Gaza: “This is only the beginning”

Palestinian children attend funeral processions for victims of Israeli missile strikes in Rafah refugee camp, southern Gaza Strip, 28 December 2008. (Hatem Omar/MaanImages)

27 December 2008

As I write this, Israeli jets are bombing the areas of Zeitoun and Rimal in central Gaza City. The family I am staying with has moved into the internal corridor of their home to shelter from the bombing. The windows nearly blew out just five minutes ago as a massive explosion rocked the house. Apache helicopters are hovering above us, while F-16s soar overhead.

United Nations radio reports say one blast was a target close to the main gate of al-Shifa hospital — the largest medical facility in Gaza. Another was a plastics factory. More bombs continue to pound the Strip.

Sirens are wailing on the streets outside. Regular power cuts plunge the city into blackness every night and tonight is no exception. Only perhaps tonight it is the darkest night people have seen here in their lifetimes.

As of this writing, more than 220 people have been killed and at least 400 injured through attacks that shocked the Strip in the space of 15 minutes. Hospitals are overloaded and unable to cope. These attacks come on top of the already existing humanitarian crisis that came about because of the 18-month Israeli siege which has resulted in a lack of medicines, bread, flour, gas, electricity, fuel and freedom of movement.

Doctors at al-Shifa Hospital had to scramble together 10 make-shift operating theaters to deal with the wounded. The hospital’s maternity ward had to transform their operating room into an emergency theater. Al-Shifa only had 12 beds in their intensive care unit, they had to make space for 27 today.

There is a shortage of medicine — over 105 key items are not in stock, and blood and spare generator parts are desperately needed.

Al-Shifa’s main generator is the life support machine of the entire hospital. It’s the apparatus keeping the ventilators and monitors and lights turned on that keep people inside alive. And it doesn’t have the spare parts it needs, despite the International Committee for the Red Cross urging Israel to allow it to transport them through Erez checkpoint.

Al-Shifa’s Head of Casualty, Dr. Maowiya Abu Hassanieh explained that “We had over 300 injured in over 30 minutes. There were people on the floor of the operating theater, in the reception area, in the corridors; we were sending patients to other hospitals. Not even the most advanced hospital in the world could cope with this number of casualties in such a short space of time.”

As Lieutenant-General Gabi Ashkenazi, the Israeli occupation forces Chief of Staff, said this morning, “This is only the beginning.”

But this isn’t the beginning — it is an ongoing policy of collective punishment and killing with impunity practiced by Israel for decades. It has seen its most intensified level today. But the weight of dread, revenge and isolation hangs thick over Gaza. People are all asking: If this is only the beginning, what will the end look like?

11:30 am

Alberto Acre, a Spanish journalist, and I were on the border village of Sirej near the city of Khan Younis in the south of the Strip. We had driven there at 8am with the mobile clinic of the Union of Palestinian Relief Committees. The clinic regularly visits exposed, frequently raided villages far from medical facilities. We had been interviewing residents about conditions on the border. Stories of olive and orange groves, and family farmland, bulldozed to make way for a clear line of sight for Israeli army watch towers and border guards. Prior to today, Israeli attacks have been frequent — indiscriminate fire and shelling sprayed homes and land on the front line of the south eastern border. One elderly farmer showed us the grave-size ditch he had dug to climb into when Israeli soldiers would shoot into his fields.

Alberto was interviewing a family that had survived an Israeli missile attack on their home last month. It had been a response to rocket fire from resistance fighters nearby. Four fighters were killed in a field by the border. Israel had rained rockets and M-16 fire back. The family, caught in the crossfire, has not returned to their home.

I was waiting for Alberto to return when ground shaking thuds tilted us off our feet. This was the sound of surface to air fired missiles and F-16 bombs slamming into the police stations and bases of the Hamas authority across Gaza. We zoomed out of the village in our ambulance, and onto the main road to Gaza City, before jumping out to film the smoldering remains of a police station in Deir al-Balah near Khan Younis. Eyewitnesses said two Israeli missiles had destroyed the station. One had soared through a children’s playground and a busy fruit and vegetable market before striking its target.

Civilians dead

There was blood on a broken plastic yellow slide, and a crippled, dead donkey with an upturned vegetable cart beside it. Aubergines and splattered blood covered the ground. A market trader present during the attack began to explain in broken English what happened: “It was full here, full, three people dead, many, many injured.” An elderly man with a white kuffiyeh scarf around his head threw his hands down to his blood-drenched trousers and cried, “Look! Look at this! Shame on all governments, shame on Israel, look how they kill us, they are killing us and what does the world do? Where is the world, where are they, we are being killed here, hell upon them!”

He began to pick up splattered tomatoes he had lost from his cart, picking them up jerkily, and putting them into plastic bags, quickly. Behind a small tile and brick building, a man was sitting against the wall, his legs were bloodied. He couldn’t get up and was sitting, visibly in pain and shock, trying to adjust himself, to orientate himself.

The Deir al-Balah police station itself was a wreck, a mess of twisted piles of concrete — broken floors upon floors. Smashed cars and a split palm tree split the road.

We walked on, hurriedly, with everyone else, eyes skyward at four US-made Apache helicopters whose trigger mechanisms are supplied by the United Kingdom’s Brighton-Based EDM Technologies. They were dropping smoky bright flares — a defense against any attempt at Palestinian missile retaliation.

Turning down the road leading to the Deir al-Balah Civil Defense Force headquarters we suddenly saw a rush of people streaming across the road, shouting “They’ve been bombing twice, they’ve been bombing twice!” We ran too, but towards the crowds and away from “a ministry building,” which our friend explained could be a possible second target as the Apaches rumbled above.

Arriving at the police station we saw the remains of a life at work smashed short. A prayer matt clotted with dust, a policeman’s hat, the ubiquitous bright flower-patterned mattresses, burst open. A crater around 20 feet in diameter was filled with pulverized walls and floors and a motorbike, tossed on its side like a toy.

Policemen were frantically trying to get a fellow worker out from under the rubble. Everyone was trying to call him on his cell phone. “Stop it everyone, just one, one of you ring,” shouted an officer. A fire licked the underside of a room now crushed to just three feet high. The men rapidly grasped and threw back rocks, blocks and debris to reach the man.

We made our way to al-Aqsa Hospital. Trucks and cars loaded with the men of entire families — uncles, nephews, brothers — piled high and speeding to the hospital to check on loved ones, horns blaring without interruption.

Hospitals on the brink

Entering al-Aqsa was overwhelming — pure pandemonium, charged with grief, horror, distress and shock. Limp, blood-covered and burnt bodies streamed by us on rickety stretchers. Before the morgue, tens of shouting relatives crammed up to its open double doors. Our friend explained that “they could not even identify who was who, whether it is their brother or cousin or who, because they are so burned.” Many were transferred, in ambulances and the back of trucks and cars to al-Shifa Hospital.

The injured couldn’t speak. Causality after casualty sat propped against the outside walls, being comforted by relatives, with wounds temporarily dressed. The more drastically injured were inside, where relatives jostled with doctors in constant motion to bring in their injured in scuffed blankets. Drips, bloody faces, scorched hair and shrapnel cuts to hands, chests, legs, arms and heads dominated the reception area, wards and operating theaters.

We saw a bearded man on a stretcher on the floor of an intensive care unit, shaking and shaking, involuntarily, legs rigid and thrusting downwards — a spasm consistent with a spinal cord injury. Would he ever walk again or talk again? In another unit, a baby girl, no older than six months, had shrapnel wounds to her face. A relative lifted a blanket to show us her fragile bandaged leg. Her eyes were saucer-wide and she was making stilted, repetitive, squeaking sounds.

A first estimate at al-Aqsa Hospital was 40 dead and 120 injured. The hospital was dealing with casualties from the bombed market, a playground, a Civil Defense Force’s station, a civil and traffic police stations — all were leveled. Two of the dead were carried out on stretchers from the hospital. Their bodies were lifted up by crowds of grief-stricken men and taken to the graveyard accompanied by cries of “There is not God but God!”

Who cares?

Many Palestinians in Gaza feel that no one is looking out for them apart from God. Back in al-Shifa Hospital tonight, we met the brother of a security guard who was sitting in the doorway of the former headquarters of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. The building collapsed on top of him after an Israeli missile strike. He said to us, “We don’t have anyone but God. We feel alone. Where is the world? Where is the action to stop these attacks?”

Majid Salim, stood beside his comatose mother, Fatima. Earlier today she had been sitting at her desk at work at the Khadija Arafat Charity, located near the headquarters of Hamas’ security forces in Gaza City. Israel’s attack had left her with multiple internal and head injuries, a tube down her throat and a ventilator keeping her alive. Majid gestured to her, “We didn’t attack Israel, my mother didn’t fire rockets at Israel. This is the biggest terrorism, to have our mother bombarded at work.”

The groups of men lining the corridors of the over-stretched al-Shifa hospital are stunned, agitated, patient and lost. We spoke to a group of men whose brother had both arms broken and serious facial and head injuries. They explained that “We couldn’t recognize his face, it was so black from the weapons used.” Another man turns to me and said. “I am a teacher. I teach human rights — this is a course we have, human rights.” He paused. ‘How can I teach, my son, my children, about the meaning of human rights under these conditions, under this siege?”

The UN Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) and local government schools have developed a human rights syllabus, which teaches children about international law, the Geneva Conventions, the International Declaration on Human Rights, and The Hague Regulations. One goal of the program is to develop a culture of human rights in Gaza, and to help generate more self-confidence and a sense of security and dignity for the children. But the contradiction between what should be adhered to as a common code of conduct agreed to by most states, including Israel, and the realities on the ground is stark. International law is not being applied or enforced with respect to Israeli policies toward Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, inside Israel, or the millions of refugees living in camps in Lebanon, Jordan and Syria.

How can a new consciousness and practice of human rights ever graduate from rhetoric to reality when everything points to the contrary in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and in Israel? The United Nations have been spurned and shut out by Israel. Earlier this month, Richard Falk, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Human Rights, was held prisoner at Ben Gurion Airport before being unceremoniously deported. The Gaza Strip is one of the most densely populated regions on the planet. In the Jabaliya refugee camp alone, Gaza’s largest, 125,000 people are crowded into a space of only two square kilometers. Bombardment by F-16s and Apache helicopters at mid-morning, as children leave their schools for home, reveals an utter contempt for civilian safety. This is compounded by an 18-month siege that bans all imports and exports, and has resulted in the deaths of more than 270 people as a result of a lack of access to essential medicines and treatment. Israel is granted immunity by an international community that offers empty phrases for Israel to “urge restraint” and “minimize civilian casualties.”

A light

There is a saying here in Gaza: “At the end of the tunnel, there is another tunnel.” Not so funny when you consider that Gaza is being kept alive through the smuggling of food, fuel and medicine through an exploitative industry of over 1,000 tunnels running from Egypt to the southern city of Rafah. On average, one to two people die every week in the tunnels. Some embark on a humiliating crawl to get their education, see their families, to find work, on their hands and knees. Other tunnels are reportedly big enough to drive through.

As bombs continue to blast buildings around us, jarring the children in this house from their fitful sleep, the saying could take on another twist. After today’s killing of more than 200, is it that at the end of the tunnel, there is another tunnel, and then a grave? Or is it a wall of international complicity and silence?

Yet, there is a light through the wall — a light of conscience turned into activism by people all over the world. We can turn a spotlight onto Israel’s crimes against humanity and the enduring injustice here in Palestine, by coming out onto the streets and pressuring our governments; demanding an end to Israeli apartheid and occupation, broadening our call for boycott, divestment and sanctions, and for a genuine and just peace. Through institutional, governmental, and popular means, this can be the light at the end of the Gaza’s tunnel.

Ewa Jasiewicz is a journalist, community and union organizer, and solidarity worker. She is currently Gaza Project Co-coordinator for the Free Gaza Movement.

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