Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Israel's Crimes in Gaza - Reem Salahi

Muhammad Shurrab holds pictures of his two sons, who were
killed during Israel's recent incursion into the territory
Photo: Reem Salahy

Electronic Intifada, March 2, 2009 - Having returned from Gaza, I am trying to come to terms with what I saw, what I heard and honestly, what I don't think I will ever understand -- the justification. While Israel's recent offensive has been the most egregious of any historical attack upon the Palestinians in Gaza, it is just that, one of many. Gaza has been under Israeli bombardment and sanctions for decades. Prior to the Israeli pullout in 2005, Gaza was under complete Israeli control and occupation. Nearly 8,000 Israeli settlers occupied 40 percent of Gaza while the 1.5 million Palestinians occupied the remaining 60 percent. Settlements were located on the most fertile lands and along Gaza's beautiful coastal regions and checkpoints prevented Palestinian mobility. Despite being one-fifth the size of Rhode Island, 25 miles long and 4 to 7.5 miles wide, Gaza was divided into three sections and Palestinians had to pass through multiple checkpoints to get from one section to the next. Often Israeli forces would close these checkpoints and not allow the Palestinians access to the other regions in Gaza as a form of collective punishment.

Yet with Israel's pullout in 2005, the Palestinian experience has not improved. Rather, it has become even more unpredictable and isolated. Palestinians who celebrated the exodus of the Israeli settlers and the return of some of their land could not have imagined what would follow and how Israel would subsequently unleash its brutal force against them. As the saying goes, nothing in life is free and the Palestinians have paid, and continue to pay, a dear and unforgivable price for Israel's withdrawal from their legally rightful land. Ironically, the majority of Palestinians living in Gaza are refugees who fled from their homes that were previously located in what has become Israel proper due to the influx of Zionist settlers. These refugees have yet to be restored their right to their original land and property. Now these Palestinians are even being denied their right to be refugees as Israel continues to bombard their homes in Gaza and destroy any livelihood they may have had.

Having been to both the West Bank and Gaza, I cannot begin to describe how different the two regions are despite their proximity. Unlike the West Bank, once inside Gaza, there is no fear of bumping into an Israeli soldier or waiting for hours at a checkpoint or having an Israeli soldier point an M-16 at your head while you show your identification card. Yet once inside Gaza, one is in constant fear and apprehension of what missile may fall from the skies or from the sea. The sound of Apache helicopters and drones are a constant reminder that Gaza remains at the mercy of the Israeli military.

After sunset, Gaza becomes a ghost town as Palestinians lock their doors and often sit without electricity, fearing to roam the streets. If a Palestinian is to be killed by an Israeli missile, he would rather be killed together with his family and not alone on the streets. Yet, as seen by the recent offensive, when Israel wishes to attack, it is not prevented from doing so by the time of day or by the location.

From the first moments of Israel's military campaign on 27 December, Israel's indifference to civilian casualties was clear. Its first attacks started at around 11:30am, at a time when children leave the morning session of school and the afternoon students arrive. The streets were packed with civilians -- children no less. Within moments, hundreds of Palestinians were killed and even more Palestinians were injured (at least 280 Palestinians were killed on the first day, and 700 wounded, including more than a dozen policemen attending a graduation ceremony at the Gaza City police station). A little girl in Jabaliya told me that she was in school when the attacks started. She fainted from the overwhelming fear and was not able to go home and see her family for days. When she did go home, she remembers seeing dead and injured bodies stranded all over street and hearing the thundering sound of missiles falling....

Reem Salahi is a lawyer and Bridge Fellow in the National Security and Immigrants' Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Southern California. She recently traveled with six other attorneys and one law student to Gaza in the National Lawyers Guild delegation. This article is based on what she saw and experienced during her time in Gaza.

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