What I saw in Jabaliya

Observations on Gaza with a special report from Mohammed Omer on an increasingly desperate situation

Through the streets of Jabaliya refugee camp, the nauseous smell of burning tyres mixes with the sickening smell of singed flesh. Houses gutted by bombs teeter on their foundations. Ambulances race through the camp, sirens screaming as they collect the critically injured and random body parts strewn around the streets.

Electricity no longer functions. Clean water is scarce. Families crouch in cubbyholes and makeshift shelters, huddled around small handheld radios, listening, praying, hoping for an end. This is Israel's "Hot Winter", its latest intensified assault on the people of Gaza and its most recent attempt to rout Hamas.

At Jabaliya's Kamal Adwan Hospital, a steady stream of wounded pour in, the lucky still in possession of life and limbs. Frantic family members vie for attention from exhausted emergency staff. An ambulance arrives. Inside a man clings to life, though much of his skin has been plastered on the streets by an F-16. Mercifully he is unconscious.

With just two operating rooms, Kamal Adwan's surgeons struggle to attend to the admitted while performing triage on the arrivals. Blood coats their uniforms. The scene is of organised destruction and a determination to save lives despite the odds. As the surgeons work, an orderly wheels in another victim. This young man arrives in a coma, bleeding profusely from multiple shrapnel wounds delivered by an air-to-ground missile. The doctors desperately attempt to stem the bleeding.

Suddenly all eyes are raised to the ceiling. Outside, the thwop-thwop-thwop of a helicopter gunship envelops the medical sanctuary, its vibration deafening. Moments later, a thud followed by Boom! Boom! Ka-boom! The Israelis are shelling again close by. Stressed and exasperated, those waiting scream. Some cry, while others sit blank-faced in shock.

Leaving the hospital I pass a young man named Mustapha al-Banna being carried in. His legs and one arm are gone; his eyes have welled with tears. Awake yet not awake, his lip quivers, wanting to speak but he can't. His father frets, holding his son's hand. "He was feeding the sheep at our home when an Israeli F-16 bombed our house," he explains. "His legs were blown out from under him!"

Down the street, I hear the cries of a young girl. "Wake up Samah, please!" she screams. But the teenage victim cannot hear; her torso is burned black. Panicking, the young girl looks to her eldest sister on the other side of the room. But this sister, Salwa, is also dead, both siblings killed as they slept by an Israeli F-16.

When the paramedics arrive at the girls' home, they stare in disbelief. "Where is the rest of the body?" an ambulance driver chokes, realising the walls are where she now lies.

Minutes later, down the street, 17-year-old Jaclyn Abu Shbak screams. Her 14-year-old brother Eyad lies motionless in the street. As she approaches his body, an Israeli sniper shoots her dead.

The Atallah family lived in a three-storey building that was bombed by an Israeli F-16. The air strike killed father, mother and four of their children. Their other two children are in a critical condition and have been transferred to an Egyptian hospital.

And thus the carnage continues. Israeli warplanes, citing "self-defence", relentlessly bomb as women and children flee into the night with whatever they can carry.

Nowhere is safe. The planes target homes. Snipers target children and bombs hold no prejudice or preference.

On 29 February, on Israeli army radio, Israel's deputy defence minister Matan Vilnai threatened "Shoah" on Gaza in response to Qassam rocket fire directed at the Israeli colony of Ashkelon, which resulted in the death of one Israeli. Shoah is the Jewish name for the Holocaust. But this justification for Israel's invasion of Gaza ignores the historical context.

When President George W Bush arrived in the Middle East in January, Israel began a sustained bombing of Gaza, while professing to "seek peace". Its siege and collective punishment of Gaza through border closures and the withholding of food, water and medical supplies has now entered its 25th month.

For the first eight months after Israel removed its illegal colonies from Gaza in September 2005, Hamas and the Palestinian resistance observed a ceasefire, despite Israel's continued random shelling, kidnapping of officials and targeted assassinations. This ended in June 2006 when an Israeli ship bombed a beach in Gaza, killing 13 people, 11 from the same family.

Hamas and the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah repeatedly approach Israel to negotiate a ceasefire. Israel continues to reject each overture, intensifying its assaults and causing an endless tit-for-tat with each side escalating and civilians on both sides paying the price.

Operation Hot Winter claimed 60 lives on its first day. As I write, the total number killed has been more than 126 (among them 39 children and babies and 12 women). There have been more than 380 citizens injured and hundreds of houses demolished.

The United Nations defines as a "massacre" the killing of 50 or more civilians. This has been a massacre, the massacre of Jabaliya. And, as Deputy Defence Minister Vilnai threatened, the potential seed of a holocaust.

Mohammed Omer

This article first appeared in the 10 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How Hillary did it