Life among the ruins: ten days inside the Gaza Strip

The grossly asymmetrical casualties inflicted on the Palestinians have obscured another important question: how far have they even been worth it from Israel’s point of view? By Donald Macintrye.

Gaza City's Tuffa neighbourhood is hit by IDF bombardment, 29 July.
Photo: EPA

The Mahkamah Mosque, long recognised as a jewel of Mamluk architecture, has stood since 1455 in a residential side road off the main Baghdad Street in the Shejaiya district of Gaza City. Besides serving as a religious school – and, for over three centuries of Ottoman rule in Palestine, as a court – the mosque has been used throughout its long life by locals for Friday prayers. Until the early morning of 24 July, that is, when it was flattened in an Israeli air strike.

In the shadow of the elegant but now precariously isolated octagonal minaret, which is the only part of the mosque not reduced to rubble, Abed Moti Addas, a 63-year-old retired administrator for al-Shifa Hospital, said that at around 3.30 in the morning, about five minutes before the strike, he was telephoned by the Israeli military. He was told they intended to destroy the mosque. Escaping with his two sons – he was relieved none of his grandchildren was in the building because it would have taken more time to wake them and get them out – he had scrambled 500 metres away when he heard the huge blasts from three separate missiles. “It was like an earthquake,” he told me.

Addas, who like his father and grandfather prayed regularly at the mosque, insists he knows of no reason why it should have been targeted. Its imam, who lives in another neighbourhood, wept when he came to visit the ruins.

“Old people and young people come here,” Addas said. “Children are taught to write here. We wouldn’t accept in this populated area for fighters to come here and launch rockets. If we see a stranger here we send him away. The mosque must be rebuilt.” But, he added sadly: “It will be a modern building, and this was very old.”

It may seem almost indecent, when the human death toll of the conflict is so high (more than 1,850 Gazans have been killed since the first strike on 8 July), even to mention the loss of a small, if priceless, item of Gazan heritage. But the Mahkamah Mosque is a reminder that Gaza is not just a densely populated battleground but a civilisation in its own right, and an ancient one. The haunting, almost perfectly preserved faces on the 13th-century BC Canaanite sarcophaguses acquired by Moshe Dayan in Deir el-Balah after the 1967 Six Day War, and now at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, emphasise just how ancient. To some Palestinians, these are Gaza’s Elgin Marbles.

Round the corner from the mosque and in Baghdad Street itself on the first day of Eid ul-Fitr, the normally joyful festival marking the end of Ramadan, the melancholy sight was of still-dazed residents salvaging what they could – a blanket, a bag of nappies – from homes laid waste during the intense fighting between Hamas troops and the Israel Defence Forces on 20 July which left 65 Palestinians and 13 Israeli soldiers dead.

It is easy to forget, amid the ruins and abject poverty of many parts of Gaza, that it has five universities, a lively if embattled arts scene, a branch of the Edward Said network of music conservatories, as well as a rich and startlingly well-designed archaeological museum, established by the leading Gazan businessman Jawdat El Khoudary in 2008, in the darkest days of economic siege. Not to mention the celebrations throughout the territory when the Gazan singer Mohammed Assaf won the mass-audience TV show Arab Idol last year.

It is easy to forget, too, that a symbol of the extraordinary resilience of Gazan families through seven years of economic siege and three wars is the emphasis so many put on the education of their children, despite the dismal lack of opportunities open to most of them beyond graduation. Or it would be, if it were not for the number of bereaved relatives who mention the school grades of their lost children, or how well their siblings were doing at university before they were killed in this latest war.

One morning I visited the ruins of a house in the Khan Yunis refugee camp in southern Gaza. It had been occupied by the late Mahmoud and Bassima al-Haj and their seven children, all but one killed in an F-16 bombing that destroyed it early in the air war, at about 1.30am on 10 July. You could pick up among the melancholy detritus of family life scattered across the rubble T-shirts, tomatoes now rotting in the sun, a sandal, a cheese grater and an exercise book, its cover decorated with roses. In this book Asmaa al-Haj, the couple’s 20-year-old daughter, a biology major at al-Azhar University in Cairo, wrote her notes. On one page she hypothesised: “Mass of empty glass: 45.811g. Mass of empty glass and magnesium: 46.161 grams . . .”; and in neatly legible English she had written: “An empirical formula is a mathematical equation which predicts observed results but is derived from experiment or conjecture and not directly from first principles.”

It is hard not to reflect how, until last month, Asmaa was an ambitious, hard-working student with a whole life ahead of her. Her 25-year-old brother, Yasser, was the lone survivor of the strike. He survived only because he was walking back after chatting with friends about 500 metres away, having been warned by a neighbour to get home because of the drone humming like a giant electronic mosquito high in the sky above. He was close to the house when he heard a loud explosion, but couldn’t see where it had come from because of the smoke and dust. Then he discovered that his own family members, who had been enjoying the Ramadan iftar evening meal with friends, were the victims.

Yasser described the bare facts calmly, adding that there was no “resistance” in the area. Then his voice cracked as he said that his father had been a Quran-reading man, “close to God”. “I don’t know why these excellent people were killed. It seems like they are unable to get the fighters so they are targeting civilians.”

Yasser has a diploma in business administration and he said that his parents’ main focus had been on ensuring a good education for their children. He reeled off some of his siblings’ results, not just Asmaa’s at university, but those of his sister Fatima, in the seventh grade, who got 98 per cent “every time”. His brother Saad was also doing well, having made 11th grade.

At least Yasser did not suffer the fate of another single survivor brought into al-Shifa Hospital, ten-year-old Mohammed Badran. He was blinded in an Israeli air strike but at the hospital he seemed unaware that his entire family had been killed when a missile destroyed their home at the Nuseirat refugee camp*. Not understanding the nature of his injury, he repeatedly asked staff, “Why have you switched the lights off?”

The families of each survivor are casualties of a military operation known – in the chilling euphemism of its most enthusiastic Israeli proponents, such as the right-wing political scientist Efraim Inbar – as “mowing the grass”.

Mahmoud al-Haj, like 40 per cent of all Gazans, was unemployed even before the war. If Gaza is an ancient civilisation it also had a traditionally entrepreneurial economy that managed (within strict limits) to buzz, partly thanks to the export of clothing and manufactured goods to Israel and the West Bank even at the height of the second intifada. That ended with the siege – including a total ban on exports – imposed by Israel after Hamas seized full control of Gaza in 2007 in the brief but bloody civil war that ended a short-lived coalition between Hamas (which had won free elections in 2006) and Fatah. And although a ban on the entry of construction materials for the private sector was eased as a result of international pressure after the Israeli navy shot dead nine activists on board the Turkish aid ship Mavi Marmara in May 2010, still it was reimposed last October after the discovery of a tunnel into Israel, cutting the local construction workforce by 75 per cent.

The tightening of an already draconian siege is not all Israel’s fault; the closure of smuggling tunnels running under Gaza’s southern border – the territory’s only real economic lifeline since 2007 – by the new military government in Egypt has dried up the supply of cement and many other raw materials for the remnants of Gaza’s productive industry. Which makes it all the more bizarre that, in what it calls Operation Protective Edge, Israel has been bombarding a series of factories making anything from ice cream to cardboard boxes, as well as a milk-processing plant.

Facts of death: Palestinians mourn the death of a family killed in an air strike, 4 August. Photo: Sergey Ponomarev/Eyevine

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One morning, we drove back from Khan Yunis at speed after two tank shells struck an apartment building on each side of Gaza’s main north-south Salahadin Road just ahead of us. We passed the large, blackened al-Awda biscuit factory, similarly attacked and now engulfed by fire. Because of a lack of water, the fire had burned for two days, fed by thousands of litres of fuel bought in by its owner, Mohammed al-Tilbani, to run the generators he needs to beat the ever-longer electricity blackouts.

The military assault on industry may seem insignificant viewed beside the rapidly mounting death toll, but it has a history. In what Israel called “Operation Cast Lead” in 2008-2009, the last time intensive aerial bombing of Gaza was escalated by a ground invasion, there was systematic bombing of private-sector factories. Several of these were proud of their links with Israeli suppliers and wholesale customers. “What they cannot reach with the embargo, they are destroying by bombing,” Amr Hamad, the director of the Palestinian Federation of Industry in Gaza, told me at the time.

The same could be said today. And it is hard to see how the destruction of factories, exacerbating the bombardment that has put some water treatment plants and Gaza’s only power station out of action at a time when all the electricity lines into Gaza City from Israel were already down, helps secure the elusive defeat of Hamas, or serves as more than yet another collective punishment for Gazan civilians.

Another similarity, of course, is the very high number of civilians among the dead; the UN puts the current estimate at 68 per cent of the total. It is certainly possible that the missile that landed at the Beach (al-Shati) refugee camp in northern Gaza early this month, killing children as it propelled shrapnel across a crowded street, was the result of a misfired Hamas rocket. But most of such deaths were caused by Israeli air, tank shell, mortar and artillery strikes.

A notable difference between the present campaign and Cast Lead, however, is the much larger number of families – the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem has already identified 36 – killed in homes destroyed with their civilian residents still inside. In some cases one member of the household may belong to a militant group; in others, apparently not, as with the al-Haj family. Usually there are children among those killed. In some cases, the lethal air strike is presaged by the “knock on the roof”, a small missile designed to “warn” the residents to leave, but then goes ahead even if they don’t. And sometimes, according to neighbours and relatives, there is no warning at all, which is what, according to Yusuf Ghoul, happened to the Rafah house of his cousin Ismail Ghoul, a 63-year-old video games salesman.

The house was destroyed at 7am on 3 August after more than 48 hours of intense air and ground bombardment of the town. It had begun when the Israeli military said it believed that Hadar Goldin, a young Givati Brigade second lieutenant, had been captured by Hamas. The military later officially declared that the soldier had been killed in action. Surveying the ruins of his cousin’s house, within easy earshot of continued sporadic shelling, Yusuf insisted that Ismail, killed along with his wife, Khadra, his 42-year-old son and a family group that included two young women and three of his grandchildren, aged between 13 and one month, had no connection with any militant group. “We think they were sleeping,” Yusuf said, “because we found blood on the mattresses.”

The vast destruction of residential buildings, powerfully reinforcing IDF phone and leaflet warnings to Palestinians in mainly northern and eastern Gaza neighbourhoods to leave their homes, is in turn one factor behind the much higher numbers of Gazans taking refuge in the 90 or so schools run by the UN Relief and Works Agency (Unrwa) now used as makeshift shelters: roughly 260,000 people, compared to only 50,000 during Cast Lead. (Another 200,000 have found temporary respite with relatives or friends.) It is a reminder that, perhaps uniquely among conflict zones, Gaza is impossible to leave. Egypt’s closure of the border in the south and Israel’s in the north have prevented the exodus of refugees – except for a few critical medical cases – that happens in most wars. And the dependence on the Unrwa buildings, many of which have no electricity, and inadequate sanitation for the numbers involved, only intensifies the insecurity generated by the lethal Israeli attacks on at least three of the schools.

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I arrived at the Unrwa Rafah Preparatory A Boys’ School on Sunday 3 August less than an hour after it had been struck. You could see pools of blood outside the gate where a narrow hole in the paving suggested that a drone had been fired, possibly at a militant on a motorbike. Certainly a passing motorcyclist was one of at least seven killed in the attack, described as “criminal” by Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general. But most of the dead had been among the 3,000 refugees taking shelter in the school.

Young Palestinians from the refuge had been just outside the gate, some buying ice lollies and sweets from a street vendor, and the dead included four children between the ages of seven and 16. The UN said it had given the school’s co-ordinates to the IDF 33 times, the last time an hour before the strike.

What made the attack all the more astonishing was that it came less than a week after at least 15 had been killed in artillery shelling at the Jabalya Girls’ A&B Elementary School, a refuge for another 3,000 women, children and men. On the drive up to the school bystanders were staring anxiously up at the sky as at least one drone hovered noisily overhead and shelling continued to rumble in the distance. Outside the school gate were the corpses of dead donkeys felled by shrapnel from one of three shells. There was a huge hole in the front wall of classroom one. Outside it, amid the rubble, you could see torn foam mattresses and a pillowcase soaked in blood. Across the courtyard an abandoned plate of papaya on a desk testified to the haste with which 50 terrified refugees had left classroom 18 when it, too, was shelled.

The IDF said it was responding after being fired at “from the direction” of the school. Because artillery shells are not precisely accurate, they are often fired in rounds. But because of the destruction they cause, normal battlefield procedure requires targets to be at least 250 metres from the army’s own troops. Unless it was just an error, a lesser margin must have been applied to the Palestinians who, as the UN had told the IDF 17 times, were sheltering in the school.

Later that day, Yassin Suleiman, 45, came to collect the body of his cousin Ibrahim Suleiman, a strawberry farmer, from the Shifa Hospital morgue, where it was laid out on a steel table, the blood still showing through the bandages around the two stumps of his legs, amputated by the surgeons that morning, one below and the other above the knee, in a desperate effort to save his life. Yassin explained that after Ibrahim’s house in Beit Lahiya had been hit by a shell, he came with his wife, his seven children and other close relatives to the Jabalya school. But with grim prescience, after 13 Palestinians had been killed in the shelling six days earlier at a similar refuge in a UN school at Beit Hanoun, Ibrahim decided to divide up the extended family group into four and send most of them to three other school shelters in Jabalya. “He told them: ‘Let’s not die together,’ ” his cousin said.

As a quietly angry Yassin Suleiman prepared to remove Ibrahim’s body from the morgue for his funeral, he wondered that the world seemed to regard the lives of Palestinians at a different, lower “level”. He said: “My message is that if this was happening in Europe, the world would not be silent. We are not the world’s enemy but the world is standing by Israel. If they continue to stand by Israel they will regret it.”

The grossly asymmetrical civilian casualties inflicted on the Palestinians have obscured another important question: how far – leaving the morality of the strikes to one side – have they even been worth it from Israel’s point of view? The war started after the murder of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank in June, followed by a night of heavy retaliatory bombing in Gaza, and more especially after the arrest of large numbers of Hamas operatives, who have remained in detention, despite the common view within the Israeli intelligence and police communities that the kidnapping and killing of the young Israelis was probably the work of a lone Hamas cell rather than ordered from the top of the movement. The result was Hamas’s resort to its arsenal of rockets and then the sustained Israeli bombing campaign in Gaza that began on 8 July.

Destroying the Hamas tunnels into Israel – at least some of the extent of which was already known to the Israeli military – was cited as a prime Israeli objective only after the war and especially the ground operation started. The tunnels strike at something deep in the Israeli psyche. Their identification, repeatedly shown on Israeli prime-time television, and subsequent destruction are probably the biggest single factor ensuring consistent opinion-poll support in Israel for the conflict, coupled with (the liberal Haaretz being a notable exception) highly partisan media coverage.

But there is the cost to Israel: in the lives of soldiers lost, many of them young conscripts killed at what should have been the start of their adult lives, and financially in billions of dollars. For the final difference from the 2008-2009 Gaza war, in which up to 1,400 Palestinians were killed, is that Hamas has fought back effectively. It is not simply that the death toll among soldiers is much higher than it was in Cast Lead, but that even with Israel’s formidable US-funded Iron Dome anti-missile capability, the longer range of Hamas rockets has enabled the Palestinians to strike fear among Israeli civilians and send them repeatedly hurrying into shelters across a much longer stretch of the country than they did three years ago. A paradox of the war is that, from a position of political weakness and isolation, its relations with Iran frayed over its opposition to President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, and with a new Egyptian president as hostile to the Islamist faction as Israel, Hamas has stamped itself as a regional force to be reckoned with.

But you don’t have to ignore Hamas’s own readiness to absorb a mounting civilian death toll to notice that its primary stated objective for ending the war is one it knows is shared by almost the entire civilian population of Gaza, whether Hamas supporters or not. This is an end to the Israeli blockade, which has imprisoned the territory’s population, wrecked its economy and perversely made service on the Hamas payroll – including in its security forces – the one growth sector of employment.

An IDF officer shows journalists the network of Hamas tunnels, 25 July. Photo: Jack Guez/AFP/Getty

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Omar Shaban, Gaza’s most prominent political economist, and a champion of opening up the territory as a condition for durable calm in Gaza, is critical of all the parties for allowing the war to drag on: Hamas, Israel, even Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority. “We are in the middle,” he told me over tea in his shady garden in Deir el-Balah. “You feel you are not in control of your life, that someone else decides whether your life is good or not . . . I’m talking for the majority of Palestinians who want to live in peace with Israel.”

Wearily close to wondering whether the two decades he had devoted to promoting a two-state solution had been wasted, Shaban said whereas making peace with Palestinians was part of “the intellectual debate” in Israel in the post-Oslo Accords period, that no longer seemed the case. But he distils his broader argument about Gaza’s economic needs into a simple thought about the immediate post-conflict future. “If a man’s house has been destroyed [by bombing] and he gets a job, he will have money and he will think about rebuilding. If not, he is going to want revenge.”

The Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, was no doubt right to say that Israel should talk to Hamas. But he knows enough about the Middle East to realise that the western powers – including the government in which he is a partner – are also culpable for the continued boycott of contacts with Hamas, to which the US and the EU immediately agreed at Israel’s behest after the 2006 elections. This has hampered mediation efforts in the present conflict.

For now, however, the bleakest end to the war would be one without any firm agreement. This would invariably lead to more sporadic “mowing of the grass” every few years, and ensure that a generation of Palestinian children and teenagers grows up knowing Israel only for its F-16s, Apache helicopters, tanks and artillery shells. The best on offer would probably be an agreement to open the Rafah crossing with Egypt. This in turn would bring into Gaza the technocratic “unity government” agreed by Fatah and Hamas but bitterly opposed from its outset by Binyamin Netanyahu. It remains possible that both Hamas and Israel could agree – under such terms – to the security forces of Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority manning the Rafah crossing. (Having consistently belittled the anti-violence Abbas in the eyes of everyone, including Palestinians, by stalling the peaceful negotiating strategy to which he was committed, Netanyahu now belatedly sees him as a counterweight to Hamas.)

Yet that will work only as a first step towards a much wider opening up of Gaza for people and goods, one that will offer some economic and political horizon to its 1.8 million people, way beyond the huge reconstruction effort that will be needed to repair the devastation of the past four weeks. And, for that, the western powers finally need to overcome their inhibitions about obliging Israel – under threat of sanctions if necessary – to confront not only the unacceptability of the disproportionate death of civilians on this scale but what is actually in Israelis’ own long-term interests: the deeper realisation that sheer force cannot guarantee Israel’s long-term security. 

Update, 12 August: Mohammed Badran’s family turned out not to have been killed in the strike on his home, as had been reported here. In the confusion of a packed Shifa Hospital, the doctors treating him in the burns unit thought he had lost his parents and all his siblings. In fact, although seven of the Badrans’ nine children were also injured in the attack, including their 17-year-old daughter Eman, who is now also in Shifa with serious leg injuries, Mohammed’s parents Tagorid and Nidal Badran both survived to take care of him. That is until Nidal, 44, a policeman, was killed in another air strike, this time on the Qassam mosque in Nusseirat refugee camp, in the early hours of Saturday, 9 August, as he prepared to attend dawn prayers. On 12 August, I was told that Mohammed was being referred to a Spanish hospital for treatment.