Hazem Balousha, Chris McGreal, The Guardian
January 5, 2009
Incessant bombardment, no electricity, no water, and the hospitals full to overflowing – how Gaza was torn apart
It has never been like this before. The assault is coming from the sky, the sea and the ground. The explosion of shells, the gunfire from the tanks and the missiles from planes and helicopters are incessant. The sky is laced with smoke, grey here, black there, as the array of weaponry leaves its distinctive trail.
Most Gazans can only cower in terror in whatever shelter they can find and guess at the cost exacted by each explosion as the toll for those on the receiving end rises remorselessly.
As Israeli forces carved up the Gaza Strip yesterday, dividing the territory in two , the UN warned of a “catastrophe unfolding” for a “trapped, traumatised, terrorised” population.
Among the terrorised was Mahmoud Jaro. He was sheltering with his wife and four young children in his home in Beit Lahiya, on the eastern side of the Gaza Strip, within sight of the Israeli border, when he heard the first tank engines in the early hours of Sunday.
He grabbed his children, the youngest only three, and fled. “I couldn’t see anything. The area was dark,” he said. “They cut off the electricity. We were moving in the pitch dark.
“There were shells, rockets everywhere. I was just trying to protect my children. They were very scared and afraid. My youngest son was crying all the time.” Eventually the family made it across Beit Lahiya to his in-laws’ house in a relatively safer part of the town.
“I don’t know what’s going on. I don’t know what the Israelis want. This time it’s from the air, the sea, the ground at the same time. I’ve never experienced it like this,” he said.
The Israeli army warned others who had stayed in their homes to get out.
It seized control of Palestinian radio frequencies, jamming Hamas and Islamic Jihad stations, and broadcast a warning in Arabic telling people to move towards the centre of Gaza City for their own safety.
Others did not escape the assault. The wounded and dead piled up at Gaza’s Shifa hospital yesterday.
Eric Fosse, a Norwegian doctor there, said Hamas fighters were a small minority of the casualties brought in. “This hospital has been filled up with patients,” he added. This morning they [Israeli forces] bombed the fruit market. There were a large number of casualties.
“We became like a field hospital. There were two patients at a time in the operating rooms and we were operating on other people in the corridors. Some were dying before we could get to them.”
Moawya Hasanian, the head of Shifa’s emergency and ambulance department, said the hospital had taken in 33 dead and 137 wounded by lunchtime on Sunday.
Among those killed was a paramedic after his ambulance was hit by Israeli fire. Three of his colleagues were wounded.
“Only three of the dead are from Hamas, the rest are civilians,” Hasanian said. “There are many children under 18. There are many in critical condition. We are working under pressure. It’s not easy to work with bombs and air strikes everywhere. It’s not easy for ambulances to move.”
Since Israeli ground forces crossed into Gaza on Saturday evening, five people were killed when an Israeli shell hit Gaza city’s main market. Palestinian sources said a single tank shell killed 12 other people in northern Gaza. An air strike killed five people in a mosque as dusk fell.
More than 500 Palestinians have been killed since Israel began its operation nine days ago. Hamas has put up a fight, claiming Israeli casualties. The military said one soldier was killed by a mortar and 32 others wounded as they fought for control of areas around Beit Lahiya, Beit Hanoun and the Jabalya refugee camp in northern Gaza, close to where Hamas launches its rockets on Israel.
The Israeli military said Hamas fighters were not engaging them in close combat but using mortars and roadside bombs.
Occasionally, through the Israeli attack and Palestinian resistance to it, there came the sound of a Hamas rocket launched into Israel – a reminder that the invading army is going to have to move even deeper into Gaza to achieve its declared aim.
By dusk yesterday, Hamas had fired at least 30 rockets.
John Ging, the head of the UN relief agency in Gaza, described the situation there as “inhuman”.
“We have a catastrophe unfolding in Gaza for the civilian population,” he said. “The people of Gaza City and the north now have no water. That comes on top of having no electricity. They’re trapped, they’re traumatised, they’re terrorised by this situation … The inhumanity of this situation, the lack of action to bring this to an end, is bewildering to them.”
The UN has been particularly angered at the contention of the Israeli foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, that there is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza.
Ging also accused Israel of a campaign of destroying public buildings vital to the administration and governance of Gaza. “The whole infrastructure of the future state of Palestine is being destroyed,” he said. “Blowing up the parliament building. That’s the parliament of Palestine. That’s not a Hamas building. The president’s compound is for the president of Palestine.”
While some Israeli forces seized control of areas north and east of Gaza City, tanks and troops also carved their way through the centre of Gaza, taking control of what used to be the Jewish settlement of Netzarim.
Some of the tanks then continued on the short distance to the sea, cutting Gaza in two – a tactic frequently favoured by the Israeli army when it still had military bases in the territory – and making movement between the halves impossible for Palestinians.
Samar Abdel-Rahman lives close to Netzarim and watched the Israelis move back into the settlement. “All night there were bombs, fire, from everywhere,” he said. “All of my family came to my room because its the safest place in the house. We are 13 people living here. Since the Israeli operation started I didn’t leave the house. We’ve had electricity for just a few hours the entire time. We are not even cooking.”
The Israeli military has been accusing Hamas officials of cowardice and abandoning the population by going in to hiding on the seized radio frequencies.
The leadership, including the prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, and the Hamas chief, Mahmoud Zahar, have not been seen in public in days following the targeted assassinations of other senior officials by the Israelis.
But Abu Ubaida, a spokesman for the armed wing of Hamas, denied they were hiding and said the morale of the organisation’s fighters remained high.
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