UPDATED: Scores injured in explosions, Israeli attacks on Gaza

A Palestinian man carries a wounded girl into Gaza City’s Shifa hospital following Israeli air strikes on the Gaza Strip, 30 July 2010. (AFP Photo)

Israeli airstikes killed a Palestinian resistance activist and wounded another early Wednesday morning 4 August, east of Khan Younis in the occupied Gaza Strip, reports Reuters, citing Palestinian medical sources. This latest attack comes on the heels of five days of Israeli missile strikes, Palestinian rocket fire and other explosions that have injured dozens and killed one leader of the armed wing of Hamas.

Tens of Palestinians were injured in a massive explosion on Monday, 2 August in the refugee camp of Deir al-Balah in the south of the occupied Gaza Strip. The Electronic Intifada originally stated, using reports from Ma’an news agency in the West Bank which referred to Palestinian medical sources, that the blast was caused by Israeli missile strikes. However recent reports by the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR) indicate that “there are reasons to suspect that the explosion was coming from inside the house and occurred for no apparent reason … Internal explosions occurred in the past in houses amidst densely populated areas, because of mistakes in manufacturing, bad storage of bombs or other reasons, which caused many fatalities among civilians and destroyed houses” (“PCHR Calls for Investigations into Injury of 58 Palestinians …”).

Al-Jazeera reported that medical rescue crews dug through rubble to locate injured civilians (“Gaza blast wounds Palestinians,” 2 August 2010). The building rocked by the explosion belongs to Senior Hamas official Alaa al-Danaf, who wasn’t killed in the explosion. Hamas sources told Al-Jazeera that the home was hit by an Israeli missile, but the Israeli military has denied responsibility, saying that there were no aerial operations at that time. PCHR says it is launching a full investigation into the incident, and will publish the results of their findings.

However Monday’s massive explosions followed three consecutive days of Israeli military air strikes, as US-made Israeli warplanes hit multiple areas in the occupied Gaza Strip over the weekend, inciting panic in and inflicting trauma onto a population still reeling from the 2008-09 bombings and invasions. During those three weeks of attacks, which the Israeli government dubbed “Operation Cast Lead,” more than 1,400 Palestinians were killed and thousands of homes leveled.

According to the Israeli daily Haaretz on Monday, at least five rockets were fired at the southern Israeli port city of Eilat, where no casualties were reported. One of the rockets landed in the Jordanian town of Aqaba, where one Jordanian civilian was killed and four wounded. The Chinese news agency Xinhua reported that although Israel blamed the Hamas government in Gaza for the rocket attacks, Jordanian security services stated that the rockets were fired from either Egypt’s Sinai or southern Jordan, not from Gaza. Hamas, which has no history of carrying out operations from outside Palestine, also strongly denied any involvement.

Hamas’ armed wing has maintained a renewed unilateral ceasefire policy since 19 January 2009 following Israel’s invasions. Hamas also respected a six-month ceasefire brokered by Cairo in June 2008 even though Israel did not fulfill its obligations to ease the crippling embargo it imposed on Gaza following the election of the Hamas government in 2006. The ceasefire was broken when Israel extrajudicially executed Hamas activists in November 2008 and Operation Cast Lead soon followed.

But Palestinian resistance factions inside the Gaza Strip — unaffiliated with Hamas — claimed responsibility for rocket fire beginning on Friday, and continuing throughout the weekend as Israeli aerial and ground attacks escalated.

A Grad-type rocket was fired from Gaza on Friday afternoon, hitting an area near a residential building in the nearby Israeli town of Ashkelon, just north of the Gaza boundary. Hours later, rockets landed in the Negev desert. Haaretz reported on 1 August that no one was injured in either of the rocket strikes.

In response to the rocket firings, at 11:30pm on Friday, 30 July, 19 Palestinians were injured when Israeli warplanes attacked an area near the presidential compound in Gaza City, firing two missiles on an area designated for civilian police and security vehicles. The late-night explosions hit the Arafat Police College and wounded 16 police officers, as well as two women and a child who were walking near the area when the missiles hit, reported the Palestinian Ma’an news agency. The injured were treated at Shifa hospital in Gaza City.

“Traumatic reminder”

According to Adie Mormech, a British volunteer in Gaza working with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), Palestinians close to the bombings were in shock.

“For many in Gaza, [Friday night’s] attack was a traumatic reminder of the onslaught during Operation Cast Lead when three hundred F-16 bomb attacks took place during the first two minutes of the campaign,” an ISM press release on the strikes stated (“Israel bombs central Gaza City,” 31 July 2010).

“The blast caused buildings far from the epicenter of the explosion to shake, and windows were smashed,” reported Mormech. “When we arrived at Shifa hospital, the scene was chaos.”

According to the Gaza-based Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR), during the air strikes in Gaza City, the Israeli air force simultaneously attacked a tunnel area at the Gaza-Egypt border (“A Series of Israeli Attacks Wound Many Civilians …,” 1 August 2010).

Tunnels, which have become a lifeline for Gaza’s 1.5 million Palestinians who remain under a siege of collective punishment, are often the only way people can receive basic supplies and fuel, as well as livestock, luxuries and other consumer goods.

Approximately one hour after the strikes on the presidential compound and the tunnels, just past midnight on 31 July, Israeli warplanes fired missiles into an open area in the Nuseirat refugee camp west of Gaza City, extrajudicially killing Issa Abdul Hadi al-Batran, a member of the armed resistance wing of the elected Hamas party. Ten Palestinians were injured in the early-morning missile attacks.

Al-Batran was the target of several assassination attempts by the Israeli military, the latest of which occurred during Israel’s 2008-09 attacks; on 16 January 2009, al-Batran’s wife and five young children were killed when Israeli forces bombed their home (“22nd Day of Continuous IOF Attacks on the Gaza Strip,” PCHR, 17 January 2009).

After the assassination of al-Batran and the air strikes against the police compound, the Israeli government released a statement from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office, which said “Israel takes the firing on Ashkelon very seriously.”

Israeli ground snipers shot three industrial workers near the northern Erez crossing a few hours later that morning, injuring the laborers who were collecting raw materials from nearby piles of rubble. The Israeli military has declared a vast 67 square kilometers of agricultural areas near the border as “no-go zones,” and regularly shoot Palestinians who tend their farms or collect materials near these areas.

Later that same day on 31 July, the Israeli air force resumed missile strikes over Gaza City, damaging a six-story business center. Several offices of nongovernmental organizations and the office of the Organization of the Islamic Conference in Gaza were wrecked.

Palestinian armed resistance groups affiliated with the Salafi movement in Gaza fired another rocket into the western Negev on Saturday evening, saying it was “in retaliation to the ongoing Israeli aggressions against the Palestinian people,” according to Ma’an mews. The projectile hit a public building, damaging the second story which was used as a daycare center for people with disabilities.

On Sunday, 1 August, Israeli warplanes launched missiles at open agricultural areas east of Khan Younis and again at tunnel areas at the Gaza-Egypt border.

Direct talks with Israel “waste of time”

After last weekend’s air strikes, the Hamas government announced that it is holding the Arab League and Mahmoud Abbas’ West Bank-based Palestinian Authority responsible for Israel’s escalating assaults against Palestinians in Gaza, reported Ma’an. Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said on 1 August that the Arab League’s decision to endorse direct talks with the Netanyahu administration — while Israel’s human rights violations continue — “endangers Palestinian interests and inalienable rights.”

“Our people in Gaza are paying a toll for the huge error and political sin committed by the Arab Peace Initiative’s follow-up committee against the Palestinian people,” Barhoum stated. “The committee has given the Israeli occupation the pretext and coverage they needed to attack our people and continue with settlement activities and displacement” (“Hamas: Gaza paying for Arab ‘political sin’,” 1 August 2010).

Direct talks between Israel and the West Bank’s Palestinian Authority were canceled in December 2008 when Israel began its attacks on the Gaza Strip. According to Al-Jazeera, the Arab League last week sought help from the United States to pressure Israel into signing pre-conditional guarantees that settlements in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem would stop before direct talks could resume. On August, the Obama administration in Washington announced that “the time is right” for direct talks.

Barhoum added that waiting for substantial support for Palestinian rights from US President Barack Obama would be “a waste of time.”

Meanwhile, on 2 August the Al Mezan Center for Human Rights in Gaza called on the international community “to intervene and to ensure that civilians and their property are protected in the occupied Palestinian territories.” Warning of a military escalation, Al Mezan added that the international community’s silence over the last four days of lethal Israeli attacks on Gaza only encourages Israel “to violate international law and human rights with impunity” (“Series of IOF Aerial Attacks Hit Gaza …”).

Editor’s note: This story has been updated since it was first published.