Having returned from Gaza, I am trying to come to terms with what I saw, what I heard and honestly, what I don’t think I will ever understand — the justification. While Israel’s recent offensive has been the most egregious of any historical attack upon the Palestinians in Gaza, it is just that, one of many. Gaza has been under Israeli bombardment and sanctions for decades. Prior to the Israeli pullout in 2005, Gaza was under complete Israeli control and occupation. Nearly 8,000 Israeli settlers occupied 40 percent of Gaza while the 1.5 million Palestinians occupied the remaining 60 percent. Settlements were located on the most fertile lands and along Gaza’s beautiful coastal regions and checkpoints prevented Palestinian mobility. Despite being one-fifth the size of Rhode Island, 25 miles long and 4 to 7.5 miles wide, Gaza was divided into three sections and Palestinians had to pass through multiple checkpoints to get from one section to the next. Often Israeli forces would close these checkpoints and not allow the Palestinians access to the other regions in Gaza as a form of collective punishment.
Yet with Israel’s pullout in 2005, the Palestinian experience has not improved. Rather, it has become even more unpredictable and isolated. Palestinians who celebrated the exodus of the Israeli settlers and the return of some of their land could not have imagined what would follow and how Israel would subsequently unleash its brutal force against them. As the saying goes, nothing in life is free and the Palestinians have paid, and continue to pay, a dear and unforgivable price for Israel’s withdrawal from their legally rightful land. Ironically, the majority of Palestinians living in Gaza are refugees who fled from their homes that were previously located in what has become Israel proper due to the influx of Zionist settlers. These refugees have yet to be restored their right to their original land and property. Now these Palestinians are even being denied their right to be refugees as Israel continues to bombard their homes in Gaza and destroy any livelihood they may have had.
Having been to both the West Bank and Gaza, I cannot begin to describe how different the two regions are despite their proximity. Unlike the West Bank, once inside Gaza, there is no fear of bumping into an Israeli soldier or waiting for hours at a checkpoint or having an Israeli soldier point an M-16 at your head while you show your identification card. Yet once inside Gaza, one is in constant fear and apprehension of what missile may fall from the skies or from the sea. The sound of Apache helicopters and drones are a constant reminder that Gaza remains at the mercy of the Israeli military.
After sunset, Gaza becomes a ghost town as Palestinians lock their doors and often sit without electricity, fearing to roam the streets. If a Palestinian is to be killed by an Israeli missile, he would rather be killed together with his family and not alone on the streets. Yet, as seen by the recent offensive, when Israel wishes to attack, it is not prevented from doing so by the time of day or by the location.
From the first moments of Israel’s military campaign on 27 December, Israel’s indifference to civilian casualties was clear. Its first attacks started at around 11:30am, at a time when children leave the morning session of school and the afternoon students arrive. The streets were packed with civilians — children no less. Within moments, hundreds of Palestinians were killed and even more Palestinians were injured (at least 280 Palestinians were killed on the first day, and 700 wounded, including more than a dozen policemen attending a graduation ceremony at the Gaza City police station). A little girl in Jabaliya told me that she was in school when the attacks started. She fainted from the overwhelming fear and was not able to go home and see her family for days. When she did go home, she remembers seeing dead and injured bodies stranded all over street and hearing the thundering sound of missiles falling.
In its offensive, Israel attacked the warehouses of the UN agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA), schools, mosques, civilian neighborhoods, businesses, factories, hospitals, universities and the media center. Its attacks took place during the day, night, during temporary ceasefires, and often without any notice or warning. I would ask the Palestinians I met who had lost loved ones in the recent incursion whether they were warned about an oncoming attack by some flyer or radio announcement. The majority would laugh at my question. “Why would I stay in my home if I knew that it was going to be attacked? Do you think I want to die? Do you think I would want to put my family and children in danger?” Most of the Palestinians had no notice that they were going to be attacked and bombarded until it was too late, and at that point, all they could do was stay in their homes, far from any window or door, and pray that their house would not be next.
Those, like Majid Fathi Abd al-Aziz al-Najjar, who were warned, tended to flee to “safer” areas. Majid and his wife and children resided in a border town in Khan Younis. Shortly after the start of its incursion, the Israeli military dropped flyers on his town, a copy of which he showed me. It said in Arabic that militants had entered the area and as a result the Israeli army was forced to react and attack this area. Yet these flyers were only dropped in the center of town and Majid did not even realize that they were dropped until after the attacks on his way to see the rubble that used to be his home. Realizing that Israeli tanks were planning on entering Gaza and would destroy anything that would block their entry, Majid packed his family and fled to a relative’s home far from the border, in an area deemed safe. Yet, at 10pm on 3 January 2009, a white phosphorus missile strayed off course and rammed right into the home that Majid and his family had taken refuge in, along with 15 to 20 other Palestinians. The missile came through the roof and killed Majid’s wife, Hanan Abd al-Ghani al-Najjar, instantly. Six or seven others, including Hanan’s elderly mother and Hanan and Majid’s daughter, were severely injured by shrapnel and rushed to the hospital. Whereas Majid thought he had fled from certain death in his home on the border, death followed him to his place of refuge. Yet the sad reality is that no matter where Majid fled, no place in Gaza was safe. Hanan’s death was not the unpredictable result of a misguided missile, but rather the predictable consequence of a one-sided war waged by one of the world’s most powerful armies against a population that is trapped within a prison and weakened by decades of occupation and years of blockade.
While Israel has perfected its many excuses in justifying innocent Palestinian death and destruction (“there were militants present,” or “we thought there were militants present,” “we warned them but they did not to leave,” “missiles were being fired from that (insert location here),” “we are investigating this attack,” “it was an accident”). Israel has fallen short of providing actual evidence to substantiate killing people like Hanan Abd al-Ghani al-Najjar, Kassab Shurrab, Ibrahim Shurrab, Mahmoud Masharrawi, Amal Abed Rabu, Suaad Abed Rabu, Farah al-Helo, Halima Badwan and the majority of others killed. After attacking the UN-operated al-Fakhura school in Jabaliya on 6 January, where many families had taken refuge and killing at least 40 innocent women and children and injuring dozens more, Israel made a rare attempt to actually justify its attacks. Not only did Israel use one of its staple excuses (“militants were firing from inside the school”), but it actually showed a video of militants firing mortars from the school. However, the video was dated to summer 2006 — during Israel’s last major invasion into Gaza — and until now, it has not provided another staple excuse of why, more than two years later, the al-Fakhura school was attacked and the hundreds of Palestinian civilians taking shelter there were killed and injured.
But let us play the devil’s advocate and agree that the majority of Israel’s attacks were completely reactionary and only consequent to Palestinian militant firing. Let us assume that Israel was justified in its attacks against al-Fakhura school, in its demolition of the American School, the best school in Gaza, in its destruction of the UNRWA warehouses which housed tons of humanitarian aid, in its shelling of the Palestine Red Crescent Society, in its obliteration of the Samouni home in the Zeitoun neighborhood of Gaza City where hundreds of family members had taken refuge after being directed to do so by the Israeli military, resulting in the killing of 48 to 70 members of the same family (I visited this area during the mass memorial for the Samouni family and it still reeked of rotting bodies and phosphorus), in its eradication of the Gaza City police station, in its shooting at UN cars, clearly marked with the large blue letters, and at ambulance drivers, in its destruction of the Islamic University of Gaza on 28 December, in its bombing of the Gaza media building, and the list goes on and on. Yet, let us momentarily assume that Israel was the victim in all of this madness, as it claims it was, and that in fact the Palestinians are the ones to blame.
How then, does Israel explain the executions, the shooting of Palestinians point blank in cold blood? How does it justify Israeli soldiers shooting Kassab Shurrab with seven bullets across the chest as he came out of his car with his hands to his side, especially as one of the Palestinian hostages sitting blindfolded by the soldiers heard the commander tell the soldier in Hebrew to shoot the civilians that were driving down the road. What about the two daughters of Khaled Abed Rabu, Amal, two years old, and Suaad, seven years old, murdered by an Israeli soldier using a semi-automatic rifle before their father’s eyes as the other Israeli soldiers ate chips and chocolate?
Or Sameer Rashid Mohammad Mohammad, a 43-year-old UNRWA worker, who was separated from his family by Israeli soldiers and taken to a separate room and shot in the chest? For four days after killing Sameer, Israeli soldiers held his family hostage and would make the family prepare the murdered Sameer food. Only when the Israeli soldiers left their home, did Sameer’s children see that their father was executed and by their father’s dead and bleeding body were piles of food.
How about Farah al-Helo, 18 months old, shot in the stomach when her family was forced to evacuate from their home at 6:30pm by Israeli soldiers who assured them of their safety? Only 50 meters down the road they were shot at by other Israeli soldiers. Farah, with her intestines spilling from her stomach, died on the side of the road a few hours later as the same soldiers that had assured their safety watched.
Further, how can Israel explain its use of the Palestinians as human shields? Upon entering a village, Israeli soldiers would separate the men from the women. Sami Rashid Mohammad Mohammad, Sameer’s brother, was taken as a hostage and forced to accompany the Israeli soldiers for four days. He was handcuffed and blindfolded and made to walk in front of the Israeli tanks and soldiers as bullets would whiz by. At other times, he was made to sit on his knees in an open field for hours while Israeli soldiers would shoot from behind him and often at his feet. These Palestinians were nothing more than entertainment for the soldiers, a child’s play toy. When I asked Sami whether he saw any Palestinian militants during his time as a human shield, he laughed and said that he only saw Israeli soldiers with their blackened faces and camouflage outfits.
Additionally, how can Israel explain the humiliating tactics it used against the Palestinians such as forcing Palestinian ambulance drivers to abandon their ambulance cars and drive donkey carts to pick up the dead and wounded as if to equate Palestinians with donkeys? The soldiers would grant the ambulance drivers half an hour to clear the area using donkey carts and threatened to shoot after half an hour. And what about the racist remarks painted on the walls of Palestinian homes? One of my co-delegates took pictures of the Hebrew writings graffitied on the walls of some of the homes we visited in Zeitoun and had a friend translate them. Among the things written were: “Death to Arabs,” “War now between Arabs and Jews,” “An Arab brave is an Arab in a grave,” “Bad to the Arab = good for me,” “He who dreams Givati [Israeli infantry brigade] does not expel Jews. He who dreams Givati kills Arabs!!!”
The reality is that Israel cannot explain or justify any of these things, nor does it even care to do so. When Israel’s staple excuses are not readily consumed or when they are examined under a critical lens, Israel applies another tactic: threat and demonization. Israel has created one of the strongest lobby organizations in the US, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which actively demonizes any opponent or criticizer of the State of Israel. Due to UNRWA director John Ging’s open opposition to Israel’s attacks in Gaza and his call for an investigation into the attacks on UN buildings, he has been demonized and AIPAC recently introduced to the House Foreign Affairs Committee House Resolution 29 attacking UNRWA and alleging that it supports terrorists. Even I have received a few threatening emails upon the issuance of the National Lawyers Guild’s Press Report which documented some of our findings. One of the emails indicated that I, along with the other attorneys, will have our careers followed. As the email stated, “Israel is smart not stupid, and will continue to do what they must as will America to survive even over the bodies of their leaders if necessary.”
Now that I have left Gaza, I wonder what it will take to depoliticize the situation in Gaza and for the Palestinians, and make it into a human rights and humanitarian issue. Before entering the Rafah border crossing, I spoke with someone from Amnesty International. He had waited at the crossing for three days and was still denied entry. I asked him what was the most difficult area he had visited. He told me that Palestine, and Gaza specifically, was the most politically difficult area to advocate on behalf of in his decades-long career as a human rights advocate.
Almost every Palestinian I met in Gaza believes that Israel’s recent attack will only be followed by another bloodier and more deadly attack on Gaza that will exterminate the Palestinians once and for all. Considering the history of attacks on Gaza, the level of atrocities recently committed in Gaza and the lack of international redress, I do not think that these statements are mere paranoia. Israel must be held accountable for its crimes in Gaza lest it commit larger and more egregious crimes in the future. As one who has been trained in the legal profession, I demand that Israel engage the legal arena and provide the international community with real evidence, and not just staple excuses and dated videos, that can justify every single civilian murder and the widespread destruction of Palestinian civil society. Until Israel is able to do so, the evidence in Gaza leads anyone willing to visit to the inevitable conclusion that Israel has committed war crimes.
Reem Salahi is a lawyer and Bridge Fellow in the National Security and Immigrants’ Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Southern California. She recently traveled with six other attorneys and one law student to Gaza in the National Lawyers Guild delegation. This article is based on what she saw and experienced during her time in Gaza.