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Tuesday 10th February saw the first real rain in Gaza since the supposed “ceasefire”.  Whilst most of Palestine is desperate for rain, it was bad news for the people sleeping in tents in the newly-constructed emergency shelter camps – as most of the tents are of simple triangular design without proper flooring or annexes in which to shelter.  Despite the fact that approximately 100 000 Palestinians made homeless by 22 days of ceaseless aerial and land attacks, the numbers of  people actually sleeping in the 10 camps throughout the Gaza Strip are not high.  The reason is at once simple and staggering: there are not enough tents.

So thorough-going is the Israeli siege on Gaza, that there are, roughly, only enough tents throughout the Strip for approximately one in every 10 families.  The rest are held outside, stock-piled at border crossings, waiting for the siege to be eased.

Rather than employing discriminatory allocation systems, tents are being assigned to multiple families – as in the case of the Karama (Dignity) camp in Izbit Abed Rabbo, where the 350 families who had
their homes completely destroyed share just 55 tents.  Each 2 x 3m tent is assigned to 7 families (approximately 50 people) – not counting the further 350 families whose houses were badly damaged.

The result of this shocking deficiency is, simply, that few people are sleeping in the tents.  The majority, explains Mustafa, a coordinator of Karama camp, are staying with host families – friends and
relatives.  The camp will be full during the day, as families utilise the shared space, but then the majority of homeless families will leave in the afternoon to go back to the houses where they are hosted
to sleep.  Some men will sleep in the camp, he explains, and occasionally older women will sleep there with their husbands.

Women from Izbit Abed Rabbo utilise Karama (Dignity) camp during the day

Women from Izbit Abed Rabbo utilise Karama (Dignity) camp during the day

Whilst the main factor in this pattern of usage is the lack of tents, other factors play a role as well.  One important factor is security. ‘The security and infrastructure doesn’t allow for people to stay here’, Mustafa explains.  ‘There was shelling nearby two days ago [7th January] – tanks were advancing and we had to abandon [welfare] distribution’.

Another factor is the general lack of facilities and amenities. Whilst most camps have been able to establish basic toilets, using zinc and wood, there are few other facilities available.  Most camps have no
cooking facilities (not even enough to brew tea or coffee); no bathing facilities; and lack even mattresses and blankets.  On average, camp coordinators advise, two mattresses and one blanket have been supplied for every family.  Issa, a coordinator of the nearby “Samoud” (Steadfastness) camp, who is himself homeless after his house was
destroyed, notes that this was the ration supplied to his 19 person family.  Resultingly, the camps are too cold to sleep in.  Tawfiq, a coordinator from the Kamal Adwan camp in Beit Lahiya (named for the hospital it is situated near), echoes this sentiment.  ‘At night it is full of men sleeping here, but there are no mattresses or blankets. It is too cold and windy.  You can’t bring children here’.

The lack of supplies is not due to a lack of will or budget on the part of organisations that are working on relief aid in Gaza – such as United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA); International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC); United Nations Development Program (UNDP); Unicef; and other smaller, local organisations.  It is again a
matter of lack of resources, due to the Israeli siege.  Whilst truckloads of blankets and mattresses have been allowed through the border crossings, they are not nearly sufficient for the huge numbers of people rendered homeless by the attacks.  Especially, given the fact that the vast majority of those whose houses were destroyed were forced to flee with just the clothes on their backs – often without even shoes.  ‘In most instances drones would drop a missile on the
house, which would be the warning.  Then an F-16 strike would follow’, recalls Tawfiq. ‘Most [families] weren’t able to take anything – no cash, no ID, nothing’.

Karama camp - built amongst the devastation of Izbit Abed Rabbo

Karama camp - built amongst the devastation of Izbit Abed Rabbo

Many of the camp coordinators – volunteer groups that range from teams of charity workers, such as in Karama camp; to teams 100-strong of local community volunteers, such as in Kamal Adwan camp – go to
lengths to explain the way in which the siege impacts on their abilities to administer relief and humanitarian aid in the camps.  Beyond just infrastructural constraints, camps are at a loss to provide even food for Gaza’s new homeless.  In Karama camp, just one food package, consisting of rice; lentils; beans; sugar; and a small jar of tahina, has been provided for each family.  Other camps have received no food at all.  The failure of aid and relief organisations
to provide material assistance is described as being ‘deeply troubling’ for people, according to Karama camp’s organisers.  Particularly, the failure to distribute basic foodstuffs, such as bread, on a daily basis, has been extremely upsetting.  In each camp, it is reiterated, that this is not due to a lack of donations, but an inability to get these donations through the border crossings. Indeed, according to John Ging, director of operations for UNRWA in
Gaza Strip, UNRWA is currently only permitted to bring in enough supplies each day to feed 30 000 of the 900 000 refugees registered for food relief with the organisation.

Samoud (Steadfastness) camp, where there are 110 tents for 830 families

Samoud (Steadfastness) camp, where there are 110 tents for 830 families

Another resource that hinders the function of the camps is land, or lack thereof.  Issa, in Samoud camp, explains that whilst they only have 110 tents for the 830 cases registered there (487 of whom had their homes completely destroyed), it would take 100 dounums (25 acres) of land to erect 487 tents – land which, in the Gaza Strip, the
sixth most densely populated territory in the world, is simply not available.  Currently, the Samoud camp is situated on Issa’s private land, surrounded in all directions by remnants of destroyed homes. This situation is repeated with many of the other emergency camps as well.  Lacking government lands on which to establish camps,
government organisers have been forced to rely on the use of private lands, which further complicates the status of the camps.  Kamal Adwan camp, for example, has been erected on a piece of private land that
has been loaned for just two weeks.  Camp organisers are unsure as to what they will do after that.  They hope to be able to move to an empty piece of land across the road – again private property.

Given the state of the emergency camps, many of those for whom staying long-term with a host family is untenable, have been forced into rental apartments – enabled by a one-off donation from the Gaza government of 4000 euros per family.  In Karama camp, families have also received a further 2000 euro donation from the Turkish NGO International Humanitarian Health (IHH).  According to Tawfiq from Kamal Adwan camp, however, these funds are not nearly enough to provide for families who have lost everything, as well as paying for rental apartments.  Tawfiq goes on to explain that since the attacks, the increased demand for rental properties has led to a doubling of
rental prices in the Jabaliya/Beit Lahiya area.  Resultingly, many families have been forced to crowd together into small apartments.  In addition to this, other essential items, such as mattresses, have become almost unattainable – and prohibitively expensive.  ‘The only ones who come here’, he continues, ‘are the ones who can’t afford to
rent a flat – the most desperate ones’.

 

Kamal Adwan camp - 'These are new tents - the first tents you wouldn't even put animals in'

Kamal Adwan camp - 'These are new tents - the first tents you wouldn't even put animals in'

The level of precarity that has ensued due to a (mostly artificially created) lack of resources, is further entrenched due to a political desire on the part of some camp organisers and a number of Gaza’s new homeless population (often one and the same) not to establish the camps as permanent sites.  This political desire manifests as a reluctance in some camps to invest time and resources (limited as they are) into further infrastructure development.  In Karama camp, for example, organisers express reluctance to establish cooking facilities, such as a communal kitchen tent, because ‘that would make the camp like a refugee camp; and we don’t want to be a refugee camp’ – despite the ready awareness that the need for the camp is likely to extend beyond the six months for which they are currently planning.

This tension, between a recognised need for aid for desperate families, and an ideological refusal to accept such living conditions as a new reality, is entirely understandable.  To live with the awareness of that the Israeli siege could, very possibly, prevent the import of building materials for another six months; a year; or even two years – as happened in the sieges on refugee camps in Lebanon – is to resign oneself to a potentially terrible fate.  Given the level of trauma existent amongst those whose houses have been destroyed – often resulting in the deaths of family members – such a resignation is, in many ways, unthinkable.

Running deeper, however, than a desire to avoid further trauma, is the acute awareness that the major humanitarian catastrophe which encompasses approximately 100 000 Palestinians in Gaza, is, at root, political in cause and cure.  Whilst hungry (sometimes literally) for the humanitarian aid that is being denied to them by the Israeli siege, many Palestinians refuse to buy into the simplistic “humanitarian” paradigm, that has seen so many Arab states, in a cynical attempt to divert attention from a widespread refusal to intervene during Israeli attacks, rush to send truckloads of aid (often on the brink of expiry) – without challenging the siege that prevents the aid from entering Gaza.

As Tawfiq, from Kamal Adwan camp explains:

‘We have received some aid, but this is not the issue.  The issue is about justice and a political solution.  It is not about standing in line for handouts – that is humiliating and indignifying.  This is not what our struggle is about…We want to make it clear that people are living on the street – we want to live with security and dignity, like others’.

19 year-old Ali Abdl Salam Al Sa’ay walks like the living dead.  Eyes closed, he hobbles into the examination room at Gaza city’s Nasser Eye Hospital, holding his bandaged hands gingerly in front of him.  A relative walks alongside him, holding up his intravenous drip of antibiotics.

‘His right eye is lost’, explains his opthamologist, Dr Hafez Hani.  ‘The globe is ruptured, due to an explosive injury.  The contents of the eye are lost.  There is no perception of light.  There is nothing we can do but close the wound of the eye’.

More complicated, however, is the “intraocular infection” of the eye, which requires both systemic (intravenous) and topical (drops) antibiotics.  ‘He will stay here until the infection subsides’, Dr Hafez continues.

In addition to losing his right eye, Ali has also lost his left hand and three fingers from his right hand.  The “explosive injury” was caused by a missile fired from an Israeli gunboat off the Gaza shore on the morning of 10th January.

19 year-old Ali

19 year-old Ali

Ali, lying in bed, speaks softly, clearly in pain.  His face is covered with a thousand tiny shrapnel wounds, marking his otherwise beautiful face.  He recalls that the missile attack happened at 6:45am on the Tuesday morning.  He and a friend had just left Ali’s house, and were heading down the beach towards his friend’s farm, where Ali was going to help out with some farm work.  This was the first time they would return to the farm after the Israeli attacks – and in part they wanted to discover if there had been any damage done.

Approximately ten minutes after leaving Ali’s house in Gaza city’s al-Shati (Beach) refugee camp, a missile was fired at the young men, from the sea.  ‘We couldn’t see any boats, because of the mist’, explains Ali.  ‘But that area is full of [Israeli] gunboats.  And it was too windy for planes to be out in that area’, he adds.  The young men were quick, and, somehow, managed to run from the first missile.  Shortly thereafter a second missile was fired on them.  It hit both of them.

Ali’s friend was struck in the legs, whilst Ali himself was hit in the hands and face.  ‘My friend’s injuries were not so serious, so he called the ambulance’, Ali recalls.  It was 20 minutes before the ambulance arrived.  ‘I was bleeding the whole time’.       

Ali was taken to Kamal Adwan hospital in Jabaliya – to the north of Gaza city – rather than to the nearby Al Shifa hospital because ‘he called both hospitals.  The Kamal Adwan ambulance got there first”.  He was later transferred to Al Shifa, before being transferred again to the Nasser specialist eye hospital. 

After explaining the extent of Ali’s injuries, Dr Hafez adds:
‘His is considered to be a mild trauma – even though he lost his eye and hands.  If you saw Shifa hospital during the war – people with both limbs lost; eyes lost; brains out.  Many doctors were traumatised by what they saw during that time’. 

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If Ali’s eye does not heal well, and continues to become infected, he may require evisceration – taking out the eye, explains Dr Hafez.  ‘There have been many, many cases of evisceration due to the war’, he says.  ‘All due to explosive injuries’.

Al Shati’ camp was particularly targeted during the Israeli war on Gaza.  Shelling of the camp took place ’24 hours a day’, explains Ali’s father, Abdul Salam.  ‘All the houses that face the sea were evacuated.  They fired from gunboats, planes, everything’. 

Explosions in al-Shati’ camp continue, as Israeli gunboats continue to pound the camp.  ‘Daiman, daiman (always, always)’, croaks Ali.  His father adds, ‘It is getting normal for the people to hear the shooting.  It’s like drums now.  Many people are getting injured’.  

‘They have no mercy’, declares Dr Hafez.  ‘And no morals’.

Khaled Abed Rabbo clicks his tongue “Tsk” to indicate “no”, when he is offered a piece of chocolate.  The Israeli soldiers who executed his two young daughters were eating chips and chocolate whilst they did it, he explains, quietly.  So he will never eat these things again. 

Discarded wrappers from Israeli soldiers still litter the area

Discarded wrappers from Israeli soldiers still litter the area

Khaled has told the story of the horrific day when his children were killed many times, so he is well-practised, and starts at the beginning, speaking slowly, calmly and quietly – though clearly wracked with grief.

On Wednesday 7th January, Khaled and the 40 members of his extended family were in their four storey, eight apartment, home.  Israeli ground forces had entered the area four days earlier, on 3rd January, coming from the Green Line that is to the east of Izbet Abed Rabbo – a village east of Jabaliya, in the northern Gaza Strip.  Within one hour the Israeli soldiers had taken control of the whole area, and advanced all the way west to Salah El Din street (the main road that runs from north to south through the centre of the Gaza Strip) – possible, Khaled explains, because there was no resistance in the area.  Izbet Abed Rabbo is well-known as a border area with no rocket fire.

Whilst many residents of Gaza’s border-villages fled their homes, heading west to shelter with friends and relatives, when the Israeli onslaught began, Khaled’s family decided to stay in their home.  The decision was based on their experience during the last Israeli incursion into the area, on 1st March 2008.  During that incursion, Khaled’s family home was occupied by Israeli soldiers for three days.  The soldiers checked all of the family’s IDs, and advised the family that none of them had “security files”.  “We decided stay in our home because we knew we had nothing on us”, Khaled explains.  “We thought we would be safe”.

On the afternoon of 7th January, in broad daylight, three Israeli tanks drove up to Khaled’s house from the south, parking approximately 20m from the front door.  Tank tracks show where they were positioned in front of the house.  One of the tanks aimed its turret at the house.  At 12:50pm, the family heard soldiers yelling in broken Arabic: “Everyone come out of the house”.  Of the 40 family members, it was just Khaled; his mother; his wife; and three young daughters – aged two, four and seven – who left the house, carrying four white flags.  The rest of the family stayed inside on the first floor, where they felt they were safest.

The road used by Israeli forces to approach Khaled's house

The road used by Israeli forces to approach Khaled's house

Once outside, they found two Israeli soldiers, “One had red hair and two stars on his shoulder”, Khaled recalls, lolling about on either side of one of the jeeps, eating chips and chocolate – suggesting that the situation was very calm.  The family waited there for between five and seven minutes, with no indication from the soldiers as to what was wanted from them.   

Suddenly, a third soldier with “long sideburns” (payot – religious curls), emerged from the top of the tank and opened fire on the children.  Khaled looked down at his two-year old daugher, Amal, and saw that her stomach was outside of her body.  “Amal had no less than four bullets in her body.  Her whole stomach came out, and she didn’t have a back”, Khaled relates.  The teddy bear she was carrying was also shot through the stomach.  “They martyred her teddy bear also”.

“I picked up Amal.  I was bending down to pick up [four year-old] Samar and he shot her. I ran inside wth both of them”, Khaled recalls, leaving his mother and wife outside with seven year-old Su’ad, as the gunfire continued.  Su’ad was shot in the chest with three bullets.  Khaled’s mother, also named Su’ad, raised her arm as she called to the soldiers, to ask what they were doing – shooting at children.  She was shot in her raised arm, the bullet exiting from her shoulder.  Another bullet penetrated her stomach, exiting from her back. They too fled back into the home.

Inside, the whole family were screaming for help.  They heard the sound of an ambulance siren for just a few seconds before it abruptly stopped.  Family members who were looking from the window started screaming that a tank had run over the ambulance.

Khaled and his family waited inside their house for two hours, with two daughters dead and Samar bleeding, asking for water.  Her grandmother, Su’ad, was also bleeding.  Finally, Khaled “couldn’t take it anymore.  I picked up Samar and took her outside, to be shot. For her to be at rest and for me to die also”.

“I stood here for two minutes, with the soldiers staring at me.  One soldier went down into the tank, and then re-emerged, and made a movement with his arm, as if to say, go past”.  Khaled went back into his house, and addressed his family.  “We must leave.  Either we stay in here and get killed, or we leave and get killed.  The situation doesn’t allow us to stay in our home”.

With his brother Ibrahim carrying Samar;  Khaled carried Su’ad and his wife, Khowtha, carried Amal.  A stretcher was made for his mother from a small child’s bed, and she was carried, as all 40 members of the family left the house together.

The family headed west, towards Jabaliya.  “The whole time we were walking there was gunfire – sometimes at our feet; sometimes above our heads.  Soldiers were shooting from their positions in homes and snipers were firing from tanks”.  It was not just Khaled’s family who were being shot at in this way, advises local journalist, Iyad Abed Rabbo.  All of the families who were advised to leave the area were reportedly fired upon in the same way “to keep them on the path”, Iyad notes.

Walking approximately one kilometre along a road with many ditches and holes, the Abed Rabbo family arrived at an intersection.  A man with a cart and a white horse attempted to assist them, but, as he approached, was shot by snipers.  One bullet went through the head of Adham Hamis Nassir, and another two bullets through the head of his horse.  Khaled has no idea where the bullets came from – “a father who is carrying his daughter doesn’t notice these things”.  But he recalls that the area was full of Israeli soldiers – approximately 700 in the neighbourhood.

The family continued walking – leaving Adham and his horse lying there.  Adham was critically injured.  He was transfered to Egypt for medical treatment, “but he came back four days ago, martyred”.  Eventually Khaled and his family reached Court St, where there were many people gathered.  His dead and injured daughters were taken from them, and taken to the nearby Kamal Aduan hospital.  “I don’t know who took my girls to hospital.  I just sat in the square, unable to do anything.  After half an hour I got up, and went to the hospital”.

Outside the hospital, Khaled heard rumours that all of his daughters had died.  Later he found out that 4 year-old Samar was, indeed, still alive.  She was tranferred to al Shifa hospital in Gaza city, before being transferred to Belgium, where, paralysed from where a bullet hit her spinal cord, it is estimated she will be forced to stay for at least one year. 

“Samar’s body is full of bullets; she doesn’t have a back; but God left one thing in her – her ability to talk.  She is only four years old, but she remembers everything, and can tell anyone what happened to her”, Khaled says, sadly and proudly. 

Standing in front of his demolished home, Khaled becomes happy when he speaks of Samar, and decides to call her.  On the second attempt he gets through to the Belgian mobile phone of his brother, who is with Samar.

Speaking with Samar

Speaking with Samar

“Do you want me to come and bring mama?”, he asks her, cheekily.
“You don’t know where I am”, Samar answers sagely.
“Are you healed yet?”
“No”.
“Do you want mama?”
“Yes”.

He would like to show us a picture of her, but, he explains, he suffers a double tragedy – he can’t find a single photo of any of his children.  Rummaging through the rubble of his home has yeilded just a destroyed computer – he doesn’t even have his own ID.  It is particularly upsetting to him that he can’t find any photos of Amal and Su’ad while they were alive.  Now, the only photo of them he has
is on his mobile phone, which he passes around.  There, a photo of his two dead daughters – tiny, wrapped in white shrouds.

The family have no idea of what happened to their home – of how it was destroyed.  “When we returned here, on the day before Obama’s inauguration, we found the house like this”.  Some locals of Izbit Abed Rabbo claim that most of the demolished houses in the neighbourhood – 72 homes in total – were flattened through internal explosive devices.

The destroyed Abu Drabu house

The destroyed Abed Rabbo house

As yet, there has been no official response from the Israeli Occupation Forces on the executions of the Abed Rabbo children, despite requests from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC); as well as from countless journalists – including those from the BBC and Haaretz.

According to Iyad Abed Rabbo, of all of the houses destroyed in the Izbit Abed Rabbo neighbourhood, only one belonged to a Hamas member.  Another belonged to a high-ranking Fatah member.  Khaled describes himself as apolitical – saying that he is not even Fatah, even though he worked for the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority for ten years, until the coup in Gaza in 2007.  Since then he has been unemployed, just keeping a garden. 

In spite of his obvious devastation, Khaled is not vindictive.  “We wouldn’t wish this on anyone in the world; not even the Israelis”.  He would, however, like some kind of action taken by the Israeli government in response to his daughters’ killing.  “We know that Israel is a very advanced country, and that they video [record] everything – even their military operations.  I ask them to broadcast the execution of my daughters – the time and date is known”.

His over-riding desire, however, is for a long-lasting security. 

“Despite everything that has happened to us – my children killed; my house demolished – we still believe in peace.  Before they offer us money and aid, we ask that they offer us peace”.

Leaving the land

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UQXecLyureE

 

“That wasn’t gunfire, it was construction work”.
“No, it was gunfire”.
“No, it wasn’t. It was construction work”.

Whizz.

“It’s gunfire – there was a whizz”.
“Really, I didn’t hear a whizz”.
“Yeah, there was a whizz.”

Crack. Crack. Crack. Crack. Whizz.

“Oh”.

It was a relaxed start to the gunfire. Everyone thinking it was construction work for a little while. Not unreasonably – there were bulldozers working not so far away.

It quickly picked up pace, however, with bullets flying thick and fast overhead. They sounded so close that many of us were ducking. Instinctively, I would drop my arms to cover my head – the noise often making it impossible for me to keep my arms in the air.

I was sure the donkey was going to get shot. Every so often I thought the donkey had been shot, as it shied nervously from the crack of gunfire so close – the rattle of its harness making me think the harness had been hit.

 

pict0390

 

A friend from the media office called me, to ask if they were still shooting. “Yep”, I told him.

Crack. Crack. WHIZZ.

“I heard that bullet whizz past you!” he cried, sounding freaked out. More freaked out than me. Later, he called me to tell me he was really worried that I might die whilst on the phone to him. “Yeah”, I agreed. “That would be really crap. For you. Not so much for me”.

The farmers, who had decided they were going to stay even if there was shooting, decided to leave. The boss had gone off, and the decision was left with one of the workers. They decided not to die for their 20 shekels that day.

Again, as on Tuesday, the shooting intensified as we were leaving.  Somehow it seemed scarier to be shot at while we were moving – the chance of walking into a bullet.   Once we were out of range, they went nuts with the shooting – aiming at demolished houses.

“Are they trying to write their names?” asked one activist?

Whilst the farmers try to be brave, to harvest what is left of the crops with international accompaniment, there seems to be a realisation that this is not sustainable. They have seen their friend die, and they know they could be next.

In a number of plots within 1km of the electric fence that divides Gaza from southern Israel, farmers have been pulling up the irrigation systems whilst they have the chance. Materials like these are expensive and hard to get. Most likely they are brought through the tunnels.

removing the irrigation pipes

removing the irrigation pipes

 

They are preparing to abandon these lands – to pull back to the 1km mark the Israelis are insisting upon, with their incessant gunfire. It’s just too dangerous to keep trying to farm there. Perhaps they will try to return to these lands later, when they feel like the situation is calmer – less dangerous. Or perhaps these lands, too, will be given up, as those within 300m of the Green Line have been.

Looking east from the village of Al Farahin, there is an uninterrupted view all the way to the Green Line. It was not always this way. Before 1st May 2008, the lands were filled with fruit-bearing trees – olives, citrus, avocado, almonds… In betweeen were many varieties of crops; and then a multitude of livestock. As Leila, a resident who can no longer live in her home because the proximity of the Green Line makes it too dangerous, recalls that, prior to May 08, she never used to have to shop. “We had everything there – chickens, eggs, fruit, vegetables, dairy – everything”.  In May 08, however, Israeli soldiers crossed the Green Line and bulldozed the entire area.

view to the green line

view to the green line

Since then, aware that this could happen again at any moment, farmers plant only short-term crops that don’t require large investment – radishes; parsely; spinach; peas; beans. Even wheat is often seen as too risky, because the time between planting and harvesting is relatively long. It could easily be destroyed before farmers have a chance to harvest.

Now, since the war, even these crops have become impossible to plant, maintain and harvest. It is estimated that somewhere between 70-80% of Gaza’s agricultural land was destroyed during the recent Israeli attacks. The further sequestration of some 25 square kilometres (based on the length of the Israeli-Gaza border being 51km, and lands up to 500m from the border already declared off-limits for an Israeli “buffer zone”), of mostly agricultural land, works to devastate an already crippled industry; and render an entire segment of society – subsistance farmers – destitute.

“If you hadn’t been here with us, they would have killed us all”. 

 It seems like a bit of an overstatement from Yusef Abu Shaheen, after 7 international activists and 4 members of an Italian tv crew accompanied him and 5 other farm workers to his land in Al Farahin – a village east of Khan Younis, close to the Green Line.  But then, exactly one week before, they had watched their friend, 27 year old Anwar, shot down by Israeli soldiers, while he was doing exactly as we did yesterday – harvesting parsely.

pict0239

 

 

The farmers were clearly nervous when we got out into the fields – our distance from the Green Line the subject of much debate.  The farmers were claiming we were 700m from the electric fence that marks the boundary.  Others thought 500m.  It seemed more like 300m to me – but I have been ever poor with distances.  The debate was largely meaningless, however.  Currently, anyone who ventures within 1km of the Green Line throughout most of the Gaza Strip risks being shot.

Bearing this in mind, they requested we position ourselves around them – shielding their bodies with our own – all of us aware that even with the recent levels of carnage, the Israeli soldiers patrolling the borders will think twice before shooting an international.  At least we hope. 

 

pict0238

In this way, we were able to harvest for around two hours.  It was a gorgeous day, and the mood became jovial – there was lots of posing for photos with enormous bunches of parsely.  Farmers posed with each other; with internationals.  We picked and ate the sweetest and saltiest parsely I’ve ever tasted, under the warm winter sun.  The workers were efficient, but not working too hard.  Tasks were divided up between cutting and tying bundles of parsely; and collecting them to load onto the donkey carts.  One cart was stacked high, with a second cart about a third done, when the shooting started.  The farmers all dropped to the ground immediately – taking cover from the bushy parsely plants.

Israeli jeeps had been passing along the road that runs the length of the Green Line as early as 15 minutes after we  arrived.  A few had stopped momentarily, but then continued.  A few shots were fired – maybe 4 or 6.  And then I was convinced they had finished.  I was wrong.  They then went on to fire at various degrees of closeness for next 45 minutes.  Some bullets were close enough to hear the whizz; some fired in entirely the wrong direction – prompting jeers from a number of internationals.  Some hit the dirt metres in front of our feet.

It was the first time I had experienced so much gun-fire, and it would be a lie to say I wasn’t scared.  But I wasn’t as scared as I imagined I might be.  My mob-instinct, that often had me running from tear gas and rubber bullets during demonstrations in the West Bank (believing that if so many people were running away, then the apocalypse must be behind them), was to immediately go to ground with the farmers.  But a quick glance around at all of the other international activists standing tall, with arms in the air – indicating to the soldiers that they bore no weapons – helped me to remember my role, and I remained standing.  We stood there, not so much in the belief that they wouldn’t shoot us – many international activists have been shot by the Israeli army with live ammunition (including one in Ni’lin just last week) – but in the hope that they wouldn’t aim to kill.

One of the internationals began to get angry.  “They know we’re civilans!”, she stormed.  “They wouldn’t be walking around the jeep like that if they thought we had weapons!”  It was true.  The combination of fluorescent vests; megaphone announcements; press releases; phone calls to embassies and to the IDF humanitarian hotline left the soldiers in no doubt that they were firing on unarmed civilians.  They just didn’t care.

The farmers tried to wait out the army, hoping they would get bored and leave.  And during lulls in the shooting, they would get up to continue harvesting.  But the gun-fire intensified in rapidity and proximity, until finally, the farmers decided to leave without completing the day’s harvest.  Not surprisingly, it was when we started to leave that the shooting was the most intense.  (It was the same in Ni’lin last week – the Palestinian and Swedish activists were shot as the demonstration was departing).   

No one was injured, happily – though mostly out of luck.  Any number of the bullets that hit close-by could have ricocheted into someone’s body or head.  At one point when I was walking back to the village – accompanying a farmer and a donkey – bullets that I surmise weren’t aimed at us, whizzed loudly past our heads.  I ducked then.

We will go out with the same farmers again, tomorrow.  Many of us are more worried about this than we were about Tuesday’s action.  There is a concern that the second time around the soldiers will be more vicious – and more likely to start shooting sooner.  Because of this concern we have made the decision that when the farmers decide to leave, we will all leave with them – rather than accompanying the farmers to safety before returning to the fields until the soldiers leave, as has previously been the strategy.  Largely, this is due to the belief that Israeli soldiers are particularly psychotic at the moment – having just massacred more than 1000 civilians.  As one friend put it, “It is very difficult to put that back in a box”.

There are still nine bodies in the rubble of a house in Zeitoon – a
neighbourhood in the east of Gaza city. 7 children and 2 pregnant
women, still lie crushed beneath the weight of a four storey building,
their bodies unretrieved. The oldest child is 6 years old.

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At 6am on 6th January, just after morning prayer, an Israeli Apache
helicopter fired a few missiles at the At Daya house, before an F-16
dropped a bomb – disintegrating the house, killing 32 civilians.
“There was no warning – nothing”, advised Mohammad al Ray, the 26
year-old neighbour. 1 family member, Amer, was pulled out alive; and
3 others survived because they had spent the night in a relative’s
house. The rest died. My guess is that around 20 of them would have
been children. There was also a third pregnant woman, whose body was
recovered.

neighbour Mohammad

neighbour Mohammad

 

The remains of the house remind me of nothing so much as an art
installation – as ridiculous as it seems. Mostly, because the jumble
of rubble, rebar, household items, and personal effects bears no
resemblance to anything remotely utilitarian. So far-removed is the
wreckage from it’s original form, that it is no longer even
identifiable as a building. Indeed, it is difficult to even
comprehend how it could once have been a home.

The rotting smell of death emanates from where the front of the house
used to be. I am becoming used to this smell as there are carcasses
of animals trapped in rubble in most devastated villages. But to know
it is the decay of human flesh I am smelling…

front of the house

front of the house

 

As I walk across the mound of rubble and detritus, I am extremely
conscious of the fact that on the other side of the piece of concrete
on which I stand may be the body of a small child, or woman. Still,
clambering up the mound a little, I am struck by the sight of what
appears to be a crater in the middle of the house. Only later do I
find out that Mohammad, the neighbour, recalled that the sound that
they heard when the bombs struck, could not explain the damage that
occurred. A doctor who is accompanying us explains that the Israeli
army seem to be using some bombs that don’t make much noise when they
hit, but then seem to suck the building down, as if by some kind of
negative force. The crater begins to make sense.

 

the crater

the crater

None of the family were fighters; Hamas supporters; or even
politically affiliated. “They were just ordinary civilians”, explains
Mohammad.

The surrounding houses were also gutted by the blast. Like devastated
doll-houses, their facades have been ripped off to reveal the inner
life. There isn’t so much that’s identifiable, though, in any of the
rooms – just the all-too familiar sight of concrete building-blocks,
reduced to rubble and dust, covering all the floors. “We were all in
this room when the bombs were dropped”, Mohammad recalls. “All the
doors were closed and none of us could get out. It took us hours to
dig our way out”.

 

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Further towards the outskirts of Zeitoon, where the al Samouni
massacre took place, we are taken again into a house we had been in
last week – the house of Shaima and Hanin and five other children.
This time it is their parents who take us into the house, which is
much the same one week later, but with less mess. Slowly, it seems,
they have been clearing up the devastation the Israeli soldiers left
behind. The house is no less tragic for it, though. Rather, it
resonates with the trauma of the adults who have seen and experienced
far too much. Punctuated by the coughs of his children – common in
areas that suffered white phosphorus attacks – Abu Abd tells the story
of the night when Israeli soldiers forced them from their home before
bombing it; forcing more than 100 people from the neighbourhood into
one house, which they then also bombed with white phosphorus. He
tells us how the soldiers shot and killed a man who was carrying his
young son. And how one small child, Ahmad al Samouni, 4 years old,
tugged on the trousers of one soldier, asking him not to hurt his
daddy. And then of how the soldier looked down, pointed his gun at
Ahmad, still clutching his trousers, and shot him. “We carried him in
here” his 20 year old son, Abdullah, explains, coughing. “He died
here on this couch”. He and 46 others.

The land of the extended al Samouni clan in Zeitoon is a mess of
carved-up earth and hap-hazardly piled rubble. One woman, Samahar,
who sits everyday in a small, makeshift shelter where her house once
stood, explains that there were more than 20 houses there, before the
attacks. It’s a small wonder to me how she knows exactly where her
house was, now that everything is such a mess – all but a few
landmarks erased. But it was her house, I tell myself. She would
know. There is nowhere for her to sleep, but she comes everyday to
her land, just to be there. Other families who don’t have the luxury
of staying with relatives in the centre of Zeitoon, however, are
sleeping in makeshift shelters like hers. One 15 year-old boy showed
us the small slip of nylon that fails to suffice as his blanket.

Samahar explains to me that there’s no water at the site – just a few
tanks for drinking. Nothing for bathing or washing clothes. She
points to Shaima’s dirty tracksuit, explaining that there’s no way to
wash it. The neighbourhood well was destroyed in the attacks. Also
there are no toilets. All of the houses that are still standing had
their toilets destroyed in the bombing. She says she could go on the
ground somewhere, but someone would see.

She goes on to tell of how she was forced to run from her home with
just the clothes she was wearing and no shoes. She points to the old
shoes she is wearing, says they are someone else’s hand-me-downs. How
her family lost absolutely everything. Even her children are going to
school without school bags, she says, showing us the plastic shopping
bags they are using.

Finally, she talks of how the land used to be, before it was
transformed into this post-apocalyptic-style wasteland. Of the fruit
trees; and the vegetables; and the small fish ponds they had. What
was especially wonderful, she recalls, was the smell – the smell of
flowering fruit-trees, grass and crops. Of women baking bread. Now,
even though the dead livestock have mostly been removed and burnt, the
only smells lingering in the air are those of dirt, rubble, and death.

Overnight, the lives of the al Samounis and their neighbours, were
transformed from those of simple farmers – mostly poor, but largely
self-sufficient – into bearers of tragedy. More than 100 farmers with
no farms spend their days in a communal tent – no other employment;
nothing to do. Homeless, jobless and without money, the residents of
Zeitoon are largely unable to do much to improve their situations.
And, unlike other areas where tent communities have been established
by charities, the people of Zeitoon have received just a few water
tanks that are refilled by a water truck daily. In a political
climate where there are so many obstacles to reconstruction – lack of
materials, money and willingness of international agencies to work the
Hamas government – the people of Zeitoon will continue to sit and
wait.

Israeli armed forces opened fire on a group of Human Rights Workers (HRWs) and civilians in the Beit Hannoun area of the Gaza Strip on Thursday 29th January. International HRWs were accompanying residents of Beit Hannoun, in the far north of the Gaza Strip, to their homes, in order to salvage belongings from the rubble, after the homes were bulldozed by Israeli forces during the Israeli war on Gaza.

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One Palestinian family, the Tarrabin family, were anxious to try to retrieve important items, such as identity cards; cash; and clothes, that Israeli soldiers prevented them from taking with them when they were evicted moments before their home was destroyed. Residents had been further prevented from returning to their homes, which lie in close proximity to the Green Line, by Israeli military firing upon them whenever they attempted to enter the area. Families were advised by soldiers, upon being evicted from their homes, that the area had been declared a “Closed Military Zone”.

The group, joined by a Malaysian film crew, was able to successfully enter the prohibited area, and salvage a number of personal items and documents – however the vast majority of possessions were buried beneath mounds of rubble and dirt. “We would need to bring in a bulldozer to find anything else”, remarked one resident.

As the group prepared to leave the destroyed house, however, Israeli soldiers, who had been patrolling behind the Green Line throughout the endeavour, opened fire, shooting a number of rounds. Fortunately, none were injured, though HRWs report hearing the bullets whistle past their heads.

Despite the obvious attempt at intimidation, Manwar Tarrabin was relieved to have the opportunity to return to her house and collect the belongings that were found, as she and her five family members were evicted from their home with just the clothes on their backs – soldiers refusing to allow them to take any belongings with them. She and her 22 year old daughter were forced to stand by, watching helplessly, as two Israeli military bulldozers demolished her home and everything in it, on 17th January – just one day before Israel declared its supposed ceasefire.

HRWs then continued on to another house nearby, with the Abu Jereme family, whose corrugated iron house was not demolished, but from which they were evicted on 27th December, the first day of Israel’s offensive on Gaza, when Israeli “Special Forces” occupied their home. Freije Abu Jeremi pointed out what had been their barn-house, containing 20 sheep; as well as chickens and rabbits. “The soldiers shot all the sheep in the legs”, she recalled, “before they demolished the shed”. This intentional killing of livestock, took place throughout the Gaza Strip during the Israeli Operation “Cast Lead”. Whilst dismissed by many Palestinian residents as the actions of deranged individuals, the emerging pattern is one of economic oppression – of the intentional destruction of Palestinian livelihoods.

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Approximately 80 houses were demolished in the “buffer zone” area to the north and east of Beit Hannoun – in the lands that abut the Green Line – rendering at least 400 residents homeless. 20 homes were demolished in Sikka street alone, which leads up to the Erez border crossing.

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Whilst before Israel’s war on Gaza, the Israeli-enforced “buffer-zone” on the Palestinian side of the Green Line extended 300m from the electrified fence. Now it is extremely dangerous to enter lands that are 1.5 kilometres from the Green Line.

This situation not only affects residents in the North, but is played out in all border areas of the Gaza Strip. In every region that borders the Green Line, residents are reporting similar incidents – that, despite the public declaration of a cease-fire, Israeli forces continue to fire on Palestinians on a daily basis, with two farmers killed since the ceasefire supposedly came into effect. Such violations not only make a mockery of any notion of a ceasefire, but also work to effectively annex Palestinian land, by rendering it uninhabitable. Indeed, combined with the demolition of houses in these areas, such actions are indications of a clear policy of ethnic cleansing.