The Endless War: Gaza Sinks In a Sea of Blood

Mohammed Omer

A Palestinian child lies wounded in the Jabalya refugee camp in Northern Gaza.

Artvoice | November 4, 2004
Introduction by Artvoice publisher Jamie Moses:

George Bush has won a second term, and the challenges to his new administration are going to be even more perilous than during his first term. Throughout the 2004 presidential election there was an unprecedented amount of detailed polling. Technological advances in the collection of polling information allowed us an exhaustive view into the beliefs, the knowledge and the thinking of the American public. The picture presented by numerous surveys and polls was a shocking confirmation of what many have believed for a long time: That as a result of “entertainment” replacing “learning,” political debate being replaced by 30-second TV attack ads, and thoughtful news reporting being replaced by a stream of homicide stories and sex scandals, America is in an intellectual downward spiral. This is particularly true with regard to world affairs.

It’s no secret that because of the Internet, jet travel, and satellite communication, the world is rapidly shrinking. China is poised to become an industrial behemoth, India is the rising star of technology, and the European Union (and its Euro) is increasingly supplanting the United States as the world business leader. We need to adjust to a changing world. Foremost, America needs to wake up and look outside itself if it expects to flourish.

Our most immediate problem is the trouble in the Middle East. The economic concerns listed above can be dealt with peacefully through intelligent leadership. But in the Middle East, we now have a ubiquitous military enemy. We are in a war most Americans, including the people fighting it, do not understand. Few Americans have any idea what our Middle East policy is, and few care. But consider that besides the human devastation of September 11, between the war in Afghanistan, the war in Iraq, the cost of Homeland Security, the expense of emergency first responders and the cost of rebuilding New York’s financial district and the Pentagon, we have spent roughly $500 billion—and still counting. That does not include the billions of dollars in lost revenue from the airline industry, New York tourism or the hospitality sector. That’s the result of a single terrorist incident.

The question is now, can we afford to invite more attacks by continuing to ignore the concerns of Arabs, Muslims and Israelis?

We still have no clear exit strategy for Iraq and no long-term plan to seek solutions in the Middle East. But we cannot simply keep pumping oil and giving contracts to Halliburton and expect everything’s going to get better. Without solving the Palestinian problem there will be no peace.

Israel’s controversial prime minister Ariel Sharon is 76 years old. In 1942, at the age of 14, Sharon joined an underground Israeli military organization, the Haganah, precursor to the Israeli Defense Force (IDF). So this man has been fighting a war for 62 years. And the war is still escalating. In the month of October, after Israeli incursions into the Gaza Strip and the Jabalya refugee camp, 165 Palestinians were killed and hundreds more wounded. In response to the incursions, on November 1, a 16-year old Palestinian boy blew himself up in an outdoor market in Tel Aviv, killing three Israelis and wounding 32 others. The boy’s mother was devastated and angry that Palestinian militants would turn a naïve boy into a suicide bomber. Suicide bombers attack innocent Israeli citizens and then Israeli tanks obliterate Palestinian neighborhoods, often killing civilian women and children—which inspires more suicide bombers. This retribution-driven violence has been going on for decades.

Now Sharon’s government is building a wall that separates Jerusalem from the West Bank. “What we really want is to turn our backs on the Arabs and never deal with them again,” said one of the prime minister’s advisers. But Israel can not simply shut the Arabs out, and neither can America. There are deep passions that have been flaring in the Middle East for years, and there are even deeper consequences in ignoring them. Consider the following excerpts from the full text of Osama bin Laden’s recent video tape (80 percent of which was never shown). Said bin Laden:

“The events that affected my soul in a direct way started in 1982 when America permitted the Israelis to invade Lebanon and the American Sixth Fleet helped them. This bombardment began and many were killed and injured and others were terrorized and displaced.

“I couldn’t forget those moving scenes, blood and severed limbs, women and children sprawled everywhere. Houses destroyed along with their occupants and high rises demolished over their residents, rockets raining down on our homes without mercy.

“In those difficult moments many ideas bubbled in my soul, but in the end they produced an intense feeling, and gave birth to a strong resolve to punish the oppressors.

“And as I looked at those demolished towers in Lebanon, it entered my mind that we should punish the oppressor in kind and that we should destroy towers in America in order that they taste some of what we tasted and so that they be deterred from killing our women and children.”

After the attacks of September 11, president George Bush had an explanation as to why we were attacked: “They hate our freedom.” I’m sorry Mr. President, but I believe you need to search your imagination a little more than that.

Clearly, we need to further our insight into the Middle East. In April 2004, Artvoice funded a trip to Baghdad by our former editor Geoff Kelly. This was during the beginning of the first major battle in Falujah with al Sadr’s Shi’ite militia. Writing as an “unembedded” reporter and living outside the protection of the Green Zone, Mr. Kelly filed a truly insightful report.

Not long afterwards, we were contacted by Mohammed Omer, a young Palestinian student and journalist living in the Palestinian city of Rafah split along the southern border of the Gaza Strip and Egypt. Mohammed serves as both translator and guide to official delegations, foreign journalists, and was Rachel Corrie’s tutor in Arabic. He frequently guides AP photographers or the British press through Gaza. Riding in their bullet-proof jeeps, he also takes photos which he posts to a website he maintains at Last October, one of Mohammed’s brothers, Issam, was seriously injured, and on October 18, 2003, his other younger brother Hussam Al-Mouhagir, just 17, was shot dead by the Israeli army in his own home. Not long ago, Mohammed returned from school and found his family out on the street and their home razed to rubble by Israeli bulldozers.

In late September, 2004, Mohammed traveled from Rafah to the refugee camp Jabalya, which is where he wrote this article. The following is not a political treatise; it is simply the experience of one boy’s life as a Palestinian trapped in Israel’s Gaza Strip.

Jabalya Camp, Northern Gaza, October 2004

by Mohammed Omer

It smells unbelievably bad here. To walk down any street—if you dare to—you skirt, or sometimes unavoidably walk through, pools of blood. There are shreds of human flesh—some of them unrecognizable as human remains—all over, plastered to broken windows, on the street. The stench of rotting blood mixes with the more acrid odor of flesh burnt to black char by the rockets fired by the Israeli Army’s American-made Apache helicopters.

The sky is full of black smoke, some from the rocket explosions, but even more, it seems, from the endless fires of tires and other debris that people keep stoking. The smoke confuses the unmanned drone surveillance planes, so setting fires in any relatively open area may “blind” the “eye in the sky” but the heavy, stinging odor of burning rubber adds to the miasma.

All this smoke mixed with plaster and cement dust is both a blessing and a curse. The stench of burning flesh, burning rubber, and rotting blood masks to some extent the smell of raw sewage from broken sewer pipes and the tens of thousands of bodies unwashed for over a week now. Water to drink is a rare and precious commodity here—baths and showers have become impossible luxuries.

Your eyes inevitably tear up from all the smoke—but then, that protects you a bit from the more harrowing sights—recognizable body parts—a piece of a leg, an obvious part of a torso, and fingers—more scattered, recognizable fingers than anyone should ever have to see. Volunteer crews are gathering these human fragments and bringing them to Jabalya’s two hospitals, but the ambulances cannot possibly keep up with the flood of newly dead and injured.

Funeral processions are everywhere, and “houses of mourning”—the tents bereaved families set up in which to receive their families and friends. In fact, though, every house here—those relatively intact and those partly or wholly destroyed by the Israeli Defense Force tanks and bulldozers—is a house of mourning.

And nothing protects you from the sounds: the tears and laments of the mothers and fathers, husbands, wives and children of the dead; the screams of the injured; the wail of ambulance sirens; sniper fire; the thud of tank shells and the too-frequent explosions as another Apache shell lands.

Time is distorted here—hours feel like days, days like weeks or months. This is Jabalya Refugee Camp in the Northern Gaza Strip, one of the most crowded places on earth where 106,000 men, women, and children, the overwhelming majority of them unarmed civilians, have been under an all-out attack for over a week now.

I wrote the above during the first week of the IDF incursion into Jabalya—the deadliest of the entire Intifada—from notes made on laptops borrowed from fellow journalists, and e-mailed to myself. Occasionally, I found someplace to sit in the controlled chaos of Kamal Adwan Hospital. I had left my home in Rafah before dawn on the morning of September 28 hoping to make it through all the delays at the checkpoints in time for my university classes in Gaza City. As usual, I had my mobile phone, digital camera, walkie-talkie, press pass, ID—it’s fair to say no Palestinian journalist in Gaza even walks to the corner store without all these things in his pockets.

But for the entire previous week, passage through the checkpoints—always difficult, frequently dangerous—had been increasingly nerve-wracking. Taxi drivers told me the Israeli soldiers seemed much more nervous than usual. The rumors about random shooting at the checkpoints seemed to increase exponentially. That night in Gaza City, friends of mine insisted I stay at their house—why make such a long, risky trip home when I’d have to set out on the return trip a few hours later?

So when the “Days of Penitence” incursion began the next day, I was only a few miles from the refugee camp. Thanks to a friend and colleague with a bullet-proof closed jeep, I had reasonably safe transportation and spent most of the next week in Jabalya, risking the occasional foray on foot, taking cover behind any piece of wall still standing, hiding in alleys, and, toward the very end, noticing that my heavy hiking boots, almost new at the start of the incursion, were nearly shredded by all the sharp metal hidden in the rubble.

Israel’s official position was that this carnage was a “response” to Palestinian militants firing a homemade Qassam rocket into the Israeli town of Sderot on September 29th, a rocket, which killed two children. In fact, though, dress rehearsals for the big performance had been going on for weeks. As early as August 4, five tanks and three bulldozers moved into position at the edge of the camp. The Associated Press reported that the IDF took over several houses and set up sniper positions on the roofs. A few days later, the Jerusalem News reported that tanks and bulldozers were on the outskirts of Jabalya “severing electricity and telephone lines in an operation to stop Palestinian rocket attacks.”

On September 10, while Beit Hanoun a few miles to the south was under all-out siege, Apache helicopters fired a missile into Jabalya, killing three Palestinians, while tanks and armored vehicles sealed off the road to Beit Hanoun. On September 19, the Israeli paper Maariv reported that “Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said this (Sunday) afternoon that firing at Palestinian residential areas should be carried out if terrorists use the area to stage attacks and if a warning is given prior to a response “

Obviously, something big was in the works, and Jabalya was an apparent target. On September 27, the Erez crossing, North Gaza’s main crossing point into Israel, was sealed completely—always a very bad sign. The same day, to the south near Khan Younis, a car carrying two Palestinian militants was destroyed by a missile strike. At the same time, two armed Palestinians were shot right outside Jabalya.

None of this had an official name. It was business as usual for the IDF and for the Palestinian militants and their launches of Qassam rockets. On the morning of September 28, the militants went through their near-daily exercise of firing five rockets at Sderot, and as was usually the case, hit nothing at all, although the Israeli press reported ten residents treated for shock. That night—“around midnight” according to the Israeli paper Haaretz, and “after dark” according to the Phillipine newspaper Today and its website partner ABS-CBN—a brigade-sized force of ground troops reinforced with a hundred tanks massed on the outskirts of Jabalya. It was 5 pm the next night that a Qassam rocket aimed at Sderot killed two children, and the “Days of Penitence” began.

It is only when I sat down to write up my notes made in the first week of the incursion that the cruelty of the IDF name for this attack—“Days of Penitence”—actually hit me. They were not just slaughtering unarmed civilians, but language itself. “Penitence,” as I understand it, is voluntary remorse for wrongdoing. Was this massacre supposed to induce remorse in its victims? Were they supposed to mourn the deaths of three Israeli adults (two soldiers, one civilian), and two Israeli children and accept the deaths—at the time I wrote this—of more than 60 Palestinian civilians as some kind of justice? To those of us who were in Jabalya, they were Days of Revenge. It was unquestionably collective punishment, and illegal under the Geneva Conventions.

But there was no reason to be surprised. Sharon had stated his intentions back in mid-September, continued the provocations of targeted assassinations throughout Gaza, got his forces in place, and waited for a Qassam rocket to kill someone. Then he said at the outset of the massive incursion that the attack would last “as long as necessary,” that is, until there was “no further danger” from the Palestinian resistance’s homemade rockets. Sharon, of course, had engineered the massacres of Sabra and Shatila over twenty years ago. Now, he did much the same, but with vastly improved weaponry.

Of course, the militant factions struck here and there during the incursion, as always, but they were vastly out numbered, not to mention out-gunned, by the Israelis. Hamas, on its side, distributed leaflets in Gaza City vowing to continue the rocket attacks on the illegal Israeli settlements in Gaza and any Israeli towns and cities their home-made ordnance could reach as long as the Israeli incursions continued.

International protests were muted, and stymied by the United States’ support for Israel. The lone, feeble voice from the U.S. State Department urged Israel to keep its “response” “proportional”—after, of course, the obligatory mantra, “Israel has a right to defend itself.” A strongly worded resolution condemning the attack brought before the UN was defeated by the U.S. veto.

It was hard to maintain accurate casualty figures—now that the IDF has declared an end after 17 days, the most recent count seems to be 165 Palestinians killed throughout Gaza in the month of October and over 600 injured. However, as I saw personally in Rafah after “Operation Rainbow” in May, what the IDF calls “withdrawal” is something most fair-minded people would call “de-escalation and redeployment.” The tank fire may slow down, the Apaches hover overhead less often, but nothing goes away entirely. A fault-scale incursion can start again in a matter of minutes. So it is almost certain that by the time this is printed, the casualty figures will be higher—the only real question is how many killed and injured, and where.

Back in the early days of the “Days of Penitence,” I wrote:

There is no refuge anywhere in Jabalya. The hospitals are chaotic, supplies are short and all medical personnel have been working around the clock for days now.

I saw Abu Nedal, the father of Nedal Al Madhown, a 14-year old boy, struggle to maintain his composure as he asked the exhausted doctors and ambulance drivers, “Was my son killed? Has he been killed?” (In fact, the boy was dead on arrival.) The majority of the dead and injured I saw were teens and children, obvious non-combatants.

I interviewed Dr. Mahmoud Al Asali, the director of Kamal Adwan Hospital, who told me he was forced to assume the Israeli Army has been deliberately targeting civilians. He said most of those injured by gunfire were wounded in the upper parts of their bodies, indicating the Israeli sharpshooters must have orders to shoot to kill. Palestinian doctors have removed many flechettes from the dead and injured, indicating the IDF are using illegal fragmentation bombs. These release razor-sharp flechettes as they explode. Dr. Al Asali says these illegal fragmentation devices greatly increase the number of deaths and the number and severity of injuries. The IDF refused to comment on this. The deaths and more devastating injuries from flechettes and missiles outnumbered the more precise sniper wounds.

The hospital staffs and ambulance crews were so overextended that they used volunteers for the gruesome task of collecting, sorting, and attempting to match scattered human remains to return as much as possible to bereaved families. One of these medical workers, Ahmed Abu Saall 26, from Kamal Adwan Hospital, told me, “One enormous difficulty we face is that these powerful bombs can scatter the parts of a single victim over a wide area. It is quite possible parts of a person could end up in Al Awda hospital in the east of the camp, while other parts of the same person end up with us here on the western side.” Sometimes shreds of clothing can help with the matching.

The Israeli Army frequently shot at the medical teams and journalists. During that first week, two ambulance drivers were injured, and a cameraman from Ramatan News Agency was hurt. Of course, the ambulance crews and press all wear identifying gear.

Israel has closed all borders into Gaza and has severely restricted all movement within the Gaza Strip. There are three major “zones” split off by sealed military checkpoints, but recent days have seen numerous new checkpoints, and roads closed by cement block and sand obstructions. People cannot move between cities, not even ambulances bringing patients to hospitals. Moreover, the main Israel-Gaza crossing remained closed, even to international NGOs, humanitarian relief groups, and foreign journalists.

Intense as the military attack has been and continues to be, it is certainly not the only danger to the people here. Many families now have been without food and water for days. In Tal Al Zattar, the eastern part of Jabalya, I interviewed Umm Ramzi. This elderly lady spoke to me through the gaping hole a tank shell had left in her house, as our jeep halted for a moment. It was dangerous for her to come out into the street, dangerous for us to stay in one spot very long. But I got her name, and she managed to tell me: “We have been appealing to the Red Cross to save our lives and the lives of our children, but nobody has responded.”

Most of the NGO workers and relief organizations—logically enough—assumed they cannot get through the Israeli military lines that completely surround Jabalya, although they are well aware that the civilians need help. I managed to reach the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), spokesman Simon Schorno by phone and he told me: “I’m on my way to Gaza now. We have been talking to the IDF to get permission to bring food and water, but we were not able to get an OK for complete food distribution.”

Concerning the absence of the Red Cross in the past few days when many families were in urgent need, Mr. Schorno said, “I feel terrible. We are trying to do our best to get food and water inside, but the damaged streets also delay us from reaching the people.”

A number of eyewitnesses among the camp residents told me the Israeli Army has commandeered several high buildings as sniper posts and basically shoot anything that moves. One of the most recent victims was Islam Dweidar, 14, who took a chance during an apparent lull in firing to buy bread for her mother. However, she was shot in the head by an Israeli sniper.

In the Southern part of the Gaza Strip, the Israeli Army has increased the number of tanks and bulldozers in all parts of Khan Younis and Rafah. There has been shelling every night, with many injured and killed.

Looking back on it now, I can say without reservation that the attack on Jabalya was far worse than the so-called “Operation Rainbow” of last May, which killed 40 in my hometown of Rafah and prompted an international outcry. Now, the silence from America, in particular, seems to condone turning the Gaza Strip into a killing field. Sharon picked his moment well, when America is preoccupied with its presidential campaign and its invasion of Iraq, to decimate the civilian population of Gaza. I was in the middle of the worst of Operation Rainbow and called it hell, but I was wrong. In Gaza, hell has more depths than Dante dreamed of, and in Jabalya, the people suffered a far worse hell. How many more hells must people here endure before the world speaks out?


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