This posting has three items:
1) a link to Eva Bartlett’s photos of destruction in Gaza;
2) An open letter signed by many Palestinian trade unions and NGOs working in Gaza
3) Four more accounts of living under Israel’s bombardment in 2009. For the first in this series, see Remembering lives taken and lives damaged by Cast Lead
To see Eva Bartlett’s photographs of destruction in Gaza caused by Operation Cast Lead click the link
Besieged Gaza, Occupied Palestine
We, Palestinians of Gaza, 3 years on from the 22-day long massacre in Israel’s operation ‘Cast Lead’, are calling on international civil society to make 2012 the year when solidarity with us in Palestine captures the spark of the revolutions around the Arab world and never looks back. On this anniversary we demand an international liberation movement that eventually leads to just that, liberation for us Palestinians from 63 years of brutal military occupation and ethnic cleansing that pours shame on any organisation or government claiming to endorse universal human rights.
We will never forget the hurt of 3 years ago, the criminal onslaught that we lived through, the blood of over 1400 murdered men, women and hundreds of children running through the streets of Gaza, between the rubble, soaking our beds and etched on our minds. We will never forget. For they are still dead, and thousands more are still maimed.
We will never forget the last 63 years during which our land, homes, olive groves, lemon trees and cherished way of life was taken away from us, while Israeli soldiers held our fathers’ faces in the sands, imprisoned them, or shot them in front of us. We will not forget the sickening cowardice of the international community that has allowed and enabled this ethnic cleansing of our people, subjecting us to Israel’s racist Zionist vision that defines us, the indigenous people of Palestine, as the undesired ‘ethnic group’ for the region.
The US continues to ‘reward’ Israel with 6 billion dollars of tax-payers money while the EU increases its trade and diplomatic relations. For the Israeli apartheid regime this translates as the green light to unleash the 4th most powerful military on us to ‘do its worst’ against our civilian population, of which over half in Gaza are children and over 2 thirds are UN registered refugees.
In recent years, civil society and solidarity movements throughout the world have grown in their support for us, especially in 2011. As the world wakes up, the prospect of life without Israeli occupation and its system of race-based subjugation becomes more than a dream. We demand simply, human rights that anyone else would expect. This year, the first taste of liberation in the Western controlled Arab world arrived in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Many of those who took to the streets moved beyond their fear of being killed or tortured, facing up to the despotic, Western-backed regimes in the name of freedom for their families, communities and compatriots.
We will never forget them too, as we have lived much of our lives beyond this fear, our resilience against Israeli apartheid growing as the solidarity movements around the world grow. No longer under the boot of Western governments we urge the Arab street to do what the Israeli Apartheid Regime fears the most, to unite and build against them, the state that has violated more United Nations resolutions than any other. The siege breaking attempts into Gaza must continue, the second Free Gaza Flotilla exposed again the brutal and merciless edge of Israel’s hermetic siege.
In Europe and America the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS) movement is reaching the mainstream. Huge victories have included campaigns against waste and transport infrastructure firm Veolia who build transport routes on Israeli occupied lands.Inspired and supported by Nobel Prize winner and anti apartheid hero Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the University of Johannesburg ended its collaboration with Ben Gurion University in Israel.Other University campuses are pursuing boycott campaigns and major European Trade Unions have broken ties with Israeli Trade Unions. And a growing number of conscientious artists and singers are refusing to perform in Israel.
All over Israeli internet sites and in government policy are attempts to deter the growing BDS movement, an international strategy that succeeded against a similarly well-armed, Western affiliated apartheid regime in South Africa.
The effect worldwide of the Gaza massacres 3 years ago was a catalyst for a huge rise in worldwide solidarity and action in support of Palestine, just as the South African Sharpeville massacre was for South African blacks in 1960.
Our call this year will accept no compromise. We call upon all Palestine solidarity groups and all international civil society organizations to demand:
* An end to the siege that has been imposed on the Palestinian people in the West Bank and Gaza Strip as a result of their exercise of democratic choice.
* The protection of civilian lives and property, as stipulated in International Humanitarian Law and International Human Rights Law such as The Fourth Geneva Convention.
* The immediate release of all political prisoners.
* That Palestinian refugees in the Gaza Strip be immediately provided with financial and material support to cope with the immense hardship that they are experiencing
* An end to occupation, Apartheid and other war crimes with immediate reparations and compensation for all destruction carried out by the Israeli Occupation Forces in Gaza.
For us, the sacrifices for resisting have often meant imprisonment, torture, collective punishment and death. Outside, the risks are lower, but with great possibility. We call on you to Boycott Divest and Sanction, join the many International Trade Unions, Universities, Supermarkets and artists and writers who refuse to entertain Apartheid Israel. Speak out for Palestine, for Gaza, and crucially ACT. There has never been a time when mobilizations are gaining such support. 1994 was the year of South Africa when Apartheid was thrown into the dustbin of history; with your support we can make 2012 the year of free Palestine!
THE TIME IS NOW!
List of signatories:
General Union for Public Services Workers
General Union for Health Services Workers
University Teachers’ Association
Palestinian Congregation for Lawyers
General Union for Petrochemical and Gas Workers
General Union for Agricultural Workers
Union of Women’s Work Committees
Union of Synergies-Women Unit
The One Democratic State Group
Arab Cultural Forum
Palestinian Students’ Campaign for the Academic Boycott of Israel
Association of Al-Quds Bank for Culture and Info
Palestine Sailing Federation
Palestinian Association for Fishing and Maritime
Palestinian Women Committees
Progressive Students’ Union
Medical Relief Society
The General Society for Rehabilitation
General Union of Palestinian Women
Afaq Jadeeda Cultural Centre for Women and Children
Deir Al-Balah Cultural Centre for Women and Children
Maghazi Cultural Centre for Children
Al-Sahel Centre for Women and Youth
Ghassan Kanfani Kindergartens
Rachel Corrie Centre, Rafah
Rafah Olympia City Sisters
Al Awda Centre, Rafah
Al Awda Hospital, Jabaliya Camp
Ajyal Association, Gaza
General Union of Palestinian Syndicates
Al Karmel Centre, Nuseirat
Local Initiative, Beit Hanoun
Union of Health Work Committees
Red Crescent Society Gaza Strip
Beit Lahiya Cultural Centre
Al Awda Centre, Rafah
Four more accounts of Operation Cast Lead published by the Palestinian Center for Human Rights
Aftermath (1) “We Never Feel Safe”
Monday, 09 February 2009
Foreign correspondents and camera crews have now begun to leave Gaza, in search of the next headline grabbing location. But ongoing airstrikes and violations of international law are a stark reminder that there is no real end to Israel’s offensive here.
Since Israel declared a unilateral ceasefire on 18 January it has continued to launch strikes against targets in the Gaza Strip. Some families in the southern town of Rafah have been evacuated from their homes up to ten times in the last 15 days.
Faten el Sha’er, a 31 year old mother of one, lives just 150 metres from Gaza’s southern border with Egypt. This area, known as the ‘Philadelphi Route’ has been repeatedly targeted and is now a mass of rubble, sand and bomb craters. Her home is one of the few left standing here, surrounded by the grey concrete remains of homes, and the shreds of tarpaulin which once covered smuggling tunnels.
“I was baking bread when the bombing of the border area began on 28 December,” says Faten. “Thousands of people took to the streets, trying to escape. Everybody was on the move. My mother, my five year old daughter Nagham and I ran to my uncle’s house, which is further from the border.” Other family members were scattered at the homes of relatives.
“During the war there was daily bombing of this area – sometimes in the morning, sometimes at midnight,” says Faten. “It went on for 22 days. When the ceasefire was declared we came back to the house but had to evacuate it again the next day because they started bombing again.”
Faten and the 35 members of her extended family have still not spent the night at their home. They come back during the day but always leave before darkness falls.
“The children are suffering real trauma,” Faten adds, as her green eyed daughter Nagham clings to her. “Some of them are incontinent and they wake up in the night and start crying. My daughter Nagham has to hold onto me all the time. They understand it’s a war.”
The impact of the airstrikes and incursions on the children of the Gaza Strip has been acute. Faten’s seven year old nephew Di’a was in school a few days ago, when he heard an unmanned Israeli drone in the sky. He automatically picked up his schoolbag and ran home, crying “The drones are still over my head. I can’t take it anymore.”
Gaza’s 1.5 million people are still being denied their rights to appropriate living conditions and humanitarian aid is still not reaching many people in need. Families like Faten’s that are not registered as refugees have not received any aid at all.
One of their only sources of income – a small patch of land where Faten’s brother grew vegetables – was bulldozed by the Israeli military a few years ago. Since then they have had to rely on help from relatives in an already beleaguered community. Border closures imposed by Israel since June 2007, have steadily tightened and continue to have a disastrous impact on the economy.
“The international community should intervene,” says Faten. “I just hope they can reach some sort of solution. If the borders were opened for food and fuel then we wouldn’t need the tunnels. It is Israel’s closure policy that has created a need for the tunnels.”
The Israeli-imposed siege has also resulted in a steady deterioration of health conditions. There are chronic shortages of vital medicines and hospital facilities that rely on electricity have been adversely affected by the lack of fuel to power generators.
The psychological cost of the airstrikes can also not be underestimated. The bombs that Israeli warplanes are still dropping on Rafah and other parts of Gaza cause huge explosions and earth tremors and lead to sustained feelings of panic and fear among local residents, especially the elderly and children. Civilians often receive automated telephone messages before attacks, urging them to evacuate their houses near the border. But Gaza is densely populated and civilian structures including schools and hospitals sheltering displaced people, have been attacked. People feel there are no safe places left.
PCHR is calling upon the High Contracting Parties to the Fourth Geneva Convention to take effective steps to ensure Israel’s respect of the Convention in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and to provide immediate protection for civilians like Faten and her family.
“We never feel safe,” adds Faten. “We know Israel will bomb again. We just hope there will be a proper ceasefire so we can come back to our homes and start to rebuild what is left.”
Sunday, 15 February 2009
At the nursing home of Al Wafaa Hospital in the northeastern Gaza Strip, frail women lie curled in their beds, most of them bedridden. In Gaza’s close-knit society, nursing homes are not very common, as most people prefer to care for their elderly family members at home. The patients at Al Wafaa have nowhere else to go.
While many reports have been released on the effect of the conflict on children, other vulnerable groups such as the elderly and disabled are often disregarded.
Seventy five year old Rahma Mourad is one of the hospital’s permanent residents. Her face lights up as she remembers her early years in Damascus, where she came from a privileged background and her first language was French. Now, with her children in Syria and no family nearby to visit her, all she has are her memories. “I used to be so beautiful”, she says. “I came from a life of culture. Now look at me – I don’t even have teeth.”
Over 4,300 people were physically injured during Israel’s 22 day offensive on the Gaza Strip, many of whom sustained horrific injuries. But the wounds of psychological trauma, caused by shelling and bombardment, will also take time to heal.
In the early hours of the 16 January 2009, Al Wafaa Hospital, the only rehabilitation centre of its kind in Gaza, was hit several times by artillery fire, including rounds of white phosphorus. The holes in the wards of the hospital’s eastern wing attest to the damage sustained that night, estimated to cost around half a million dollars.
Rahma and the other patients reported “a long night of terror”, trapped in the hospital, unable to leave. Even now, three weeks after Israel’s unilateral ceasefire, Rahma is in tears. “I can’t describe the noise of the shelling,” Rahma says, her eyes darting around the shrapnel holes that pepper the walls of her hospital room. “It was unbearable…” She clasps her hands together tightly, as a hospital volunteer comforts her.
Twenty-three year old nurse Wael Mamdouh Samara, a resident of Shijaiyah, was on duty that night. “It was just after midnight when the hospital came under fire,” he says. “A huge shell hit the hospital and dust and smoke rose around us. We couldn’t see anything because the smoke in the corridors was so dense. A state of panic broke out among the patients and staff.”
The hospital administration had emergency contingency plans in place and had already evacuated some patients from the eastern wing just hours before the shelling began. Their actions managed to avert a potential catastrophe, despite the difficulties involved in relocating paraplegic patients and those with spinal injuries.
But the elderly residents of the nursing home at Al Wafaa are mostly bedridden, and couldn’t be evacuated safely. The ferocity of the shelling also meant staff couldn’t reach their wards safely. One trained care giver, Umm Mohammed Al Wadia, sustained head injuries from shrapnel while trying to help her patients.
The Israeli military continued firing on the hospital compound for around six hours, despite requests from the International Committee of the Red Cross. The brand new specialist surgery and paediatric building that was fully equipped and about to open was also badly hit. It now stands covered in shrapnel and the blackened holes of artillery shells.
Al Wafaa was founded in 1996 and employs around 230 staff, including specialist occupational therapists, physiotherapists and rehabilitators. It provides support to patients suffering motor or cognitive disabilities resulting from spinal injury, amputation, stroke, paralysis, muscle and nerve disorders, fractures, bladder problems, bedridden patients and those with circulatory disorders. Al Wafaa is also funded by a number of major international and Arab donors and is currently appealing to its supporters worldwide for assistance with reconstruction and repairs.
“The attack of the 16 of January was the fourth time the hospital has been hit”, explains Ali Abu Riala, head of nursing at the hospital. “We are very close to the border here, and two nurses were killed in a shelling in 2003 so we had plans in place in case of future attacks. I can guarantee our hospital buildings were free of any resistance fighters. I can’t speak for the surrounding area, but there were no fighters within the hospital compound and we saw no evidence of militants among the injured or dead around the building.”
The deliberate targeting of civilian facilities such as hospitals is in violation of the principles of international humanitarian law and may constitute a war crime. Articles 15-19 of the Fourth Geneva Convention prohibit the targeting of health facilities during times of conflict.
The attacks on Al Wafaa Hospital would only be lawful if Israel could demonstrate it was being used for military purposes. No evidence has been produced to support such claims and even if that were the case, Israel is obligated to take all precautions possible to minimise harm to civilians and ensure it is not disproportionate to the expected military gain.
While Al Wafaa’s mint-green corridors have been cleared of debris and smoke and the spotless wards are now operating again, the scars left behind on its vulnerable elderly and disabled patients are profound. “We are frightened all the time,” says Rahma. “Is this what I should feel towards the end of my life?”
Thursday, 19 February 2009 00:00
Three weeks after the Israeli offensive on the Gaza Strip, 16 year old Maysa al-Louh sits stoically on the pile of sand that consumes half her home in Beit Lahiya. Under the sand, churned up by Israeli bulldozers during incursions into this area on 4 January 2009 lie all her report cards and school awards that were testament to her excellent academic record.
Nearby her grandmother tries to heat water on a pile of ash. The smell of decomposing chicken carcasses is overwhelming: the family’s chicken coop that provided them with eggs, as well as their vegetable garden, were all destroyed by the bulldozers and tanks.
Thirty five people lived in the three storey al-Louh house. The contents of home life – a refrigerator, notebooks, framed pictures, and plastic flowers, lie scattered over the area. The adjacent Sakhnin Elementary School was also damaged by artillery shells and some of its classrooms are now a masse of mangled chairs, steel rods, shattered concrete and broken glass. Israel says militants were firing rockets from the school grounds.
“We were trapped in our home for two days while the Israeli army was based in the school nearby and operating in the area,” says Maysa’s 32 year old mother Najat. “I had to give my children water from the toilet cistern to keep them alive. Then they ordered us to leave our house.”
“As soon as we left the house they opened fire on the area and some of our neighbours were killed. My husband and I said our goodbyes to each other when the tanks came,” Najat adds. “We thought it was the end.”
Najat is three months pregnant with her eighth child. Her youngest daughter Sara who lies listlessly nearby, has been unwell for days, with vomiting and a high fever. They have been unable to get her to a doctor.
When the family returned to their home after Israel’s unilateral ceasefire they discovered it had been shelled twice and all their animals killed. 250 metres away, and visible through a hole in the side of the house, is the toppled minaret of the local mosque, which took a direct hit. An airstrike also hit Beit Lahiya’s large Ibrahim Al Maqadmah mosque on the 2 January 2009, killing 16 people and injuring dozens more. A total of 2,400 homes were completely destroyed during the three week offensive and over 12,000 were partially damaged.
International organizations have established a number of tent camps around the Gaza Strip. But in search of adequate shelter from the elements, some displaced and homeless people have moved in with extended family members in other areas. This is further squeezing Gaza’s urban centres and placing an extra burden on already densely populated areas. It also means the scale of the problem of internally displaced people in Gaza is less visibly apparent.
On what was the second floor of the house, Najat’s sister-in-law Faiza, 44 picks through the remains of their children’s clothes. “Sometimes I wish we’d died rather than this…” she says. “There were no militants near our house. Is this not haram [forbidden]? Destroying homes, bombing mosques, killing chickens. Is that not haram?”
Maysa has been too upset to study since the end of the offensive. “She had 99 per cent in English, but all her school reports and prizes are under that sand,” says her mother Najat. “What will happen to her future?” She shows me her bedroom now consumed by a mound of earth, and the edge of her bed that pokes out of the sand. “I had a few savings under my mattress,” she says. Who knows if I’ll ever find them.”
International law and the destruction of civilian property
Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s 22 day offensive on the Gaza Strip between 27 December 2008 and 18 January 2009 had a devastating impact on Gaza’s physical infrastructure.
The preliminary list of damage to civilian property includes:
• 2,400 homes destroyed, and at least 12,000 homes damaged.
• 60 police stations and 30 mosques completely destroyed.
• 21 private enterprises, including cafeterias, wedding halls and hotels.
• 28 public civilian facilities, including ministry buildings, municipalities and fishing harbours.
• 121 industrial/commercial workshops destroyed and at least 200 damaged.
• 5 concrete factories and one juice factory destroyed.
• 5 media and 2 health institutions destroyed.
• 29 educational facilities including schools damaged or destroyed.
• Thousands of dunums of agricultural land razed to the ground.
Israel’s destruction of property and land belonging to Palestinians has been a feature of its occupation since 1967 and is in clear violation of international law. It has also contributed to the steadily deteriorating humanitarian situation in the occupied territories.
Despite Israel’s withdrawal of its forces and settlers from the Gaza Strip in 2005, Israel remains in control of Gaza’s seas, external borders, and airspace. The Gaza Strip is defined as occupied territory in accordance with international law. Consequently, as the Occupying Power, Israel remains bound by international humanitarian law. The targeting of civilian property violates the most basic tenets of humanitarian law, and is explicitly prohibited by both customary international humanitarian law and the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949.
Article 53 of the Fourth Geneva Convention prohibits the targeting of civilian property, except where such destruction is rendered ‘absolutely necessary by military operations’. As the Occupying Power, Israel has specific legally-binding obligations towards the civilian population of the Gaza Strip. If the destruction of property is found to be disproportionate to the direct military advantage gained, this would constitute a grave breach of the Geneva Conventions.
The systematic nature of Israel’s destruction of Palestinian civilian property and its use of heavy artillery, tanks and fighter jets against heavily populated residential areas has resulted in a disproportionately high number of civilian deaths and injuries, as well as extensive damage to civilian objects. The attacks are therefore illegal; they violate the principles of distinction and proportionality, and as such constitute grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions.
The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights is calling upon the High Contracting Parties to the Geneva Conventions to fulfill their obligations under Article 1 of the Fourth Geneva Convention to prevent such crimes, as well as their legally-binding obligation in accordance with Article 146 to bring persons alleged of committing grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions to justice.
Aftermath (4) Hammad’s death barely made the news
Wednesday, 04 March 2009
On the 14 of February 2009, almost a month after Israel declared a unilateral ceasefire in Gaza, thirteen year old Hammad Silmiya was grazing his sheep and goats in northeast Gaza, about 500 metres from the border with Israel. An Israeli military jeep patrolling the border opened fire on him and his teenage friends. Hammad was shot in the head and he died almost instantly.
Hammad’s death barely made the news – just another casualty in the Gaza Strip, where civilian injuries and deaths continue to mount daily. His family had already endured the killing of Hammad’s grandmother, his two cousins, aged four and eighteen months, and the destruction of their homes and livestock during Israel’s offensive.
“It was Saturday morning and Hammad woke up at six,” says Hammad’s aunt Jomai’a, 40. “He left with his brother and a couple of young friends to graze the animals. At around ten in the morning Hammad was preparing some breakfast in the field like he always did. An Israeli military vehicle fired at them and shot him in the head.”
Jomai’a pulls out a plastic bag from the folds of her black shawl and unties the knot. Inside a small envelope is the only remaining photograph they have of Hammad, taken when he was seven years old. More recent photographs of him were lost in the rubble of their home.
“Hammad was like a beloved son to me because I have no children of my own and he always slept beside me,” says Jomai’a. “Whenever he needed anything, he would ask me. They used to say Hammad didn’t have just one mother, he had two – his real mother, and I. Hammad owned a part of my heart and it went with him when he died.”
Hammad had left school just a few months ago to work fulltime as a shepherd and help his family. “I tried to force him to go back to school but all he cared about was working with the goats and riding his donkey,” says Jomai’a. “He was so good with animals. Whenever he came home from school, he’d throw his bag in the house and run to be with the animals. The night before Hammad was killed I dreamt about a wedding ceremony, which in our culture is a bad omen. When they told me Hammad was injured I knew that he had been killed because I had seen him as a bridegroom in my dream.”
Hammad’s mother Salma sits beside Jomai’a in the makeshift shelter the family has set up beside the remains of their homes in Hay-as-Salama, northeastern Gaza. All around them are scenes of utter devastation. This Bedouin family came to Gaza as refugees from Beersheva in 1948 and settled in the Hay-as-Salama area. Prior to the latest Israeli offensive they had concrete homes and livestock farms beside the buffer zone, which was the first area to be hit during Israel’s ground offensive in January 2009.
“Tanks began firing at the area at two in the morning on the 5 of January,” recalls Jomai’a. “The first bomb hit our house and I ran to my mother’s room because she is 80 years old and bedridden. Then a second shell hit the house and we had to run, leaving her behind. We were like scared goats whose stable door had been opened. We fled to Jabaliya and then to Zeitoun where we sheltered in schools. Every day I begged ambulances and medics to help me go and evacuate my mother. I even said I would walk in front of the ambulance, carrying a white flag, but it was too dangerous and they refused.”
When the Silmiya family returned to the area on 18 January , they found their row of houses had been flattened by F-16 airstrikes and it took them three days to uncover Hammad’s grandmother from the rubble. Hammad was buried next to his grandmother just a few weeks later.
Due to this area’s proximity to the border, few donors have come to assess the damage or provide assistance. The nearest refugee tent camp is unsuitable for the Silmiyas because they need to be near their animals and Bedouin families prefer to live alone.
“The war is not over,” says Hammad’s mother Salma. “There is no quiet time in Gaza and we often see F-16s in the sky. But Hammad was never afraid. He was strong and full of energy. His younger brother says he wishes the Israelis had killed him instead because everybody loved Hammad. He also refuses to take any food or tea with him now when he goes shepherding because Hammad was making breakfast when they shot him.”
In the days before his death Hammad had been upset about his donkey that was killed during the Israeli ground invasion along with sixty goats and three cows belonging to his father Barrak Salem Salaam Silmiya, whose three surnames are all derivatives of the word ‘peace’ in Arabic. “We want peace, but where is it? Where are human rights in Gaza?” asks 47-year-old Barrak as he shows us the animal remains still floating in the mud around the ruins of his house.
“Hammad was 13 years old. In anyone’s eyes he looked like a child, but they still shot him. He was very bright and he was great with animals. He even used to sell our milk and cheese in the market. What more can I tell the world about my son? How can I speak about him? Big countries can’t even stop Israel so what can I do? I feel like I’m nothing. This area was just houses and a street. Were these goats fighters? There’s nothing left…”
As Barrak turns to walk away Hammad’s mother Salma rises to her feet: “These fifteen days since Hammad died have felt like five hundred. Hammad was dark, and he was beautiful. Food has no taste anymore.”
“Everybody who saw Hammad that morning before he was killed said his face had looked particularly beautiful,” adds his aunt Jomai’a. “This is not a war against a strong government or country. Israel kills us like we are animals and dogs and nobody stands with us.”