Ensuring maximum casualties in Gaza

Darts released from a flechette bomb.

“We were still young and in love. We had all of our dreams,” Muhammad Abu Jerrad said, holding a photo of his wife by the sea. Wafa Abu Jerrad was one of at least six killed by three flechette bombs fired by Israeli tanks in the Ezbet Beit Hanoun area, northern Gaza, on 5 January.

The dart bomb attacks came the morning after invading Israeli soldiers killed 35-year-old paramedic Arafa Abd al-Dayem. Along with another medic and ambulance driver, Abd al-Dayem was targeted by the lethal darts just after 10:10am on 4 January while trying to aide civilians already attacked by Israeli forces in northern Gaza’s Beit Lahia area. Within two hours of being shredded by multiple razor-sharp darts, Arafa Abd al-Dayem died as a result of slashes to his lungs, limbs and internal organs.

Khalid Abu Saada, the driver of the ambulance, testified to the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights: “I was told that there were injured people near the western roundabout in Beit Lahiya town. When we arrived, we saw a person who had been critically injured. The two paramedics climbed out of the ambulance to evacuate him into the ambulance. I drove approximately 10 meters ahead in order to evacuate another injured person. Then, an [Israeli] tank fired a shell at us. The shell directly hit the ambulance and 10 civilians, including the two paramedics, were injured.”

From his al-Shifa hospital bed the day after the attack, 21-year-old volunteer medic Alaa Sarhan, lacerated legs bandaged, confirmed the account. More than two months later, he remains wheelchair-bound, lacerated muscles and ligaments still too damaged for walking.

In the same post-attack hospital room as Sarhan was Thaer Hammad, one of the injured civilians whom medics had come to the region to retrieve. In the initial shelling that day, Hammad lost his foot when Israeli tanks fired at, according to Hammad, a region filled with terrified civilians fleeing Israeli bombing. His friend Ali was shot in the head while trying to evacuate Hammad. The medics then arrived. Abd al-Dayem and Sarhan had loaded Hammad into the ambulance and were going to retrieve Ali’s body when the flechette shell was fired at the medics and fleeing civilians. Ali was decapitated, and Abd al-Dayem received the injuries which would claim his life within hours.

Dr. Bakkar Abu Safia, head of the emergency department at al-Shifa hospital, treated Abd al-Dayem at Awda Hospital in Beit Lahiya.

“Arafa had received a direct hit on his chest, which was torn open, and had many small puncture wounds on his right and left arms. He had massive internal bleeding in his abdomen from the injury to his liver, and had blood in his lung. After we had closed his wounds and were transferring him to [the intensive care unit], he arrested. He had irreversible shock,” Dr. Bakkar said.

Muhammad Abu Jerrad holds a picture of his 21-year-old wife, Wafa, who was eight months pregnant when she was killed by a flechette bomb.

Wafa Abu Jerrad, 21 years old and pregnant, was with her husband Muhammad, their two children, and relatives on the morning of her murder. At around 9:30am, they were eating breakfast in a sunny patch outside the front door of their home in what Muhammad described as a “calm” period. “Nothing was happening, not then, not half an hour earlier. It was calm. We were sitting outside because it felt safe.”

“We heard explosions, coming from up the street near the Abd al-Dayem house. We knew of Arafa’s death the day before,” Muhammad Abu Jerrad explained, saying the family moved to the side of the house to see what was happening.

“We saw bodies on the ground everywhere outside the Abd al-Dayem mourning tents. Wafa panicked and told us to go back inside, so we ran to the front of the house. We were all very worried.”

Abu Jerrad’s father Khalil and some of the family had made it inside the house, and Abu Jerrad himself was stepping in the doorway, two-year-old son Khalil in his arms, Wafa to his left, when they were struck by the darts of a new shelling.

The dart bomb exploded in the air, Wafa dropped to ground, struck by flechettes into the head, chest and back. She was killed instantly.

“I was struck at the same time, in my right arm and in my back,” Abu Jerrad recalled. “I fell over with my wife, passing out. I came to shortly after and saw my wife covered in blood. I picked her up and carried her to the car, running. Then I passed out again from the pain.”

Although Abu Jerrad’s father Khalil had been inside the doorway, he too was hit by the darts. Abu Jerrad’s son Khalil was hit by darts in his right foot and in one finger. One of the flechettes that struck Abu Jerrad remains deeply embedded near his spinal cord. Doctors fear removing the dart would injure a nerve and leave Abu Jerrad paralyzed.

According to Dr. Bakkar, in Gaza it won’t be possible for Abu Jerrad to get the surgery he needs. “We don’t have qualified specialists to do such intricate surgery in Gaza. He’d need surgery outside.” With more than 280 patients dead after being prevented by Israel, which controls Gaza’s borders, from reaching medical treatment outside of Gaza, Abu Jerrad holds no prospect of being granted permission by Israeli authorities to leave Gaza for surgery.

Although he is in considerable pain due to the sharp dart still lodged in his back, Abu Jerrad said the pain of his injury is minor compared to the loss of his wife.

“ ‘Where’s mommy? Where’s mommy?’” Abu Jerrad said two-year-old Khalil asks all the time. “Mommy has been hurt,” he tells him, kissing a photo of his wife and making the sound of an explosion, knowing that there is no way of softening the truth for his son.

“We’re totally innocent. We have nothing to do with rockets. We were just living in the house.”

The house still bears the evidence of the dart bomb: numerous darts still firmly entrenched in the concrete wall where the darts flew. Some of the darts still have fins visibly peeking out of concrete, others seem to be but nails poking out from the wall.

The Guardian (UK) newspaper published a graphic illustrating how upon a timed explosion in the air, flechette darts are designed to spread out conically, covering a vast area which Amnesty International cites as 300 meters wide and 100 meters long, inflicting the maximum number of injuries possible. In the case of a densely-populated region like the Gaza Strip, the number of potentially-injured is deathly high. The same graphic shows how the head of the dart is designed to break away. Having penetrated inside a person, this breakage inflicts a second wound per single dart entry, multiplying the amount of internal damage done by the razor-like darts, which Amnesty International said number between 5,000 and 8,000 per shell.

Dr. Bassam al-Masari, a surgeon at Beit Lahiya’s Kamal Adwan hospital, reiterated that flechettes cause more injuries than other bombs precisely because they spread in a larger area. And while the darts appear innocuously small, their velocity and design enable them to bore through cement and bones and “cut everything internal,” said al-Masari. Accordingly, the prime cause of death is severe internal bleeding from slashed organs, particularly the heart, liver and brain. “Brain injuries are the most fatal,” said al-Masari.

A few minutes up the road from the Abu Jerrad home, 57-year-old Jamal Abd al-Dayem and his wife, 50-year-old Sabah, grieve the deaths of their two sons, victims of the indiscriminate flechettes.

“Every time I think of them, every time I sit by their grave, I feel like I’m going to crumble. I was so happy with them,” Sabah Abd al-Dayem said.

Jamal Abd al-Dayem sitting with his wife, Sabah, holds a dart from a flechette bomb.

Jamal Abd al-Dayem explained the events. “After my cousin Arafa was martyred on 4 January, we immediately opened mourning houses, with separate areas for men and women. The next day, at 9:30am the Israelis struck the mourning area where the men were. It was clearly a mourning house, on the road, open and visible. Immediately after the first strike, the Israelis hit the women’s mourning area.” Two strikes within 1.5 minutes, he reported.

“When Arafa was martyred, my sons cried so much their eyes were red and swollen with grief. The next day they were martyred,” the father said, shaking his head in disbelief.

“Just like that, I lost two sons. One of them was newly married, his wife eight months pregnant.”

Twenty-nine-year-old Said Abd al-Dayem died after one day in the hospital, succumbing to the fatal injuries of darts in his head. His unmarried brother, Nafez Abd al-Dayem, 23, was also struck in head by the darts and died immediately.

The surviving son, 25-year-old Nahez Abd al-Dayem, was hit by two darts in his abdomen, one in his chest, and another in his leg.

“I went to the mourning house to pay respects to my cousin, Arafa. When we arrived at the men’s mourning house, there was a sudden explosion and I felt pain in my chest. Very quickly after, there was a second strike. This second attack was more serious as people had rushed to the area to help the wounded. I looked up from the second shelling and saw that my cousins Arafat and Islam had been hit. They were lying on the ground, wounded.”

Sixteen-year-old Islam Abd al-Dayem was struck in the neck and died slowly, in great agony, after three days in the hospital. Fifteen-year-old Arafat Abd al-Dayem died instantly.

When Nahez Abd al-Dayem regained consciousness in hospital, he learned of his two dead brothers and two dead cousins. The dart that lodged in his leg was surgically removed, but three darts remain in his chest and abdomen and will stay there, although Abd al-Dayem says they bother him. “When I move at night, I feel a lot of pain,” he said. But an operation to search for them is too dangerous and could cause greater injury.

The dart shelling on the Abd al-Dayem and Abu Jerrad houses killed six and injured at least 25, including a 20-year-old nephew paralyzed from the neck down after darts severed his spinal cord. Darts which spread as far as 200 meters from the scene are still embedded in walls of houses.

Atalla Muhammad Abu Jerrad, 44 years old, explained, “I was near the mourning house, on my way to the market. I saw everything. My brother Otalla, 37, was in the area. He was injured by a nail that drilled through his shoulder, and lodged in his neck. He had to have an operation to remove it.”

Sabah Abd al-Dayem said she finally understands the expression “burning with pain.” “Every minute, every hour I think of them. My son didn’t have time to enjoy married life. I wish I had died with them.”

“In five or six months, you’ll see the effects on her,” Jamal Abd al-Dayem said of his wife. “She isn’t eating, drinking, or sleeping. I’ve hidden all the photos of our sons and closed off [their] room.” The photos he’d mentioned had been laid out on display. Pictures of their sons at different ages and stages of life. A photo of Said graduating from university.

Jamal Abd al-Dayem, tall, with a salt and pepper beard and hair, and deep smile wrinkles, is equally affected.

“Our lives have stopped. We don’t go to any joyful places, don’t do anything fun. We just mourn our sons and their lost lives. Our children are precious to us. We raised them and now they’re gone. Said’s wife has gone back to her parents’ house. She can’t bear it here. Now half of our household is gone. What have we done? What fault is it of ours? There was no need to target the mourning houses.”

Their youngest daughter, 14-year-old Eyat, used to be at the top of her class, her parents said. Now, they said, she suffers at school, crying in class, thinking of two dead brothers. “She can’t concentrate,” Jamal Abd al-Dayem said. “Her brain is closed.”

Aside from the memories of the day his sons were martyred, Jamal Abd al-Dayem has tangible reminders of their deaths. From a pink paper bag decorated with teddy bears and hearts he brought out a single flechette, one of the many he’s kept from the thousands unleashed on his family and relatives.

Yet it is out of more than sentimentality that Abd al-Dayem has kept the darts. He wants justice.

“Our sons’ lives are not cheap, can’t just let them go like that. If they die a natural death, that’s one thing. But like this? Where are our rights? We want a trial. What right [is there] to bomb a mourning house?”

Amnesty International and many other recognized rights organizations have long been critical of Israel’s use of flechette bombs in the densely-populated Gaza Strip. The group Physicians for Human Rights-Israel says Israel’s use of flechette bombs is in contravention to the Geneva conventions. B’Tselem, an Israeli rights group, reported that at least 17 Palestinians were killed by dart bombs from 2000 through the 18 April 2008 killing of a Palestinian cameraman and three other civilians, including two minors, by a flechette bomb in Gaza.

The attack raised renewed alarm among international rights groups about Israel’s use of the indiscriminate and deadly dart bombs. Joe Stork, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch (HRW), said that the “use of flechette shells, with a wide ‘kill radius,’ increases the chance of indiscriminately hitting civilians,” adding that Israel “should stop its use of the weapon in Gaza, which is one of the most densely populated areas on Earth.”

Years before, HRW’s Hanny Megally had noted Israel’s usage of the darts in Gaza only, versus in the occupied West Bank where the illegal Israeli settlements and Israeli military bases are in many areas intertwined with Palestinian residential areas. Whereas using dart bombs in a Gaza district only puts Palestinians in neighboring areas at risk, the use of such flechettes would put many of the nearly 500,000 illegal Israeli settlers at risk of injury.

Despite Israeli officials’ frequent justifications that the use of flechettes is permitted under international law, there are guidelines to this usage which the Israeli military continues to willfully ignore.

It is precisely the use of flechettes in densely populated areas which contravene the internationally-accepted principles of war: the inability of the dart bombs to distinguish between military targets and civilians; and the lack of precaution at avoiding civilian injury or death.

The two-inch-long scar on Rami al-Lohoh’s right shoulder is his reminder of the painful dart which had penetrated deeply beneath the flesh of his shoulder area. The 11-year-old was too shy to speak of his injury, but obligingly pulled his shirt aside to reveal the scar. X-rays taken after the dart had embedded in al-Lohoh reveal the depth of its penetration.

“The doctors were afraid of this type of injury, so they hesitated before doing the operation to remove the dart,” Rami’s father Darwish al-Lohoh explained. After a 2.5 hour operation, the potentially deadly dart was removed.

Rami al-Lohoh shows the scar on his shoulder.

An X-ray of the dart lodged deep in Rami’s shoulder.

Hossam al-Lohoh, Rami’s 13-year-old brother, recalled in detail where the family was when he was hit by multiple flechette darts.

“We were walking near [our friend] Ayman’s home. The Israelis fired a missile. When the missile hit the road it exploded and all the pieces inside spread widely. It felt like someone had thrown many, many stones at me. We looked for somewhere safe to run to for shelter. We ran into a small street. I felt a huge pain in my head and legs then I passed out.” Hossam al-Lohoh, currently forced to limp, will need another operation six months later to repair the damaged nerves in his leg.

The 10-member al-Lohoh family, including eight youths, had taken refuge in the home of Ayman Qader, half a kilometer away, but had returned briefly to check on their home in Nusseirat refugee camp, central Gaza, on 13 January. Israeli tanks, which were stationed at the former Netzarim settlement, unleashed the flechette bomb as the family walked down Salah al-Din, the main north-south road. It was just after 3pm and the family was approximately 20 meters from the Qader home when the Israeli tanks shelled the group of civilians.

“The street was filled with darts,” 25-year-old Amer al-Mesalha recalled. He was among the 13 persons injured by the darts, most of whom were attempting to take refuge in a UN school. Mesalha had darts surgically removed from his hand and leg but still has two remaining in his abdomen, the entry point his lower back near the spine. Like the other victims, Mesalha is forced to accept the darts’ presence in his stomach. He said he has to be careful not to jump or move the metal bits inside him. Mesalha believes the Israeli soldiers knew who they were targeting. “The Israelis could see the group of people; they aimed at us.”

All images by Eva Bartlett.

Eva Bartlett is a Canadian human rights advocate and freelancer who spent eight months in 2007 living in West Bank communities and four months in Cairo and at the Rafah crossing. She is currently based in the Gaza Strip after having arrived with the third Free Gaza Movement boat in November. She has been working with the International Solidarity Movement in Gaza, accompanying ambulances while witnessing and documenting the ongoing Israeli air strikes and ground invasion of the Gaza Strip.

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