Friday, January 30, 2009

Khoza'a: Anatomy of a massacre

For over 24 hours earlier this month, a village in southern Gaza was devastated by an Israeli army attack. Jack Shenker revisits a day of destruction.

-Taken from The National (view the pdf version here)
-Khoza'a, Gaza - January 2009

Khoza’a village has a small white-brick mosque, a smattering of donkey-carts and a rusting water-tower. It has neat rows of olive and citrus trees, and low cut picket fences shading the main street. It also has concertina houses, slabs of domestic comfort stacked and folded in on each other in ways you’d never think possible. They are the first things to greet you as you enter from the west, these collages of the familiar and banal. They have shed their loads onto alleys below; set amongst rubble-shard mountains and steel reinforcement rods standing starkly in the wind, simple household items now look like grotesque forgeries of the mind.

Everyone in Khoza’a has a story about what happened when Israeli forces launched a 24-hour assault on their southern Gazan farming community of 12,000 earlier this month. It began at 9:30pm on January 12th, when Apache helicopters appeared overhead. Mohammed al-Najar’s wife was giving birth that night in a hospital in nearby Khan Younnis; the missiles stopped him from witnessing the arrival of his new son. Instead, he spent the early hours of the 13th quieting the cries of the village’s infant population.” They were screaming that night,” he told me. “They screamed through the bombs and they screamed through the jokes and soothing prayers we whispered to calm them down."

Khoza’a isn’t screaming anymore but it is garrulous, every corner stumbling and tumbling all over itself in an effort to tell its story. Kids swarm around in excited packs; You can’t move without wrinkled black munitions balls being pressed into your hand, or serial numbers of detached destruction being thrust before your camera. It’s hard to slow things down and pick out the strands that matter from the hubbub, the threads that explain what happened that night and can make sense of the blood on the pavement and the sand pile where a house used to be. But it’s necessary to do so because this is a crime scene, and the criminals are still at large.

This following account is based on multiple interviews conducted in Khoza’a between the 14th and 22nd of January with villagers and local paramedics and doctors who dealt with the wounded. Many of the witness statements are also corroborated by testimony collected by the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem and local Palestinian researchers. The Israeli Defence Force has denied targeting civilians; their response to this article follows at the end.


By 3am on the 13th, Khoza’a had already been blanketed by F16s, helicopter gunships and unmanned drones for over five hours. This was day 17 of Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s three week onslaught of the Gaza Strip, and a local ground incursion was now under way. Israeli bulldozers first trundled up to houses on Khoza’a’s eastern fringe, a mere 500m from the “green line” separating Gaza from Israel. Scared and confused, the residents of these buildings poured onto their roofs, waving white flags under the cold night sky. “There were over 200 people from 36 families up there calling down to the Israelis,” remembers 29-year-old Iman al Najar. The bulldozers set about demolishing homes one by one. Each time the metal jaws bit into a wall, those who lived behind it would head out the door and gather deeper in the village.

They place where they congregated was a small, grass-strewn courtyard off a paved alleyway. There Khoza'a's residents were flanked by walls on three sides and sheltered from surrounding buildings, where IDF special forces had taken up positions. As ni
ght ticked away and the small 7m x 10m square filled up with villagers, it became clear that the Israeli soldiers were intent on levelling every house on the eastern street. Rawhiya al Najar, a 50-year-old mother of three, ran back to urge those still in their homes to evacuate. By 7am, when she had reached the last front door, all 200 of the former roof-wavers – over half of them children – were now gathered in the courtyard. Those who had approached from the pathway had been shot at; beyond the walls lay only the relentless demolition machines. Trapped between bullets and bulldozers, the villagers had nothing to do but wait.

One kilometre to the west, members of Rawhiya’s extended family had formed another assembly of their own. Over 20 al Najars were taking refuge in the house of Khalil, their elderly patriarch, after being forced out of Riyad al Najar's opposite building by rocket fire. As explosives pounded the area from land and air, the children were now wedged quietly under the stairs. “The adults thought this would be the safest place to be if the building collapsed,” recalls Joma’aa, 18. They were wrong. A rocket dispatched from a drone sliced through the roof and first floor like butter and headed straight for the stairs, finally landing in the lap of 16-year-old Ala’a and her 15-year-old brother Ayman. Most of Ala’a’s waist and pelvis was blown away, as was a third of her face; she eventually died after ten hours of surgery in Khan Younis hospital. Ayman survived, even though the burns he received were so severe that his bones were visible through the wounds. Five more missiles quickly followed, taking the lives of a 22-year-old neighbour and 75-year-old Khalil himself, who had chosen to sit out in the garden to watch his village light up with gunfire. A rocket split him in half, and his family had to lay him to rest twice; they only discovered his legs a day after burying his torso.

Stunned by the volley of explosives, the rest of the family escaped across the alley to another home and huddled together on the ground floor. The drones spun around and followed accordingly. First a series of missiles blew holes in all the walls, then white phosphorus flares looped down and into the holes. This time a young boy, Ala'a's cousin, was hit in the eyes and legs; his skin, coated in chemical toxins, could not be touched. “Trying to pick him up was like trying to carry sand or liquid in your hands – he was just falling apart,” said one relative.

Lying in their phosphorus baths, the dead and dying had to be left behind as the group sought safety, clambering over a low back fence and into Riyad's house once again. Having run out of homes to protect them, the al Najars - filthy, exhausted, and fewer in number than ever before - were back where they started.

Back in the grass-strewn courtyard, Rawhiya and her tightly-packed companions were feeling similarly helpless. It was now 8am. Having finished with the houses, Khoza’a’s concrete-razing visitors were moving on – to the very space where the newly homeless were now trapped. Eight bulldozers surrounded the northern wall and began crunching into it, sending rubble flying forward. Each time the crumbling outer wall showered the villagers with metal and concrete the courtyard became smaller and smaller, suffocating those closest to the encroaching debris.

Realising that they would all soon be crushed, Rawhiya grabbed a white flag, got a small group together, and stepped out tentatively in the alleyway to see if it was safe. Israeli soldiers were witnessed by several villagers shouting across at them to turn right and head up the path; the group complied. “Rawhiya and I were at the front, followed by the rest of the women, then children, then men,” recalls 23 year old Yasmin al-Najar, her neighbour. “As we rounded the corner, I saw a special forces soldier in a window at the end of the street. He smiled at me and we thought that meant ‘go ahead’, because they were telling us our evacuation had been co-ordinated. So we went ahead and they shot Rawhiya in the head.”

The bullet was fired by a sniper in a house the Israelis had commandeered at the start of the incursion. They had two hostages in the basement: a 14-year-old boy and a woman in her 40s. The boy was Iman al Najar’s brother, Mohammed, who later testified that when the bullet that hit Rawhiya rang out, the soldiers inside the building had been prancing about and laughing. They asked him to dance with them; when he refused they pointed a gun at him and asked again.

Outside, there was chaos. Fragments of Rawhiya’s bullet had sprayed Yasmin too; clutching at her wounds, the young woman spun around and followed the others back into the courtyard. When their supposed saviours returned blood-spattered and shrieking, the villagers who waited behind moved closer to outright panic. Mobile phone calls were put in to emergency services in the hope that the Palestinian Red Crescent would be allowed to come in and save Rawhiya. The answer came through shortly afterwards: the Red Crescent had contacted the IDF and been told that Khoza’a was now a closed military zone. Medical staff were not allowed to enter; witnesses claim that one ambulance that did attempt to reach the dying woman was shot at from the ground and air, forcing the paramedic, Marwan Abu Raeda, to seek cover in a nearby house. He was eventually able to remove Rawhiya’s corpse at 8pm; she had taken 12 hours to die.


Meanwhile, the villagers had a desperate choice to make. “We h
ad to decide – death by rubble or by guns,” explained Iman. “I didn’t want to be buried alive, nor did anyone else. So I said to everyone, we have to stay together; we either live together or die together.” The villagers agreed and sunk to the floor, crawling as one out onto into the alleyway.

By now it was 12pm, and bits of shrapnel were still flying through the air from rocket attacks on nearby houses. Iman led the villagers (including Yasmin, who had
tied some loose fabric to her leg to stem the bleeding) out on their hands and knees across the pathway where Rawhiya lay, alive but dying under the midday sun. The group made it to a UN school 300 metres away just before helicopters swooped back in for a new round of devastation. Inside, they called the Red Crescent again. But with Israeli special forces still manning positions along the street, only one ambulance could make it to the gates. “We insisted on the children getting out first, but there were so many of them and just one vehicle. They were climbing all over each other in terror to try and get inside,” recalled Iman. Those children who couldn’t fit in the ambulance stood banging their heads against the school walls. “They won’t go back there now,” Iman said flatly. “They’re too scared”.

Marooned in their separate corners of the village, Khoza’a’s residents waited for the missile fire to ebb away. By the evening it had done so, and the hunted started edging out of their hiding-holes. One particularly courageous organiser was Mahmoud al Najar, a 55-year-old father of three, who shepherded residents from the bullet-torn backstre
ets into cars and trucks driven over by concerned relatives. Mahmoud had been unaware of the dramas faced by his family members across the village; when he heard that Rawhiya had been shot, he strode back towards the courtyard pathway to fetch her body. Searching for his relative’s body in the gloom, a single shot from a special forces sniper hit Mahmoud in the head. He died instantly.


By the time night fell on January 13th, 14 residents of Khoza’a had been killed, 50 lay wounded, and 213 had been taken to hospital for gas inhalation. Given the scale of destruction wrought by the invading army Khoza’a’s death toll was remarkably low. Indeed, the village’s story is significant largely because it is so ordinary.

Geography has etched violence into Khoza’a’s landscape for years.
Farmers tending their fields regularly come under fire from Israeli troops across the border. Only two days prior to the invasion, a string of air strikes had decimated a group of houses near the "green line". Seven months earlier – just two days before the old ceasefire came into effect – Aiya al Najar, an eight year old girl, was shot by an apache rocket as she stood on the roof of her home. It tore her body apart so extensively that they carried it away in buckets, “like pieces of meat in a plastic bag”, according to one cousin. Two years before that Aiya’s brother, 18-year-old Zaki, was shot dead in a ground operation.

Residents are adamant that the closely-knit village has never been a base for Hamas fighters. They are convinced that the attacks are part of the Israeli state’s plans to expand its border buffer zone westward. “They wanted to send a message to our village: ‘Leave, leave your land behind,’” says Samer al Najar, Yasmin’s father, as he monitors his daughter's recovery at home. “But this was the land of our fathers and will be the land of our children, so we stay. We sleep in tents in the rubble rather than finding shelter elsewhere. And although there is no armed resistance here, amid this violence the act of staying becomes a resistance, and that is why they are afraid of us.”

Nor has the incursion really ended, at least not in the minds of those who bore it. The day before I visited Khoza’a, a local who was inspecting the municipal water lines near the border – in co-ordination with the Israeli authorities – was shot at by troops, three days into a supposed ceasefire. The day after the cessation of hostilities was announced, Maher Abu Rajila ventured down to his farmlands to inspect the damage caused by the bombardment. He was killed by gunfire from within Israel. Lines of phosphorus from the incursion remained buried under sandy ditches on the side of the road. Expose them to air and they burst into flames again; douse them with water and they splutter back into life within seconds. The kids kick them around sometimes for fun, half-heartedly pulling their jumpers up over their noses to smother the fumes. Last week, a nine year old boy named Adam al Najar took hits to his legs and chest when he triggered an unexploded landmine.

In the aftermath of Khoza’a’s incursion it’s the inanimate objects that stand out. Ala’a’s school notebooks still flutter in the wind, blown open to the elements by the bombs that twisted her bedroom upside down. Dusty teacups stand neatly to attention on kitchen windowsills bereft of their kitchens, the rest of the home having curled up in pieces in a nearby street. And almost as if they can’t quite cope with the human loss, it’s these fragments of the mundane that are endlessly pointed out to me by villagers, along with the animals and the foliage – sheep and pigeons and trees mowed down from the sky. Khoza’a’s inhabitants call what happened on the 12th and 13th of January 2009 a massacre, an annihilation of not just the human lives of the village but also the inhuman things that made the village real.

“They keep us awake at night with their bombs so we can’t sleep like other people sleep," says Iman. "They fire missiles at our streets so our children can’t play like other people’s children. They bulldoze our land so our trees can’t grow like other people’s trees. But no matter how many they cut down, we will plant more and keep on standing.”


The Israeli military has given the following response to this article:

The IDF does not target civilians. For 22 days the IDF fought an enemy in Gaza who does not hesitate to hide behind civilians and fire from human
itarian aid facilities.
IDF forces have clear firing orders, but in the complex situation in which fighting takes place inside towns and cities, placing our forces also at great risk, civilian casualties are regrettably possible.
In response to the claims of NGOs and claims in the foreign press relating to the use of phosphorus weapons, and in order to remove any ambiguity, an investigative team has been established in the Southern Command to look into the
It must be noted that international law does not prohibit the use of weaponry containing phosphorus to create smoke screens and for marking purposes. The IDF only uses weapons permitted by law.
The IDF is obligated to international law, and in light of the [claims made in this article] some of the issues will be investigated.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

'Draculas' get their teeth back into lucrative Gaza tunnel operation

-Taken from 'The Scotsman'
-Rafah, Gaza - January 2009

They call them the ‘Draculas’ – rich, ruthless men who have carved a fortune out of the dark earth beneath the Egyptian-Gazan border. This particular class of Palestinian tunnel-owner has never been popular with locals; now, as the dust settles on Israel’s three-week bombardment of the Gaza Strip, the Draculas are back in business and fuelling a new wave of tension at the heart of Palestinian society.

This time last week the Hai Qishta neighbourhood of Rafah was a ghost town, throbbing day and night with ‘bunker-buster’ explosives dropped from Israeli war planes. Now a different group of noises fill the air; the shouts, banging and clanging of a small army of workers busy repairing the vast network of tunnel entrances dotted around this sandy patch of land, which lies less than 200m away from the edge of Egypt. Some are shovelling away under large white canvas tents; most don’t even bother with this most basic attempt at discretion. “Nearly everyone is rebuilding now, this time with stronger stone entrance shafts,” says Mahmoud, a 24 year old tunnel manager. “It may take a month or two for us to be operating at full capacity again, but we’ll get there.”

The tunnels have performed many functions, often contradictory, for the people of Gaza in the past: subterranean lifelines during the Israeli-imposed siege on their land; magnets for destruction in the heat of war; stark enforcers of inequality and exploitation throughout. And as Rafah’s biggest industry grinds slowly back into action, it is this latter role which is causing consternation amongst communities affected by the smuggling trade.

Mohammed Qishta’s relatives have lived in this area for so long that it has taken on the family name. Mohammed, 60, saw his house in the neighbourhood levelled by Israeli bulldozers four years ago; ever since then he has been regularly approached by businessmen looking to lease his land for tunnel-building. “They usually offer around $1000 up front, then a ten to twenty percent cut of all future profits,” he told The Scotsman. “For people round here that’s a huge amount of money.”

Many of his neighbours have been persuaded by the promise of riches; sources suggest that there are between 500 and 700 tunnels along the border with Egypt, along with hundreds more small tubes pumping illicit petrol into the strip. For Mohammed though, the answer he gives to the smugglers is the same every time. “I tell them no, and no and no again,” he said forcefully. “Who are these tunnels for? They exist for the rich alone; 98% of Gazans will never benefit from this work.”

Crippling Rafah’s tunnel complex was a key objective of ‘Operation Cast Lead’, Israel’s 22 day offensive on the Gaza Strip. Israeli politicians painted the tunnels as a criminal conduit for weapons and drugs; international defenders of the smugglers argued that by providing a passage for essential food and medicines, the tunnels helped Palestinians survive the growing humanitarian crisis caused by Israel’s blockade on Gaza, launched in June 2007 in response to the takeover of the Strip by Hamas. Within Gaza, however, responses to the tunnels are more subtle. Mohammed’s cynicism over the charitable goals of the smugglers is shared by many near the border, not just due to some tunnels processing haram (forbidden) goods like arms and alcohol, but also because they are seen as personal supply lines for the privileged.

Mahmoud, who built his tunnel with a group of friends over a year ago, is scathing about the ‘Draculas’. “There are two distinct groups of tunnel operators in Rafah,” he explained. “Our tunnel is about breaking the siege. We always saw it as a moral act, never as a money-making opportunity. But there are those who looked on the siege as an opportunity to make a profit out of misery.” According to Mahmoud and other tunnel operators, the two groups rarely mix. “Most of the tunnels that are designed to make money are owned by people living over in Gaza City,” he said. “They aren’t so connected to local communities, and they don’t see what they are doing as political. There’s a lot of tension between us and them. If medicines are needed by a family we will bring them through for free, or only cover our costs. But for the business tunnels, no money means no goods, however much those goods might be needed.”

It’s a claim borne out by the experience of Nesrine, an English teacher who lives in Rafah. When she needed creams to treat a skin condition last summer she turned to the tunnel operators, who are taxed on their activities by the Hamas authorities. “The Draculas completely ignored me because I couldn’t pay much,” she recalls. “But the humanitarian tunnel operators brought the stuff straight over and said it would be an insult to accept any money from me.”

Despite having benefitted from it in the past, Nesrine remains a stern critic of the entire smuggling infrastructure. In part her opposition to the tunnels is political; for all of its catastrophic effects on Gaza, the siege has been a great social leveller, bringing poverty and hardship to the elite and the masses alike. “The tunnels changed all that,” Nesrine argues. “They basically stopped Palestinians standing together as one and saying to the world ‘Look, look at what Israel has done to us’. Instead they allowed those with money to reassert themselves at the top of the pile by obtaining their luxuries, whilst the rest of us still had to make do with dwindling supplies and soaring prices.”

Nesrine’s other problem with the tunnels is the dangers involved in building them. Khalil, a 27 year old driver from Rafah, spent six months working on a tunnel construction site last year when the Israeli blockade left his taxi empty of fuel. “Everything just hits you down there, the dust, the heat, the darkness when the lights go out,” he remembers. Khalil spent eight hours a day for half a year shovelling soil for one of the ‘Draculas’, at the end of which he was paid $2,500. In that time he witnessed several colleagues being killed, some through tunnel collapses, others from suffocation when Egyptian border guards pumped gas through the other end. “The owners used to fight all the time with the local residents who don’t want to see their houses brought into danger by having a tunnel nearby. But these men just exploit everybody. The regularly cheat the workers, who go down and see their deaths for 40 shekels a day.”

Rebuilding their shattered land after the Israeli assault, most Palestinians grudgingly accept the tunnels and the ‘Draculas’ as an inevitable feature of the landscape as long as Gaza’s border crossings remain sealed. “Everything in life has its advantages and disadvantages,” reflected Mohammed Qishta’s son, Abed. “It’s the Israelis who made us need the tunnels, and that’s the real tragedy, that they’ve created this situation where people can capitalise on disaster.” For Nesrine though, the issue is simpler. “If I was President of Palestine I would shut them all tomorrow,” she insisted. “Only then would people see the reality of what the siege has really done to our people.”

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Arms are still flowing through undamaged tunnels

-Taken from 'The Times' (with Sheera Frenkel)
-Rafah, Egypt - January 2009

The three-week Israeli offensive has failed to disrupt the flow of weapons through the tunnels that crisscross the border between Egypt and the Gaza Strip, smugglers told The Times yesterday.

“We have continued to move goods. Most of our tunnels are still intact,” said Khaled, a smuggler on the Egyptian side of the border.

Standing just outside the Rafah crossing, Khaled gestured towards the vast fields just outside the “no man’s land” – a demarcated zone between Egypt and the Gaza Strip. He estimated that there were nearly a thousand tunnels hidden in the dusty hills, more than half of them used to import oil and gas and the rest for goods.

A handful, described as VIP tunnels, are big enough to walk through.

“It costs $200,000 to build some of those. There is a lot of money here,” he said. Weapons and goods have been smuggled through the Egyptian border for years, but the tunnel-building industry really took off when Hamas seized control of Gaza in June 2007 and Israel imposed a blockade on the coastal strip.

Since then, Israel has proposed a number of methods to shut down smuggling routes, including building a moat, an underground wall or a sensor system along the border. One of the main aims of the Israeli offensive this month was to destroy Hamas’s capacity to bring rockets and other weapons into the territory.

The smugglers work to order, ready to deliver whatever the militants demand. In recent months, Khaled has noticed an increase in Kalash-nikov rifles, shipped in from African countries such as Eritrea and Somalia.

“They are also trying to bring in parts for longer-range missiles. In another six months I think they could have them,” he said.

Khaled described a complex system, complete with mid-point “terminal”, by which the delivery of goods is organised. At a designated spot, Egyptian smugglers hand over their goods to their Palestinian counterparts.

The system has a price list – $1,000 per person brought in, $30 per kilo of goods – and a tariff system by which a certain percentage goes to the clans that keep watch. Border guards, bribed to look the other way, also take a cut of the profits.

“If the Egyptian Government wanted to stop the tunnels they could. The Egyptian Government gets money from the tunnels . . . There are thousands of ideas to stop the tunnels but the only way to stop them is to open the border,” Khaled said.

Residents in Rafah confirmed that Israeli deep-penetration bombs had put most tunnels out of commission, but some were operating again. “I saw them bring up fuel from one of the tunnels which is still working,” said a Rafah resident. Another described how a shipment of paraffin stoves was smuggled in on Sunday.

Ehud Olmert, the Israeli Prime Minister, agreed to a ceasefire only after the United States signed an accord to help to stop arms smuggling in Gaza. Military officials added that taking out the tunnels had been a “top priority” and claimed that at least 80 per cent had been destroyed.

Egyptian smugglers said that the figure was closer to 40-60 per cent, but claimed that the damage done was largely reparable. Each tunnel was built with three heads, Khaled said. When an Israeli airstrike struck one opening, the smugglers would simply use a different one until they could repair the damage.

Danny Ayalon, a former Israeli Ambassador to the US, said that Egypt had long lacked the political will to crackdown on the smugglers. “It’s about changing the entire attitude, whereby you do enforcement in a very intensive and aggressive way, which we have not seen yet,” he said. A number of countries have pledged to help the Egyptians to stop smuggling, including the US, which allocated $23million to train Egyptian troops.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Gaza: Medicine with Frontiers

Ready and waiting: It's the region's most advanced medical resource with over 100 doctors on call. Yet al-Arish hospital, in Northern Sinai, is receiving only a trickle of patients from Gaza. Jack Shenker reports from the Egypt-Gaza border.

-Taken from 'The Guardian' (print version here)
-Al-Arish, January 2009

Inside al-Arish hospital, a modern slab of stone and glass in the heart of northern Sinai's dusty administrative capital, doctors huddle in an office staring in silence at the latest scenes from Gaza flashing up on al-Jazeera TV.

Ahmed Ellabban, professor of surgery at Suez Canal University, shakes his head as he surveys the scene. "There are 4,000 injured people just 50km from here," he says quietly. "We're sitting in a very well-equipped hospital with more than 100 doctors on call, ready to deal with more than 400 emergency cases through the week. But they are not coming. We don't know why. We just wait."

Oscillating between silence and mayhem, al-Arish hospital – the receiving point for all wounded Palestinians who make it across the Egyptian border – is a surreal backdrop to Gaza's growing humanitarian crisis. With the number of patients making it through the contentious Rafah crossing each day rarely reaching double figures, the region's most advanced medical centre sits frozen in tense expectation most of the time, its tiled corridors empty save for the odd cleaner or local official doing the rounds. On some days, nobody arrives at all.

But each time a Palestinian ambulance does make it across the thin patch of sand and barbed wire marking no man's land between Gaza and Egypt, the hospital erupts into activity as staff prepare to receive their new case. They know it is unlikely to be a simple one. "Which body part haven't I seen missing?" says one para­medic when asked what type of shrapnel injuries he had witnessed in victims being transported to al-Arish. According to hospital records, one in six of those victims have been children.

Perched on a rickety stool outside the ER, her face illuminated by flickering blue ambulance beacons, Nawal Wasa prays for her teenage daughter's life as doctors fight to save her inside. "She's only 16 years old," Nawal says fiercely. "She wanted to finish high school and go to university. That's all she ever wanted."

Nawal's horror began the previous week, when she decided to retrieve Hanin from what she thought would be a safe refuge: her brother's house in the Gazan neighbourhood of Zeitoun. "My own house was riddled with bullet holes so I sent Hanin there to protect her. But that morning, I had a sudden fear of her not being near me, and I knew I had to have her in my arms as soon as possible. Destiny got to her before I could."

As Hanin and her uncle stood in the doorway, Israeli jets dropped a single bomb on the house. "He is a teacher; she is a student. We're not Hamas. We don't have anything to do with Hamas," says Nawal. "The rubble tore off my brother's legs and completely severed Hanin's right foot. By the time I reached the house, people were already telling me Hanin was dead."

In fact, Nawal's daughter was alive, but an endurance test of staggering proportions was awaiting her. Like all those who eventually pull up in al-Arish hospital's car park, her mother had to navigate a bureaucratic maze of Gazan medical officials, the Palestinian embassy in Cairo, Hamas border guards and Egyptian military brass before the go-ahead was given for Hanin to be driven down through the battered Gaza Strip.

The journey itself was made on roads torn up by Israeli mortar fire, each bump accentuating the pain of her injury. Ambulances often have to strike out into the desert and crawl through the sand, under constant risk of being bombed by F16 jets; two doctors and 12 ambulance drivers have been killed making just such a trip in recent days.

"They are murdering the innocent, and those whose try and help the innocent. It's criminal behaviour," says Ellabban of the attacks on medics. At the border, a whole new set of searches, registrations and document inspections begins before a transfer of stretchers takes place under the baking Sinai sun and an Egyptian orange ambulance begins the home leg to al-Arish.

As Hanin lies, conscious but silent under a mesh of tubes, the hospital lurches yet again from lethargy to frenzy. Planes have arrived in the nearby al-Arish airbase to ferry those closest to death on to specialist units in Cairo and Saudi Arabia, and paramedics leap up from the cafeteria to get their ambulances ready. Relatives spill out on to the steps of the ER as a stretcher is rushed past. It appears empty until you notice its small human cargo in the middle, buried under a mountain of blood bags and seemingly held together by wires.

The child on the stretcher is eight-year-old Zakaria Ahmed. His father, Hamada, a textiles worker in Zeitoun, can barely lift his eyes from the ground as the ambulance doors swing open and his son is loaded on.

Two days earlier, Zakaria had been playing in the street, making the most of the free time thrown up by his school's impromptu closure as a result of the bombardment. It was shortly after 9am when mortars began pounding the alleyway; within seconds, shrapnel had embedded itself in Zakaria's legs and skull. Despite his critical condition, though, Zakaria is one of the lucky ones.

"The hospitals at home are overflowing and there's no space for us, so thanks be to God that we reached here," says Hamada flatly. He gazes at the scrum surrounding his son in the car park. "Thirty people from my family are already dead. I hope the Israelis one day experience the same nightmares they have brought upon us."

Two more children are brought out for transfer. "My sister and two of my cousins were killed by an Israeli rocket as they drank tea on their roof," says Mahmoud Afana as a third cousin, 10-year-old Ibrahim, is wheeled past. "The Israelis, they have no targets. They just fire randomly, like crazy people."

Another young man, 24-year-old Mohammed Najwar, tells his story. "There were 20 of us sitting round the fire listening to the radio and wondering when we would ever be safe," he says, puffing furiously on a cigarette as a crowd surges in to listen.

"We only use the radio because there is no electricity for the television. Suddenly there were four huge explosions above us and I found myself trapped under a rock. By the time the dust cleared, I could see the bombs had taken away my father and two of my brothers. My other brother is here," he adds, jerking his thumb towards the hospital doors. He offers a hollow laugh when asked why the Israelis targeted his house. "Because there is nothing else left to target."

Political debate feels like an unaffordable luxury for relatives of the Gazan wounded, preoccupied as they are with the life and death of their children. But when recriminations are handed out, their focus varies. "Of course, Israel will always be our enemy," says Nawal Wasa.

"They are malicious and they are liars. Look around you – we are all civilians; we are all victims of our own houses crumbling upon us. I hope somebody gives me some explosives so I can give them what they have given me. But we must also look at the Arab regimes, even here in Egypt. Yes, the people here are good, but what about the government? What are they doing?"

For Mahmoud Afana, the problem lies closer to home. "I think this war will end only when Hamas gives up on some of its demands. And it is not only me praying they will do that – it's the whole of Palestine," he says. Pro-Hamas graffiti regularly appears on walls in this area, but Afana isn't afraid. "Hamas are in their hideouts; it's the people who are getting hurt."

The ambulances leave, the circus subsides, and as night falls on al-Arish, the hospital's small army of healthcare workers settle themselves back down for another extended bout of strained anticipation. Over in his office, Ellabban refuses to be drawn into the blame game. "Regardless of who is at fault, there are doctors and equipment on this side of the wall and sick patients on the other side. Who is responsible for this crime?"

He lights a stick of incense and mentions 45 Egyptian doctors still stuck at the Rafah border crossing, having been refused permission to enter Gaza and tend to the injured. "We are all medical professionals, with a duty to treat people regardless of politics or religion. Every single person here is ready to go into Gaza on our own responsibility to work and serve these people, and we're ready to die. We know what awaits us on the other side."

And with that, the professor leans back on his chair and returns his gaze to the television, preparing for a long night of examining dying Gazans – through a screen, powerless to help them.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Video: Gaza's wounded arrive in Egypt

-Taken from
-Northern Sinai, January 2009

Video footage from the Gaza-Egypt border, where a small trickle of injured Palestinians are making it across the border for urgent medical treatment. Many of those who arrive at the Rafah crossing in dusty white Palestinian ambulances are young children. Click on the links below to view the films:

Palestinian medics risk their lives and battle bureaucracy to reach Egypt with their patients

The surreal scene at Al-Arish hospital, where wounded Gazan children fight for their lives

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

A lottery of life and death for Gazan medics

-Taken from 'The Guardian'
-Rafah - January 2009

On one side are the badly wounded, desperate to get out to medical attention; on the other are the bodybags of those who failed to make it waiting to be sent back in for burial. The no man's land of Rafah's border crossing, strewn with barbed wire and reverberating with nearby bomb blasts, is a grim patch between the Gazan and Egyptian borders.

But for Dr Nadal bin-Afifi, though, it was the most reassuring thing he had seen all day. For the second time this week Afifi had made the perilous journey from his home in Gaza City down to the territory's southern limits to ferry the injured across into Egypt. "My colleague was killed by an Israeli bomb while making the same trip three days ago," he said as volunteers rushed to unload his human cargo. "I can't find the courage to tell my wife I'm doing this."

Afifi's ambulance was the ninth to have made it across into Egypt yesterday by late afternoon; six more were expected before sundown. At least two doctors and two ambulance drivers have reportedly been killed in the past week.

Once through a heavily defended Egyptian checkpoint, the ambulances pull up under the baking Sinai sun and are immediately engulfed by a swarm of medics, soldiers, NGO workers and journalists - the latter permitted access by an Egyptian government keen to face down accusations of negligence towards its Palestinian neighbours.

Patients - mostly children, women and the elderly, according to medics - are whisked through the frontier gates to a hospital in the nearby town of al-Arish, with the most serious cases then flown on to Cairo. On their way they pass ambulances carrying the bodies of those for whom help came too late, on their way back to be processed for burial in Gaza.

"We are doing the best we can, but really it feels futile," said one Egyptian paramedic. "There are thousands who need us across the wall. In the past three days I've seen 14 make it through."

Nine days into the Israeli bombardment of Gaza, thousands of Egyptian soldiers are also in Rafah and al-Arish, braced for a possible repeat of last year's border breach by besieged Palestinians. "Rafah is a ghost town," said Nora Younis, an Egyptian journalist and activist who had travelled up from Cairo. "The streets are cold and tense, with barricades and security officers dug in on every corner of every alley."

For every medical emergency trying to make it out of Gaza, there is a healthy Gazan fighting to return. "In other parts of the world people try and escape wars," said Khalil Alniss, a Palestinian with UK citizenship who has driven from Scotland to try to deliver supplies into the strip. "But here people say 'no, I will return to my land and I will die in my land'. Only in Palestine."

There is anger over the Egyptian government's perceived unwillingness to open the border, a stance which has provoked mass demonstrations across the Arab world, but those currently in Rafah are divided over who is to blame.

Yesterday afternoon Israeli F16 jets were dropping bombs less than 500m away, in a Gaza neighbourhood called Hiya-Salaam, which reportedly injured at least 10 Palestinians. Local sources said the targets were tunnels dug underneath houses in the area.

"The people here all have relatives across the wall," said Rami, a Palestinian staying in al-Arish. "Every time anyone hears an explosion, they think 'is that my friend? Is that my family?'

"I've seen young children with no legs transiting through this town in the last few days. They could be anyone's son or brother."

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Government contortions, public anger

Egyptian complicity in Israel's Gaza bloodbath is giving fresh impetus to struggles against the Mubarak regime

-Taken from the Guardian's 'Comment is Free'
-Ramallah and Cairo - January 2009

Doublespeak absurdity is plentiful at the moment; I thought I'd had more than my fair share of it in the West Bank this week, watching Israel's brazen PR zealots deliver soundbite after soundbite into television cameras, each of them notable only for their heart-stopping audacity. But that was before I returned to Cairo to hear the Mubarak government's breathtaking contortions as it tried to justify its complicity in Israel's Gazan bloodbath.

The pages of Egypt's state-owned newspapers are an inky testament to George Orwell's claim that "Political language ... is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind." A few brief examples:

• Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni visits President Mubarak on the eve of the military offensive to secure his approval; her Egyptian counterpart claims that Mubarak had got wind of what was about to happen and had summoned "that woman" to Cairo to persuade her to stop the attack.

• Egypt leaves the Rafah border largely sealed as bombs fall on Gazans, citing in its defence an expired treaty to which it is not even a signatory; government spokesmen insist that Egypt is acting in the Palestinian national interest by thwarting Israel's plan to annex Gaza to its Arab neighbour.

• Protecting his own fast-melting political skin, Mubarak spends months helping to isolate Hamas and maintains a brutal crackdown on its Egyptian colleagues, the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood; as Israeli missiles seek out Hamas targets, he keeps a straight face while telling the Egyptian people that Zionist leaders have blood on their hands and that the Palestinians must stand united.

Orwell also said that "During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act." When deceit is so pervasive though, it's hard to know where to begin the revolution. One good place to start is the prism through which Egypt's role in the Gazan mess is viewed by the domestic and international media. It's a prism that distorts and misdirects, both masking and deepening the most important dividing line in the Middle East today - the one between neoliberal regimes and their people.

Egypt's beleaguered politicians have come under sustained fire since the Gazan assault began, and are smarting from the verbal volleys. Hassan Nasrallah's call on the Egyptian masses to rise up in their millions to force open the Rafah border gate received short shrift from Mubarak minister Aboul Gheit, who told the Hizbullah leader that his country's armed forces were ready, if necessary, "to protect Egypt from people like you".

And resentment at Egypt's growing pariah status in the eyes of the Arab world is not limited to regime acolytes. Demonstrations outside Egypt's international embassies, the shooting of an Egyptian border guard by Hamas gunmen, and finally a widely-circulated article by the Independent's Robert Fisk which attacked Egypt's national "disgrace" and "malaise" have provoked a backlash even among trenchant government critics. "I'm sick of the sudden 'let's blame Egypt' mentality," wrote "Fattractive woman", a female Muslim blogger. The blogger known as Sandmonkey went further in a post about Jordanian, Lebanese and Syrian responses to Egypt's position, laying into "all of you f*****s who are badmouthing my country, which – by the way – fought four f*****g wars for the Palestinian cause and lost more people than all of you."

The international press has largely sought to explain and frame these clashes between Egypt and its critics in one of two ways. The first is geopolitical, lining up the pro-western governments of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia against the counter-alignment of Libya, Syria, Iran and its proxies, Hizbullah and Hamas. The second is domestic, ranging the forces of moderation and reason (personified by Mubarak and his party, the NDP) against the darker recesses of political Islam in Egypt (embodied by the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters). Either way, the critical distinction is drawn between the calm and sensible mindset of a US and Israeli-allied Egyptian government and its irrational and hate-filled detractors, be they terrorist mouthpieces in the Arab League or Egypt's own Islamists marching in their thousands in support of Hamas.

The emphasis on this distinction is deliberate and wrong. Certainly there are two regional political blocs in the Middle East and this has helped fuel the diplomatic war of words over Egypt's stance on Gaza. And yes, the Muslim Brotherhood has been out in force in the streets here, using Palestinian deaths in Gaza to energise its support base. But the key to unlocking the complex Egyptian response to Gaza is the battle between the Egyptian people and its crony-capitalist regime. It's a battle that largely goes unreported in the western press, not least because it doesn't fit comfortably with pre-existing stereotypes about the political dynamics of the region. These focus on religious and sectarian division or high-level spats between autocratic leaders; there is no space for supposedly banal news about the impact Washington-imposed economic orthodoxy is having on citizens, or the popular fightbacks that break out daily against it.

As many Egyptian activists have shown me, the Palestinian cause has always been inextricably linked in Egyptian eyes to Egypt's own home-grown struggle against corruption, repression and the naked looting of state assets by a western-propped business and political glitterati. Early demonstrations against Mubarak's dictatorship in the 1990s rallied around the slogan "The road to Jerusalem lies through Cairo"; those attending understood that the status quo in Palestine was reinforced by the financial interests of their own regime and the security apparatus that supported it. The aggressive new privatisation programme pursued by the Mubarak regime since 2004, and the corruption scandals and spiralling unemployment and inflation accompanying it (even as the country delivers IMF "poster-boy" figures on economic growth) is seen as part and parcel of the global interests that keep Gaza under siege and consign Palestinian self-determination to a pipe dream.

Despite internal disunity, opposition movements often understood that forces of money and power – governments in America, Europe, Israel and their Arab-regime cheerleaders, plus the local and international corporate entities profiting from economic liberalisation in the region – acted as a coherent and effective cabal, and resistance to it in Egypt could not be isolated from resistance in Palestine.

Mubarak and the ruling NDP party understood this too, which is why it has been so quick to shut down any popular expressions of support for the Palestinian people within its own borders and why it is so nervous about the latest wave of protests. The Gazan crisis has emerged just as popular actions to subvert the systems of social repression that keep Egyptians alienated from their own economic and political processes are snowballing. The previous two years have seen more strikes and sit-ins than at any time since the second world war; a second major industrial sector has managed to break free of the five-decade state monopoly on trade unions; over 2,000 police officers have just resigned en masse over the use of torture as a security tactic and woeful working conditions.

As ever, developments across the border help to give fresh impetus to these anti-regime struggles and provide a wide range of opposition political interests – from socialists to liberals, secularists to Islamists – with an opportunity to unite around a potent and effective political symbol which advances their cause. And as ever, the regime reacts brutally, putting Cairo University under siege even as its figurehead publicly bemoans the fate of the besieged Palestinians of Gaza. The students struggling to make themselves heard on campus behind the batons and riot shields of Mubarak's law enforcers are not pawns in the geopolitical fissures that the media obsess over, nor are they blind footsoldiers of Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.

They are, for the most part, simply fired by the Gazan catastrophe into giving voice to the simmering anger felt by much of the population at the twisted and tragic policies of an Egyptian government which, as the author Alaa al-Aswani recently wrote, has created its own generation of martyrs killed by "corruption and abuse of power" – through accidents and negligence and the poisonous grip of poverty – a government also colluding in the subjugation and destruction of Palestinians on Egypt's border. Unable and unwilling to break free of its well-worn preconceptions, most of the media prefers to ignore this crucial fault-line in the Arab world's largest state when "explaining" the Gazan assault. By throwing attention elsewhere instead, they are carrying out a dangerous conjuring trick which insults and undermines Egyptians and Palestinians alike.