Ewa Jasiewicz writing from the occupied Gaza Strip, Live from Palestine, 11 January 2009
|Palestinian firefighters try to extinguish a fire following an Israeli air strike on Rafah refugee camp, southern Gaza Strip, 11 January 2009. (Hatem Omar/MaanImages)|
Last night was a quiet one in Jabaliya. “Only” six homes bombed into the ground, the market, again, maybe four lightly injured people — shrapnel to the face injuries — and no martyrs. Beit Hanoun saw a young woman, Nariman Ahmad Abu Owder, just 17, shot dead as she made tea in her family’s kitchen. It was 9pm in the Hay Amel area when witnesses reported “thousands” of bullets shot by tanks onto homes in Azrah Street.
We got a call to go to Tel al-Zaater looking for the dead and injured, around 2am. “This area is dangerous, very very dangerous,” warned one volunteer rescuer, Muhammad al-Sharif, as our ambulance bumped along sandy, lumpy ground, illuminating piles of burning rubbish, stray cats, political graffiti, and the ubiquitous strung-out colored sack cloth and stripey material in large thin squares, tenting the pavements. What is it? Protection, I am told, so that the surveillance planes won’t see the fighters. Palestinian body armor.
Muhammad, and Ahmad Abu Foul, a Civil Defense medical services coordinator, told me they had been shot at by Israeli snipers yesterday. Muhammad had recounted the story, still counting his blessings, earlier on at the ambulance station. They’d gone hurtling over graves and tombstones to fetch casualties when Israeli snipers opened fire. They’d laid down flat on the ground until the firing stopped. Ahmad, 24, another rescuer here, told me he had been shot in the chest — in his bullet-proof vest — close to the Atarturah area while trying to evacuate corpses three days ago. His brother, he had told me, had been injured 14 times working as a paramedic. “Fourteen times. Then he got hit by an Apache. Then it was serious. That took him out of work for a few months,” he explained.
Back to Tel al-Zaater, we searched with micro torches, sweeping over slabs of broken homes and free-running water from freshly smashed pipes. A black goat was trapped in a rubble nest. We stepped over broken blown-in metal doors off their hinges. Nothing, none, “snipers” on our minds. We ended up leaving with one casualty, lightly injured, more in shock than anything else. Explosions continued through the night. Abrupt slumps into concrete echoing around the hospital, like rapid beats to a taut drum skin.
This morning was a different story. I’ve been finding that the most missile-heavy times seem to be between 7-9am. I counted 20 strikes in those two hours this morning. I’d come to Muhammad’s house. He went straight to bed, exhausted. I’d caught some sleep spread across the front seats of the rickety ambulance, waking up periodically to respond to calls.
At Muhammad’s I did some badly overdue washing and went towards the roof with it. “Ewa, do you want to martyr yourself?” said Sousou, Muhammd’s 19-year-old sister, a bright sciences student unable to finish her studies due to her university — the Islamic University — having been bombed last week. Hanging out washing on the roof here is a potential act of suicide; there are stories of people having been shot dead on rooftops. Walking down the street to buy bread, also a potential act of suicide. Visiting family, going to the market, drinking tea in your own home — a potential act of suicide. In the end I do go up, with nine-year-old plucky Afnan, who hands me pegs nervously as we scan the skies periodically, while the murderous sneer of Israeli surveillance drones leers above us.
The call comes as soon as I get to al-Awda Hospital. It’s 11:40am. A strike in
Mahkema street, Zoumou, eastern Jabaliya. The streets of Moaskar Jabaliya are fuller than I’ve seen them for weeks. Fruit and vegetable sellers with wooden carts full of potatoes, tomatoes, cucumbers, aubergines, mountains of strawberries, bags of flour, plastic bottles of vegetable oil and rice, line the streets. The reason everyone’s here, exposed like this is because with the market being bombed, the streets have become the market.
We roar through manically, siren blaring. Abu Bassem, one of the oldest and most hyper ambulance drivers, yells hoarsely at anyone nonchalant enough to not notice the screaming column of ambulances zooming towards them, past broken buildings, debris-covered streets, twisted tin can warehouses and rubble homes.
Out of the city, we’re met by a crowd running towards us with a blanket hump on the back of a donkey cart. Jumping out I see bloodied legs and arms sticking it out of it, “Shuhada!” — martyrs! — yells the crowd running along with it, while others gesture wildly to go on, go on ahead. Jumping back in we get to the house where it all happened. A woman in her 50s, in black, has her arms around a large, lifeless woman. Pools of blood surround them. They’re cramped into a corner, the woman crying and clinging to her. We need to peel her away and lift the woman, cold, lifeless and shoeless, onto a stretcher. This is Randa Abed Rabu, 38. Her relative or friend comes in too, unable to stand, unable to speak or move; we drag her on and she has to slump on the ambulance floor. Next we bring in Ahmad Mohammad Nuffar Salem, 21, with 16 shrapnel injuries, tearing at his own clothes in pain, they needed to be cut off.
Six members of the Abed Rabu family were killed in the strike on their house. It happened at 11:40am. Ahmad, 21, explains, “We were all eating together, and then we were struck.” The consensus amongst paramedics was that it was a tank shell, although the family thought it was a shell from an Israeli navel vessel.
Muhammad Abed Rabu, 50, explains to me, that in the night his other family homes were struck three times by F-16 fighter jets. “Thirty of us spent the whole of last night hiding under ground, in the basement. Our whole street was full of fire. They [the Israelis] spent one and a half hours attacking us. They destroyed three of our family’s homes. All the martyrs today, they were underground with us last night.”
Kamal Odwan’s “Mosque”
Kamal Odwan Hospital is the main port of call for the bulk of emergency services, once a local clinic, it has now grown, concomitantly with the population of the north, now 350,000, into a hospital. Since the bombing of an average of one in 10 mosques in the Jabaliya area according to local Imams, Kamal Odwan is now also a prayer site, an open-air mosque. Rows of men kneel together daily in the car-park round the corner from the overflowing morgue; praying also takes place at the side of the lines of parked ambulances and in the little garden area in front of the reception and emergency room. The emergency staff, the families and friends of new martyrs, all pray together in perhaps the last place of sanctuary in Jabaliya, knowing that as soon as they set foot outside, they’re fair game for snipers, surveillance drones, Apaches, Cobras, F-16- and F-15-fired missiles, shrapnel, flying chunks of house, glass, and nails that are shredding people here. White phosphorous too is reportedly being used, along with a white mist of nerve gas hanging in Jabaliya a few days ago and over Beit Hanoun, in the Zoumou street area.
Today at least three casualties, all of them elderly women, were brought into Beit Hanoun hospital suffering from inhalation of this gas, which chokes people, tightening chests and nasal passages and rendering people dizzy and disorientated; we were all affected by it, despite being maybe half a kilometer away from the site of its release. As I finish writing this now, in the offices of Ramatan News, the same gas, nerve fraying, chest tightening, tear-inducing and confusing is seeping into the offices.
The director of public relations at Kamal Odwan, Moayad Al Masri, whose family now lives in the Fakhoura school in Jabaliya refugee camp gives me the stats for the past week. Every day approximately 20 people in Jabaliya are being killed, by tank shelling, Apache, F-16, and surveillance plane missile strikes. On 27 December, 14 people killed, 52 injured; December 28, six killed, 22 injured; December 29, 15 killed, 102 injured; 30 December, two killed, 11 injure; 31 December, three killed, three injured; New Year’s Day, 17 killed, 67 injured; 2 January, six killed, 10 injured; 3 January, 13 killed, 43 injured; 4 January, 28 killed, 35 injured; 5 January, 15 killed, 98 injured; 6 January 50 killed, 101 injured; 7 January, 17 killed, 33 injured; 8 January, 11 killed, 53 injured; 9 January, 15 killed and 63 injured; 10 January, 22 killed and 53 injured, and today, this morning, six people had been killed so far. Four of them were childre: ssters Saher (16) and Haowla Ghabban (14), and Fatima Mahrouf (16) and Haitham Mahrouf. Witnesses report that they were leaving their home at the United Nations-administered Beit Lahiya school, to go home to wash and make food. They were walking near strawberry fields in Sheyma when they were struck by a surveillance plane missile.
I go to meet a friend from Beit Hanoun at the hospital. It takes stopping five different taxi drivers before I finally get one who agrees to take me. Missiles have been falling throughout the afternoon “ceasefire.” Everyone has heard about cars and their passengers zapped in two by missiles from surveillance drones. We all engage in a kind of Russian roulette every time we move, knowing we might be the next unlucky ones.
In Beit Hanoun we hear about six families from the Abu Amsha House — 50 people — having to flee their four-story home after the Israeli occupation forces called to give them five minutes to leave before being bombed. As the families frantically gathered their belongings — mattresses, blankets, clothes, documents, photographs — and made their way down the stairs, an Israeli F-16 war plane bombed them. Twenty-seven were injured, four of them seriously, including one with shrapnel in the spinal area.
A house upon them
We meet Muhammad Zuadi Abu Amsha, a United Nations employee running a local job creation program and the son of Hajj Zohaadi Amsha, the owner of the destroyed house. Muhammad’s house, opposite his father’s house, had its windows blown out in the attack. I asked him why he thinks the house was targeted. “This is the policy of Israel, the logic is to make us leave this land, make us leave our homes, to clear this land for their occupation and ownership of it. That’s what this is about. There were no fighters here by the way,” he says. “This is a civilian house, my father is 80 years old, he worked as a teacher for the UN.” As we’re talking, children who have gathered around us point to the sky and say “look, look, Apache.” And we look at it, flying silently across the sky, puffing out a perfect line of burning dazzle flares. A boy of about 10 spots a piece of missile, the size of a large marrow, electronic parts still intact, and lugs it up to us, “Take care” we shout to him; he scrambles over debris and then lobs it onto the ground in front of us. All our hearts skip a beat.
Back at Kamal Odwan, we hear the news. Wafa al-Masri, 40 years old, and nine months pregnant was walking to Kamal Odwan Hospital to give birth. With her was her sister, 26-year-old Raghada Masri. They were passing through the Diwar Mabub crossroads in the Beit Lahiya Project area. It was 4:30pm. Witnesses said they were hit directly by a missile from a surveillance drone. Daniel, a half-Ukrainian paramedic here described the scene. “Her legs were shredded, there was just meat, and she had a serious chest injury, hypoxemia.” Wafa was transferred to al-Shifa Hospital for a double leg amputation, from the upper thigh area down. Paramedics were apprehensive about her or her unborn child making it. Medics managed to save the right foot of Raghada Masri, 26. I visited her at Kamal Odwan today. Visibly distressed and writhing in pain, she recounted the story: ‘We were walking down the street when we heard the sound of the plane, I can still hear ringing in my ears. We were hit by a missile. We were in the area right in the main street, in broad daylight. We would never have expected this. I saw smoke, and I saw Wafa’s legs all mangled. She was thrown meters away from me, I was thrown too. Her scarf was torn off her head, her hair was all burnt, she didn’t look like my sister, her hair was gone, everyone was saying to me, ‘She’s a martyr, she’s a martyr.'” Today I learned medics managed to save one leg and that she gave birth to a healthy boy.
At 5pm, while we’re gathering information on the bombing of Wafa and her sister, ambulances and taxis bring over casualties. There’s been a tank bombing of an apartment building, the Burj al-Sultan, in Jabaliya. Three dead, two of them children, and five injured. Again Daniel brought them in. He’s sitting in the ambulance stunned and staring into space. “In all my days, I’ve never seen anything like this,” he says. “First they fired one missile at the roof of the building, this got people running out of the building. Then they fired another one, at the people outside, and then when we turned up, they fired another one. I don’t understand. And they were all civilians.” The weapon of choice was a tank shell that releases tiny flachettes, spiked arrows that tear into flesh at lightning speed. Daniel went on to say that ambulance staff and helpers were shot at by snipers when evacuating casualties. Ashar al-Battish, 33, lost his two brothers in the attack. “Kids were playing in the street, and then three missiles were shot at us,” he explains. Gesturing to his brother on an emergency room bed, Ashar adds, “he was shot by a sniper in the chest, and another sniper’s bullet grazed his face.”
When I began writing this I was on the fifth floor of the al-Awda Hospital, a few things have happened in between. I was buying coffee, Snickers bars to chop up for the guys, and some shampoo from the local shop when we got a call at around 9:30pm, to pick up casualties from the Beir Najje area, western Jabaliya. We wove our way up, a column of rickety vans. Our ambulance had a plastic bag held up with brown parcel tape for a back window after it was blasted out last week — too close to an F-16 repeat attack.
When we reached the casualty zone, near a mini roundabout flanked with painted portraits of pale Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine fighters, and orange groves on our right, we drove slowly up towards the leading ambulance which had stopped up ahead. As we were approaching, the crew suddenly came running towards us, waving their arms for us to move, move, get back, get back. We reversed sharply and a minute later advanced again as they receded back to the ambulance. I jump out with the stretcher and start to assemble it but I’m told, “Get back inside, get back inside, this is a dangerous area!” They have their casualty, we pick up another with a leg injury on our way back, and when we get back to base it transpires that a surveillance plane missile was shot directly onto the crew ahead but failed to explode. Unknown to us, it had been lying beside the ambulance when we came up to see about the injured.
As well as this, there were two F-16 missile strikes on targets just a few hundred meters away from al-Awda. Both enormous bangs shook the building, shattered a window and sent everyone running for cover.
An empty dead-zone
I asked the paramedics what happened when they went to collect bodies and the injured from the areas where street fighting is taking place, places like Tel al-Zaater, Salah al-din Street, Atahtura, Azbet Abu Rabu — closed to everyone and anyone but the Israeli occupation forces. During 1-4pm there is supposed to be a ceasefire and coordination between paramedics and the Israeli army, through the Red Cross. Of the three paramedics I asked, all of their replies were the same. “We saw none.” “It was like a ghost town.” Despite finding bodies over the past week, including one baby which had been half eaten by dogs — photos, film and witnesses at Kamal Odwan confirm it — and bodies which had been run over by tanks, when they went yesterday, they found nobody, and came back to base empty-handed. “I think the Israelis must have taken the bodies away, I think they must have taken them away by bulldozer and buried them.” The terrifying thing is that there are still people trapped in their homes if their homes are still standing, without food, water, or electricity. Refugees at the al-Fakhoura school report not being able to recognize their areas, their streets after the heavy fighting and destruction of so many houses. When these areas are finally accessible to people, the full extent of the killing and destruction will at last be known.
Meanwhile, as the killing continues, the Ministry of Health ambulances in the north are becoming slowly paralyzed. Four Ministry of Health ambulances based at Kamal Odwan have no fuel and have been grounded, two have just half a tank each. One in Beit Hanoun has also been immobilized. A senior source coordinating the rescue services who did not wish to be named, said, “We don’t have the capacity now to respond. The Civil Defense and the Red Crescent will go out; we cannot, only in case of a major emergency. In case of another strike like the one at Fakhoura [which killed 43 people taking shelter at the school], the injured will have to be transported by donkey cart. People will die.” Petrol is available, just a short drive away in Salah al-Din Street, but Israeli occupation forces control the area and won’t let any vehicle pass. To add to the Ministry of Health’s woes, the radios they’ve had since the beginning of the invasion have had no service — there’s been no radio contact between the base and ambulances and the Jawwal mobile phone network is also frequently down.
So everybody who can, still keeps going. Israeli war planes keep targeting civilians. The evidence piling up points to a deliberate campaign and policy of targeting civilians. And the bombs keep falling, thudding all around all of us, everywhere we go, everywhere we sleep, everywhere we walk, drive, sit and pray. Everyone is exhausted and just wants these attacks to end and for a real ceasefire to materialize.
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 (www.FreeGaza.org).