Tuesday 14 June
Today was described by Karama as, “the dark day”. Karama is an ex-student of the IUG, now working for their External Relations, and is a powerful person. She worked tirelessly to create the itinerary we have been going through so far, and we owe her a lot for this. Today we were to witness the devastation caused by the massacre over two years ago. We began my heading to the Ministries Zone.
This used to be where most of the Government buildings were; ministry for housing, public works, finance etc. It is one large empty plot of land now. Everything was destroyed, not a building left standing. There is still rubble from the buildings that has yet to be cleaned up. Words can’t really describe it, especially when you realise that the area is surrounded by residential apartment blocks, still bearing the scars of flying shrapnel. I can’t even contemplate what it must have been like, living in one of those flats with your family, hearing the roar of Israeli missiles pulverise this area next door. I began speaking to Isra about her experiences during the massacre. Isra is from the Student Council at IUG, and the fact that we are here is thanks to her, as she initiated the contact between our two organisations that has born fruit of cooperation agreements and this trip. She was at the IUG at the time the massacre began. They were scared to stay inside buildings, since nothing was off-bounds for the Israeli army, and so most people just stayed out on the street, there was simply nowhere safe to hide. She described her old place, an apartment similar to the towers we were looking at, and she recalled her block being surrounded by soldiers and bulldozers, who then stormed the building.
We got back in the van and soon drove past what used to be Yassir Arafat’s residency in Gaza. This was one of the first buildings to be attacked during the massacre, there was a meeting of local police taking place. When it was shelled 70 people died, just like that. We drove past a hotel, Jazeera, four stories tall, another victim of the Israeli airforce as it lay demolished by the side of the road. We headed north and stopped at a town called Beit Lahya, which is close to the northern border with Israel. This area used to export lots of strawberries, but since the siege this has effectively ended; since the massacre the ground is poisoned from the chemical weapons employed by Israel in this area, so not much grows here anymore anyway.
There is a huge area of empty land here, perhaps three football pitches big. It used to be an American school, completely destroyed by Israeli missiles during the massacre; you couldn’t hide the irony that this school even had the Stars and Stripes waving from it. 17 rockets were fired at the school, and two security guards inside were caught up in the destruction and died. There are some houses next to the school, and we were invited by one of the families to sit and talk with them. White phosphorus gas had been used in this area by Israel, and the father we spoke to, Abu Jalila, had lost his six-month old baby who had exhumed the fumes. During the massacre this area was invaded by Israeli troops, they forced all the men out their homes, stripped them naked and held them prisoner. The women and children were told to walk down the road away from the area, then were fired at by the soldiers. The house we were in was occupied by the soldiers, they ate, slept and relaxed in this house during the invasion. I will never forget what this man told me as we were leaving, “Next time we meet will hopefully be in Jerusalem”.
The tragedy continued as we visited brand new apartments, destroyed by Israeli warplanes, and the Eastern industrial zone, which was quite literally raised to the ground. Warehouses, factories, and farms in this area were completely destroyed. Almost all of the handful of workplaces we saw in this area were built post-massacre. Our next stop was to the Al-Samouni family, many of you, like me, would have heard this name, know that they suffered a massacre of sorts, but nothing prepares you for visiting them.
They used to be a large agricultural family, mainly illiterate and living off the land they worked on. On 5th January 2009 the Israeli army invaded their village, and rounded the entire family into one house. For over 20 hours they were sieged inside one room, with no food or water. After this, the Israeli army ordered in Apache helicopters, which swooped down and fired rockets into the house. 22 members of the All-Samouni family died instantly, with a handful surviving but trapped beneath the rubble. They described children trapped in the rubble, surrounded by the corpses of their parents and siblings. For four days the Red Cross were not allowed to enter the area, and when the survivors attempted to leave the village for help they were met by Israeli soldiers who were reported to have said to them, “Turn back and face your death”. In such a small village, 17 houses were completely destroyed, six were partially destroyed, and the village mosque was obliterated. Tanks had entered the village and destroyed all of the farmland, not a tree left standing, the entire family’s livelihood gone in a week. We spoke to two survivors of the Al-Samouni family, both middle aged men, both had lost their mother, father, sons, daughters and brothers. Both have been made disabled from injuries, so cannot work. The village is now populated with dozens of orphaned children and eight adults, all disabled from the massacre. For me, hearing their trauma, this was one of the most powerful arguments for the boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel. They said they did not blame Israel, they blamed the international community. By all accounts this was a massacre, and if it happened anywhere else in the world there would be uproar. The UN judge Goldstone had visited and spoken to the survivors. They said he had cried hearing their story and hugged them. He wrote the famous Goldstone report which found that Israel had committed war-crimes, yet just last month, under Zionist pressure, he had retracted this statement. What hope had this family with behaviour like this from an international judge? The stories were just unbearable. One of the children was by his father’s side when the Israelis shot him dead; the boy cried for his father not to die and then was shot dead too. We saw a young boy who had had his face split in two, which was now sewn back together at the expense of his ability to smell. All the children, as would be expected, are psychologically traumatised by the whole event.
The day was ending and our final stop was at the Gaza port. A beautiful sunset fell on Gaza city, we had a panoramic view from the port itself. We spoke to a fisherman who described the daily struggle for Gazans at sea. Due to the Israeli siege, they are only allowed 3km from the shore, so fish is in very short supply; he used to employ thirty workers, he now only goes out with his sons. They catch just 25% of what they used to, and being Palestinian, have found an ingenious way of catching more; a common sight at night is to see large lights dotted along the sea, these are spotlights the fishermen use to attract fish from further away towards their nets. The Israeli navy now shoot out these lights when detected. When four Israeli settlers, illegally living in the West Bank, were recently knifed to death by an unknown assailant, it was broadcast across the world. This fisherman told us that just this year alone, eight fisherman had been shot dead by the Israeli navy, for the heinous crime of fishing whilst occupied. I consider myself a fairly well-researched activist, yet even I had no idea about this. We took a brief ride in a Gazan fishing boat then, emotionally and physically exhausted, called it a night and headed to our homes.
The true horror that we had witnessed has yet to really sink in. I’m thinking that in a similar way that I can’t conceptualise the size of the solar system due to its sheer scale, I am struggling to emotionally relate to the scale of devastation so many have had to endure in Gaza. The fact that people in Gaza continue to fight on despite this is yet more credit to the Palestinian struggle for liberation.