Carnage in Gaza
Steve Kamlish QC who is just back from the FIDH [International Federation for Human Rights] mission to Gaza , has written an account of the destruction carried out by Israeli forces. It makes for shocking reading despite everything we know about what happened in Gaza. His delegation visited several sites of massacre and mass destruction in company with a military expert and listened to eye witness accounts of the carnage wreaked upon the Palestinian people by the Israeli Defence Forces.
Firstly, the current onslaught must be understood in the context of the wider history of the Palestinian Territory. As many of you know, over 75% of the over 1.5 million people living in Gaza are refugees from 1948 and 1967, many of them refugees twice over. A huge number have now been internally displaced once again. Gaza has been occupied since 1967, and has remained so despite the withdrawal of Israeli troops and settlers in 2005. Since that withdrawal, Gaza has effectively been blockaded to varying degrees, amounting to a strangulation of the territory since Hamas came into power in 2007. The citizens of Gaza have been living in a de facto prison in which they have been deprived of basic amenities, of access to clean water, food aid, work and of any hope. They cannot get out, and for months before their long-planned onslaught, few were allowed in to help them.
Here are just some aspects of the way the blockade impacted on the people of Gaza , even before the current attacks.
1. Palestinians were and remain trapped in Gaza. Scores of chronically ill Palestinians have died, due to Israel ’s refusal to allow them to travel to Israel , the West Bank or Egypt for treatment. Students with scholarships to study abroad have been denied exit permits. Families were separated, those on the outside unable to get in and those in Gaza unable to leave.
2. 90 percent of Gazan industry had collapsed as a direct result of the blockade, from the construction industry to the fishing industry to the export and agricultural industry. Prior to the bombing, 70 percent of Gazans were unemployed:
- No construction materials have been allowed into Gaza for several years. Thousands of building projects were unfinished and uninhabitable, including the half-finished wing of a hospital in Gaza City and many large apartment blocks intended as housing for the worst off. The two remaining cement factories in Gaza were attacked and destroyed 3 weeks ago.
- The blockade has devastated agriculture in the territory. The export industry on which a significant proportion of the population was dependent is now non-existent. Israel has also put a stop to imports of farming tools, equipment and fertilisers etc, crippling in the process Gaza ’s ability to produce food even for its own citizens. Instead Gaza is now forced to buy surplus (and often low grade) meat, chicken and fruit from Israel ’s own producers as a consequence of preventing people from producing their own.
- Israel also imposes tight restrictions on fishing, illegal under signed agreements and international law, effectively decimating the industry and depriving 40,000 people of their livelihoods and depriving the population of access to food not-dependent on border openings. Even when permitted, fishing is limited to 300 meters from the coast in waters grossly contaminated by the untreated sewage being pumped into the sea, due to lack of electricity and Israel’s refusal to allow vital spare parts for the sewerage system into Gaza. Fishermen are regularly shot and wounded or killed, and their boats damaged beyond repair, even when within the 300 meter line.
- Israel controls all the water, gas, electricity and fuel coming into Gaza . Even prior to bombing and destroying water mains across the strip, it had deliberately run down the infrastructure and reduced the supply to well below the needs of the population. Damaged water mains and insufficient electricity for the waste treatment plants mean that the mains water is undrinkable. The sewers are breeding grounds for death and disease.
- The Gaza economy has been further decimated by appropriation by Israel all the customs duty on imported goods. To this day the Israelis take for themselves the hundreds of millions of dollars of import tax due to the Palestinian Authority.
This is the background against which rockets have been launched into Israel from Gaza. It is important to note, however, that in the five month ceasefire that preceded the December 27 onslaught, Hamas did not fire a single rocket from Gaza into the West Bank, as acknowledged by the Israeli administration. However, rather than ameliorating the blockade during that time, as agreed under the ceasefire provisions, the restrictions on the strip intensified.
In the context of the above, has the Israeli response to the renewed rocket attacks that followed the killing of six Hamas members by the Israeli Army been lawful, necessary or proportionate?
1. The Israeli Army has destroyed with mortar, artillery and tank shelling much of what remained of Gaza ’s already devastated agricultural production and food industry. They specifically targeted chicken, cattle and sheep farms. In one large area two of my colleagues on the human rights mission saw hundreds of dead cows with their heads and limbs blown off lying in fields. All the farmhouses in the surrounding area had been bombed and then bulldozed. The families are now forced to live in the open with the stench of death permanently in their nostrils. Some said that relatives of theirs are still buried beneath the rubble because there is no way currently of getting the bodies out. I saw a chicken factory that had been razed to the ground, leaving the buildings flattened and the dead animals in piles in their cages or strewn on the ground. I also saw orchards of orange and lemon trees and seas of poly-tunnels that had been shelled out of existence. This level of destruction and the use of the untargeted weaponry that caused it, some in built up areas, undoubtedly amounts to a war crime, as confirmed by the military expert in our delegation.
2. The Israeli Army has systematically used inaccurate and highly destructive weapons in Gaza City, one of the most densely populated areas in the world. They have deliberately targeted blocks of flats and multi-occupation houses, killing over 1,000 civilians and wounded thousands of others. One man told us his story. He went to the mosque for morning prayers leaving his wife and four children in bed in the fourth floor of their apartment block. His two brothers and their families lived on the same block. On his way back from the mosque mortars and bombs began to fall. He ran home to find the entire block had become a pile of rubble. Of his family only one child and one of his brothers survived. 22 others were killed. I climbed to a high point of the rubble and watched the man standing and staring silently into the crater that had destroyed his entire existence.
3. Despite its denials, it is now clear that the Israeli Army has used white phosphorous in contravention of the laws of war. The use of phosphorus is only lawful under international rules of engagement when used as a smokescreen cover in open areas for combatants who are caught in the open and are under fire. However, the evidence on the ground makes clear that the Israeli Army systematically and unlawfully fired phosphorus shells directly over and into populated urban areas. We visited the site of a family devastated by the illegal use of phosphorous. The man we spoke to told us how his wife and three children were asleep in a bedroom of their house. A phosphorous shell came through the roof of the house exploding in the room where the family was sleeping. On impact the mother and children were engulfed in toxic flames smoke and fumes. They died an unimaginable death in that room. I stood in it and saw the traces of white phosphorus on the walls in the
otherwise completely blackened room. A woman came into the room and held up a piece of child’s clothing covered in phosphorus burns. The man next to me then showed us a picture of the body of a 10-month old child who had been in the room during the attack. The heat had been so intense that it had burned the baby’s legs off. The child’s uncle just stared at the ground for a while before he went on to tell us what happened next.
As in many sites of death and injury, the Israelis were not allowing ambulances or doctors into the area even when there were many injured people in need of urgent medical attention. In this case a man who had a tractor offered to take some of the injured to hospital in his trailer. As men, women and children were being placed on the trailer IDF troops came up the street and first shot the tractor driver dead. They then shot and killed two people who were tending to the wounded in the trailer. The remaining wounded were left there to die.
4. Zaytoun. The district of Zaytoun covers a large area on the edge of Gaza City. Yesterday the Times reported that Israeli soldiers were being quoted as saying they had been ordered to “fire on everything that moves” in Zaytoun. That is all too evident from the situation on the ground. The Israeli Army clearly did indeed attempt to kill everyone and everything in the area. There can be no other explanation for what we all saw. From the border with Israel to the sea, not a single house has escaped unscathed. There are flattened buildings as far as the eye can see.
This is the story of the Al Samouni family told by several eye witnesses. The Al Samouni family area contained about 15 houses, each surrounded by a plot of land which was used as a smallholding for subsistence farming chickens, goats and small industry. On 5th January a brigade of tanks surrounded the area. A large number of soldiers ordered people out of one house in particular, shouting at them from outside. The woman who told us this story said that her husband had been the first one out, and was holding their baby as he went. The soldiers told him to put his hands in the air and he protested that he was holding his baby. They screamed at him to obey them. His hands went up and the baby fell to the ground. Within seconds the soldiers had fired at least 30 bullets into his head and body. They stepped over him and entered the house. A soldier than fired automatic rounds into the walls above the heads of several people who were sitting or lying on the floor. They were not hit but were told to leave and go into a neighbouring building. They then ordered other people in other houses to leave and go into the same neighbouring building. Over sixty people, including a large number of children, were gathered in the house without food or water. After two days, a number of men decided to leave the building to try to get food and water, but quickly retreated on seeing the Israeli soldiers still in close proximity. Some five minutes later, the building was shelled, killing a large number of the family members gathered in the house, including women and children, and wounding many others. Approximately 20 of the survivors left, raising white flags and carrying the bodies of four of the dead. Despite being shot at, they continued to walk and to try to contact medical services to come and save them and those remaining in the house. The Red Crescent was only permitted access to the house a number of days later, where they found starving children next to the bodies of their dead parents. When they returned a short while later to collect further casualties, the building into which the people had been herded was now a pile of rubble. In total, 29 members of the Al Samouni family were slaughtered, including over 10 children and seven women, many of whom lay dead beneath the rubble. This time the Red Crescent were refused access to the site when they tried to enter. Our military expert was present when many of the bodies were eventually pulled out of the rubble. He confirmed that none of them were in any kind of combat uniform and that none appeared to be militants.
Prior to the massacre the IDF took over the first house as a command post. I went inside and saw that it was a highly strategic location from which a large area could be monitored and operations controlled. They had blasted holes for their machine guns in each of the upstairs rooms. The military expert told us that it looked as if most of the buildings had been destroyed by anti-tank mines and then finished off by bulldozers. People have set up small tents on the rubble of their houses, but aid has yet to reach them. A child told us that every child in the settlement is now either an orphan or has lost at least one parent. The woman whose husband was shot at near point blank range also lost both her mother and father.
Inside their command post the Israelis have scrawled graffiti on some walls which says things like ‘1 Arab down, 999,999 to go’, alongside Stars of David, slogans such as ‘make war not peace’ and a chilling drawing of a tombstone on which it is written Arabs 1948-2008. When they exited the house they started fires in the remaining rooms and left human shit in many of the rooms.
5. The use of flechette missiles. These are projectiles the size of 4-inch nails with four tail fins. They work by being jettisoned sideways from a missile before it hits a target. Each missile contains 80,000 flechettes. On impact these lethal items tend to bend rather than go straight into their target so when they hit people the wound is over a wider area. On the 6th January a family were holding a wake for an ambulance worker killed as he tried to access the victims of an Israeli attack. Traditional mourning tents had been erected and a large number of people were milling around in a wide residential street with a couple of shops in it and houses on both sides. As the local population were paying their respects to the mourning family a missile was launched at low level from the Israeli border about 800 meters away. It was aimed directly at the crowded street. Its forward trajectory ejected its flechettes over its range of about 100m and 150m either side. A large number of people in the crowd were hit. Many were injured, including the teenager who gave us this account, who was hit by three flechettes, one of which was still embedded in his leg. Given the extent and nature of injuries in Gaza , he is still not considered a high enough priority for it to be removed. He showed us his brother’s X-rays, which showed a flechette embedded in his right lung. He is still ill in hospital. A number of others were killed, including a pregnant mother and two young members of this young man’s family. I saw several flechettes still buried in the walls of the houses. Photographs of the deceased victims show dozens of flechettes deeply embedded in their faces and bodies.
The objective of the 22-day attack seems to have been to kill, destroy and disable as much of the population and infrastructure of Gaza as was possible. The Israeli Army targeted the essential services and institutions with astonishing accuracy, leaving the buildings on either side untouched in most cases. Over 60 mosques in Gaza were hit. Some are still standing, some reduced to rubble. Nearly every Palestinian Authority ministry was destroyed, including the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of the Interior. This means that all records in Gaza have been destroyed, all records of births and deaths, all records of entitlements and finances. The territory has been reduced to chaos. All 13 police stations in Gaza City were destroyed in one 3-minute strike. The policy cadet school was struck during a graduation parade. Some 40 teenage cadets were killed. We saw their hats and boots, riddled with shrapnel and bullet holes, lying strewn over the parade ground. Shell after shell rained down on those participating in and watching the parade, as they attempted to flee, as demonstrated by the craters in the ground, the last one striking just by the gate.
Every aspect of Gazan society was hit, including money changers, ambulance stations, hospitals, schools. I saw a number of the 40+ schools that had been attacked by missiles, including two schools – one of them the American school, whose students were some of the elite of the youth of Gaza – which had been razed to the ground. Over 50 UN installations were also hit, including two schools where children were beheaded by the force of the blasts, and of course, the UNWRA compound warehouse which had contained a significant quantity of medical supplies for those injured in the attacks.
These are only a fraction of the atrocities the Palestinian population has endured at the hands of the Israelis.
Nowhere in Gaza was safe during the bombings. There was nowhere to go. Every adult in Gaza contemplated not only their own death but that of their children, and made the decision about where and when they should die. Many uprooted their families from one area to another in a vain attempt to find safe haven. Others remained at home as the bombs rained down, preferring to die where they lived, rather than face the prospect of being shot as they fled. Although children were some of the greatest casualties of the war, adults have had to face up to their total and utter impotence and their inability to protect their children and those they love. The long term impact will be huge. As a start, Gaza needs an army of psychiatrists.
There is a dire need for aid in Gaza. Unfortunately and despite claims by Israel and its friends the aid is coming in far too slowly at all crossing points. The Israeli Army, again despite the claims to the contrary, is actually attacking authorised supply lines. On Tuesday night, still during the ceasefire, missiles whistled over the flat I was staying in followed by dull thuds in the distance. The next morning the TV news media reported missile attacks on supply lines. Shelling is also continuing from gunboats off the Gazan shore, unreported in the media. Egypt is refusing to allow food in. Many of the areas of Gaza most affected by the attacks have yet to be accessed by humanitarian aid.
Please forgive the roughness of this diatribe, I am writing on the plane on the way back from Cairo. Please give generously to Interpal, UNWRA and any other relevant aid providers. If you have time the Lawyers for Palestinian Human Rights welcome all who are willing or able to assist in whatever way they can. Membership forms can be downloaded from www.lphr.org.uk.