Report back from Gaza

Crossposted with permission from Jewish Peace News

Jewish Peace News
March 18, 2009

Rose Mishaan was a member of the National Lawyer’s Guild delegation to Gaza shortly after the ceasefire. Her devastating report is a must-read. Go to Mondoweiss, which originally posted it, to see pictures as well:

–rebecca vilkomerson

US Eyewitness in Gaza: ‘The reality of a very real bloodbath set in…’

By Roxe Mishaan

It took me a month to write this email. In that month, I’ve been through a whirlwind of emotions, trying to find away to process the things that I saw. I still haven’t figured it out.

I went to Gaza with a group of lawyers to investigate violations of international law. We crossed into Gaza through the Egyptian border crossing at Rafah. At first we were fairly convinced we wouldn’t get through. We had heard different stories of internationals trying to get through and then getting turned away — they didn’t have the proper credentials, they didn’t have a letter from their embassy, etc. It made it all the more anti-climactic when we got through with no problem. just a minor 7-hour detainment at the border, which was really nothing at all. they said we were free to go. so we boarded a bus and drove the half-mile to the Palestinian side of the crossing. when we got there, we went through the world’s one and only Palestinian Authority border crossing. we were the only ones there. they stamped all our passports and gave us a hero’s welcome — invited us to sit down for tea and have some desserts. they could not believe an American delegation was there, in Gaza. as far as we learned, we were only the second American delegation to enter Gaza since the offensive — after a delegation of engineers. We were certainly the first and only delegation of American lawyers. while we were trying to avoid the mandatory Palestinian shmooze time with tea and snacks, waiting for our cabs to arrive to take us to our hotel, we felt a bomb explode. to our unexperienced senses, it felt like it was right under us. i got immediately anxious and decided we need to get out of there. our Palestinian hosts laughed at me kindly and said “don’t worry this is normal here”. somehow, not that comforting. we got in our two cabs and starting heading from the border to our hotel in Gaza City. the ride from Rafah to Gaza City was about 40 minutes. as soon as we left the border gates, we began to see the bombed out buildings. one of my companions yelled out “holy shit!” and we looked to where she was pointing and saw the giant crater in the building. then my other travel companion turned to her and said “you can’t yell ‘holy shit’ every time you see a bombed out building. we’ll all have heart attacks.” and she was right. the entire 40-minute drive to Gaza City, our cab driver pointed out the sights around us. he explained what each bombed out building was, who was living there and what had been a big story in the news. all we saw was decimation. one building after another collapsed into rubble.

When we got to our hotel in Gaza City, I was surprised. It was standing — no bomb craters, no burnt out sections. and it was still in business. we checked in and we had running water and electricity — both things that i was unsure about before coming to Gaza. that first night we arrived we met with two United Nations representatives: one with the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human RIghts and one with the UN Refugee and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees. John Ging, the director of UNRWA in Gaza was clearly upset at the recent offensive. A well-spoken man with a strong commitment to human rights and international law, he told us about the UN schools that were hit during the onslaught. He kept saying that the “rule of law means you apply it to everyone equally”. He badly wanted to see an end to Israeli impunity. We got a tour of the facility that was shelled during the offensive. We saw the hollowed out warehouse after it was shelled with white phosphorous and
everything inside was destroyed — medicines, food, spare automobile parts to keep their vehicles up and running (pictured above). John Ging told us about how the UN had called the Israelis after the first shell and told them not to target the UN compound, that there were gasoline tanks on the property. they received assurances that they would not be targeted. Moments later the Israelis shelled the exact area where the gas tanks were located with white phosphorous. the phosphorous hit the warehouses and UN staff risked their lives to move the gas tanks before the fire reached them, avoiding a massive explosion.

That first night in Gaza was almost surreal. It was so quiet, almost deafening. I was convinced that any moment a missile would come screeching through the air and shatter the night. there was a sense of waiting for something to happen. but nothing did. the night gave way to morning and I awoke in Gaza for the first time in my life.

The things we saw that morning would turn out to be the hardest. We went to Al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City. In the parking lot we saw bombed out, twisted skeletons of ambulances before we were hurried into the building to meet with doctors. Standing in the middle of a care unit, I saw a little boy, about 5 years old, hobble down the hallway, holding his mother’s hand. He had a leg injury and looked in pain. The doctors wanted to show us the white phosphorous cases, since we had asked about that. The doctor pointed to two rooms with patients we could talk to. There were two women in the first one. The one closest to the door just stared at us blankly, not saying anything. It turns out she lost her whole family during the assault. A few of us went into the next room. There we found Mohammad lying in bed — heavily bandaged, missing his left eye. He told us the story of how his whole family was burned to death when two white phosphorous shells hit their family car. He was lucky enough
have been knocked out of the car by the first shell. He lay unconscious and burning on the ground, while several neighbors pulled him away. He didn’t see his family die — both parents, his brother, and his sister. they were in their car driving to a relative’s house to get away from the shelling in their neighborhood. it was during what was supposed to be a 3-hour ceasefire. Their car only made it 70 meters. He and his brother were both in college. His brother was going to graduate this year. As he told us that, a fellow delegate, Linda, who had been translating, suddenly burst into tears. Mohammad grabbed her hand and told her it was ok. Strange how people ended up comforting us. The doctor came in and told us they were changing a child’s dressing if we wanted to come see. We walked into a room to see a baby — about 2 years old — lying on a table. She suddenly sat up and I saw that one whole side of her face and head were severely burnt. I had assumed she was hit with a weapon of some kind, but it turns it was a classic case of “collateral damage”: she had run up to her mom when they started bombing near the house, while her mom was cooking. Then a bomb exploded nearby and the burning oil in her mother’s pan spilled all over this young girl’s face. While we stood there, she just cried and called for her mom. We all stood watching, feeling helpless and guilty.

We left the hospital and went to Al-Zeytoun, a farming community on the southern outskirts of Gaza City. It was one of the hardest hit areas at the beginning of the ground invasion. The neighborhood was almost entirely inhabited by members of the extended Sammouni family. The town was in the news a lot after soldiers evacuated home after home of Sammounis into one house, that they then shelled, killing dozens of people. We walked up the dirt road and saw the rubble. Only one or two buildings left standing; the rest were completely decimated. Scattered tents served as makeshift shelters. We split up into teams of two and began interviewing survivors. We found two women sitting silently in front of the rubble that used to be someone’s home. One of the women, Zahwa, described the night where she saw her husband executed in front of her with his hands above his head (Zahwa Sammouni is pictured above sitting in front of a tent. Her house was destroyed the night the soldiers came through the neighborhood). She then huddled with her children in a back room of the house as soldiers shot through the two windows above them. She showed us the bullet holes in the wall of the house, the heap of rubble that used to be her house, and the wounds in her back from being grazed with bullets while she hunched over her children. Her 10-year-old son showed us the shrapnel wounds in his leg and proudly displayed the large piece of shrapnel that he single-handedly pulled out of his chest that night. His cousins then gave us a tour of one of the few houses left standing — one that the soldiers had used as a base, after they rounded up all those in the neighborhood and demolished all the other houses. The house was a mess. All the family’s possessions were thrown around the outside perimeter. Bags of feces from the soldiers were strewn around outside. The inside was ransacked. The soldiers had covered nearly every surface with graffiti: “death to the Arabs”, “if it weren’t for Arabs, the world would be a better place”, “kill Arabs”. I feverishly took notes and photographs of the stories of Zeytoun, knowing I did not want to stop and think about what had happened here.

Throughout the day, we felt distant bomb blasts. I still gave a little jump when I heard the tremors and I can’t say they didn’t make me nervous. But the Palestinians we were meeting with didn’t bat an eyelid. They knew when they were in danger and they knew when it didn’t matter. “Oh, they’re just bombing the tunnels” or “that’s all the way in the north” people would say. Cold comfort.

We met with paramedics from the Palestine Red Crescent Society. They described how they were shot at, and sometimes hit, while trying to reach injured people. We met with human rights organizations who described the difficulties of trying to collect accurate information and trying to help everyone when there was such widespread devastation. We met with a psychiatrist in Gaza City who ran one of very few mental health centers there. He wondered how to treat a population of 1.5 million who were all suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. “Listen to the kids tell their stories” he told us. “They tell it like it happened to someone else”. That’s one of the symptoms of PTSD apparently. and we saw it again and again. Whether it was the little boy describing his father’s execution in front of him, or kids showing us the shrapnel they pulled out of themselves and their dead relatives, or a little girl talking about how her house was destroyed — none of them broke down, none of them cried, none of them seemed scared. There was complete detachment from the horror they were living and their identification with it. A scarred generation that will inherit this conflict.

I left Gaza by hitching a ride with a car full of BBC journalists. We headed in the Land Rover, with “TV” painted on the hood, down the coastal road that winds the length of Gaza. It was my first time seeing the Sea in Palestine, I remember thinking. what a strange feeling. To be in a country i knew so well, and yet be somewhere so completely unfamiliar. The privilege of having a chance to go there and the utter relief at being able to leave were competing in my head. The crossing back into Egypt was short and painless. But as soon as i saw the other side of Rafah again, i felt a deep ache of regret and guilt that didn’t let up for weeks. Regret at having left before my work was done and guilt that I had wanted to get out of there.

Gaza was like nothing I’d ever seen. The reality of a very real bloodbath set in. I saw what this onslaught did to people — real people. i looked into their eyes and heard their stories and saw their wounds. It made war realer than i ever wanted it to be. There still isn’t yet a day that goes by that I don’t think about what i saw and heard, and feel guilty about leaving, and sad that people are still living with such pain, fear, trauma and loss. I think the hardest part is knowing that as a world, we utterly failed the Palestinians of Gaza. We stood and watched them die and justified our own inaction. It is something that should bring a little shame to us all.


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