I travelled to Gaza last week with Medea Benjamin and Tighe Berry of Codepink: Women for Peace. We were allowed by the Egyptian government to enter Gaza for only 48 hours.
I knew that 1026 of the 1330 who were killed in the Israeli attacks on Gaza were civilians. Of the 1026 civilians, 282 were children, 111 women, 168 civilian policemen and 501 civilian men died in Israeli bombings. 274 have been classified as combatant deaths.
I knew that the estimates for the cost of reconstruction to the destruction done by Israeli bombing is over $2 billion. After seeing the destruction in Gaza City, I thought I would be prepared for North Gaza. I had heard the damage done by F-16s and tanks was substantial, but I was stunned by the large number of apartment buildings and industries that had been blown up and destroyed by the Israeli military in the northern Gaza border region with Israel.
The Israeli military destroyed virtually everything in a corridor along the border in Jabalia and forced the evacuation of Gazans back into the center part of Gaza, a tiny area 45 kilometers long and 8 kilometers wide. Homes and factories were leveled and tens of thousands of citizens were left homeless. We saw five tent camps that had been set up by relief organizations. Living conditions are spartan.
Nahed, a project manager for Palestine Medical Relief Society, guided us through the wreckage of North Gaza. We visited one of the four primary health care facilities PMRS operates, with an overworked staff trying to cope with the medical and emotional challenges of those who have returned to their bombed out homes with family members dead or injured.
37 Members of One Family Killed as Israeli Military Orders 150 into a Building then Bombs it
In the Al Zaiton area in northern Gaza, we met with the remaining members of the al Samouni family. The large extended family lived in many houses and some family members operated a poultry farm in the area. After the Israeli army invaded, Army personnel ordered 150 members of the family into one large home and then bombed the home as well as all the numerous homes and buildings of the family. 37 members of the family were killed and many were injured. The Israeli government said the military had made a mistake.
The al Samouni family set up several large tents for the numerous visitors who come by the area to pay respects. One tent had eight women inside. All had family members killed and wounded in the attacks. We spoke with Ibtessana al Samouni who had two children killed and her husband and daughter seriously injured and are being treated in Saudi Arabia. One of her sons was also injured and is in a military hospital in Cairo. She and her remaining 5 children are living with other relatives in Gaza City. Ibtessana had a glazed stare and kept repeating that no one in her family had done anything to the Israelis. We saw in her eyes the disbelief that some of her children were dead and that she would not see her husband and other children for months. The emotional health of the al Samouni extended family considering the large number of deaths and injuries in the family seemed precarious.
The family area, a section of land about ½ mile by ½ mile was completely bombed. It looked like a huge tornado or hurricane had wiped out the area. The poultry farm was totally destroyed and bulldozers were pushing the rotting chicken carcasses into a pit while we were there.
Life Without Your Home
Dressed in her black abaya, Izbet Abed Rabu told us she and her family of five children and her husband now live in a tent provided by the United Nations after her home was destroyed in Jabalia, northern Gaza. She showed us her two story concrete block home that was flattened into rubble. Her eyes teared over as she said she was lucky. No one in her family had been killed in the Israeli naval shelling and rocket attacks, but her neighbors had been hit hard. Two neighboring families each had three family members killed.
Izbet pointed to the white tent provided by the United Nations and said that after two weeks they still have only blankets, but no cots or any "furniture" inside the tents. With the night desert temperatures falling into the low 40 degrees, she said her four children are cold. The children are not yet in school.
Industries Systematically Destroyed
There are few industries left in northern Gaza and the Israeli military destroyed 10-15 of those remaining industries including two cement companies, a dairy, gas station, an aluminum recycling company and a health products company. The production capacity of Gaza has been severely impacted by the Israeli warplanes.
Agricultural Lands Purposefully Destroyed
We walked in the agricultural lands mangled by Israeli tanks that had been positioned in the fields near the medical clinic. The fruit trees in one field had been completed knocked down and bulldozed over. Olive orchards throughout Gaza were systematically destroyed by Israeli tanks.
Close by was Khalil al Noubany High School that had been used by Israeli soldiers. To secure the building they blew holes in it setting part of it on fire. The remaining part was occupied and used to fire on any one remaining in the area. The Israeli soldiers trashed the school. They left h military trash everywhere. School books and supplies had been thrown on the floor and walked on in virtually all the classrooms. It was quite obvious that they soldier had intentionally damaged the insides of the classrooms and purposefully destroyed books and educational materials. The headmaster of the school, who arrived as we were looking at the school, said that the school had served 550 girl students in the morning and 530 male students in the afternoon. She told us that the school is so severely damaged that it cannot reopen this year and students are having to travel to the few remaining schools that are open in Gaza.
Later in the day while he was serving double duty as a Gaza government official at the Rafah, Gaza border crossing, Mr. Ahmed Ayes Alnajjar of the Ministry of Education told us that 7 schools in Gaza were totally destroyed and 135 schools were substantially damaged.
The Prison Called Gaza
We left northern Gaza and headed for the Rafah border crossing with Egypt. We had to be across the border into Egypt by 5pm as the Egyptian government was closing the border. If we did not exit Gaza by 5pm we too would be imprisoned in Gaza until the border crossing reopened-which might be months. So after only 48 hours in Gaza, we were forced to depart.
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On the way to the Gaza border, we stopped to see a few of the 1500 tunnels that Palestinians have dug since the borders of Gaza were closed and the siege began. Palestinians have been locked into the prison called Gaza for the past sixteen months.
Bombing Tunnels With a Blind Eye
The tunnel area is in plain sight next to the Egyptian border. It is a surreal scene. Buildings behind the tunnel area have been bombed and are destroyed. Trucks and cars are parked under the remaining roofs of a large bombed out fresh air market-- ready to move goods from the tunnel area.
Mounds of fresh sand are everywhere indicating that tunnels are still being dug. Generators hum providing air into the tunnels and powering the cables that pull loads of every imaginable type of goods from vegetables, canned goods, bags of rice and sugar, merchandise for hardware stores, etc. through the tunnels to the surface on the Gaza side.
Every tunnel is surrounded by barriers made of light fencing covered with large plastic bags. Young men are busy hauling up goods that have been brought through the tunnel from Egypt.
The tunnel "managers" we spoke with were surprisingly open in allowing us to come into the areas and talk with them. They said that about 900 tunnels have been destroyed or partially damaged by Israeli bombs. Most are being rebuilt, despite the almost daily bombing by Israeli war planes. The tunnels we saw had openings about 4 feet across. The entry holes were from 50 to 65 feet deep and the tunnels were 500 to 1,000 feet long. One tunnel opening was built with concrete blocks and another opening was built with wood.
The tunnel manager said that to rebuild a tunnel that has been blown up takes about half the time to reopen and digging a new tunnel. The tunnel areas are little cities with electricity, water, food and coffee at each tunnel entrance.
Tunnel digging is about the only employment for young men in Gaza. They earn 100 shekels ($25) per day for digging in the tunnels. One manager said many tunnel diggers had died when the reinforced sand tunnels collapsed during construction. But young men continue to risk the dangers as tunnel construction is one of the few jobs available to them.
While we did not see the other end of the tunnel operation on the Rafah, Egypt side of the border, it is inconceivable that Egyptian authorities do not know where the tunnel openings are. All they have to do is to follow the parade of trucks loaded with merchandise that come into Rafah, Egypt.
After coming through the border we stopped in Rafah, Egypt to see what the smuggling town was like. The police presence was tremendous. We had barely gotten our bags out of the taxi when a policeman was at our side asking why we were in Rafah. We replied that we were hungry and wanted to get something to eat. We stopped at a small falafel stand and for the next hour were watched by police. As one of us would go to explore the main street, police would follow in the distance. They definitely did not want us straying off the main road and back into the houses and businesses where the tunnel entrances are.
It is remarkable that all the tunnels haven't been bombed. With the sophisticated satellite views, cameras from drones, tethered radar and surveillance balloon and the $32 million tunnel detection equipment provided by the U.S. government, the Israeli, Egyptian and United States' governments know exactly where the tunnels are.
But, closing the border provides Egyptian and Israeli businessmen a tremendous opportunity to sell goods to people in Gaza at very high prices. No doubt, Egyptian and Israeli government officials are paid to turn a blind eye to the tunneling and "smuggling." Determining who profits economically from the occupations and sieges is fascinating. A new Israeli website www.whoprofits.org tracks who profits financially from the occupation and no doubt profits from the blockade and will profit from the rebuilding of destroyed Gaza.
Israeli bombing of tunnels is, of course, only on the Gaza side. No one is bombing the entrances to the tunnels on the Egyptian side of the border.
The tunnel economy means that for the ordinary citizens of Gaza, where there is a 70% unemployment rate and where over 900,000 of the 1.5 million in Gaza are on United Nations rations, closing the border and forcing commerce through the tunnels they pay exorbitant fees for every item brought through the tunnels.
SILENCE from the International Community
The sights we saw in Gaza were tragic-a goliath Israel pounding a small Gaza David with international silence and complicity in the 22 day military attack on Gaza and on the 16 month siege of Gaza. 1330 Palestinians have died, 5400 have been wounded and hundreds of thousands with memories of the bombings and invasion and occupation. Over $2 billion will be spent on rebuilding destroyed homes, businesses and factories. And there is SILENCE!!
Smashing of Gaza is a War Crime
I deplore the use of rockets against Israeli towns by Hamas and other groups in Gaza which have killed approximately 20 Israelis.
But, as a military officer who taught the Geneva Conventions and the Law of Land Warfare in US military schools, I fully believe the disproportionate response by the Israeli government and military in the smashing of Gaza is a violation of international law and a war crime.