The "Days of Penitence" - Gaza Sinks in a Sea of Blood
October 20th, 2004
The "Days of Penitence" - Gaza Sinks in a Sea of Blood
by Mohammed Omer: www.rafahtoday.org
It smells unbelievably bad here. To walk down any
street—if you dare to—you skirt, or sometimes unavoidably
walk through, pools of blood. There are shreds of human
flesh—some of them unrecognizable as human remains—all
over, on rooftops, plastered to broken windows, on the
street. The stench of rotting blood mixes with the more
acrid odor of flesh burnt to black char by the rockets
fired by the Israeli Army's American-made Apache
The sky is full of black smoke, some from the rocket
explosions, but even more, it sometimes seems, from the
endless fires of tires and other debris that people keep
stoking. The smoke confuses the heat-seeking unmanned
drone surveillance planes, so setting fires in any
relatively open area may draw fire and let a bomb explode
All this smoke mixed with plaster and cement dust is a
blessing and a curse. The stench of burning flesh and
rotting blood masks to some extent the smell of raw sewage
from broken sewer pipes and the tens of thousands of bodies
unwashed for over a week now. Water to drink is a rare and
precious commodity here—baths and showers have become
Your eyes inevitably tear up from all the smoke—but then,
that protects you a tiny bit from some of the more
harrowing sights—recognizable body parts—a piece of a leg,
an obvious part of a torso, and fingers—more scattered,
individual, recognizable fingers than anyone should ever
have to see. Volunteer crews are gathering these human
fragments and bringing them to Jabalya's two hospitals but
the ambulances cannot possibly keep up with the flood of
newly dead and injured.
Funeral processions are everywhere, and "houses of
mourning"—the tents bereaved families set up in which to
receive their families and friends. In fact, though, every
house here, those relatively intact and those partly or
wholly destroyed by the IDF tanks and bulldozers, is a
house of mourning.
And nothing protects you from the sounds—the tears and
laments of the mothers and fathers, husbands, wives and
children of the dead, the screams of the injured, the wail
of ambulance sirens, sniper fire, the thud of tank shells
and the too-frequent explosions as another Apache shell
Time is distorted here—hours feel like days, days like
weeks or months. This is Jabalya Refugee Camp in the
Northern Gaza Strip, one of the most crowded places on
earth where 106,000 men, women, and children, the
overwhelming majority of them unarmed civilians, have been
under an all-out attack for over a week now.
Israel's official position is that this carnage is a
"response" to Palestinian militants' firing a homemade
Qassam rocket into the Israeli town of Sderot last week, a
rocket which killed two children. In fact, though, the
first tanks rumbled into Jabalya some hours before the
rocket attack on Sderot, and we had all been watching with
alarm as the Israeli forces multiplied in northern Gaza
over the last few weeks—2000 fresh troops, over a hundred
more tanks and bulldozers.
It is only when I sit down to write up my notes made here
in the last few days that the cruelty of the IDF name for
this attack—"Days of Penitence"—hits me. They are not just
slaughtering unarmed civilians, but language itself.
"Penitence," as I understand it, is voluntary remorse for
wrong-doing. Is this massacre supposed to induce remorse
in its victims? Are they supposed to mourn the deaths of
four or five Israeli soldiers, and two Israeli children and
accept the death of more than 60 Palestinian civilians as
some kind of justice? To those of us trapped in Jabalya,
it seems like Days of Revenge. It is unquestionably
collective punishment, and illegal under the Geneva
Perhaps we should not be surprised. Israel's Prime
Minister Ariel Sharon has announced this attack will last
"as long as necessary," that is, until there is "no further
danger" from the Palestinian resistance's homemade rockets.
Sharon, of course, engineered the massacres of Sabra and
Shatila over twenty years ago. Now, he is doing much the
same, but with vastly improved weaponry.
Of course, the militant factions exist, and have been
striking here and there during this last week but they are
vastly outnumbered, not to mention out-gunned, by the
Israelis. Hamas, on its side, has distributed leaflets in
Gaza City vowing to continue the rocket attacks on the
illegal Israeli settlements in Gaza and any Israeli towns
and cities their home-made ordnance can reach as long as
the Israeli incursions continue.
International protests have been muted, and stymied by
United States support for Israel. The lone, feeble voice
from the US State Department urged Israel to keep its
"response" "proportional"—after, of course, the obligatory
mantra, "Israel has a right to defend itself." A strongly
worded resolution condemning the attack brought before the
UN at the beginning of the week was defeated by the US
It is hard to maintain accurate casualty figures—the most
recent count seems to be 80 Palestinians killed (20 of them
militants claimed by Hamas) and over 200 injured.
Unquestionably, by the time this is printed, the figures
will be higher.
There is no refuge anywhere in Jabalya. The hospitals are
chaotic, supplies are short and all medical personnel have
been working around the clock for days now.
I saw Abu Nedal, the father of Nedal Al Madhown a 14
year-old boy, struggle to maintain his composure as he
asked the exhausted doctors and ambulance drivers, "Was my
son killed? Has he been killed?" (In fact, the boy was
dead on arrival..) The majority of the dead and injured
have been teens and children, obvious non-combatants.
I interviewed Dr. Mahmoud Al Asali, the director of Kamal
Adwan Hospital, who told me he was forced to assume the
Israeli Army has been deliberately targeting civilians. He
said most of those injured by gunfire were wounded in the
upper parts of their bodies, indicating the Israeli
sharpshooters must have orders to shoot to kill.
Palestinian doctors have removed many flechettes from the
dead and injured, indicating the IDF are using illegal
fragmentation bombs. These release razor sharp flechettes
as they explode. Dr. Al Asali says these illegal
fragmentation devices greatly increase the number of deaths
and the number and severity of injuries. The IDF has
refused to comment on this.
The hospital staffs and ambulance crews are so overextended
that they are using volunteers for the gruesome task of
collecting, sorting, and attempting to match scattered
human remains to return as much as possible to bereaved
families. One of these medical workers, Ahmed Abu Saall
26, from Kamal Aswan Hospital, told me, "One enormous
difficulty we face is that these powerful bombs can scatter
the parts of a single victim over a wide area. It is quite
possible parts of a person could end up in Al Awda hospital
in the east of the camp, while other parts of the same
person end up with us here on the western side." Sometimes
shreds of clothing can help with the matching.
The Israeli Army has frequently shot at the medical teams
and journalists. So far, two ambulance drivers have been
injured, and a cameraman from Ramatan News Agency has been
hurt. Of course, the ambulance crews and press all wear
Israel has closed all borders into Gaza and has severely
restricted all movement within the Gaza Strip. There are
three major "zones" split off by sealed military
checkpoints, but recent days have seen numerous new
checkpoints, and roads closed by cement block and sand
obstructions. People cannot move between cities, not even
ambulances bringing patients to hospitals. Moreover, the
main Israel-Gaza crossing is closed, even to international
NGOs, humanitarian relief groups, and foreign journalists.
Intense as the military attack has been, and continues to
be, it is certainly not the only danger to the people here.
Many families now have been without food and water for
days. In Tal Al Zattar, the eastern part of Jabalya, I
interviewed Umm Ramzi, an elderly lady who spoke to me
through the gaping hole a tank shell had left in her house.
"We have been appealing to the Red Cross, to save our lives
and the lives of our children, but nobody has responded."
Most of the NGO workers and relief organizations
have—logically enough—assumed they cannot get through the
Israeli military lines that completely surround Jabalya,
although they are well aware that the civilians need help.
I managed to reach the International Committee of the Red
Cross (ICRC), spokesman Simon Schorno by phone and he told
me: "I'm in my way to Gaza now. We have been talking to
the IDF to get permission to bring food and water, but we
were not able to get an OK for complete food distribution".
Concerning the absence of the Red Cross in the past few
days when many families were in urgent need, Mr. Schorno
said, "I feel terrible. We are trying to do our best to
get food and water inside, but the damaged streets also
delay us from reaching the people."
A number of eyewitnesses among the camp residents told me
the Israeli Army has commandeered several high buildings as
sniper posts and basically shoot anything that moves. One
of the most recent victims was Islam Dweidar, 14, who took
a chance during an apparent lull in firing to buy bread for
her mother. However, she was shot in the head by an
In the Southern part of the Gaza Strip, the Israeli Army
has increased the number of tanks and bulldozers in all
parts of Khan Younis and Rafah. There has been shelling
every night, with many injured and killed. This morning, I
spoke by phone to Dr. Ali Mussa, director of Abu Yousif Al
Najjar Hospital in Rafah who announced that 13-year-old
Eman al Hums had been killed by Israeli sniper fire. He
said, "the child arrived at the hospital after being
riddled by twenty bullets in different parts of her body,
five of them in her head."
Palestinian eyewitnesses reported that Al Hums was killed
while on her way to school with two other schoolgirls. In
early media reports, the IDF said she was planting a bomb;
they later were forced to admit the accusation was false.
These current attacks are now far worse than the so-called
"Operation Rainbow" of last May, which killed 40 in Rafah
and prompted an international outcry. Now, the silence
from America, in particular, seems to condone this turning
the Gaza Strip into a killing field. Sharon has picked his
moment well, when America is preoccupied with its
presidential campaign and its invasion of Iraq, to decimate
the children of Gaza. How many more must die before the
world speaks out?