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Death, fear and fighting take toll on both sides of Gaza border

By David Harris and Hamza El-Attar, The Media Line News Agency

January 7, 2009 | 7:14 pm

ALTTEXT
Damage to a home in Sderot from a Qassam rocket. Photo by The Media Line

The body, wrapped only in a flag, is lowered into the ground as family members throw themselves toward the grave, screaming in anguish. At that moment, their world has ended.

For the hundreds standing around them, vengeance is the only path worth treading.

It doesn't matter whether you are now imagining the victim as a Palestinian or an Israeli -- the scene is identical.

Residents of the Gaza Strip and southern Israel alike will tell you that in years gone by, they built up close working relationships and, in some cases, real friendships. Yet throughout the last 40 years there has always been an unease between the two, which all too often has spilled over into bloodshed.

Ever since the creation of the Palestinian Authority in the early 1990s, Hamas has been a dominant force in Gaza, and when in 2006 the Islamist movement claimed victory in the Palestinian parliamentary election, it was clear that soon it would gain de facto control of the narrow coastal enclave. A year later, Hamas took over the running of Gaza from Fatah in what Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas described as "a bloody coup."

Complete Gaza CoverageIt has left some Gaza-based Fatah officials smarting, angry and even prepared to blame Hamas rather than Israel for the current violence.

"We were protective of the people and made sure that the Palestinian cause was on the right path until we got the world on our side," said Ibrahim Abu A-Naja, a member of Fatah's Executive Committee.

However, the overriding view in Gaza is that Israel is directly to blame for the new reality on the ground, in addition to the troubles already besetting Gazans.

Similarly in Israel, the residents of the towns and villages that have been under rocket fire for eight years accuse Hamas and the smaller armed organizations in Gaza of being responsible for the violence and bloodshed.

"For years we've been suffering like this," said Victoria, a 20-something resident of the Israeli town Sderot, which has faced the brunt of Hamas' missiles. "I want the Israel Defense Forces to do exactly what it's doing now and not to stop in the middle."

That is the overriding view in southern Israel. Many people say the government was right to launch its Gaza operation against Hamas, and if there is collateral damage -- the euphemism for civilian casualties -- so be it.

"Yesterday the rocket blew out my window and just missed the propane tanks, and the last time it blew two doors off their hinges, and they were blown together like a sandwich," said Yair Madmon, a man in his late 50s who said he served in the Israeli army as a reservist until he was 48.

Like many who live in Sderot, Madmon said he will never leave.

However, that is not the case for everyone. Since the missiles began raining in, people have fled the town. It means businesses are in decline, leaving the local economy in ruins.

The middle-age mustached owner of the local lottery franchise in Sderot, who asks not to be named, said he works on a percentage basis -- his income dependent on the number of tickets sold. He said fewer people than ever come his way, and he spends much of his day running for shelter in the nearby supermarket. The strain on his family, both financial and mental, is enormous.

"My wife's worried about me, and I am about her," he said, while handing a white and pink lottery ticket to his solitary customer. "We panic when one of us doesn't answer the phone or if the line's engaged or if it's out of order."

ALTTEXTLooking for interviewees in the public areas of Sderot is not as easy as it used to be. The residents are wary of what they see as an apathetic, biased media and, more importantly, they are scared to stand in the streets for fear of what may fall from the sky as they relate their stories.

A woman runs by, having returned her supermarket cart, and smiles apologetically, calling out, "I would talk to you, but it's too dangerous here; I need to be home."

Indeed, the conversation with the customer at the lottery booth is rudely interrupted by a stern female voice, broadcast via a hidden loudspeaker, warning all residents to take cover. The few people in the public square run for shelter in the local supermarket. They have 15 seconds before the rockets hits.

That rocket was fired from just a handful of miles away in Gaza.

"Leave it, it's mine," is a normal cry from a Gazan who has spent his day in a line in front of a bakery, waiting to purchase a package of bread. There has been a lack of flour since the first day of the Israeli military operation.

That aerial attack at 11:30 a.m. on Saturday, Dec. 27, came like a bolt out of the blue for Palestinians and for Hamas in particular. Some 150 Hamas security personnel were killed in just three minutes. Since then, Gazans have awakened every day to the sound of explosions and the sight of smoke plumes peppering the sky. Many residents use the same word to describe their life over the last weeks: "Hell."

Empty streets, closed stores, pale faces, police officers sleeping on Gaza's roads, cameramen passing in their cars -- those have been the dominant scenes in Gaza. Those, along with the ambulances racing from destroyed buildings to overcrowded hospitals.

"It's a war crime. Many innocent civilians have been killed, particularly kids and women," said Momen, a Gaza resident. "Besides, the humanitarian situation gets more difficult and totally inhumane because of lack of flour and gasoline."

The shortages are not only in basic foodstuffs and the power supply but also in room in Gaza's morgues. As a result, hospital employees are gathering bodies in the open air. The identification process has taken on a grizzly nature, with family members having to walk along the rows of bodies to see if any are their loved ones. Many of the bodies are mangled beyond recognition.

Basel Faraj, a trainee in a local media production company, was wounded while covering the first airstrikes in Gaza.

"He's critically wounded, but we can't transfer him to anywhere; I'm losing my son," his mother cried. "As I passed by another bed in the intensive-care unit I found another victim struggling to survive, despite the lack of oxygen and medicine."

A car arrives at Shifa Hospital, Gaza's largest. Someone rushes in screaming: "He's alive. Save him. Please save him."

It is a man carrying a young adult. The wounded man is dying. He is a cameraman with Hamas' Al-Aq'sa TV. It appears unlikely the ill-equipped ambulances and dirty conditions in the hospital will help in his failing fight for survival.

Five journalists were wounded on the first day of the military operation. Two of them were working with Al-Aq'sa TV.

The decision makers at the local level are at a loss. In Gaza there is little advice they can offer and no comfort. People cannot flee the situation. Many want to leave Gaza via the Rafah crossing into Egypt, but for the vast majority of the time, Cairo insists the border remain closed.

Hamas' leadership has gone to ground in bunkers, tunnels and elsewhere, meaning there is no one to whom the public can turn for help.

In Israel, there are more options available to the population, but local politicians are still unsure how to advise their electorate.

"I'm not the general manager of the lives of the people here," Sderot Mayor David Bouskila said from his underground logistics bunker. "I don't know what to tell the people -- to be here and suffer or to go elsewhere."

In Israel, at least, the radio and TV channels are constantly broadcasting warning messages as to where the rockets are headed and offering phone numbers of psychological services available to residents of the south. National radio is calling on those living in northern Israel to offer home hospitality to all who desire. Many southerners take advantage of this support and are relocating to spare bedrooms up and down the country.

Schools, synagogues and offices are collecting foodstuffs, which are distributed to those still in the south. While fewer rockets are being fired from Gaza now that the Israeli ground offensive is in full swing, their range has increased, with Grad rockets capable of traveling some 25 miles being launched from Gaza.

In previous years, the name Sderot became synonymous with the Qassam rockets of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, but now the coastal cities Ashkelon and Ashdod can be added to the list, as well as the capital of the south Beer Sheva, Netivot, Qiryat Malachi and a host of other towns and villages.

While the damage is far less significant on the Israeli side of the border, the number of Israelis now within range of the rockets is reaching a par with that for the Palestinians. Schools are closed throughout the south. City and regional councils have unlocked bomb shelters that have been closed for years to prepare for worst-case scenarios.

While Israel has had to get used to daily rocket attacks over the last eight years, the international community is now firmly focused on Israel's strikes against Hamas, with many ambassadors to the United Nations speaking of Jerusalem's "disproportionate use of force."

As has been the case in recent decades, Israel's main detractor on the international scene is the Muslim bloc, as represented by the Organization of the Islamic Conference, which is arguably the strongest grouping in the United Nations.

In the days leading up to the Israeli strike and immediately following, Egypt proved to be the key exception by blaming Hamas for all the ills that have befallen the civilian population of Gaza.

The Islamist movement handed Israel an opportunity "on a golden plate" to attack, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmad Abu Al-Gheit told reporters. Palestinian Authority leader Abbas made similar remarks as he toured regional capitals on the day the warfare commenced.

Israel's key ally is the United States, with other "old friends" attempting to prevent comprehensive condemnation of Jerusalem's actions. Among them: the United Kingdom and the Czech Republic, which crucially has just taken over the presidency of the European Union from France. Prague is stressing the Israeli action is "defensive" rather than "offensive."

ALTTEXT Yet, most in the international community see things differently. While criticizing Hamas' rocket firing, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon roundly condemned Israel: "While recognizing Israel's right to defend itself, I have also condemned the excessive use of force by Israel in Gaza. The suffering caused to civilian populations as a result of the large-scale violence and destruction that have taken place over the past few days has saddened me profoundly."

In Muslim capitals and elsewhere, the rhetoric has been far stronger than that adopted by U.N. diplomats.

"Muslims of the world should stay united against world arrogance, the criminal Zionists in particular ... to line up against [the] wicked party with more solidarity than ever," the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps was quoted as saying by IRNA, Tehran's official news agency. The comment was published as Said Jalili, Iran's security chief, was in Beirut for talks with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, among others.

In Malaysia, Israel's actions were described as "tantamount to genocide" by Abd Al-Rahim Bakri, the country's deputy foreign minister,.

However, Israel maintains that during its aerial bombardment of Gaza it was doing its utmost to ensure civilians were not caught up in the airstrikes and only Hamas members and other combatants were targeted.

"We're using very high-precision weaponry," said Maj. Avital Leibovich, a senior IDF spokeswoman.

The Israeli message to the world has remained the same throughout the campaign: Hamas has brought the warfare upon itself and ordinary Gazans. It goes back to the time Israel withdrew all its civilians and military personnel from Gaza three years ago.

"We hoped the Palestinians would do something good with their lives," Leibovich said. "We wanted a better future for them, and for a while it worked."

She pointed to the successful exports of millions of dollars worth of flowers and fruits from Gaza in the first months following the Israeli pullback.

"But then Hamas was elected and changed the priorities," the spokeswoman continued. "It invested a lot of money in building headquarters, recruiting troops, training them, digging hundreds of tunnels, buying weapons and explosives. That money did not go to the Palestinians themselves."

A similar message came from Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak when he explained why Israel had moved to a land invasion of Gaza on Jan. 3: "I have said all along that our military activities will widen and deepen as much as needed. Our aim is to force Hamas to stop its hostile activities against Israel and Israelis from Gaza and to bring about a significant change in the situation in southern Israel.

"We have carefully weighed all our options," he said. "We are not war hungry, but we shall not, I repeat -- we shall not allow a situation in which our towns, villages and civilians are constantly targeted by Hamas. It will not be easy or short, but we are determined."

Hamas, too, has repeatedly made a single point whenever it has been given the chance.

"We first declared a truce between the Palestinian parties and the occupation [Israel] to protect the Palestinians from the daily attacking, daily killing and assassinations, but the calm failed to put an end to their tragedy," Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said.

As a result, he added, Hamas had little choice other than to refuse to extend the truce. The mood in Gaza made it clear the people did not want the unilaterally declared truce to continue any longer.

Hamas also has international media coverage on its side. The Palestinian Ramattan production company has set up video cameras on Gaza rooftops and is transmitting a live feed to any TV channels that want to broadcast the pictures. Indeed, on Arabic satellite TV, dozens of stations are choosing to show the pictures, which are interspersed with graphic scenes from Gaza hospitals, propagandist videos and one-sided studio discussions.

Similarly, the visual footage coming out of Gaza is being lapped up by the international media, given that it is far more graphic than pictures of Israelis sitting in their bomb shelters.

Those scenes are also bringing about a degree of renewed unity between Hamas and Fatah, its bitter Palestinian rival faction. Politicians from the two sides held their first publicized joint meeting in months with the outbreak of Gaza hostilities.

"Israel used the Palestinian division and the truce to prepare itself well in order to attack Gaza. Now Israel doesn't differentiate between Hamas and Fatah. We're also targeted in Gaza," said senior Fatah official Faisal Abu Shahla, who chose to remain in Gaza rather than flee to the West Bank when Hamas took control of the coastal enclave in 2007.

Comments like these and others from Palestinians, Israelis and world leaders will soon be forgotten, but the vivid images from Gaza and southern Israel will be remembered for years to come: Palestinian and Israeli civilians alike weeping uncontrollably in the face of a fate they cannot control.

The following is a collection of quotations gathered both in Gaza and southern Israel in the last week -- and they are remarkably similar:

"It was on Friday; my mother was preparing the food when the shrapnel hit her in the foot."

"I hope the attacks will stop, and we can live in peace, and we can live a normal life like anyone -- to go to school, to go to work in peace and to be able to sleep well."

"I'm so scared to stay alone in my house."

"It's calm at this minute, but it wasn't hours ago. We heard explosions. They attacked children. Not fighters. Children."

"People are angry about this. Why didn't the world say anything and take positive steps?"

The two people are divided by an enormous chasm, by fences, ditches, armed forces and a deep-set paranoia about the intentions of the other. Yet the two have far more in common than perhaps they are ready to admit as the rockets and shells still pound away.

Israelis and Palestinians are united in their fear of the power of weaponry in the hands of the enemy. Both sit in their homes wondering if the next explosive projectile is heading for them. They are making the same visits to hospitals to visit the victims of warfare.

And both are as one as they pay the ultimate price -- burying their dead.

Images: Gaza bread line, funeral in Israel {--Tracker Pixel for Entry--}

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