Posted by CODEPINK Staff
Medea Benjamin, Tighe Barry and I (retired Col. Ann Wright) arrived Jan. 29 in Cairo for a 10-day trip to Gaza, but only spent two days there before Egyptian authorities ordered all foreigners to leave by Feb. 5. But we called for an opening of the borders, were shown the Egyptian-Gazan underground tunnels, met with women’s aid groups to organize a fundraising effort for the women of Gaza for March 8, International Women’s Day. Here’s my account of Day 2 in Gaza:
I knew that the death toll in Gaza was 1026 of the over 1300 who died were civilians. Of the 1026 civilians, 282 were children, 111 were women, 168 were civilian policemen and 501 were civilian men. 274 have been classified as combatant deaths. I knew that the estimates for the cost of reconstruction done by Israeli bombing was over $2 billion. And after seeing the destruction in Gaza City yesterday, I thought I would be prepared for North Gaza. I had heard the damage done by F-16s and tanks was substantial, but I was stunned by the large number of apartment buildings and industries that had been blown up and destroyed by the Israeli military in the northern Gaza border region with Israel.
The Israeli military destroyed virtually everything in a corridor along the border in Jabalya and forced the evacuation of Gazans back into the center part of Gaza. Homes and factories were leveled and tens of thousands of citizens were left homeless. We saw five tent camps that had been set up by relief organizations. However, the tents are spartan. One woman with whom we spoke said that there are no cots in the tents. She and her family were sleeping on the ground with blankets. She said many in her neighborhood were having respiratory and eye problems from the use by the Israeli military of white phosphorus.
There are few industries left in northern Gaza and the Israeli military destroyed 10 to 15 of those remaining industries including two cement companies, a dairy, gas station, an aluminum recycling company and a health products company. The production capacity of Gaza has been severely impacted by the Israeli warplanes.
In the Al Zaiton area in northern Gaza, we met with the remaining members of the al Samouni family. The large extended family lived in many houses and some family members operated a poultry farm in the area. After the Israeli army invaded, Army personnel ordered 150 members of the family into one large home and then bombed the home as well as all the numerous homes and buildings of the family. 37 members of the family were killed and many were injured. The Israeli government said the military had made a mistake.
The al Samouni family set up several large tents for the numerous visitors who come by the area to pay respects.
One tent had eight women inside. We spoke with Ibtessana al Samouni who had two children killed and her husband and daughter seriously injured and are being treated in Saudi Arabia. One of her sons was also injured and is in a military hospital in Cairo. The other women in the tent all had family members killed and wounded in the attacks. She and her remaining five children are living with other relatives in Gaza City. Ibtessana had a glazed stare and kept repeating that no one in her family had done anything to the Israelis. We saw in her eyes the disbelief that some of her children were dead and that she would not see her husband and other children for months. The emotional health of the al Samouni extended family considering the large number of deaths and injuries in the family seemed precarious.
The family area, a section of land about ½ mile by ½ mile was completely bombed. It looked like a huge tornado or hurricane had wiped out the area. The poultry farm was totally destroyed and bulldozers were pushing the rotting chicken carcasses into a pit while we were there.
Nahed, a project manager for Palestine Medical Relief Society, guided us through the wreckage of North Gaza. We visited one of the four primary health care facilities PMRS operates, with an overworked staff trying to cope with the medical and emotional challenges of those who have returned to their bombed out homes with family members dead or injured.
We walked in dirt roads mangled by Israeli tanks that had been positioned in the fields near the medical clinic. The fruit trees in one field had been completed knocked down and bulldozed over. Close by was Khalil al Noubany High School that had been used by Israeli soldiers. To secure the building they blew holes in it setting part of it on fire. The remaining part was occupied and used to fire on any one remaining in the area. According to a Ministry of Education official with whom we talked, seven schools were completely destroyed by Israeli and bombs and 135 schools severely damaged. The Israeli soldiers left the school in a real mess with military trash everywhere and school books and supplies thrown on the floor and walked on in virtually all the classrooms. The headmaster of the school that served 550 girl students in the morning and 530 male students in the afternoon, told us that the school is so severely damaged that it cannot reopen this year and students are having to travel to the few remaining schools that are open in Gaza.
We left northern Gaza and left for the Rafah border crossing with Egypt. We had to be across the border into Egypt by about 5 p.m. as the Egyptian government was closing the border and those who entered Gaza through Rafah would have to stay in Gaza until that border crossing reopened — which might be months. So after only 48 hours in Gaza, we were forced to depart.
On the way to the Gaza border, we stopped to see a few of the 1500 tunnels that Palestinians have dug in the past fifteen months since the seize began. The tunnel area is in plain sight and very close to the Egyptian border. It is a surreal scene. Buildings behind the tunnel area have been bombed and are destroyed. Trucks and cars are parked under the remaining roofs of a large bombed out fresh air market-- ready to move goods from the tunnel area.
Mounds of fresh sand are everywhere indicating that tunnels are still being dug. Generators hum providing air into the tunnels and powering the cables that pull up every imaginable type of goods from vegetables, canned goods, bags of rice and sugar, merchandise for hardware stores, etc. to the surface on the Gaza side.
Every tunnel is surrounded by barriers made of light fencing covered with large plastic bags. Young men are busy hauling up goods that have been brought through the tunnel from Egypt.
The tunnel “managers” we spoke with were surprisingly open in allowing us to come into the areas and talk with them. They said that about 900 tunnels have been destroyed by Israeli bombs and most are being rebuilt, despite the almost daily bombing by Israeli war planes. The tunnels we saw had openings about four feet across. The entry holes were from 50 to 65 feet deep and the tunnel were 500 to 1,000 feet long. One tunnel opening was built with concrete blocks and another opening was built with wood. Young men earn 100 shekels ($25) per day for digging in the tunnels. One manager said many tunnel diggers had died when the reinforced sand tunnels collapsed during construction. But young men continue to risk the dangers as tunnel construction is one of the few jobs available to them.
The tunnel manager said that to rebuild a tunnel that has been blown up takes about half the time to reopen and digging a new tunnel. The tunnel areas are little cities with electricity, water, food and coffee at each tunnel entrance.
While we did not see the other end of the tunnel operation on the Rafah, Egypt side of the border, it is inconceivable that Egyptian authorities do not know where the tunnel openings are. All they have to do is to follow the parade of trucks loaded with merchandise that come into Rafah, Egypt.
And it’s remarkable that all the tunnels haven’t been bombed. No doubt with the sophisticated satellite views, cameras from drones, tethered radar and surveillance balloon and the $32 million tunnel detection equipment provided by the U.S. government, the Israeli, Egyptian and United States’ governments know exactly where the tunnels are.
But, closing the border provides Egyptian and Israeli businessmen a tremendous opportunity to sell goods to businessmen in Gaza at very high prices. Government officials are paid to turn a blind eye to the tunneling and “smuggling.”
But, for the ordinary citizens of Gaza, where there is a 70 percent unemployment rate and where over 900,000 of the 1.5 million in Gaza are on United Nations rations, closing the border means they pay top dollar for everything.
After seeing the tunnels we went to the Rafah, Gaza border crossing and met six British doctors who had just completed two weeks volunteering at various hospitals in Gaza. One doctor told of treating wounds that had been made by the DIME (Dense Inert Metal Explosive) bomb which is designed to produce an intense explosion in a small space. The bombs are packed with tungsten powder, which has the effect of shrapnel but often dissolves in human tissue, making it difficult to discover the cause of injuries. One doctor said it looked like their legs had been sliced off. Another UK doctor told of treating a person who had been wounded by white phosphorous and then having the wound begin smoking from remaining particles of the phosphorus in the wound.
As we left the border, we went to the Egyptian border town of Rafah to see what was happening there. The police presence in the town was the highest we saw in Egypt and we wondered if the police there in were in great measure to protect the tunnel traders.
The sights we saw today in Gaza were tragic - a goliath Israel pounding a small Gaza David essentially with international silence and complicity in the 15-month siege of Gaza. About 1300 Palestinians have died, thousands have been wounded and hundreds of thousands with memories of the bombings and invasion and occupation. Over $2 billion will be spent on rebuilding destroyed homes, businesses and factories.
I deplore the use of rockets against Israeli towns by Hamas and other groups in Gaza, but the disproportionate response by the Israeli government and military is unbelievable.