It smells unbelievably bad here. To walk down any street, if you dare to, you skirt, or sometimes unavoidably walk through, pools of blood. There are shreds of human flesh, some of them unrecognizable as human remains — all over, on rooftops, plastered to broken windows, on the street. The stench of rotting blood mixes with the more acrid odor of flesh burnt to black char by the rockets fired by the Israeli Army’s American-made Apache helicopters.
The sky is full of black smoke, some from the rocket explosions, but even more, it sometimes seems, from the endless fires of tires and other debris that people keep stoking. The smoke confuses the heat-seeking unmanned drone surveillance planes, so setting fires in any relatively open area may draw fire and let a bomb explode somewhat harmlessly.
All this smoke mixed with plaster and cement dust is a blessing and a curse. The stench of burning flesh and rotting blood masks to some extent the smell of raw sewage from broken sewer pipes and the tens of thousands of bodies unwashed for over a week now. Water to drink is a rare and precious commodity here, baths and showers have become impossible luxuries.
Your eyes inevitably tear up from all the smoke but then, that protects you a tiny bit from some of the more harrowing sights, recognizable body parts, a piece of a leg, an obvious part of a torso, and fingers — more scattered, individual, recognizable fingers than anyone should ever have to see.
Volunteer crews are gathering these human fragments and bringing them to Jabalya’s two hospitals but the ambulances cannot possibly keep up with the flood of newly dead and injured.
Funeral processions are everywhere, and “houses of mourning” the tents bereaved families set up in which to receive their families and friends. In fact, though, every house here, those relatively intact and those partly or wholly destroyed by the IDF tanks and bulldozers, is a house of mourning.
And nothing protects you from the sounds, the tears and laments of the mothers and fathers, husbands, wives and children of the dead, the screams of the injured, the wail of ambulance sirens, sniper fire, the thud of tank shells and the too-frequent explosions as another Apache shell lands.
Time is distorted here, hours feel like days, days like weeks or months. This is Jabalya Refugee Camp in the Northern Gaza Strip, one of the most crowded places on earth where 106,000 men, women, and children, the overwhelming majority of them unarmed civilians, have been under an all-out attack for over a week now.
Israel’s official position is that this carnage is a “response” to Palestinian militants’ firing a homemade Qassam rocket into the Israeli town of Sderot last week, a rocket which killed two children. In fact, though, the first tanks rumbled into Jabalya some hours before the rocket attack on Sderot, and we had all been watching with alarm as the Israeli forces multiplied in northern Gaza over the last few weeks, 2000 fresh troops, over a hundred more tanks and bulldozers.
It is only when I sit down to write up my notes made here in the last few days that the cruelty of the IDF name for this attack “Days of Penitence” hits me. They are not just slaughtering unarmed civilians, but language itself. “Penitence,” as I understand it, is voluntary remorse for wrongdoing. Is this massacre supposed to induce remorse in its victims? Are they supposed to mourn the deaths of four or five Israeli soldiers, and two Israeli children and accept the death of more than 60 Palestinian civilians as some kind of justice? To those of us trapped in Jabalya, it seems like Days of Revenge. It is unquestionably collective punishment, and illegal under the Geneva Conventions.
Perhaps we should not be surprised. Israel’s Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has announced this attack will last “as long as necessary,” that is, until there is “no further danger” from the Palestinian resistance’s homemade rockets. Sharon, of course, engineered the massacres of Sabra and Shatila over twenty years ago. Now, he is doing much the same, but with vastly improved weaponry.
Of course, the militant factions exist, and have been striking here and there during this last week but they are vastly outnumbered, not to mention out-gunned, by the Israelis. Hamas, on its side, has distributed leaflets in Gaza City vowing to continue the rocket attacks on the illegal Israeli settlements in Gaza and any Israeli towns and cities their home-made ordnance can reach as long as the Israeli incursions continue.
International protests have been muted, and stymied by United States support for Israel. The lone, feeble voice from the US State Department urged Israel to keep its “response” “proportional”~after, of course, the obligatory mantra, “Israel has a right to defend itself.” A strongly worded resolution condemning the attack brought before the UN at the beginning of the week was defeated by the US veto.
It is hard to maintain accurate casualty figures, the most recent count seems to be 80 Palestinians killed (20 of them militants claimed by Hamas) and over 200 injured. Unquestionably, by the time this is printed, the figures will be higher.
There is no refuge anywhere in Jabalya. The hospitals are chaotic, supplies are short and all medical personnel have been working around the clock for days now.
I saw Abu Nedal, the father of Nedal Al Madhown a 14 year-old boy, struggle to maintain his composure as he asked the exhausted doctors and ambulance drivers, “Was my son killed? Has he been killed?” (In fact, the boy was dead on arrival..) The majority of the dead and injured have been teens and children, obvious non-combatants.
I interviewed Dr. Mahmoud Al Asali, the director of Kamal Adwan Hospital, who told me he was forced to assume the Israeli Army has been deliberately targeting civilians. He said most of those injured by gunfire were wounded in the upper parts of their bodies, indicating the Israeli sharpshooters must have orders to shoot to kill. Palestinian doctors have removed many flechettes from the dead and injured, indicating the IDF are using illegal fragmentation bombs. These release razor sharp flechettes as they explode. Dr. Al Asali says these illegal fragmentation devices greatly increase the number of deaths and the number and severity of injuries. The IDF has refused to comment on this.
The hospital staffs and ambulance crews are so overextended that they are using volunteers for the gruesome task of collecting, sorting, and attempting to match scattered human remains to return as much as possible to bereaved families. One of these medical workers, Ahmed Abu Saall 26, from Kamal Aswan Hospital, told me, “One enormous difficulty we face is that these powerful bombs can scatter the parts of a single victim over a wide area. It is quite possible parts of a person could end up in Al Awda hospital in the east of the camp, while other parts of the same person end up with us here on the western side.” Sometimes shreds of clothing can help with the matching.
The Israeli Army has frequently shot at the medical teams and journalists. So far, two ambulance drivers have been injured, and a cameraman from Ramatan News Agency has been hurt. Of course, the ambulance crews and press all wear identifying gear.
Israel has closed all borders into Gaza and has severely restricted all movement within the Gaza Strip. There are three major “zones” split off by sealed military checkpoints, but recent days have seen numerous new checkpoints, and roads closed by cement block and sand obstructions. People cannot move between cities, not even ambulances bringing patients to hospitals. Moreover, the main Israel-Gaza crossing is closed, even to international NGOs, humanitarian relief groups, and foreign journalists.
Intense as the military attack has been, and continues to be, it is certainly not the only danger to the people here. Many families now have been without food and water for days. In Tal Al Zattar, the eastern part of Jabalya, I interviewed Umm Ramzi, an elderly lady who spoke to me through the gaping hole a tank shell had left in her house. “We have been appealing to the Red Cross, to save our lives and the lives of our children, but nobody has responded.”
Most of the NGO workers and relief organizations have logically enough assumed they cannot get through the Israeli military lines that completely surround Jabalya, although they are well aware that the civilians need help. I managed to reach the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), spokesman Simon Schorno by phone and he told me: “I’m in my way to Gaza now. We have been talking to the IDF to get permission to bring food and water, but we were not able to get an OK for complete food distribution”.
Concerning the absence of the Red Cross in the past few days when many families were in urgent need, Mr. Schorno said, “I feel terrible. We are trying to do our best to get food and water inside, but the damaged streets also delay us from reaching the people.”
A number of eyewitnesses among the camp residents told me the Israeli Army has commandeered several high buildings as sniper posts and basically shoot anything that moves. One of the most recent victims was Islam Dweidar, 14, who took a chance during an apparent lull in firing to buy bread for her mother. However, she was shot in the head by an Israeli sniper.
In the Southern part of the Gaza Strip, the Israeli Army has increased the number of tanks and bulldozers in all parts of Khan Younis and Rafah. There has been shelling every night, with many injured and killed. This morning, I spoke by phone to Dr. Ali Mussa, director of Abu Yousif Al Najjar Hospital in Rafah who announced that 13-year-old Eman al Hums had been killed by Israeli sniper fire. He said, “the child arrived at the hospital after being riddled by twenty bullets in different parts of her body, five of them in her head.”
Palestinian eyewitnesses reported that Al Hums was killed while on her way to school with two other schoolgirls. In early media reports, the IDF said she was planting a bomb; they later were forced to admit the accusation was false.
These current attacks are now far worse than the so-called “Operation Rainbow” of last May, which killed 40 in Rafah and prompted an international outcry. Now, the silence from America, in particular, seems to condone this turning the Gaza Strip into a killing field. Sharon has picked his moment well, when America is preoccupied with its presidential campaign and its invasion of Iraq, to decimate the children of Gaza. How many more must die before the world speaks out?
Mohammed Omer lives in Rafah, occupied Gaza and is the webmaster of www.rafahtoday.org.