'How can people live, I wonder?'
Eight months ago, the Palestinians were celebrating the end of Israel's military occupation of Gaza. But the artillery shells keep falling, factions are fighting each other and the economy is on its knees as Israel blockades exports. Has anything changed for the better?
Chris McGreal reports
Thursday May 25, 2006
Mousa al-Sawarka lived in a small ramshackle house, watching over his camels and crops on the edge of Beit Lahia in the north of the Gaza strip, until the rain of Israeli artillery shells got too much. So the 68-year-old Bedouin farmer moved in with his son in town. Two days later a shell flattened Mousa's house. Three weeks after that, another shell killed him as he was trying to drive his camels away from artillery fire. "He was hit directly in the head," says his nephew, Fares al-Sawarka. "We couldn't rescue him because of the shelling. It was 10 minutes before we could get to him. It was so difficult to see his face. When we got the body back from the hospital, we tried not to let his wife see it."
The next day, the family set up the traditional mourning tent within sight of the old man's flattened house. A stream of friends and neighbours arrived to pay their condolences and take coffee. "Then the shells started falling again," says another nephew, Adel al-Sawarka. "We heard screaming and shouting and it was Hassan al-Shafei. The shrapnel hit him in the back and almost cut him in half. There were so many shells, we had to crawl on the ground to escape."
Hassan al-Shafei, a 55-year-old fruit and vegetable farmer, died in hospital. His cousin, Ahmed al-Shafei, carries to the mourning tent five large pieces of shrapnel he picked up in the field. Each is more than six inches long, heavy and jagged. "Imagine this thing, so hot and fast. Just one piece would tear a person's body. It's horrible," he says.
After that, both families set up mourning tents on the other side of town where there were fewer shells, although still enough for the neighbouring American School to close its doors and move to Gaza City in January.
Since the beginning of last month, Israel has fired more than 5,100 shells into the Gaza strip from artillery just the other side of the border and from ships off the coast. The military says the bombardment is aimed at deterring Palestinian rocket attacks into Israel from open fields, but the artillery fire has killed six Palestinian civilians, including two children, eight-year-old Hadeel Ghaen and 15-year-old Mamdouh Obaid, and wounded 60 others, including 21 children.
The Israeli army changed its own rules to allow it to drop shells within 100 metres of built-up areas. On the afternoon that the Sawarka family was mourning the loss of Mousa, more than 300 shells fell in and around Beit Lahia, some so close that the explosions rocked the fragile homes.
"We are Bedouin and we live in homes with zinc roofs and it doesn't protect us," says Fares al-Sawarka. "The Israelis are dropping shells closer and closer. They can see that for 10 years we have been doing the same things, moving the camels at particular times. They know our names even. They know who they kill. Before, they targeted the fighters. Now they are targeting all of us. The Bedouin have no relationship with the fighters. This is collective punishment."
The two men are among about 110 Palestinians who have been killed by Israel since the beginning of the year, about half of them civilians. At the weekend, an Israeli missile strike on a car carrying an Islamic Jihad commander also killed three generations of a family driving by. The youngest victim, Muhannad Mohammed Aamen, was four years old. This is a lengthy article which expands on the economical conditions in present Gaza. Read the full story here.
I don't dispute Israel's right to defend against attacks. I don't dispute that firing Qassam rockets into Israel is pointless and futile. But I do feel Israeli response to the problem is exaggerated and little more than tit-for-tat, resulting in collective punishment of those who've little, if anything, to do with Islamic Jihad and assorted groups. Here's a previous post on the Gaza shelling.