Gaza on the edge
Amira Hass, 6 January 2011
A fragile ceasefire holds in Gaza, but it can’t last. Amira Hass – an Israeli journalist who lived there for three years – reports on the unbearable tension of life inside the strip
“Get away from the window, you’re crazy!” screamed Kauthar. She was terrified to find her daughter standing on the couch by the window, observing the street from the seventh floor. The window had bars. She was afraid not that the girl might fall, but that she would be struck by fire from a UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle). A next-door neighbour had been killed that way only a day or two earlier: a missile hit him as he was talking on his phone on the balcony.
That was on one of the first days of the Israeli onslaught on the Gaza Strip, which began on 27 December 2008. People very quickly learned the hard way that their daily activities could tempt death: standing by a window, trying to find a spot that still had a shred of mobile-phone reception so you could tell your worried father in the Rafah refugee camp that everything was all right, riding a motorbike, going up to the roof to take the washing off the line or feed the pigeons, paying a condolence visit, baking bread in the backyard oven, taking water to the goats. Journalists’ notebooks and reports from human rights organisations overflow with testimonies from ordinary civilians, people who lost loved ones or who were wounded under these non-combat circumstances.
Information spread in real time, even though many houses had no electricity and people were unable to learn from the media how entire families were being wiped out. This was a hallmark of Israel’s wintertime assault: the sheer number of families that had to bury most of their members, including babies, after their homes were hit by yet another bomb lauded by the Israelis for its precision.
“Although it was not my usual custom, I made a point of kissing my children every night,” one young father from Gaza City told me. “I never knew which of us would still be alive the next day, and I wanted to say goodbye properly.”
Samouni, Daya, Ba’alusha, Sultan, A’bsi, Abu Halima, Barbakh, Najjar, Shurrab, Abu A’isheh, Ryan, Azzam, Jbara, Astel, Haddad, Qur’an, ‘Alul, Deeb. These are all families in which grandfathers, parents and their children were killed; or one parent and a number of children, or cousins, or older siblings, or just the small children. And that is without even mentioning the wounded – or the emotional wounds suffered by everyone, which time does not heal. In the overwhelming majority of cases, the casualties were hit by computer-guided missiles or shells, operated by anonymous weapon launchers who watched their targets on a computer screen as if they were playing a video game.
“The sky was black with drones circling like flocks of birds,” one man told me with a note of self-aware Gazan hyperbole. But an Israel Defence Forces officer on reserve duty who took part in the assault confirmed his impression: “It was a total UAV war. The [UAV] unit worked harder than any others.” I met the IDF officer through Breaking the Silence, an Israeli organisation that collects testimonies about the army’s policies in the occupied territories from soldiers beginning to detect moral dissonance.
In Gaza slang, the drone is referred to as zanana. “There are three kinds of zanana,” a low-ranking Hamas official told me shortly after the end of the 2008-2009 offensive. “One watches over us and photographs every move, every person; the second fires missiles at us . . .” He paused, then added with typical Gazan drollness: “And the third kind? Its whole purpose is to annoy us, to drive us crazy.” And he expertly mimicked the humming sound made by the latest word in postmodern warfare.
The zanana isn’t always heard or seen but you know it’s there because of the disruptions to television broadcasts. It has been a central component in the process of turning Gaza into a vast panopticon, a detention camp under constant supervision and increasingly invisible control. Every move is photographed, documented and transferred on to computer screens in control rooms populated by young Israeli men and women who, with a few keyboard strokes, turn the zanana from voyeuristic, annoying objects into the lethal kind. The footage is backed up by old-fashioned verbal information gathered by various mechanisms of the occupation, primarily the Israeli Civil Administration and the Shin Bet, which are responsible for every civilian document (identity cards, travel permits, promissory notes for goods) and are assisted by a network of collaborators.
In the days leading up to the offensive, people noticed more persistent humming. They grew more anxious – and rightly so. Now every increase in the sound reawakens fears of another all-out attack. It’s been two years, and even a thunderstorm or a slammed door can stir up the sense of dread inside Gaza.
Under Operation Cast Lead, no one was safe anywhere – at home, on the street, in UN facilities, in the fields, at work, at the American school, or in public shelters opened by the UN for people fleeing their homes. In the past there had been isolated areas attacked by the Israeli military, where everyone felt that they were targets for a few hours or days, but during Cast Lead the entire Gaza Strip was simultaneously under attack from air, sea and land for three weeks without pause. Gazans had nowhere to flee (unlike the residents of Lebanon, for instance, who had previously become acquainted with the all-embracing thoroughness of Israeli assaults). This is another component of the “heritage” Gazans have borne for these past two years: a feeling of total exposure to mortal danger and lack of any protection.
If there had been any illusions that Israel would not cross certain red lines, it was because, in the not-so-distant past, the Israeli military had been positioned amid the Palestinians, and because most of the older people knew Israelis and even spoke Hebrew. This intimacy was considered a means of preventing arbitrary killings. However, dozens of cases in which soldiers killed civilians at short range, and not just in a “video game”, proved that geographical proximity is no safety net.
Mohammed Shurrab, 65, a resident of Khan Younis in southern Gaza, took advantage of the brief respite that the army declared each day to drive with two of his sons to their plot of land. On the afternoon of Friday 16 January (two days before the end of the offensive), they were driving home through an eastern neighbourhood whose residents had all fled two weeks earlier. Israeli soldiers who had set up a base in an abandoned house some 20 or 30 yards away fired at the car.
There was no battle going on at the time. The three men were wounded, the father sustaining only injuries to his arm. He called for help. The nearest hospital was just a minute or two away, but the soldiers would not allow the ambulance to approach. The Red Cross, the Red Crescent, Doctors for Human Rights (based in Tel Aviv), a third son who lives in the US, and later myself, all tried to reach someone who might persuade the commanders to relent. But it was in vain. The hours crawled by, and the sons bled to death in their father’s arms. Shortly before midnight, 27-year-old Kassab died. Late on Saturday morning, 17-year-old Ibrahim died.
(An IDF spokesperson wrote to me in response: “As a rule, during the ceasefire the IDF responded with fire only when rockets were launched at Israel or shots fired at the IDF. We are unable to investigate every incident and confirm or deny all information. Ambulances were able to enter only after operational conditions made it possible. The injured [sic] parties were evacuated by the Palestinian ministry of health to a hospital in Rafah.”)
This was not an unusual case of short-range cruelty and bold-faced lies to the media; even so, the number of Palestinians (both civilians and combatants) killed at short range during the 2008-2009 assault is negligible compared to the number killed by various “video-game” methods, far away from those who gave the order to shoot and those who pulled the trigger: fewer than 100 by the former method, compared to some 1,300 by the latter. These figures are based on inquiries I made with the Palestinian human rights organisation al-Mezan. This particular case of short-range brutality reflects the commander’s spirit and the spirit of the assault.
An old acquaintance, Salah al-Ghoul, thought that he would be protected by a different kind of closeness. The son of an impoverished family of refugees, he became a wealthy merchant and built a large house on the north-western border with Israel. He is well known by the Israeli authorities because of his requests for travel and trade permits. They know full well that he is a political opponent of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. He speaks fluent Hebrew. During brief routine military incursions into the Gaza Strip, when tanks rolled past his house, he would keep on roasting corn out in his yard.
On 3 January 2009, on the eve of the ground raid, an Israeli plane dropped a bomb on al-Ghoul’s dream home, completely destroying it. His son, who was studying for his matriculation exams, and his cousin, a lawyer who was making coffee at the time, were both killed. An IDF spokesperson responded in writing to my query: “The target in question was identified as a Hamas observation point, directing attacks against IDF forces . . .”
This is an absolute lie, like so many other lies fed by the IDF to the Israeli public. Still, the lie holds a kernel of truth: for several years, Hamas and other armed Palestinian organisations chose to fire on Israeli communities along the Gaza border using home-made rockets (“Qassams”) or primitive missiles. Their main operational “success” was in managing to terrify many Israelis.
In 2003, I asked two commanders of Hamas’s Qassam unit what good the rocket firing did when Israel retaliated with such force against the civilian Palestinian population. They answered candidly: “We want mothers and children in Israel to feel the same fear our mothers and children feel.”
During the Second Intifada, which began in September 2000, the use of weapons – ineffective and counterproductive as it might have been in the fight against the occupation – served the Palestinian organisations in their internal competition for hegemony and popularity. As part of its propaganda efforts, Israel exaggerated, and still does, the extent of the threat posed by the rockets. But the Israeli overstatements also helped Hamas’s own propaganda, allowing it to represent itself as the only organisation able to weaken Israel – on the way to ultimate defeat. This permanent promise of future victory is also what gives Hamas the prerogative to halt or greatly reduce the mortar shelling, at the same time as quelling public debate over the logic of its strategy. In this respect, the cruelty of Israel’s total attack achieved its objective.
But did Israel fail at another aim, namely, to topple the Hamas regime? Opinions are divided as to whether this was an objective. Social and mental severance between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank has been, since the early 1990s, a cornerstone of Israel’s undeclared policy. Precisely because all Gazans – including Hamas’s opponents – felt that they had become targets in Israel’s range of fire, they could not use the offensive as a reason to disclaim the Hamas regime, even as it continued to refine its methods of oppression. The more ensconced Hamas rule becomes in the Gaza Strip, and the dimmer the chances of healing the political rift with the Palestine Liberation Organisation, the more this severance becomes a reality from which there is no return.
“In Israel they were living in a virtual reality, believing there was an actual war going on in Gaza,” said some of the soldiers who took part in the offensive, whom I met through Breaking the Silence. They very quickly discovered that, contrary to what they had been told by their commanders, Hamas was not waging an intense or determined war against them. A Palestinian security man told me there had been a conscious decision in Hamas not to sacrifice its finest combatants in such a lopsided war. The organisation was well aware that it could not deliver the goods it had promised the Palestinian public for two years – that is, “surprises in warfare”.
Still, immediately the offensive ended, Hamas declared victory. “In 1967 Israel subdued all the Arab armies in six days, but it could not conquer the Gaza Strip from us even after three weeks,” its spokespeople said. But people in Gaza preferred to quote an old man who courageously proclaimed on television: “One more victory like this and all of Gaza will be wiped out.”
An officer who broke the silence told me that he felt as though he had taken part in a military exercise using live fire, whose aim was to improve and upgrade operational communications between Israeli ground forces and the Israeli air force. As more preparation for wars to come, perhaps?
Amira Hass is a correspondent for Haaretz.
This report, written exclusively for the New Statesman, was translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen