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Saturday, December 27, 2008

"This is only the beginning" Slaughter in Gaza

Gaza today: 'This is only the beginning'
By Ewa Jasiewicz

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’s are hovering above us, whilst F16s sear overhead.

UN radio reports say one blast was a target close to the main gate of Al
Shifa hospital – Gaza and Palestine’s largest medical facility. Another
was a plastics factory. More bombs continue to pound the Strip.

Sirens are wailing on the streets outside. Regular power cuts that 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

Over 220 people have been killed and over 400 injured through attacks that
shocked the strip in the space 15 minutes. Hospitals are overloaded and
unable to cope. These attacks come on top of existing conditions of
humanitarian crisis: a lack of medicines, bread, flour, gas, electricity,
fuel and freedom of movement.

Doctors at Shifaa had to scramble together 10 make shift operating
theatres to deal with the wounded. The hospital’s maternity ward had to
transform their operating room into an emergency theatre. Shifaa 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.

Shifaa’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.

Shifaa’s Head of Casualty, Dr Maowiye Abu Hassanyeh explained, ‘We had
over 300 injured in over 30 minutes. There were people on the floor of the
operating theatre, 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.’

And as IOF Chief of Staff Lieutenant-General Gabi Ashkenaz said this
morning, ‘This is only the beginning.’

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

Myself and Alberto Acre, a Spanish journalist, had been on the border
village of Sirej near 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 groves and orange groves,
family farmland, bulldozed to make way for a clear line of sight for
Israeli occupation force watch towers and border guards. Israeli attacks
were frequent. Indiscriminate fire and shelling spraying 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 M16 fire back. The family,
caught in the crossfire, have never 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 F16
bombs slamming into the police stations, and army bases of the Hamas
authority here. In Gaza City , in Diere Balah, Rafah, Khan Younis, Beit

We zoomed out of the village in our ambulance, and onto the main road to
Gaza City , before jumping out to film the smouldering remains of a police
station in Diere Balah, near Khan Younis. Its’ name - meaning 'place of
dates' - sounds like the easy semi-slang way of saying ‘take care’, Diere
Bala, Diere Balak – take care.

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 impacting on 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 man began to explain in broken
English what had happened. ‘It was full here, full, three people dead,
many many injured’. An elderly man with a white kuffiyeh around his head
threw his hands down to his blood drenched trousers. ‘Look! Look at this!
Shame on all governments, shame on Israel, look how they kills 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 was a market trader,
present during the attack.

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 police station itself was a wreck, a mess of criss-crossed 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 apache
helicopters – their trigger mechanisms supplied by the UK ’s
Brighton-Based EDM Technologies. They were dropping smoky bright flares –
a defence against any attempt at Palestinian missile retaliation.

Turning down the road leading to the Diere Balah Civil Defence Force
headquarters we suddenly saw a rush of people streaming across the road.
‘They’ve been bombing twice, they’ve been bombing twice’ shouted people.

We ran too, but towards the crowds and away from what could possibly be
target number two, ‘a ministry building’ our friend shouted to us. 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 pulverised walls and floors and a
motorbike, tossed on its’ side, toy-like in its’ depths.

Policemen were frantically trying to get a fellow worker out from under
the rubble. Everyone was trying to call him on his Jawwal. ‘Stop it
everyone, just one, one of you ring’ shouted a man who looked like a
captain. A fire licked the underside of an ex-room now crushed to just 3
feet high. Hands alongside hands rapidly grasped and threw back rocks,
blocks and debris to reach the man.

We made our way to the 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

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 was a scrum, tens of
shouting relatives crammed up to its open double doors. ‘They could not
even identify who was who, whether it is their brother or cousin or who,
because they are so burned’ explained our friend. 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 outside, being comforted by relatives, wounds
temporarily dressed. Inside was perpetual motion and the more drastically
injured. Relatives jostled with doctors to bring in their injured in
scuffed blankets. Drips, blood streaming faces, scorched hair and shrapnel
cuts to hands, chests, legs, arms and heads dominated the reception area,
wards and operating theatres.

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 coherent with a spinal chord 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, playground,
Civil Defence Force station, civil police station and also the traffic
police station. All leveled. A working day blasted flat with terrifying

At least two shaheed (martyrs) were carried out on stretchers out of the
hospital. Lifted up by crowds of grief-stricken men to the graveyard to
cries of ‘La Illaha Illa Allah,’ there is not god but Allah.

Who cares?
And according to many people here, there is nothing and nobody looking out
for them apart from God. Back in Shifa Hospital tonight, we meet the
brother of a security guard who had had the doorway he had been sitting in
and the building – Abu Mazen’s old HQ - fall down upon his head. 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 comatosed mother, Fatima. Earlier today she
had been sitting at her desk at work – at the Hadije Arafat Charity, near
Meshtal, the Headquarters of the Security forces in Gaza City. Israel’s
attack had left her with multiple internal and head injuries, 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 Shifaa
hospital are by turns stunned, agitated, patient and lost. We speak to one
group. Their brother had both arms broken and has serious facial and head
injuries. ‘We couldn’t recognise his face, it was so black from the
weapons used’ one explains. Another man turns to me and says. ‘I am a
teacher. I teach human rights – this is a course we have, ‘human rights’.
He pauses. ‘How can I teach, my son, my children, about the meaning of
human rights under these conditions, under this siege?’

It’s true, UNRWA and local government schools have developed a Human
Rights syllabus, teaching children about international law, the Geneva
Conventions, the International Declaration on Human Rights, The Hague
Regulations. To try to develop a culture of human rights here, to help
generate more self confidence and security and more of a sense of dignity
for the children. But the contradiction between what should be adhered to
as a common code of conducted signed up to by most states, and the
realities on the ground is stark. International law is not being applied
or enforced with respect to Israeli policies towards the Gaza Strip, or on
’48 Palestine, the West Bank, 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 – both
here and in Israel ? The United Nations have been spurned and shut out by
Israel , with Richard Falk the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Human Rights
held prisoner at Ben Gurion Airport before being unceremoniously deported
this month – deliberately blinded to the abuses being carried out against
Gaza by Israel . An international community which speaks empty phrases on
Israeli attacks ‘we urge restraint…minimise civilian casualties’.

The Gaza Strip is one of the most densely populated regions on the planet.
In Jabbaliya camp alone, Gaza ’s largest, 125,000 people are crowded into
a space 2km square. Bombardment by F16s and Apaches at 11.30 in the
morning, as children leave their schools for home reveals a contempt for
civilian safety as does the 18 months of a siege that bans all imports and
exports, and has resulted in the deaths of over 270 people as a result of
a lack of access to essential medicines.

A light
There is a saying here in Gaza – we spoke about it, jokily last night. ‘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 1000 tunnels running
from Egypt to Rafah in the South. On average 1-2 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. Others are
reportedly big enough to drive through.

Last night I added a new ending to the saying. ‘At the end of the tunnel,
there is another tunnel and then a power cut’. Today, there’s nothing to
make a joke about. 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 over 200, is it that at the end
of the tunnel, there is another tunnel, and then a grave?’, or a wall of
international governmental complicity and silence?

There is a light through, beyond the sparks of resistance and solidarity
in the West Bank, ’48 and the broader Middle East. This is 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, through coming out onto the streets and
pressurizing our governments; demanding an end to Israeli apartheid and
occupation, broadening our call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, and
for a genuine Just Peace.

Through institutional, governmental and popular means, this can be a light
at the end of the Gazan tunnel.

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

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