Prior to the latest Israeli attacks on Palestine, locals in the blockaded Gaza Strip for decades had purchased books on many subjects – from school texts to the Koran to Arabic translations of classics of European literature – at the Samir Mansour bookstore.
But last Tuesday, owner Samir al-Mansour watched in disbelief at the bookstore and publishing house where he had dedicated his life to be bombarded by an Israeli airstrike and destroyed.
“Forty years of my life were wiped out in less than a second,” said the man in his 50s, a cigarette between his fingers, staring at a pile of crushed concrete, paper and plastic chairs.
“There are 100,000 books under this rubble,” he said.
At around 5 a.m. on Tuesday, Mansour was at home watching television when the broadcaster reported that the Israeli Air Force was about to strike the building housing his bookstore.
Mansour rushed forward, but stopped some 200 meters (220 meters) from the building, just in time to see a missile wiping out his life’s work.
Tensions escalated in the Palestinian territories last month following the verdict of an Israeli court aimed at forcing Palestinian families out of their homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in favor of Israeli settler groups. The situation worsened after Israeli forces attacked Al-Aqsa Mosque and assaulted worshipers inside. The tension spread to the Gaza Strip, with Israel launching airstrikes and artillery bombardments that killed at least 279 Palestinians, including 69 children and 40 women, and injured more than 1,900 Palestinians, while 12 Israelis died and 357 others were injured.
“I have nothing to do with an armed group, a political faction,” Mansour told Agence France-Presse (AFP).
“It’s an attack on culture.”
‘Never happened before’
Mansour started working in his father’s bookstore in the 1980s when he was only 14, then took over in 2000 and quickly branched out into publishing.
As rescuers continue to search for bodies and survivors in the rubble after the ceasefire, Mansour mourned all he had lost.
Copies of Islamic religious texts, children’s picture books and a copy of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “Brothers Karamazov” were buried in the rubble.
Mansour said he had lived through two Palestinian uprisings and three wars in Gaza.
“But that had never happened, my bookstore was never destroyed,” he said.
His son-in-law Montasser Saleh had arrived in Gaza from Norway to visit family just before the conflict began and was with him when his life was turned upside down.
“We were at home, watching TV,” Saleh said.
‘More than a bookstore’
He recounted how on Al Jazeera TV station “they said there had been a warning shot on the building containing the bookstore”.
He too said they immediately rushed to the building.
“Samir wanted to go get some papers, his computer, but he was too scared to go in and be hit by a missile, so we stayed outside,” he said.
Mosaab Abu Toha, poet and founder of the Edward Said Library established after the Gaza war in 2014, said the Gaza Strip had lost “one of its main cultural resources”.
“Mansour was more than a bookstore,” he says. “It was a publishing house that published writers from Gaza.”
“The books were printed in Egypt – some to return to Gaza, but others to stay there and be distributed in the Arab world,” Toha said.
“It was a way to lift the siege on Gaza through literature,” he said of the Israeli blockade on Palestinian territory that has lasted for years.
For readers in Gaza, the publishing house had printed around 1,000 copies of works by local authors such as Ghareeb Askalani and Yusri al-Ghoul.
Mansour is not the only book or stationery store destroyed in the latest Israeli bombing campaign.
Nearby, Iqraa was also leveled, and the Al-Nahda stationery and bookstore were reduced to a pile of pulverized cinder blocks.
In front of what remains of Al-Nahda, a poster assured loyal customers that it would reopen soon.
“Ideas don’t die,” he said.
Israel occupied East Jerusalem, where the Al-Aqsa Mosque is located, during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. It annexed the entire city in 1980 in a move never recognized by the international community.