Saturday January 17th 2009
By Ewa Jasiewicz
The roads of Beit Lahiya were lit up with phosphoric flaming
ordinance. 6am on Saturday morning and hundreds of smoking burning darts were raining down onto the deserted streets. We were driving down Beit Lahiya main street in our ambulance responding to calls from terrified residents and the elderly suffering from chemical inhalation and reports of burns. The roof of the Salim Mosque was on fire. Flames were licking upward from the flat rooftops of homes, from down alleyways, atop kerbs, and all along
Beit Lahiya Street itself.
Families were beginning to flee their homes, both the young and the
infirm, scarves and rags up to their mouths to prevent choking on
the thick chemical mist. We were picking them up, packing our
ambulance full of them, 20 people at a time, with oxygen for the
elderly, encourgament and kindness, and /elf salamaats/ (a thousand blessings) for everyone . Some were carrying plastic knotted bags of full of clothes, blankets over shoulders, belongings scrambled together in terrified hands. An imminent invasion was expected, the white fog a cover for troops to advance and take up new positions, occupy new homes and install fresh snipers. People had heard of the blasting and bombing and crushing of homes in Atartura, North Beit Lahiya.. The bulldozing of arable land, lemon groves, greenhouses and graveyards. The use of Beit Lahiya High School as a prison for most of the area’s men aged 16 to 40.
We took the families, trip after round trip, from the Beit Lahiya
roundabout to Kamal Odwan hospital. At around 6.30am we got the call – Beit Lahiya UNRWA elementary school had been bombed.
When we arrived at the school, panic reigned, people were screaming, some were holding onto one another under metal shelters in the playground, terrified of another strike, others had their heads in their hands, sobbing. Arms were pointing here and there to mystery wounded. A UN car was on fire. Suddenly there was another hit,everyone ran for cover. Where were the casualties? ‘Cover’ didn’t
exist, even the flimsy metal shelters or the brick buildings could
be no match for 2 foot long tank shells that could pierce them like
a hot rock through butter.
Phosphoric flares continued to fall down around us.. Wearing
surgical masks, we searched for casualties, running to and fro
to avoid the burning darts around us. A man carried a lifeless, limp
boy into our ambulance. He had a deep, round shrapnel wound to his thigh. /’Lets Go’/ – we had to move, we reversed out, another flare exploding above us raining more poisonous darts down onto the playground. ‘He’s a shaheed’, said one of the volunteers with the
ambulance, ‘a martyr’. ‘He’ was Bilal Mohammad Ashkar, aged seven from Beit Lahiya.
Both he and his brother Mohammad Ashkar, aged five, died from
multiple explosive injuries, and major traumatic injuries to the
head when a two-foot long tank shell smashed into the classroom they were had been living in. Blood and flesh were stuck to the walls and ceiling of the room. 35 people had been sheltering inside. Two
people were killed and 36 people injured including 14 children and
three cases requiring amputation of limbs.
The boys’ mother, Anjoud Al Ashkar, 29, was lying on a rickety bed
at Kamal Odwan Hospital when we came in. Her bandaged head was seeping blood – her skull fractured by flying shrapnel. ‘My sons, My sons’, she was groaning and moving her part amputated hand up and down. Days later, at the men’s grieving house in Beit Lahiya, I
would learn that she had been transferred to Egypt for brain
surgery, had had her whole right hand amputated and that ‘She
doesn’t know that her two sons have died, she could die if she knew’.
Salah Shehde Al Ashkar, 35, was in a room below when the attack
happened. His 18-year old daughter Mona was seriously injured. ‘We were drinking tea at the time and then we heard a great smash. I thought it had happened outside the school, I said don’t worry to
everyone, don’t worry, its outside, and went downstairs to see what
was happening. Then I saw my daughter, Mona, her leg was all gone, just shredded, I took her to the ambulance and we went to Shifa directly’. Mona’s leg could not be saved, and was amputated from the thigh down.
Both Salah and other relatives had deliberately avoided sheltering
in Government schools, fearing they could be attacked. ‘We came here for shelter and never imagined that they would hit and then they hit the women and the children on the third floor’.
I came across Sahar Askar, 42, the boys’ aunt along with their
sister Madleen Ashkar, 7, in the parking lot of the Al Awda Hospital
a few hours later. They were both dusty and shocked; Madleen
barefoot with shrapnel injuries to her face and Sahar dazed and
walking gingerly due to shrapnel wounds to her thigh. Sahar
explained to me. ‘A missile hit our room on the third floor. Missile
and rock pieces fell on top of us’. I asked what they were doing
immediately before the hit. She said they hadn’t been sleeping,
there had been too much noise. ‘We were putting out our mattress to
dry, on the balcony, because Mohammad had wet the bed in the night, he was so scared of the bombing. The building behind us had been hit with phosphorous, then after 15 minutes, they hit us. There was one bomb that hit the roof, and then another as we were coming down the stairs. We couldn’t see anything, everything was black smoke, from the dust or the phosphorous, I don’t know’.
After evacuating Bilal, we had returned to the school and picked up
Nour Basoura, five years old, suffering shrapnel injuries to the
back, She had dry hair, stiff hair and a small stiff body. Her eyes
were huge with shock and she couldn’t speak.
According to Shelter manager Ashraf Madhoum, two tank shells –
around two feet long – and four phosphoric bombs had been fired onto the area – the tank shells and one phosphoric bomb hitting the
school directly. He confirmed that there were no fighters or armed
men in the area at the time.
When we returned again to the school a room was on fire on the third floor. We kicked the door in and tried to gain entry but thick black acrid smoke smothered our sight. UNRWA Co-Ordinator at the shelter Raouf Asfour explained that 40 people had been staying in the second classroom that was hit. Thankfully they had evacuated after the first shelling. Inspecting the blacked shell of a room, we saw
charred discs of white bread mangled with plastic bags of belongings and foam mattresses, broken glass, torched nappies and burnt blankets.
‘If the international community is talking about war crimes, then
this is one’, said Raouf Asfour, Shelter co-ordinator. He’s a
resilient, welcoming, can-do man who says he hasn’t seen his own
family for weeks. Asking how sustainable the shelter is he explains,
‘As long as we are here, we will keep going’. Yet he recognises that
no-one can be kept safe. ‘Most are asking are we safe here? This is
a question we can’t answer’.
The Market round the corner from the school had been bombed four
days before the school attack. An F16 had struck at 1.30am. Raouf
explains, ‘Much of the glass of the windows was smashed, it
shattered onto people, many needed hospital treatment, they were
terrified’. The night before the tank shell attack, 13-year-old
Palestine Tamboura was sleeping in her bed. An Apache fired bullet
entered through the window and struck her in the leg as she slept.
She had to have one of her legs amputated at the knee.
Families are still living in the UNRWA School . Many came from the
Atartura and Sheyma areas, now in ruins following Israel’s three
weeks of intensive bombing, home demolitions and killing. Many have no homes to return to. An estimated 40,000 people have been made homeless through Israel ’s onslaught and wilful property
destruction, in violation of the fourth Geneva Convention of the
protection of civilian and state property. Israeli authorities
justify each demolition with the charge of
The Israeli military justifies the crushing of homes as a means to
knock out possible fighter posts, vantage points and any structure
or foliage or trees which obscure Israeli occupation forces’ lines
of sight and movement. All must be razed and crushed in the name of advancing and cutting deep into Palestinian territory in an endless
‘war on terror’.
This physical bulldozing over land and international human rights
law matches a political advancement of a colonial project of
long-term occupation, spearheading these repeated incursions and
assaults, backing them up and pushing them forward and leaving
churned deserts in the heart of communities, scorched earth and
fresh graves for those who ‘got in the way’ deliberately or not,
armed or not.
Israel also openly practices illegal collective punishment in the
form of targeting the homes of wanted fighters and their families,
political activists and suicide operation martyrs. Thousands of
homes in the West Bank and Gaza Strip have been levelled under this policy.
But more sinisterly and more acutely felt by people here, is that a
historic, obvious and long-term campaign of terror is being waged
against the Palestinian people, with the aim of forcing a mass
transfer, an eviction and an expulsion of a people from their land
which an occupying power seeks to control. Every attack in this
context, is seen as systematic and pre-meditated, the terror
exacerbated by the fact there is no shelter and no protection by or
through any state, international organisation, political faction,
Hamas authority or personal relationships. As Shadi Yassin Ashkar,
60, the grandfather of Mohammad and Bilial, explained to me, ‘I told
them, we shouldn’t all stay in one place, what if they hit us like
they hit families in Fakhoura? We could all be wiped out, better to
keep apart, spread apart, so we cannot all be killed at once’.
The vast majority of the people here don’t feel the Hamas authority
has been the sole target of Israeli F16s, apaches, white phosphorous bombs, surveillance drones, snipers, tanks and bulldozers – they think it’s them and their homes and their children. It ordinary Gazans that bear the scars on their bodies, who have lost their homes and limbs and members of their families, bearing this loss and ruin and constant insecurity in the dark tents and shelters they now live in.
Israeli forces continue to attack despite the ‘ceasefire’ –
according to Kamal Odwan Hospital authorities, farmer Nasser Salah Nasser, 20, was shot in the head yesterday in Eastern Jabaliya, and tank fire injured a woman and her child in Beit Hanoun two days ago.
Gun ships have continued to shell the coast, military bulldozers
have continued to shred land north of Beit Lahiya, F16s kept soaring
low over the population and spy drones keep menacing the skies above us – all reminding us that the threat of open war upon Gaza remains ranging over our heads.
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