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Archive for January, 2009

In Gaza

“We have no bathroom, how can we wash ourselves?  How can we go to school looking like this?”, implored 13 year-old Shaima al Samouni.  It’s a pertinent question, given that schools reopened two days ago for the first time since the Israeli attacks on Gaza started.
 
With 29 family members killed during the attacks on the Zeitoon neighbourhood in Gaza city, however, it seems a strange concern.  But life marches on, and the other children have gone back to school.  Tugging at the clothes they were wearing, the children explain that, now, three weeks after their homes were destroyed, what they’re wearing is all they have.  And, it seems, they’re not going to school wearing that.
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They take us across the dirt, to a half-bombed house.  On the way, we walk over the foundations of what used to be the house of Majid al Samouni and his family.  The children stop to show us a drum of olives (zeitoon) that was destroyed.  We pass by the carcass of a large sheep.  Shot by the Israeli army.  They show us their two pretty donkeys.  “Donkeys quais”, I say in broken Arabic, relieved that they’re not taking us to more animal corpses.  There used to be nine donkeys, they explain.  But the Israeli soldiers shot seven of them.  Then my colleague points out the gaping hole in the shoulder of the brown donkey – also shot by the Israeli army.  Donkey mish quais.
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One of the young girls, who is nine years old, is desperate for me to understand the extent to which their lives were destroyed.  Not in terms of life lost, but livelihood.  “Bas al shugul – al ard.  Bas” (The land is the only work we have), and the land is totally destroyed.  The children catalogue the types of fruit trees they had – lemon, guava, orange, mandarin, and the ubiquitous olive.  They don’t talk about the battery-chicken shed that is crushed, chickens still in cages.  When i finally ask just how many chickens there were, I find it difficult to believe the answer – two thousand chickens.
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Her older cousin goes to great lengths to tell me repeatedly, at every opportunity, that they were just farmers, not Hamas.  I know, i reply.
 
Inside the half-destroyed house, there is a clamour to show all of the atrocities crowded into one small space.  Some of the children explain that their mother had given birth during the bombing, how they had to burn a knife over a candle to cut the umbilical cord.  And about how their two-year-old sister was wounded on her face – lacerations from her eye across and down her cheek.  Others point to where shells entered the house, some still stuck in the walls.  They tell us how the soldiers had occupied the house, after the family had evacuated it.  How they came back to find everything on the ground, including the Qu’ran.  Then, worse, how one Qu’ran had been defecated on.  Haram, was all I could say.  I took photos somewhat helplessly, of everything they showed me.  I’m well-practised at documenting damage Israeli soldiers have done to Palestinian homes.  And the families always seem to feel better if you take photos of everything.  But the ridiculousness of what I was doing – taking photos of small holes in walls when half of the house was missing – hit, and I put the camera down.
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A couple of the children – the ones who had been telling me that they were all farmers, and just farmers – led me around the corner to a house they said belonged to Arafat al Samouni.  The house was levelled, just a small tarp erected in the middle of the debris.  “Sleep here” one of the children informed.  10 people killed in that house.  Just one left, seemingly.  Haram.
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I wanted to ask the children about their parents.  I know at least some of them have surviving parents, saw them with their mother.  Heard them talk about her.  But I’m too scared to ask.  I don’t want to hear a small child have to tell me that its parent or parents are dead.  There’s so much i can’t bring myself to ask.  I’ve taken a lot of reports in Palestine.  I know how it goes.  What you need to ask.  What information is vital.  I know it so well I don’t even need to think about it.  I can ask with sympathy about how Israeli soldiers invaded a family home; beat people; abducted their children.  But this is something else entirely.  Here and now, such questions seem vile.  I just want to hang out with the children.  Let them show me what they want to show me.  Listen to them talk.
 
While we’re hanging out with these kids, our friends encounter one of their cousins who watched both of her parents die when Israeli soldiers bombed a house that they had told everyone from neighbouring houses to shelter in.  Later, watching the video they took, we’re all shocked by the confident way Mona talks about the night when so many from her extended family were killed.  About how she watched her parents die, before the rest of the family ran from the house, in all directions, whilst they were being fired upon by the soldiers.   How composed she is as she recalls how they ran to her school, which she had previously believed was a long way from here house.  How she couldn’t believe she had walked all that way.  How it didn’t seem like a long distance.  And about how here grandparents told her that it was because they were scared and running that she didn’t notice the distance.
 
We’re not the only foreigners visiting this area – the al Samouni family have become famous for the tragedy they’ve endured.  Teams of international journalists traipse around the dirt mounds and debris, making it seem like a macabre tourist attraction.  “This is why the children don’t seem sad”, a local friend suggests later, while we watch Mona’s video.  “When all the journalists leave, then they will feel sad”.
 
Driving back down the road towards Gaza city, we pass building after building bearing signs of shelling and bombing.  Metre-wide holes punched through walls – some covered in plastic; a few already bricked in; most still open wounds in the masonry.  It looks to me as though tanks drove down the street we now drive on, pausing to shell every apartment block and house they passed.  As though for fun.  It’s an idea I can’t get out of my mind.  The possibility that a large proportion of what the al Samounis and other families in Gaza have endured over the past month was done for kicks haunts me.
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Egyptian Culpability

Go back!  You are not patients!  Go back!  You are not sick!”, screamed the Egyptian security officials at the Rafah border crossing, when intenational charitites tried to transfer four sick and wounded children through Egypt in order to travel to hospitals in France, on Saturday 25th January.

Officials demanded that 9 year old Iman Khadum, who is suffering from massive hematoma and nephrotic syndrome – as a result of falling down stairs in fright when a bomb landed near her home – get out of her ambulance and urinate on the ground, to prove that she really had a kidney problem – despite the fact that all the children had appropriate paperwork.  Iman, being a 9 year old girl, refused, “Out of shyness”, her mother explains.
The border officials then began pounding on the ambulances, screaming at the children, and the international doctors who were accompanying them, “Why did you come here?!  Why did you bring their relatives with them?!”.
This was the second attempt made by the charities PalMed and International Humanitarian Health Organisation (IHH) to take the children through the border crossing.  The day before, Friday, the children were also turned away, after border officials had allowed the accompanying doctors to pass through.  “On both days, it was the same result”, said Turksih IHH co-ordinator Adem Bark.  “But on Saturday the behaviour of the soldiers [Egyptian border officials] was much, much worse”.
The children are now being treated in al Shifa hospital in Gaza city.  Iman’s mother reports that Iman no longer even wants to go to France for treatment, because of her experiences at the Egyptian border.  “She tells me, I don’t want to go to France now”, explains her mother.  “She said: I don’t want to go back to them [the Egyptian border officials]”.
Iman, in al Shifa hospital
Iman, in al Shifa hospital
The children who were selected to travel to France for treatment, were chosen because their cases met certain criteria – that of being children who require multiple surgical procedures.  Hazem Abu Odeh, 12 years old, also has, like Iman, suffers from nephritic syndrome – but has the complication of it being steroid-resistant.  16 year old, Alaa Abu Dagan, suffers from multiple wounds to her back and abdomen; as well as fractures and a dislocated shoulder, caused by an explosion. Amira al Ghirim, 15 years old, has severe crush wounds and old, infected explosion wounds – she was found after 4 days following an explosion that killed most of her family.  The only other survivor, her mother, believed Amira to be dead, and buried body parts that she thought were Amira’s.
The four children were the first wounded Palestinians to be refused passage through the Rafah border crossing since the beginning of the Israeli assault, except for the third day of the war, when patients were turned back as a result of Israeli bombardment near the border, according to Dr Hassan Khalaf, Assistant Deputy Minister of the Ministry of Health in Gaza.  Theirs, however, are proving to be just the first cases in what appears to be a new Egyptian government policy of refusing entry of Palestinian patients to Egypt.  Whilst all other patient-bearing ambulances were permitted through the Gaza-Egypt border crossing on Friday 23rd January, 40 patients from Al Shifa hospital in Gaza city were refused, along with the 4 children, the following day.  The same 40 patients were again refused passage through the border on Sunday 25th, and a further 8 women were refused passage on Monday 26th.
Hospital and health officials are baffled as to why Egypt has adopted this new policy of refusal.  “Nobody in Gaza strip can answer this question”, advised Dr Khalaf.  “This is a purely Egyptian issue.  And a political issue…This is part of the Egyptian policy against Gaza”.
Egyptian officials, however, claim they are carrying-out instructions from the Ministry of Health Operations Room in Ramallah (West Bank), which on 22nd January, released the following statement:
“The Ministry of Health would like to extend their sincere gratitude to all fellow countries that hosted and are currently hosting injured children who were dramatically hurt due to the vicious Israeli war on Gaza. However, the MoH would like now to provide and ensure treatment for the injured children in Gaza close to their families and friends.

A high percentage of the martyrs have been children due to their vulnerability to tolerate severe injuries, and those who were fortunate enough to survive have been treated in the hospitals in Gaza. We therefore see no more reason to refer anymore children for treatment abroad.”

Of course the MoH in Ramallah has no way to “provide and ensure treatment for the injured children in Gaza, close to their families and friends”.  It hasn’t prevented them from issuing the decree, however.  Dr Khalaf, whilst generous in his praise for the work of the doctors and hospital staff in Gaza’s hospitals for the ways in which they coped during the attacks, is also realistic about the types of care than can be offered to patients in Gaza.  “We are not an eminent medical centre here”, he said, referring to Al Shifa hospital.  “There is a level of expertise that is available in Europe and the United States that is not available here”.
It seems the Egyptian government is not just operating under instructions from Ramallah, however.  Dr Khalaf advises that Palestinian patients who have been offered treatment abroad (eg. in Europe and the US) have been prevented by Egyptian officials from leaving Egypt since 11th January – long before the PA issued its ridiculous statement.  Indeed, currently there are 2 children from the PalMed/IHH program who are being held in Eyptian hospitals, after having been permitted to pass through the Rafah crossing.  Egyptian officials are reportedly refusing to allow them to travel on to France.
Mohammad al Ajla, 14 years old, has suffered multiple amputations as a result of explosion injuries; and Bissan Sallak, 8 years old, has multiple injuries to her abdomen, chest, diaphragm, lung and liver – also as a result of an explosion.
Currently, Egyptian authorities are claiming that only patients who cannot be treated in Egypt should be allowed to travel abroad, despite the fact that the patients in question are not citizens of Egypt, and, as such, in theory, in no way subject to Egyptian governmental decisions of this kind.
At the same time, the vast majority of Palestinian patients with white phosphorus wounds who have been transfered through the Rafah border crossing to Egypt, have been channeled into military hospitals, where they cannot be accessed by journalists or civilians.  One might be forgiven for thinking Egypt is colluding in hiding Israeli war crimes.
At any rate, the actions of the Egyptian government, in refusing to allow Palestinian patients through to Egypt and further abroad, and in maintaining a closed border with Gaza throughout the siege, demonstrates an undeniable level of culpability.  As Dr Khalaf remarked: “They are playing an important role in our suffering”.

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