The place the world forgot
mel Frykberg sends this
exclusive report from Gaza
rossing the heavily militarised Erez border, which separates Israel from the Gaza Strip, machine-gun fire broke out. It was not clear who was shooting at who since there was nobody in sight. But when it died down the silence that followed it was as disturbing as the devastated landscape. A bombed bridge, huge craters in the roads, in which pools of foul-smelling sewage had accumulated and the skeletons of blackened homes with concertina-smashed storeys, were the tell-tale signs of Israel’s last military incursion into Gaza which left approximately 140 Palestinians dead, half of them civilian including a significant number of toddlers and babies, according to human rights organisations. The latest incursion followed a barrage of rockets fired on Israeli towns bordering Gaza. However, these primitive missiles caused some damage: one Israeli civilian died, one lost his leg and two Israeli soldiers were killed. The rocket attacks were in response to previous Israeli incursions into the Gaza Strip which had left dozens dead and many more maimed and seriously injured. A decision by the Israeli military advocate general decided that no disciplinary action would be taken against the Israeli military personnel involved in the firing of a dozen heavy 155mm artillery shells that killed 21 Palestinians in the northern Gaza town of Beit Lahiya in November 2006, ruling that it was an “accident”. This prompted the internationally renowned Israeli human rights organisation, B’Tselem, to claim that there was a “culture of impunity in the Israeli security forces”. The Israeli Chief of Staff then was the infaThe Middle easT May 2008
mous Dan Halutz who was forced to resign in the wake of the debacle of the Second Lebanon War in 2006. He first gained notoriety for ordering a one-ton bomb to be dropped on an apartment building in Gaza aimed at assassinating Saleh Shehade, a former leader of Hamas’ military wing. Shehade’s wife and three of his children were also killed as were another 10 civilians. When asked how he felt about his airforce indiscriminately bombing an apartment building filled with civilians in a densely-packed residential neighbourhood, his chilling response was: “I would have felt a slight shudder of the wings (as the F16 dropped its bomb).” While evidence of the physical decimation of the Gaza Strip, following the recent military incursion and various earlier invasions, was abundant, the insidious but equally devastating consequences of an international embargo and Israeli siege of the territory were less obvious. The sealing off of Gaza occurred in June last year after Hamas took power in the wake of its security forces routing their Fatah rivals. The embargo has translated into the cessation of the delivery of most goods into the impoverished Strip, preventing ill and hungry Gazans from receiving most medical, fuel and food supplies.
Ambulances have run low on fuel as have the hospital generators used in emergencies to keep essential medical equipment like incubators and kidney dialysis machines running. The number of Gazans suffering from poverty, malnutrition and psychological illness has skyrocketed. As my taxi made its way to the headquarters of the Palestinian Red Crescent (PRC) it appeared many people closer to the Israeli border had deserted their homes in order to escape the destruction and bloodshed. Closer to Gaza City our taxi driver negotiated the partially destroyed roads that were filled with the ubiquitous donkey carts that have largely replaced vehicles due to the fuel blockade. I spent the next couple of days, accompanying a PRC ambulance, visiting the bombed out neighbourhoods and camps in Gaza, and talking to the survivors of Israel’s aerial bombardments which had employed Apache attack helicopters, F16 fighter jets, Merkava tanks and artillery shells guided by aerial surveillance balloons hovering strategically above.
While evidence of the physical decimation of the Gaza Strip is everywhere, the insidious but equally devastating consequences of an international embargo and Israeli siege of the territory are less obvious
Fuel shorTages have forced most vehicles off the streets of gaza – even ambulances cannot always get fuel
A week earlier, an Israeli missile attack on a family home, in the Al Burej refugee camp in the central Gaza Strip, had killed eight members of the Fayad family including Islamic Jihad commander, Ayman Fayad, 41, his wife Marwa, 35, daughter Bisma, 13, and son Ayoub, 5. Another 40 people were wounded in the Al Burej camp explosion while several neighbouring homes were destroyed. Witnesses said they had seen an Israeli missile hit the home. But the Israeli authorities initially denied they had carried out any operation. They later retracted the denial, agreeing they had targeted Ayman Fayad but, they claimed, the subsequent explosion had involved a “work accident” caused by explosives stored in the home. Be that as it may, two extended families were united in grief as the future of the six surviving children was brought into question. Anas Zayad, Marwa’s 27-year-old brother showed me around the crater of the bombed out building where armed fighters from Islamic Jihad stood guard. Anas picked up bits of earth and rubble to show the remains of a dress that had belonged to Marwa underneath. He then pointed out the remains of a child’s mudsplattered colouring book which had belonged to his niece, 13-year-old Bisma. “She was a bright student who won several awards,” explained Anas pointing out
the remains of a certificate she had won. He turned his head away as tears welled in his eyes. “They could have killed Ayman only, he was a military man. Why did they have to target the homes and kill and wound so many women, children and civilians?” asked Anas as we sat later in the Zayad home drinking bitter Arabic coffee and chewing on dates. Later, I visited 17-year-old Ali Fayad in Gaza’s Shifa hospital where he lay unconscious recovering from several head surgeries after he was seriously injured in the same incident. In the ambulance I travelled on to Rafah on the Gaza-Egypt border. Because of Israel’s intensive shelling of the Strip, parts of the main road to the south had been destroyed forcing us to take the longer coastal road. Weeks earlier this border post had been breeched, allowing Gaza’s caged humanity to pour into Egypt for a brief taste of freedom and the chance to stock up on basic essentials. After passing Hamas security men stationed along the Palestinian border wall, which was still destroyed, the ambulance drove slowly along the border where I observed Egyptian soldiers busy electrifying their side of the border fence. The ambulance was stopped several times by Hamas security guards, stationed
in small groups along the border. We were asked to verify our identities and our purpose for being there. At one stage we were warned not to park the ambulance near them for our own safety as they feared an imminent attack by an Israeli F16. At the main Rafah crossing into Egypt a group of armed Egyptian police decked out in full riot gear, stood with batons and weapons at the ready, in case of another attempt to breach the border. They exchanged glares through the border gate with Hamas guards on the other side. An uneasy peace exists between the security forces of both sides since Hamas agreed to prevent any further attempts by Palestinians to cross over into Egypt again. Our next stop was Beit Lahiya not far from the Israeli-Erez border where the “errant” missiles had wiped out 21 Palestinians in a matter of minutes. Despite it being a pleasant, sunny day, the streets of Beit Hanoun, where the massacre took place, were ghostly silent as posters of the dead looked down on us from pock-marked buildings. Several people with amputated limbs, and others still undergoing surgery, sat quietly outside their homes, all declined to discuss the killings which had taken place on that doomed day in 2006. But words were unnecessary, the expressions on their faces said it all. Nearby were the remains of a mosque the Israelis levelled during the same attack. The mosque made news headlines around the world after Israeli troops opened fire on a group of unarmed women in their enthusiasm to get to Hamas and Islamic Jihad gunmen who had taken shelter inside the building . Several women were killed and all the men rounded up, blindfolded, assaulted and taken for questioning. “They beat us constantly and hung us up by our arms which were handcuffed,” explained a young man called Nasser who sat drinking tea with a group of men who recalled the days-long curfew which had been imposed as supplies of water and food dwindled. The sombre mood, the surrounding wasteland and the Israeli zeppelin surveillance balloon hovering above – from which even the tiniest activity was transmitted back to a military intelligence centre – did little to improve the sense of despair and hopelessness which continues to permeate the area. n
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