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The human cost of violence in Israel and Gaza

Phoebe Greenwood in Gaza reflects on the recent violence.

You never get used to the sight of a dead child. The men working at the morgue in Shifa hospital, the largest in Gaza, have seen their share. Yet when the four small bodies of the El Dallo children, crushed, blackened and bloody, were rushed in on Sunday evening, carried on a surge of shouting relatives, hospital employees paled. Laying their bodies, wrapped in white cloth, two abreast on rows of metal trays, ready to be stored until their funerals the following morning, a morgue employee was overcome with tears. “What rocket did these kids ever fire?” he asked.

On the evening of Tuesday 20 November, as the Gaza Strip held its breath to see if the rumoured ceasefire would take hold – first at 8pm, then midnight, then 2am – the bodies of more children, dead and injured, crashed through the doors of the emergency unit at Shifa hospital. The heaviest bombardment of the war so far ran into the early hours of the morning of 21 November, with no sign of the promised truce. Apache helicopters hovered in the sky near the morgue, the air thick with the stench of burning plastic, as the hospital filled to capacity.

More than 30 children have been killed in this latest cross-border war between Israel and militants in the Gaza Strip; more than 135 Palestinians have been killed in total (as we went to press). Five Israelis have been killed and dozens injured by a barrage of 1,380 home-made Qassam and long-range missiles, fired from Gaza into Israel. The Israeli military has evidently learned its lessons from Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009, a war that cost Gaza 1,400 lives and Israel its unconditional backing from western powers. Even the US was unable to balance the volume of innocent blood spilled with the security gains won. Then, after three weeks of military destruction wrought from land, sea and air, Hamas was still in power. Four years later, its militant wing is once again firing rockets into Israel.

This time around, the Israel Defence Forces’ media unit has fed journalists footage of their F16 pilots aborting bombing missions to prevent civilian casualties. Mark Regev, the prime minister’s spokesman, and his military counterpart, Avital Leibovich, have appeared on global news bulletins reporting “surgical strikes” that have successfully targeted Hamas infrastructure, weapons stores and militant leaders.

Deserted streets

On the streets of Gaza City, the air hums noisily with the whine of Israeli drones and the chug of electricity generators running through the daily 18 hours of power cuts. Few are reassured by Israeli claims of “precision”. Most shops on the main streets are closed, their owners at home with their families. After nightfall, the streets are deserted. People are terrified. The only people still operating at full capacity are taxi and ambulance drivers, militants and journalists.

Leibovich tells news teams that Israel has taken pains to avoid killing civilians but when Hamas uses children, women and journalists as “human shields”, civilian losses are unavoidable. Seven days into the war, most of the Palestinians killed have been women and children.

“Journalists are always in danger but we have tried to show everything, all the children killed, all the houses destroyed,” said Mohamed Musa al-Akras, 23, from his hospital bed in Shifa hospital’s crowded orthopaedics unit. The al-Aqsa TV cameraman was editing footage at 2am on the morning of 19 November when a missile fired from an F16 jet hurtled through the ceiling. The IDF was targeting an antenna above the office of the TV channel al-Quds that it claims was being used by Hamas. Khader al-Zahher, an intern, was hit by the third missile fired. The blast shattered one of his legs, which was later amputated.

Another Israeli strike was launched simultaneously on the Shuruq Tower, several blocks away. This was home to Sky News, al-Arabiya news and Russia Today. Plumes of smoke surged from the ground floor. This time, the target was the Islamic Jihad commander Ramez Harb. Three cameramen were injured in the blast, two from al-Jazeera. On 20 November, three more journalists were killed, two as they sped through Gaza’s streets to the site of another Israeli strike.

Buried bodies

When the four El Dallo children were buried, only Jamal, their grandfather, was left to mourn. They were carried for a final visit to their destroyed home, along with ten of their family friends also killed in the strike. Israel is investigating the civilian casualties in this incident but confirms “targeting” a Hamas official at the house. The children had not yet been washed for burial. Their bodies were still bloody, covered in dust and swathed in Palestinian flags. “I expected this would happen,” Jamal said as he moved through the crowd to view their bodies. “No family, no house is safe in the Gaza Strip.”

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, What is Israel thinking?