The Crimes of War: Between Al-Zeitoun (Gaza) and Rafah

Knesset file photo of Tamar Gozansky

The burning tires are not the only expression of the hate of the occupation.

Attention is now drawn to the Israeli war crimes committed by the IDF in Rafah on May 19; especially to the numerous victims of the shelling by Israeli tanks of a civilian demonstration, mostly youth and children, at high noon.

I watched the horrific live TV images of wounded children, youth running for shelter and smoke rising from the shelled location, in the company of the head of the Palestinian Internal Security in Gaza City, Rashid Abu Shbak, alias Abu Khatem.

Abu Shbak refuted the excuses offered by the Sharon Government to justify their bloody invasion of Rafah. He said:

“The Israeli Army has been fighting the tunnels for three years and failed. Official Israel is lying when they claim that the Palestinian Authority smuggles weapons (into the Gaza strip) through the tunnels.

We proposed to Israel to allow the PA to handle the tunnel issue. Nine months ago we took a few steps to close the tunnels. But after we would close a tunnel, which ended in a certain house, the Israeli Army would destroy the house and shoot at our forces.

A month ago we confiscated arms and arrested smugglers. Six of them are still under detention.

Yet, in spite of the measures, which we have taken, the Israeli Army entered this housing block in Rafah, and destroyed houses.

Therefore our conclusion is that the Sharon government does not want the PA to take measures, they only look for excuses to justify their aggression.

Some ten days ago Israeli Army forces entered the Al Zeitoun neighborhood in Gaza, where no tunnels exist. Here their excuse was ‘the search of lathes’ (used to produce the primitive Qassam rockets), although it is self-evident that you don’t send many tanks and soldiers to destroy a few lathes. In the Al Zeitoun quarter this brutal operation resulted in 17 Palestinian dead and 150 wounded.

I am convinced that had we not returned the remains of the cadavers (of the killed Israeli soldiers), the killing would have continued. The invasion of Rafah proves that. The Israeli military operation in Tel Al Sultan (Rafah quarter) has nothing to do with the tunnels. This quarter is not part of the refugee camp, and is situated some 3-4 km from the border with Egypt. If there were any so-called “wanted” Palestinians there, they have certainly left long ago.

Therefore I must conclude that the Israeli Army interest is entirely different: To demonstrate its supreme force and scare the civilian Palestinian population.

As the Israeli Army entered Rafah, the supply of electricity was interrupted, many water pipes were broken by the tanks, and even the pumping station of the sewage-plant was blown-up. This was done in-spite of requests by the Rafah Civilian Committee not to damage this essential pump.

This is an abuse of the entire population.

The invasions of quarters of Gaza and Rafah fuel the hatred and place additional hurdles on the road of ‘the peace process’. But in spite of the high number of victims, and the increased suffering, the IDF cannot win.”

Al Zeitoun, nine days after the quake

Nine days after the Israeli attack Al Zeitoun is no longer what it was.
The main street was a four-lane road, two in each direction, with a concrete strip separating the two. In this strip stood lighting poles and trees. On both sides of the street stood houses of three to five floors.

The ground floors housed shops, garages, and offices. They no longer exist.

Where the asphalted street was, stretches now a bumpy road of sand and smashed concrete ruins.

Many shops are now closed by plywood or metal sheet, having fallen victim to the tanks. The remains of a five-storey house fill the southern side of the street, as if it was hit by an earthquake. In the ruins one can see the shattered symbols of our material civilization: broken refrigerators, TV sets, crushed washing machines, and wrecked furniture.

The explosion that ruined this house also damaged neighbouring houses. Here one can see a balcony hanging by its reinforcing steels rods, and wall sections about to fall from the house skeleton. In front of what used to be their home stand three small tents, where the Ashour family now live. The family elder, Hassan Ashour recounts, in a low voice, the events of May 11, when the Israeli Army seized control over the quarter:

“From 1956 I was working outside, in the Diaspora, to save for my family. In 1994 I returned to Gaza and built this five-storey house, where we, eight families lived.

On the night of the 11th of May the Israelis entered the Al Zeitoun quarter. At midnight, soldiers knocked on the house doors. We were too scared to open. They forced the door open by exploding a charge. Eight soldiers entered my apartment. They beat the youth of my family, four brothers and a nephew, with their gun butts. One of them was so badly hit that he required medical treatment.

Then they bound the youngsters and led them away. The nine of us who remained were forced into a washroom of six square meters. We remained in this small room for the entire day. At 9 pm we were told to dress-up the children and leave the building. The women took some clothes, but we couldn’t even take our documents. The soldiers told us that the explosive charges were already laid there.

At 23.30 the soldiers blew-up the house. It collapsed on all our belongings.

In the ground-floor garage my brand new Mercedes taxi was parked. I drove it, and it was our family’s source of income. It remains under the ruins.

My four sons were allowed to return the following day, but my nephew Omar Alian Ashour, a student whose parents live in Qatar, was detained. According to information from the Red Cross he was taken to the Ashkelon (Asqalan) prison.

Now we have nothing left. No house, no furniture or belongings, and no taxi. We are empty handed, and I worry about the children. How will I be able to feed them, rear them, see to their needs?”

The parents have not yet overcome the shock of the destruction of their house. Only the small children sat some distance away from where the house used to stand, on a sand heap smiled to us.

Some distance to the north, away from the scene of the crime, on both sides of what used to be an asphalt road lie the dead stems of citrus trees. Here stood orchards. These were destroyed in the last operation of the Israeli Army against Al Zeitoun.

In a corner of the newly orchard laid barren some sheep are nibbling.

Children collect branches from the ground turned into desert. Here stood an orchard, which gave fruit, before it became the enemy of the Israeli Army.

The Shifa Hospital

The Shifa Hospital is the main hospital in the Gaza Strip. On May 19 it prepared to receive the wounded, who were destined to arrive from Rafah. But these wounded never arrived. They did not even make it to the newly EU-built hospital in Khan Younis. The Israeli Army did not allow free passage to the ambulances.

Dr. Ibrahim Al Hbash, the Shifa hospital director general, said that as news of the (IDF) shooting at the Rafah demonstration came, Shifa was put under the highest emergency. The entire staff was called in, and those patients whose condition permitted, were sent home.

Dr. Al Hbash said that during the Israeli attack at Al Zeitoun, the Shifa hospital received the bodies of 16 dead, and many wounded, including 65 children under the age of 16.

On the day I visited the hospital, some wounded were still hospitalized, including eight in the intensive care department wounded in Al Zeitoun, and more were still hospitalized in the orthopedic department.

The wounded were hit by guns and missile fire during the blowing-up of houses. Three were crushed by tanks.

Dr. Mahmood Haddad, the chief surgeon, escorted me during my visit to the intensive care and surgery departments.

In the intensive care department lay two critically wounded, unconscious persons under breathalyzers. A boy of 13, and a man of 28. Both were shot in their heads.

I talked to two young men, of 18 and 19 who were hospitalized in the surgery department. Both of them were shot by snipers, and suffered similar wounds: The bullet entered the upper left leg and hit a major artery. One suffered a particularly serious damage, and the surgeons had to amputate one testicle. His second testicle was also damaged. The suspicion is that the Israeli sharpshooters intentionally aimed at the thighs of these young men.

The 18 year old told me that he was shot on his way to a tailor’s shop where he was working. He found the shop closed, and was shot on his way home. He was taken to hospital by a private car.

What does Israel seek in Gaza?

All through my visit to Gaza I was escorted by a senior internal security person, Mr. Mahmood Faraj, alias Abu Nabil. He spoke good Hebrew, which he learnt during 15 years of imprisonment by Israel. He was arrested at the age of 16, and liberated in the “Jibril exchange deal”. Abu Nabil is well acquainted in Israeli politics, and knows many Israeli officials and journalists. He reads Israeli newspapers daily. From his Gaza home one can see beyond the Gaza fence, to the Israeli side. One can also watch the Karni (border) crossing. It was shut on that day.

In spite of these horrendous atrocities that Israel perpetrated and failing the Abu Mazen government, Abu Nabil is convinced that there is no other solution except the return to negotiations. He is worried by the sense of despair that sweep over his people. For the Palestinians to support peace, one must show and instate measures which support and comforts life. But this is not done, he says.

Abu Nabil gives voice to the questions that many ask:

“What do you Israelis look for in Gaza, in the most densely populated area in the world? Where even the ground water is saline, and employment hardly exists?”

He is right. Israelis have nothing to look for in Gaza, except the wish to satisfy the distorted wish of the current political and military establishment, to control another nation, to rob their land and embitter their life.

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    Tamar Gozansky is a former member of the Israeli Knesset and a member of the political bureau of the Israeli Communist Party. She visited Gaza on 19 May 2004.