and apparently comes out with much the same truth that Israel has been claiming all along. I can only wonder if the US is still determined to donate $900 million dollars…by and large what this shows is what we in Israel have known all along – our attacks were targeted and though there were casualties among the civilians, they have been grossly exaggerated by Hamas to manipulate world opinion. The truth is that the Palestinians do not create shelters to protect their people, but rather big obscene mansions for their leaders.
Puzzled in Gaza
February 5, 2009
I’m an English Jew and frequent visitor to Israel. I was deeply disturbed by the reports of Operation Cast Lead (OCL). So I spent Wednesday 28th January 2009 in Gaza taking a look for myself. I left Tel Aviv at 6.30 a.m. by taxi and arrived at the Erez checkpoint at 7.15 a.m. I cleared Israeli passport control using my press card, crossed the border alone, on foot and arrived in Gaza, where I was met by my guide a 27 year old Palestinian journalist, who wore western clothes and a close shaven beard. He asked me if I wanted to meet with Hamas officials. I explained, I’m a poet and freelance writer who’d come to see the damage and civilian suffering caused by OCL, not to talk politics and asked him to choose what to show me.
We drove away from Beit Hanoun to the ancient olive groves of Jebalia Reyes Hill which my guide said Israel had bulldozed because Hamas fired from them. Downhill I saw in the Abu Ayida family’s isolated compound the flattened remnants of several large houses and factories and a few small guard’s houses. A family member, Taisir Fouad told me the 3 cars in the rubble were a Mitsubishi and two Hyundais, that $5,000,000 of damage had been sustained by the Abu Ayidas (this was not a general residential area) and that he and his 10 children had previously lived in a 900 square metre house and were now living in one room in Jebalia.
I noticed a white kid goat’s head and hooves it’s body was covered in debris and a black and white goat, it’s large stomach was rock solid under the gentle pressure I applied to it with my shoe. My guide took me into the only Abu Ayida house left standing, which he said the Israelis had used as a base. It had two storeys and my guide thought it measured about 700 square metres. Its concrete exterior was unclad. I hadn’t expected the internal grandeur, the floors were marble and the chandeliers were amber glass. Outside and to the North of the house I was shown a flat piece of land where I was told the Israelis believed there were tunnels. I began to walk over to take a look but my guide told me to stop and follow him.
In the rubble of a guards’ house. I saw a buckled red wheelchair which I was told belonged to a young girl who lived alone with her mother. I picked up a sheet of Arabic writing from the ground which my guide told me was the homework of a child not more than 10 years old. I asked my guide and an old man who had now approached us, whether I might keep the homework sheet. They said I could. I have it still.
How many people died here I exclaimed to my guide. No one, came the reply. The Israelis leafleted and telephoned a warning to each house and factory half an hour or forty five minutes before they came. I was incredulous. How could they possibly ‘phone everyone? My guide said they have all the telephone numbers here, each of us has identity cards. They know everything about us. I asked him where all the people went and he told me everyone went to relatives in Jebalia. I tried unsuccessfully to get one of the Israeli warning leaflets that day.
To the north of the smaller houses, in a dell, there were 50 odd small khaki tents neatly erected in perfect rows. I neither saw nor heard any sign of activity from them. When I asked who’d erected them or who was using them my guide said he didn’t know. I asked him to ask the old man and was told that the old man didn’t know either but he thought it was a charity. The old man said, look at our fate and I have suffered 60 years because of Israel. There were no other people at the site other than the two who’d approached and spoken to us. My guide offered to take me into the tents to find out more about them but I refused and asked to go to Jebalia City. It was 9.30 am.
At 9.50 am when we arrived in Jebalia its unclad 1970’s concrete low buildings looked intact and their open shopfronts were hung with vivid kaftans . The roads were partially tarmacked and I saw some tank marks. The women on the streets wore jellabeya and some were veiled. Donkey carts were far more common than cars and small groups of sturdy looking unaccompanied children walked about wearing old fashioned woollen jumpers. I didn’t see any sweatshirts.
Puzzled by the City’s vibrant atmosphere I asked to be shown Jebalia refugee camp and arrived there at 10.10 a.m. Its teeming unmade-up streets were much narrower than those of Jebalia City, its dwellings run off narrow alleyways from the main street buildings where as many as 10 related families build homes in mutual proximity.
My guide told me that each of these tiny homes has an average of 10 children. I saw the remains of the Imad Akhel mosque which my guide said was bombed after Israeli warning leafleted and ‘phoned in the vicinity. 4 girls and their mother from the Fatah Ba Alusha family who lived in one of the maize of dwellings which still stood in the adjacent alley had died. Had other civilians left the area before the bombing? My guide said they had. Was the mosque really the Hamas arsenal Israel said it was? My guide told me to look at the secondary explosion on U Tube.
Seeing Jabalia Refugee Camp’s market was an astonishment , the open fronted shops hung liberally with huge fresh carcasses of meat and vendors carts, piled high with pyramids of beautiful produce stood in the middle of the road while shoppers came and went about their business. Some of the red radishes were the size of grapefruits. I told my guide that no one in England would believe this abundance. That we all thought they were starving. He told me that everything I could see was produced in Gaza.
My guide emphasised that he wasn’t a refugee but a very proud Palestinian. He brought me to his grandparents’ birthplace, Shi Jaya the old city, east of Gaza City. The police station had been destroyed. It wasn’t built by Hamas, my guide said, they seized it. The Al Omari mosque, the oldest mosque in Gaza City was beautiful. At the newly renovated Al Basha Palace, where Napoleon had stayed when he came to Gaza, Mamluk animal symbols patrolled the ancient rough hewn walls. I met three young women graduates in Jellabeya there and one a poet, spoke softly meeting my eye, and said education is our power, we are suffocating here, we are dying slowly, I want to travel abroad but I can’t because I’m not married. That is our way.
Heavy set men hovered behind the young women and broke the intensity as they offered me white coffee (not coffee with milk), which I accepted and enjoyed. The poet indicated a very young fair haired member of her group, who she said was already the mother of twins (I’ve always thought bearing twins heroic and I told her) she told me that her husband’s factory in Sallahedin street had been bombed. That from Netzarim, to the Erez crossing, all the factories were destroyed.
I said I’d seen the Abu Ayida family’s factories. She continued, in Attatra five people in one family died. The poet then interjected, what will you tell your children and grandchildren when you get home? I answered that I would tell them that she and her friends were clever and determined and would find answers because of the intelligence and bravery I’d witnessed in them. I suddenly noticed a stern eyed woman had come out of the Palace and approached our group and that my guide had disappeared down the entranceway stairs. I felt I had to leave quickly for everyone’s good and went down to find my guide and driver waiting in the car.
Once inside I fiddled with my ‘phone and noticed I’d been messaged on my English mobile at 11.59 a.m. Marhaba, Smell the jasmine and taste the olives. Jawwal welcomes you to Palestine. For Customer Service Please dial 111(chargeable) (sic). I showed my guide the text saying that I liked the terms in which his ‘phone company expressed itself, he smiled and I became more relaxed.
The streets of Gaza City were wider than those in Jebalia City. The buildings were 70’s concrete built. The shops were hung with giant cooking pots. There were cars on the roads and a steady stream of people on the pavements. I saw intact marble clad buildings with blue tinted windows which my guide said were new residential developments that had yet to be completed. He said that during OCL the streets of the city were deserted until 4pm because Israel warned people not to go out. But when he showed me the main Hamas National Forces Compound just past the Al Hejaz petrol station, he did say that a neighbour of his, Ashraf Abu Al Qumboz, died of injuries he got from walking past at the moment it was bombed. The compound was rubble save for radar or satellite dishes that looked like cobwebs on metal poles. My guide said 10’s died there.
Time and again I saw surgical destruction of huge buildings that everyone said had been full of Hamas. The low numbers of Hamas I was told had died begged the question where Hamas were now?
My guide glanced at a neatly dressed young man with a squared off beard guarding the Jawwal building. He said they continued even during the war, directing the traffic and arresting looters. All day I’d felt the menace of these hawkish, athletic men I’d seen occasionally on street corners but everyone including my guide behaved as though they were invisible. They weren’t like the other Palestinians I’d met or seen who generally moved or sat in groups. I asked my guide if he was Hamas, he said he wasn’t. I asked him if Hamas knew this, he said they did. A friend of my guide, a female English literature graduate from the Gaza University had joined us by this stage, she was extremely beautiful, wore a western hairstyle, trousers and a large diamond ring on her right hand. Later my guide said to me privately, her fiancé’s a rich guy, there’s no middle class in Gaza.
My guide took me to the Shiffa hospital . It comprises 6 concrete buildings which my guide told me Israel had built 30 years ago. The hospital floors were very clean and the atmosphere was very ordered. My guide was bringing me to meet Amira Kerem a little girl whose 2 brothers and father were beaten and killed in the last 2 days of OCL (her parents were divorced and she had a step-mother but I wasn’t told where her step mother was during the attack) Amira got out of the rubble and lived alone with her injuries for three days before she was found in the empty house she’d stumbled into, which belonged to Imad Eid, a journalist who used to work for BBC’s Arabic office in Gaza. I asked my guide and his friend if they knew the date she was found but they didn’t answer.
To my right as I arrived at the hospital was a low wall on either side of which there were sliding metal barred doors, which were open. I asked where those doors led and was told it was the intensive care unit for our (sic) fighters. A large group of men in suits, two with long thin white fringed scarves edged in green and black and red swept through the barred doors to my right I didn’t see where they went. I asked who they were and my guide told me they were inspecting the hospital. I asked him where they were from and he answered, Turkey, Malaysia and Indonesia. I didn’t see any people that I recognised as ethnic Malays or Indonesian in this group of men.
They looked at home and in charge of the hospital there was an unmistakable and unchallenged authority about them ,everybody stood back and looked down as they passed. No one, my guide and his friend included, looked at them with the curiosity one might expect foreign dignitaries to engender. (I myself had been the subject of interest wherever I went, even before I was introduced). A few moments later a stocky built, 60 year old woman with dyed black, immaculately coiffed hair, wearing expensive European shoes and clothes came out of the same barred doors and walked by me flanked by four men, she looked proud and totally disengaged from her surroundings and was similarly deferred to. I didn’t see where these people went.
I climbed the stairs to room 522 to visit Amira Kerem , felt ashamed as I took my turn after a bored news crew removed their tripod-they’d read their blackberries as they’d filmed . Amira looked about 11. I admired her lilac knitted hat with tiny artificial pearls sewn on at regular intervals. At first she was impassive. 3 of her female relatives sat to her right, companionable and lithe in their long dresses. I stayed with her for a while and eventually made her laugh, my guide, as ever, interpreting. Her visitors joined in and we all voiced hopes for peace. I took out my recorder and asked what they wanted me to tell the people of England and they didn’t answer. But they continued to smile at me as I left. A woman who’d been one of the blackberry transfixed film crew, tried to engage me in conversation outside Zeitun’s room, I had no heart for her.
I visited Mona al Ashkhor who my guide explained had lost the use of her left hand and lost her left leg below the knee after she ran toward Al Fakhoora, the UNRA school, which was hit in OCL, because Israel said Hamas were firing from the vicinity. Her mother and her aunt sat to her left as did her first cousin, whom she told me she loved very much. I asked Mona what she would like me to tell the people of England, my guide interpreting, she replied I am very happy. Today for the first time I left my bed and am able to sit in a chair.
The hospital seemed very quiet. I saw empty beds there. I saw clutches of young athletic men with squared off beards in the corridors on the lower floors and a group of them stood behind a solid metal door on a landing from which someone I took to be a doctor emerged, pushing past them. He was close shaven, had a western haircut and wore fashionable glasses. He moved down the stairs as I ascended them, I caught his eye and he looked down nervously and accelerated his pace.
I asked my guide where all the dead were, he told me they were in all the cemeteries of Gaza. That sometimes they’d buried 5 at once. He told me that the majority of the 5,500 people wounded in OCL were receiving medical treatment in Egypt and Jordan. I was bewildered by the fact that I’d not seen any press photos of the hospitals treating these patients. But I said nothing.
We left Shiffa and at Abu Mazen square I drove past a large new building made of stained pine and hewn stone, it looked part Swiss chalet and part mosque. My guide told me this was Mahmoud Abbas’ house and pointed out the Hamas militants guarding it.
My guide took me to Tallel Howa, Gaza’s biggest residential area, which he explained was totally occupied by Israel during OCL. It comprises square, 5 storey, concrete apartment buildings. I saw the burnt out Al Kuds hospital, where government officials used to be treated. There was the rubble in El Hillel street, which had been a medical warehouse. Nearby I saw an ambulance in a parking bay which looked as though it was a concertinaed flat pack, a section of the building above its parking bay had collapsed onto the ambulance. I saw buildings spotted with what my guide told me were sniper bullets.
I saw a four storey building, with just the far right hand window of its top floor blown out, the external wall around it blackened. I asked my guide was that window broken by something going in or by something coming out? He explained that the damage was caused by Hamas firing from inside the building. I saw damage to the Al Aqsa University. I asked my guide how many were killed here, he said that thousands had left and gone to stay with relatives after Israel had telephoned and leafleted the area. He said the buildings were almost completely empty when the fighting took place and that 30 people died in the battle. I saw the remnant debris of the Ministry of Prisoners , my guide told me 6 Hamas were killed in that explosion. Neither my guide nor his friend furnished me with replies to my enquiries as to the dates and times of events, saying as they’d said all day, you can see it all on the internet.
After Tallel Howa my guide explained that he was going to take me to Al Samoun where a war crime took place. We drove through the farming neighbourhood of Zei Tun, the road was neatly verged with sabar cactus and the olive groves were well pruned. At 12.45pm we turned off past the Rajab Company for Petroleum sign to the site where my guide told me 31 members of the Al Samouni family were killed. He said there was no resistance there, this family of farmers were Fatah. I passed an orange painted metal shipping container which was buckled , as though by an explosion, not crushed. It was not possible for me to look inside it.
The area which had previously comprised about 10 four storey houses where 160 members of the Al Samouni family lived was flattened, with the exception of one house. The area had also housed a chicken farm and some dead fowl floated in the water that was collecting in the extremely deep square craters surrounded by the house rubble. The destruction of the houses at Abu Ayida didn’t leave craters as far as I remember the ground was flat. Here there were buckled metal supports deep into the ground under each house. These craters were as empty as scoured pots. The air smelled heavily of chicken shit.I pulled from the rubble a medical x-ray (of two connected metal pins in someone, named in Arabic’s lower vertebrae) and a red coloured, adult sized sweatshirt. After asking my guide’s permission, I kept them.
My guide told me the Israelis had ‘phoned the entire family and told them to go into the house ahead of me and then bombed it, killing 31 people. I could still see the house standing. But it looked as though it could have been burnt inside. It was built of unclad concrete and was 4 storeys high and about 400 square metres in size. Its top right hand window had been blown out from within. The washing line below it still hung with clothes. I couldn’t ask to look inside. With the exception of the window I’ve mentioned the building looked intact externally. Its roof was undamaged as far as I could see. I didn’t feel able to ask for any further explanation than that I’d been given.
There was a large open sided black tent on the Al Samouni compound containing about 25 men either standing or sitting on white plastic chairs. Two sat near the entrance on the floor. There were also two small carpets propped up with a stick one some feet to the right of the black tent and one twice as far behind it. These carpets made small shelters for women and children. I visited one where 2 women and 4 children under 3 years old, sat on a small carpet laid on the rubble . A 13 year old boy stood outside to the left. The women fed the children rice. My guide told me that the eldest woman, Iftisan Al Samoun, lost a teenage daughter and son when her house was bombed and two of her sons were now in hospital in Egypt. I asked her what she wanted me to tell the people of England and she gave no answer.
I asked her where they slept at night and she said that they were living with relatives and only came here during the day for the press. I rolled the red sweatshirt I’d picked up and put it behind her to buffer the terrain. She acknowledged the gesture imperceptively by edging her buttocks back very slightly on to the sweatshirt and said that they’d lost many clothes. The younger woman told me that the 13 year old boy was her brother, the two small children were her cousin’s and that she and her brother had lost their mother. But, inexplicably, she smiled at me and Iftisan all the while. I asked my guide why people weren’t angrier in Gaza, he said they were for two days but then it was over. That Allah decides fate.
As we left Iftisan’s small shelter another young boy tried to coax us to the second womens’ shelter but I chose to watch the men’s tent from outside for a while. Two copies of a rather worn, large plastic banner depicting the dead, edged with barbed wire and pictures of fighters wearing white headbands with black Arabic writing on them, were hung behind the people my guide told me were the mourners. I asked my guide who were the people in the photographs on that banner. He said they were the victims of the genocide. I asked what the fighters which edged the banners signified and he said nothing, the militants made the posters for the mourning family. He explained that the female victims were each represented by a rose, since it’s not the custom to depict women. I asked my guide‘s friend if she could see the names of the dead from where we stood and she said she could. She read the names into my recorder for me.
Layla Al Samouni
The martyres of the Samouni family
In the large tent and the two small shelters, men ate and women fed babies green rice and meat with grey plastic spoons from identical large round blue plastic trays covered in silver foil. I have kept one of those discarded spoons. I asked my guide where the food came from. He said a charity.
When I asked Iftisan Al Samoun which charity sent the food, she met my eye earnestly, said she didn’t know and invited me to eat some. I didn’t accept. I never saw the women eating.
I saw the family elder in the mourners’ tent wearing a red and white scarf, turban style with a roll up sticking upright out of its side like a feather.
I asked if I could go into the tent to pay my respects. My guide said I could. A large handwritten page lettered in black and red hung on a string between the two posters, as I looked at it one of the men standing behind the elder slipped it behind the poster. I asked my guide to read it to me and he approached it, pulled it out and slipped it back again quickly, and said it was just a condolence letter.
I began to speak to the elder, my guide translating, to ask what happened, he pointed to each picture on the posters and began a narrative which generally described the number of children the individual had, or in one case pointed out that the man was very old. But finally he said in terms, of one man that he’d emerged with a white flag and been shot.
Of the roses depicting women, he clasped his breast with his right hand and said some were breast feeding when they were killed. I asked him how many of his family still survive, he said half. I expressed my earnest wish that no more ill fortune should fall on his family and we both cried. A younger man took the roll up out of the elder’s turban and gave it to him assertively. The men in the tent looked at me quizzically and my guide looked tense. He and I left.
My guide told me there were 10’s of cases like this. It was 1.30 Israel was going to close the border at Erez between 3 and 4 and I’d been advised by journalists to be there before 2.30. We began to head back.
All day there were children everywhere. I asked my guide why they weren’t at school and he explained there were 2 shifts. I asked them if the schools were good and my guide said at the moment the children are only being taught how to hate. The day’s interchanges had always been circumspect and my reaction to this direct comment was to joke that if I taught my childen to go right they went left, if I said sing they spoke, if I said cut your hair, they grew it. I said to my guide and his friend, you are such intelligent young people, you’ve got the internet, don’t tell me you can be taught anything you don’t want to learn. I went on to say that the poor children we’d seen on the streets of Jebalia, had no such opportunities for now-at this point the driver who’d been silent all day handed me his ‘phone and showed me a photo of a dead baby with its left leg bone exposed and my guide resumed his explanations- that this was a baby buried in rubble and partially eaten by dogs before it was discovered. A small UN coach passed us as we passed the high walls of the UNRA compound. I couldn’t see the damage from the road but my guide told me it was assessed at $12,000,000. Beyond it on a whitewashed wall, I saw the only graffiti of the day (with the exception of the Israeli operational notes on the Abu Ayida house) it was a geometrically stylised heroic depiction of fighting between Israel and Hamas.
Back in Jebalia City I drove past the reinforced concrete UN school, at Al Fakhoora, in front of which Mona Al Ashkor was injured. The school was on a street corner. My guide pointed to the road perpendicular to the one we were on and indicated the buildings to the immediate right of the school from which he said Hamas fired mortar shells. His friend showed me the rocket marks on the road in front of the school. My guide told me that Israel had leafleted and ‘phoned to tell people that there was Hamas activity in the area and that the school would not be a safe shelter. But 40 people, including Mona Al Ashkor, were running towards it nevertheless when the satellite directed silent missile hit the road. My guide’s female friend said Israel could see the civilians. Could have hit Hamas and pointed animatedly to the same building from where my guide had indicated Hamas were firing. I asked my guide and his friend if Hamas had provided any air raid shelters or any advice to Gazans on how to conduct themselves either during reprisals from kassam or grad missile raids or during OCL. They both said there were no shelters or procedures in Gaza. I asked if any of the wealthy Gazans built shelters in their houses. My guide said yes, some did. But his friend contradicted him.
As we approached the border, I asked my guide and his friend to list places I hadn’t seen where civilians had died. They listed, Ezbet Ahued Raba, Rafah-scores died, Khan Younis -more than Rafah, Bet Lahia-scores and many other places of destruction. As they spoke a Hamas guard stopped us just before the Gazan border. I gave him my press card and my passport. He addressed me very harshly as Green and then made direct inquiries of me which were clearly designed to intimidate me. He seemed to be asking me a question in English about what I’d seen but was clearly unable to understand the polite and co-operative answers I gave. He returned my passport and held my press card for longer than was comfortable and asked my guide questions for several minutes and then spent several minutes questioning my guide’s friend- who was an exceptionally attractive girl in western dress (who took my email address because she writes too). Both my guide and his friend seemed very uncomfortable. The driver was not required to show any papers and hissed through his teeth and generally displayed aggressive impatience with the Hamas guard.
At the border my guide and his friend were driven off quite suddenly and with a screech of tires leaving me alone at the Gazan checkpoint, a wooden hut. I was held up by the passport officer and asked how I found the situation. I went through all the notes I had taken and he left me with no alternative but to take down the following dictated additions; Attatra American school bombed by F16’s, Abu Drabba village,El Kashef, Dr. Zetina Al Ha Esh the gaenocologist who works at Tel Hashomer hospital in Israel lost 6 members of his family-go and see him, a Jordanian hospital has entered into Gaza. He could see I didn’t have a camera but he asked me if I had taken any pictures on my mobile ‘phone. I said I hadn’t.
His fellow customs officer, a much burlier man, seemed at this point to get bored and waved that I should be let through. I walked on the dust from Gaza through the concrete corridor on the approach to Israel where I saw a porter with a long railway-platform trolley with 4 cases and numerous carrier bags full of what looked like High Street shopping. The young man was slight, wore trainers and looked very confident. It was 2.30 it took me an hour to complete physical security checks and re-enter Israel. Watching the journalists go through the process was very interesting. I heard a woman journalist say to a colleague, I always come out at night because I’ve got kids. A press office department head who spoke on his mobile ‘phone about a story and video he’d had to bury because the lady involved had a husband who’d worked for the UN for years and he’d lose his job and all his pension rights and who knew what else, if the story got out. The relief in everyone after arriving in Israel was openly expressed. No one at passport control asked anyone that I heard any questions about their trips to Gaza.