Sunday, January 11, 2009

Weep not for Gaza but the cat

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Weep not for Gaza but the cat

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AMSTERDAM, Jan 9 (IPS) - On the phone from Gaza, Zahrah Salem shares the news she has just seen, that so many at the White House were “deeply saddened” by the death of the cat India Willie (see picture above). Why, she asks, is nobody at the White House deeply saddened by the death of so many children in Gaza.

After a pause she says, “At least the cat did not die hungry, like the children in Gaza.”

Zahrah Salem, 64, has four children and 15 grandchildren to worry about. Day after day of bombing brings blessing they are still there. “We all sleep in one room,” she says. “So if we die, we die together. What if we die and the children don’t, we don’t want to leave them behind to suffer.”

These days the injuries suffered by this IPS correspondent at the hands of the Israelis on trying to return home to Gaza seem trivial in the face of what is going on in Gaza. And in the face of the fears over the fate of family and friends back home.

From the comfort of a hospital in Amsterdam, thoughts seem focussed day and night on survivors, on who might perhaps be in hospital in Gaza – lucky enough to make it to hospital, lucky enough perhaps to be still there. And on what a very different place a hospital in Gaza can be from one in Amsterdam.

“We do not receive patients, we receive remains,” says Ahmed Abdelrahman, a staff nurse at Shifa Hospital in Gaza City. The sound of ambulance sirens screams into the phone as we speak. “It is a job sometimes to put limbs together in the morgue, to find out which body part belongs to who.”

Staff risk their lives to save the injured. “We have been shot at many times as we evacuate injured people or collect bodies,” says Abdelrahman. “I have as we speak eight calls from the east side from people who are bleeding, including two women. But our ambulance crew was fired on by the Israelis as they went to help.”

Dr. Mawia Hassanien, head of emergency services at Shifa Hospital says at least 12 emergency workers have been killed and 32 injured. Eleven ambulances have been destroyed.

The injured who are brought to hospital successfully find little treatment possible. The Egyptian authorities have opened the Rafah crossing briefly on a few occasions to allow in medical supplies. But that is a small fraction of what Gaza needs.

Many in Gaza, including Hamas members, say they do not know what to do to stop this. Some scattered groups not under Hamas control continue to fire rockets into Israel. These rockets have killed four and injured 40, and spread serious anxiety among Israelis in Ashkelon, Ashdod, Beersheba, Sderot and some other towns in western Negev.

But the rockets are only an excuse for Israel to destroy the Palestinian structure, Gazans say. An Israeli military spokesman has said the Israeli Defence Forces trained for the attack 18 months at a model of the main city on a desert army base. “Our soldiers know all the back streets where the targets are,” he said.

Abu Ghasam, 42, of Buriej refugee camp, says he cannot understand the Israeli assault, and “why the people being killed are the civilians here, and not the ones launching the rockets.”

Ghasam, father of six, has little time to worry about these questions, though. His main concern is to use a few hours of ceasefire to buy bread for his children. He usually finds bakeries closed. For the safe, hunger is now becoming a greater problem, by the hour.

Zahrah Salem knew people close by who have been killed. She can see the mourning tents. “But I am afraid to go and pay condolences,” she says. “The Israeli planes are hitting us everywhere.”

She can hear them again and again, and she can hear the bombs and missiles come screaming down. But she does not close the window. If the bomb just misses you, there will be the glass splinters.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Israel; making basket cases of Gaza's children

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Israel; making basket cases of Gaza's children

The International Committee of the Red Cross has accused the Israeli military of "unacceptable" conduct and breaching international humanitarian law after discovering four emaciated children living next to the corpses of their mothers and other adults in bomb-shattered houses in Gaza City.

The ICRC said that it had spent four days seeking Israeli guarantees of safe passage so that it could gain access to the houses in the badly damaged Zaytun neighbourhood of the city. It was finally allowed to send in a rescue team and four Palestine Red Crescent Society ambulances yesterday afternoon and said today that what they found was shocking.

In one house they discovered four small children, alive but too weak to stand, next to the bodies of their dead mothers. In all their were 12 dead bodies lying on mattresses.

In another house they found 15 survivors of the Israeli bombardment, several of them wounded, and in a third, three corpses. At that point they were ordered to leave by Israeli soldiers manning a post some 80 metres away, but they refused to do so.

The children and the wounded had to be taken to the ambulances by donkey cart because earth walls erected by the Israeli army made it impossible to bring the vehicles close enough to the houses. In all, the rescue team removed 18 wounded and 12 others who were extremely exhausted. It took away two corpses and plans to return to fetch 13 more tomorrow.

The ICRC said that it believed there were more wounded sheltering in the ruins of other houses in the same neighbourhood, and in an unusually robust public statement issued by the organisation's Geneva headquarters it demanded that the Israeli military grant it immediate access to search for them.

"This is a shocking incident," Pierre Wettach, the ICRC's head of delegation for Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, said. "The Israeli military must have been aware of the situation but did not assist the wounded. Neither did they make it possible for us or the Palestine Red Crescent to assist the wounded."

The ICRC accused the Israeli military of failing to meet its obligation under international humanitarian law to care for and remove the wounded, and called the delay in allowing rescue services access unacceptable.

The ICRC's charges were another setback for the Israeli military. On Tuesday it killed more than 40 people in a bomb attack on a UN school in the Gaza Strip that it claimed was being used by a Hamas mortar team, and international aid organisations say that its 13-day offensive is creating a humanitarian catastrophe among Gaza's 1.5 million residents.

The Israel Defence Forces did not respond directly to the charges, but issued a statement that it was battling a terrorist organisation — Hamas — that was deliberately using Palestinian civilians as human shields.

It said the IDF was working closely with international aid organisations during the fighting so that civilians could receive assistance, and continued: "The IDF in no way intentionally targets civilians and has demonstrated its willingness to abort operations to save civilian lives and to risk injury in order to assist innocent civilians.

Any serious allegations made against the IDF's conduct will need to be investigated properly, once such a complaint is received formally, within the constraints of the current military operation."

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Israel's Finest

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Israel's Finest

Our finest young men are attacking Gaza now. Good boys from good homes are doing bad things. Most of them are eloquent, impressive, self-confident, often even highly principled in their own eyes, and on Black Saturday dozens of them set out to bomb some of the targets in our "target bank" for the Gaza Strip.

They set out to bomb the graduation ceremony for young police officers who had found that rare Gaza commodity, a job, massacring them by the dozen. They bombed a mosque, killing five sisters of the Balousha family, the youngest of whom was 4. They bombed a police station, hitting a doctor nearby; she lies in a vegetative state in Shifa Hospital, which is bursting with wounded and dead. They bombed a university that we in Israel call the Palestinian Rafael, the equivalent of Israel's weapons developer, and destroyed student dormitories. They dropped hundreds of bombs out of blue skies free of all resistance.

In four days they killed 375 people. They did not, and could not, distinguish between a Hamas official and his children, between a traffic cop and a Qassam launch operator, between a weapons cache and a health clinic, between the first and second floors of a densely populated apartment building with dozens of children inside. According to reports, about half of the people killed were innocent civilians. We're not complaining about the pilots' accuracy, it cannot be otherwise when the weapon is a plane and the objective is a tiny, crowded strip of land. Our excellent pilots are effectively bullies now. As in training flights, they bomb undisturbed, facing neither an air force nor defense system.

It is hard to judge what they are thinking, how they feel. It's unlikely to be relevant, anyway. They are measured by their actions. In any event, from an altitude of thousands of feet the picture looks as sterile as a Rorschach inkblot. Lock onto the target, press the button and then a black column of smoke. Another "successful hit." None see the effects on the ground of their actions. Their heads must surely be filled with Gaza horror stories - they themselves have never been there - as if there aren't a million and a half people living there who only want to live with a minimum of honor, some of them young like themselves, with dreams of studying, working, raising a family but who have no chance to fulfill their dreams with or without the bombing.

Do the pilots think about them, the children of refugees whose parents and grandparents have already been driven from their lives? Do they think about the thousands of people they have left permanently disabled in a place without a single hospital worthy of the name and no rehabilitation centers at all? Do they think about the burning hatred they are planting not only in Gaza but in other corners of the world amid the horrific images on television?

It was not the pilots who decided to go to war, but they are the subcontractors. The real accounting must be with the decision makers, but the pilots are their partners. When they return home they will be welcomed with all the respect and honor we reserve for them. It appears that not only will no one try to provoke moral questioning among them, but that they are considered the real heroes of this cursed war. The Israel Defense Forces spokesman is already going over the top with praise in his daily briefings for the "wonderful work" they are doing. He too, of course, completely ignores the images from Gaza. After all, these are not sadistic Border Police officers beating up Arabs in the alleys of Nablus and the center of Hebron, or cruel undercover soldiers who shoot their targets point-blank in cold blood. These, as we have said, are our finest young men.

Maybe if they were to confront the results of their "wonderful work" even once they would regret their decisions, they would reconsider the effects of their actions. If they were to go just once to Jerusalem's Alyn Hospital Pediatric and Adolescent Rehabilitation Center, where for nearly three years Marya Aman, 7, has been hospitalized - she is a quadriplegic who runs her wheelchair, and her life, with her chin - they would be shocked. This adorable little girl was hit by a missile in Gaza that killed almost her entire family, the handiwork of our pilots.

But all of this is well hidden from the pilots' eyes. They are only doing their job, as the saying goes, only following orders like bombing machines. In the past few days they have excelled at this, and the results are there for the entire world to see. Gaza is licking its wounds, just like Lebanon before it, and almost no one pauses for a moment to ask whether all this is necessary, or unavoidable, or whether it contributes to Israel's security and moral image. Is it really the case that our pilots return safely to base, or are they in fact returning to them as callous, cruel and blind people?

Gideon Levy

Gideon Levy is an Israeli journalist for the Haaretz newspaper, where he is also an editorial board member. He is a prominent left-wing commentator. He formerly served as spokesman for Shimon Peres from 1978 and 1982.