Eleven days in May: 4. Israel attacks Gaza
On 20th May 2021 a ceasefire was agreed between Hamas and Israel, marking the end of an 11-day war that cost hundreds of lives. We spoke to three Palestinians and three Israelis about the brief and bloody conflict to see why it arose, how the fighting unfolded and what happened next
20th May 2021 (Taken from: #43)
This is the fourth interview in a six-part series. See the other interviews here.
Hours after Hamas’s attack on Jerusalem, Israel responded with a massive rocket bombardment on Gaza. Over the next few days hundreds of civilians were killed or injured and whole tower blocks were destroyed. Samir Mansour, who had a bookshop in Gaza City, witnessed the attack first-hand.
On 18th May the Samir Mansour Bookshop was destroyed by an airstrike. Mansour had given 20 years of his life to the store, and he watched from the street as it became nothing but piles of rubble and buried books. “It’s very painful to come back to this day and say what happened,” Mansour says.
It was around 5.30am when the first missiles started falling. “There was a war, so we didn’t sleep at night,” Mansour explains. The first rocket struck the Kuheil building, which housed education offices belonging to the Islamic University, as well as his bookshop. It was dark and the journey was dangerous. But Mansour didn’t worry about that. He had to get to the bookshop. So he dressed, got in the car, and drove.
To his relief the bookshop hadn’t been destroyed. He hoped that might be the end of it. But it wasn’t.
“I was 200 metres from my bookshop and in front of me came the last rocket and destroyed everything… All I have done in 20 years. It’s gone in a few seconds.” Tens of thousands of books were left burnt and torn under the collapsed building including copies of English-language titles like Harry Potter and To Kill a Mockingbird, as well as the Qur’an and novels by Palestinian writers printed by Samir Mansour’s own publishing house. The shop was a sanctuary for book lovers in Gaza City. Two floors had been filled with books on every topic — children’s stories, university texts and books that Mansour brought in specially when they couldn’t be found elsewhere in Gaza.
Books were in Mansour’s blood. His father worked with books and from the age of 12, Mansour had also immersed himself in literature, surrounding himself with reading material. “When you grow up with books you know the smell of the paper,” he says. Even before the airstrike, running a bookshop in Gaza came with challenges. The Israeli and Egyptian blockade meant that bringing in titles took time. When those books did arrive on Samir Mansour’s shelves, economic circumstances meant that people often struggled to pay for them. “The people in Gaza City are very poor. If anyone asks me for any books, and he or she doesn’t have money to pay, I help them to get the book for free,” Mansour says. It was technically a bookshop, but it also operated as an unofficial library service. He also loved to make writers out of readers, nurturing talent in the community. Among international novels, local books stood proudly on the shelves.
Mansour says he is not politically active – a bookshop owner, in a building owned by a university – which is why the missile attack was such a surprise. His plight struck a chord far outside the Strip.
A week after the attack, residents in Sheikh Jarrah opened their own Samir Mansour Bookshop. He sent them a few of the books he’d managed to salvage from the rubble to add to their small store. “We send a big greeting to Samir Mansour, whose bookshop got bombed,” said Muna el Kurd, who live-streamed from the new bookstore to her 1.6 million Instagram followers. “Today he sent us a gift from Gaza, these books which bear the logo: ‘Samir Mansour Bookshop’.” The opening helped him come to terms with his loss. “I had a feeling that there were many people standing with me,” he says. “I briefly forgot about my bookstore that was destroyed.”
While his business lay in tatters, a glimmer of hope soon appeared. Mansour was contacted by human rights lawyers Mahvish Rukhsana and Clive Stafford Smith. “They are like angels to me,” Mansour says, describing how the two lawyers helped organise donations and book collections. The pair set up a GoFundMe campaign to raise $250,000 to rebuild the bookshop. Bookstores and authors around the world have also donated thousands of books.
Only four months after Mansour stood on the pavement before his destroyed shop, the new building was ready to be decorated and filled with books. By the end of October, it will once again welcome visitors. “We’re going to make it better than before,” says Mansour. As so many other people in Gaza were rebuilding, the cost of materials soared. But that didn’t stop him from being ambitious. There is an extra floor and there will be an even wider selection of titles. Mansour also has plans for a cultural centre, which will be home to a library where people can borrow for free. Everyone will have access to books, he says, regardless of their economic circumstances. “I didn’t expect that would happen,” he says. “All my life, I never expected help from anyone.”
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