Gaza - Bombing begins - March 4-7, 2002

The fears arose on Monday night. Through my contact Jose, I had been introduced to two other Americans working at different NGO’s here, Darryl and Nathan. Both had strong academic, dare I say nerdy backgrounds (they began talking about Voltron cartoons after not too long), yet it had enabled them to pick up Arabic in a relatively short time. They also had been here for much longer.

We assembled at a café near the shore with a large group of young Palestinian journalists. Talk arose about the retaliations for the 21 Israelis killed over the weekend. “The UN people got wind that it was coming tonight. Of course they are almost always wrong,” Darryl announced. Discussion turned to past attacks from the coast, including a story from a Palestinian about Israeli commandos using ‘silent bullets’ to gun down four Palestinian guards the month before.

Soon enough, the Palestinians began receiving calls on their phones, asking what was happening. The people on the other end said that they saw on the news that Arafat’s compound had been hit. I prodded Jose, a freelance journalist to head down that way. ‘Naw, we would have heard something from here,’ Jose noted. We sat about a mile from Arafat’s seaside compound. ‘They must mean in Ramallah or something.’ But the Palestinians were insistant that shells were fired. ‘Maybe they were ‘silent bombs’,’ Nathan joked.

Nathan then called a friend who lived in the area and the friend confirmed that a sea-launched missile had passed by his house just before. My first night under attack, and I hadn’t noticed a thing. The air was a mix of nervousness and excitement. At least for me, as everyone else had gone through it all several times by now. I wanted to run down the coast to see if I could see anything, but instead Nathan invited us back to his apartment to chat some more. Nothing more occurred that night.

But Darryl gave me an ominous warning. It turned out that he had previously occupied the same apartment I have now (Ive found that for the same price I could have an extensive, multi-room furnished place. Oh well). He said that although its right between two prime targets, Arafat’s Ansar compound, and the “Police City” block (a collection of security and training buildings), its safe since when explosions blow out the kitchen window at night, the bed is around the corner and you wont be hurt.

On Tuesday morning I called the administrative assistant over to my desk to ask about including more up to date information in a press release we were putting out. I asked if the last night’s shelling of Arafat’s compound in Gaza should be included. She asked what I knew about it and at the exact moment that I began telling her about the friend of Darren’s who had missile fly by his window there was a loud boom and the window between her and I flew open from a gust from the blast. It was frighteningly pignant timing, I reasoned. Initially we continued to talk ab- albeit about windows being blown in, but we didn’t at first take much alarm to the situation. I think it was just an unwillingness to contemplate it – and the timing was too bizarre. It felt as if some cosmic narration had decided to supplement my story with a sound effect.

After a minute or so I began to get curious and started looking out windows. Others in the office all had phones to their ears asking various people ‘W’ayn? W’ayn? (Where? Where?).’

It turned out that a large explosion occurred not more than half a kilometer away. Speculation began to arise since the explosion occurred in such an odd location – miles from the usual targets of Arafat’s palace and the abandoned police HQ. Because of the location on the street, everyone figured it must have been a targeted assassination strike.

Really, I thought I wouldn’t be too bothered by such an occurrence. Although it was incredibly close, I didn’t see or feel anything other than the hinged window swinging inward. Yet I found that I was indeed jumpy. A sort of mix between fear and excitement is the only way to describe it. While I knew I was safe, what was ominous was the sense of having no control over what had occurred. However, I was far too curious. I asked around the office about going to see the situation. At first I was dissuaded by others regarding the propensity of another attack at the same location, but soon others headed down that way anyhow.

On approaching the location we passed UNWRA’s Beach Elementary School. Children poured out, the girls slowly walking away while the boys ran towards the bomb site. Apparently schools close to such an event have to evacuate the children, but once the kids left the school grounds there was no one guiding them away from danger.

The stream of people walking away from the sight seemed unimpressive. I imagined to see shocked and crying people, but only saw at most some hurried casualness. The police had set up a perimeter, a makeshift one with long, splintered planks of wood held by volunteers. Continually the children had to be shoved back, away from entering the area. After watching this for some time, word came in that there were still undetonated explosives present and the perimeter was expanded. I finally gave up and returned to work.

Later that afternoon I returned to survey the site. The brunt of the damage was thankfully absorbed by a building still under construction, upon which someone had painted ‘Fateh-land’ (Al-Fatah being the PLO’s armed wing). The bomb had gone off in a small garage, and had leveled those structures. It had wounded 15, and was reported as an accidental detonation by someone building it.

In a way I was rather relieved. I had finally seen the sort of event that I had longed to. I missed glimpsing the moment of suffering, but in some ways that may have a good thing. In truth though, I’ve never seen injured, bleeding people outside of demonstrations. I took a cab ‘downtown’ to Midan Filistine, what Jose dubs the ‘Gaza Times Square’, namely because of one or two neon signs. I sat, read and then too a service taxi up the road to go to an internet cafe. Just as I stepped out of the cab, planes were buzzing the city.

In the twilight sky, I had been able to make out the two red lights of the F16’s engines. The plane itself was too distant to see, and there were no contrails. Then a loud explosion startled me from the opposite direction. The sound came from the Northeast, where as the two main targets near my apartment were Southeast of me. People had poured out of the stores, gazing into the partially cloudy sky trying to catch a glimpse of the plane. Others were on cell phones, checking on the damage. I took the tense opportunity to sit in Jundi park and write about the moment. Naturally, as a Westerner with a video camera, within a minute I had attracted jabbering teenagers. Despite assurances that I knew no Arabic, they proceeded to talk about the planes and bombings. One briefly used my camera to film his friend sticking out his tongue. Then the F16 returned.

I stood resting along the park’s low wall, camera in hand looking vainly at the sky. Then from the north came a roaring sound of an engine and blown compressed air. Within two seconds it went from silence to the deafening scream of a rocket. One hand stumbled to turn on the camera as I stared ahead, mouth agape. BAM! The explosion was almost an anticlimax to the brief terror of the rocket engine. Black smoke and pulverized concrete rose in the air from behind the building infront of us. A missile had slammed into the Police City complex, less than 500 meters ahead.

I ran across the street but stopped on the corner. Soon enough another group of teenager ran past and, noticing my camera, urged me to follow. I was pensive, and wisely so. In early February, when a bomb struck another Security building in Gaza, journalists rushed to the scene, only to be hit by a second bomb fifteen minutes later. But the kids pressed on - one pausing to duck and yell “Boom!” I stumbled backwards, and they all had a nice laugh at my expense. Then the jet came back, and I turned North, just one block from the impact site. I paced for a while wondering just what I should do. The kids had pressed on without me. There was no actual need for me to go ahead, but curiosity is a powerful force.

I opted to move on towards the compound. I really cannot say why. Ahead of me a young man next to a booth waved me down. He was the night security guard at the School of the Visually Impaired, which had a convenient location in the backyard of the bombed police building. At first he explained, in broken English, that he couldn’t show me around because another bomb may come. I began taking some photos of the damage to the facility. The school is layed out with two ‘L’ shaped 2-story buildings surrounding a courtyard. Most every window was blown out and the broken window frames jutted out, away from the blast. Small chunks of concrete had sprayed across the courtyard. Eventually the guard fetched a flashlight and we moved on to inspect closer to the site.

He first showed me a small molten piece of metal that he identified as part of the missile. “Do not touch. It is uranium,” he explained, likely referring to the fear of depleted-uranium rounds being used. “Its ok to touch in 24 hours.” I kind of doubted his explanation, but obliged and passed over the potential souvenir. Across the courtyard, between the two school buildings was an alley leading to a playground in the back. A large fragmented portion of a metal tube lay among the rubble, which the guard said was more of the missile. He said that at home he had a chunk of one which still read “Made in the USA.” I apologized.

The playground was destroyed. A set of gymnastics-rings had been frayed, with the chains barely hanging on, amounting to a contorted Calder piece. The see-saw was blown in half, and the jungle-gym had its metal bars compressed by the blast. Oddly, a single small slide stood among piles of broken cynder blocks, untouched. From the back wall of the school, we could peer in through holes blown out by flying concrete splinters. They had devastated the classrooms inside.

I decided to move on, rounding the perimeter of the compound. A passing Palestinian man told me that he had called several journalists, but none had opted to come. He urged me to circle the place and see the civilian cars along the streets. On the North side of the block there indeed was one car with its front window and roof blown in by the blast. The air pressure compressed it, as no large rubble was around. An elderly couple hobbled up to invite me inside. Their damage was meager - part of a broken porch roof (whatever fell through, also went right through the chair beneath) and shattered livingroom windows. It wasn’t much, but they kept exclaiming how thankful they were just to have someone there to see it. They must have imagined that I could let the world know of their small suffering.

At the middle of the block was one of the enterences to the complex, and about 20 policemen were standing around. Just then three successive explosions rumbled out to the East. It was Ansar, along the coast being shelled by Israeli warships. I stood among the policemen for a while and was eventually invited to have coffee at a nearby shop with some of them and other elderly men. One man had lived in New York and spoke some English, but not enough to really engage in conversation though. As I sat down, radio calls came from the man to my right. He explained, as he sat in civilian dress, that he was with the Palestinian “Special Power Forces.” “Power Forces?” I asked, thinking something was lost in translation. “Special Power Forces,” he replied, nodding with a confident grin. Perhaps they have hope yet.

Next I was ushered along to join a group of policemen who were escorting an Arabic cameraman in to see the compound. This again piqued my nervousness, but I figured I had to see the immediate aftermath, despite the fact that it was completely dark by now.

The Police City compound is a place of total devastation. At least in Beirut, there was no more rubble or personal affects in the destroyed buildings. Here, among the various complexes, I could get a feel for the wide variety of Israeli weaponry. One building had merely been punctured several times, with gaping room-sized holes that turned the façade into swiss cheese. The building ahead of it was a cascade of rubble that spewed from one demolished floor to the next. Adjacent to that was a pancaked building, where three stories had collapsed, crushing everything beneath. A few buildings had enormous craters
just below them, bomb hits that allowed the building to fall into the holes. Papers, chairs and wooden splinters abounded among the rubble. It was impossible not to trip and stumble in the darkness. Since the compound is walled, in the darkness I could not see far beyond, allowing me to feel as if I was meandering aimlessly in the post-apocalypse.

When I finally departed and headed over to my original destination of an internet cafe, I finally began to notice just how much I was shaking. As I sat at the computer, I periodically had to stop and say to myself, “Holy fucking shit.” I found that I kept quietly imitating with my mouth the sound of the missile, like a child would, playing a wargame. It resonated in my head the whole night. I wrote at that time that I felt like I wasn’t inside my body. And that was just a lone missile. I don’t think I’d really do too well in a real warzone.

One was injured, another killed in that attack. Others were injured at Ansar. It was still nothing compared to what was going on elsewhere.