some of our extreme fears and work with them.

Sadness. As a child I rarely cried, same goes for now. I can feel it begin but I refuse it. I can even remember the few times I cried, clearly. And those were very short times. “Pull yourself together!” was what I got if I did cry, and also I had to be big for my brothers and friends. A real man doesn’t cry for the smallest thing. And as a fighter, We weren’t allowed to cry. Only if someone died. But I don’t think you often see fighters cry, you see of course the family of the dead crying. But no one with fighter cloths. Not often at least. Anyhow sadness was worked on, which wasn’t hard.

Certain urges and needs had to be ignored and the total focus was on resistance and fighting, training and learning.

It was when I was 14 that I again heard about what I had before referred to as a mission, that the fighter wrapped a bomb-belt around him and blew himself up. Not many from Gaza were going deep into the “occupied” areas; most were from East Palestine. Anyways, the discussions in the camp was about the fact that women and children also had died. I was among the ones who said it can’t be possible, but I guess in the end I just couldn’t deny it. No one should really question the methods of killing the enemies and how the freedom fighters had lost their lives on the battlefield. But I dared to ask one of the leaders at the camp if women and children been killed.

He made a big scene of that, went up on the little stage, took the microphone so it was heard over the camp.

“Ghanim son of M is asking if women and children have died. Suddenly he doesn’t see everyone in the occupied Palestine as enemies, we have to assume. Anyways, let me answer this truthfully, so Mr M here doesn’t have to worry his little brain. 90% of the enemies killed have been soldiers, they were at the time in the enemy army or been in it. The other 10% were what Mr M says here, children and women. Those happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. But look at how many…” and then the 1 hour lesson about how many people that have been killed since 1948 began, including many children.

I decided to not ask again, but it didn’t feel good inside of me. Because without knowing it, he had just given me a picture in my mind, of not all enemies being robot like men in military clothing. But also women and little children. I didn’t like that at all.

How can they have children? They feel nothing. That was what I knew. So instead of asking about the suicide bombings, I raised my hand. “Leader, how can the enemies have children?” He looked at me and the others were looking away from me. He said in a dramatic voice that: “the enemies are breeding just to outnumber us, like animals are breeding into huge masses.”

The talking about suicide bombings didn’t stop; some got very excited about it and wanted to become one of them. We were 87 people at the camp, 12 decided to train to die for Palestine. That had another camp, which included more members from another organization. So they were taken out of our camp and into the other camp.

Another thing that was circling among us was that there actually was an enemy somewhere, who been kidnapped. His name was Gilad Shalit it was said, and he been kidnapped since 2006. I think maybe I had heard about it before, but I am not sure. Anyway it was top secret and only a few people knew where he was. That sounded much better than civilians being killed in suic bombings. I decided to try not think about it, but it was still there.

It was during those weeks that I understand that we weren’t all of the same mind, regarding who the enemy was. For me it was the soldiers of their army, who had chosen, like I chose, to fight. I chose fighting for Palestine, and they for what they called Israel. Then the ones living there were all supporters of the Israeli fighters and deserved no respect. The goal for the soldiers was of course to meet them in battle and win against them. My goal for the people living there was to scare them away, to flee the occupied areas or overthrow their own government that wasn’t able to keep them safe.

But there were also those fighters there that wanted death to everyone. And I mean EVERYONE. From infant to elderly. Not many, but still there were such fighters. And some wanted death to all Jews. I told them that not everyone living in occupied area was Jews, but the gang said that if they lived there, they automatically were Jews (??).

I anyhow didn’t wanted to be one who hated everybody, just the real enemies. And to scare away the others. I wanted to become a commander and teacher at a camp like that. To get more people to fight more right, not wish for everyone dead. But that I kept for myself and a very few very close friends.

After the camp I started another school and got more into the organization and deeper into studying fighter skills and how to become a commander. I also took enough courses to be able to get into university one day if I wanted to.

I noticed also that many were afraid of me, which was what I wanted. Weak, sensitive people were a target for me, and me and my gang would cruise the streets sometimes just to find somebody to beat up. Maybe it all was boredom, I don’t know.

I also had Ahmad who still lived outside our home, even if we invited him. He went to school as well, and he and I studied English and history together. What I liked was that we both were angry, and understood each other. I also met other people who were more thinkers. And then the internet started coming. I learned it and got online from internet cafés. I mostly watched movies, played games and used ICQ (wonder if that still exists).

I was mostly chatting with people from here but also from Jordan, Lebanon, the UAE and Yemen. It was interesting to see how others viewed Gaza. Many were also angry, because of the suicide bombings and the attacks on “enemies”, saying that we targeted civilians, I tried to convince them that no civilians are being killed. It is the enemies that are killing civilians here.

Then March 2011 came and that sort of messed up my world and thinking, a lot. A friend of mine came to me, happy as can be, telling that some brave people had broken into a settlement and killed a lot of settlers. He was all over the top, and I felt that it was good. Good that East Palestinians are fighting the occupiers. Then I went to the internet café and read about it in the news.

I read from Maan news that Fayyad condemned the attack, which I thought was very strange. It was only enemies that had died. Then I got the details, An 11 year old, a 4 year old and a 3 month old had been brutally murdered, together with their parents. I remember that I read it over and over again. And I remember many did, and it was totally silent. People were like in some kind of paralyzing shock.

I remember a guy a bit younger than me saying: “they have kids?”
And another one: “they killed an infant?”

Many burst into tears, I was just looking at the screen with pictures of the stabbed bodies. That hadn’t yet been censored. And I felt just sick, and I wanted to throw up. Minutes after Abu Mazen condemned the attack.

Hamas went out and said that they and no other Palestinian resistance factions target children.

Al-Qassam on the other hand spoke about how brave it was to enter a settlement.

I went out from there and met my very happy friend, he asked if I wasn’t glad. Five settler enemies were dead. At first I was just looking at him. He asked again if I wasn’t glad.

That is when I hit him in the face with my fist. He fell to the ground but got up quite fast. Asking what the hell was my problem. I told him “they killed the children, they ****ing killed the children.” He said no, settlers died. Not children. And I said again, that they killed children. I took him into the internet café and showed him. He laughed and said that it was just staged for the camera, to make us Palestinians look bad. But I didn’t believe it for a second. Not when it been condemned by several leaders.

Anyway, Itamar made me realize that despite the evilness coming from the occupied areas, there were those with children. And maybe they even loved their children. I was deeply touched by that attack, many were. But I couldn’t talk about it with anybody, because my friends were either also in shock, or too excited about settlers being killed.”

About the Author
Steven Aiello is the Director of Debate for Peace (, and a board member of the NGO Committee on Sustainable Development NY. He has a BA in Economics, MA in Diplomacy and Conflict Studies, and MA in Islamic Studies. He teaches Model UN for schools throughout Israel. Among his other hats he serves as Regional Coordinator for Creating Friendships for Peace, and Dialogue Officer at Asfar. Steven has also served as Chief of the Middle East Desk Head for Wikistrat, interned for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and the American Islamic Congress. His writing has been published in the NY Daily News, Jerusalem Post, Iran Human Rights Review; Berkley Center at Georgetown;, and the Center for Islamic Pluralism. He can be reached via email at
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