Friday, February 27, 2009

The third hit her in the kneecap

Posted on In Gaza on 27/1/2009

February 27, 2009, 2:39 pm

dsc03857 dsc03860

“She was standing in the wheat field near her demolished home, about 800 m from Green Line border, when Israeli soldiers began shooting. The first two bullets hit the ground near her. The third hit her in the kneecap,” Wafa al Najar’s mother explained, sitting on an empty hospital bed next to her injured daughter.

We’d left Khoza’a after having been shot at by Israeli soldiers again -these shots, within one metre, the closest so far. The thought of the few desperate farmers who might try to go back on land worried me; I remembered Mohammed’s words about having no other choice, needing to risk it in order to provide for his 2 children and wife.

Fida’s text came some hours later: “A 17 years old girl from Khoza’a got injured 2 hours ago. Her name is Wafa Jehad al Najar. She got shot in the leg.”

In fact she was shot in the knee, she was ‘kneecapped’ as they say. The cavity of her former knee peeked through white bandaging soaked with blood. Wafa lay in Khan Younis’ Nasser hospital, moaning, sobbing, in pain.

Her family took turns relating the incident of her handicapping.

“We’d gone to see our house. It was demolished during the war. We’d hadn’t been close to it yet, we thought today was safe.” her mother explained. A neighbour agreed that it seemed safe, quiet. “I was in the area before Wafa was shot. It was calm, there was nothing going on, no reason for Israeli soldiers to shoot.”

Amal al Najar, Wafa’s mother, said she’d thought Wafa was martyred. “She had gone ahead. I was shouting to her, ‘come back, come back’. When she fell down I thought she was dead.”

Another martyr, she’d thought. Amal’s 20 year old son, Thaer, was killed in the first days of the attacks, shot in the head by Israeli soldiers. A week later, in a Cairo hospital, he died of his injuries.

Shadi, Wafa’s 25 year old brother, said the shots came from an Israeli soldier perched on one of the jeeps at the border fence. “I was near the house, maybe 300 metres away from Wafa and 900 m from the border,” he said. “When I heard the shots and saw her fall, I ran to Wafa, took off my t-shirt and waved it as a white flag. The soldiers shot at me. I lay on the ground, waiting for them to stop shooting. I called an ambulance. I waited about 10 minutes, and the jeep backed away. Then I picked up Wafa and carried her until we got to a place where the ambulance could reach us.”

The al Najar’s home is one of 14 destroyed in the war on Gaza in their area of the small village alone. In the greater Khoza’a area, 163 houses were destroyed by invading Israeli forces during war on Gaza. Another 1,500 m agricultural land was destroyed, razed and torn up by Israeli tanks and bulldozers, bombed and burned by shelling from Israeli F-16s and tanks.

For Amal al Najar the house was a long-time investment and sudden loss. “It took 8 years to build our house. We lived only 9 months in it before they destroyed it.”

We are aware of the Israeli soldiers’ daily shooting on Palestinians in the fields of the “buffer zone” but the residents of the Khoza’a region enlighten us to the tactics of shooting at children.

“Everyday they shoot when the children are going to or coming from school. Everyday children are crawling on the ground because Israeli soldiers are shooting at them.”

The “Khoza’a Martyr’s school” - named after the number of martyred from the Khoza’a region in the past 5 years: 113, not including the 25 further killed in Israel’s war on Gaza -was built some years ago to serve the students who until then had had to walk or travel 8 km to the nearest school. The new Khoza’a school has roughly 380 girls, 400 boys, and 800 pre-schoolers, and is about 1km from the Green Line. It is subject to a startling amount of targeted fire from the Israeli soldiers patrolling the border fence.

“There are two shifts for the students,” another neighbour, Ahmed, explained. “The students go to school at 6:30 am and at 2 pm.” But the soldiers apparently shoot whenever they find someone on the road leading to and from the school.

Ahmed elaborated on the level of violence in the area, which he says is high. Before the December/January war on Gaza, the Israeli army had already bombed the school twice, he said, and had occupied it numerous time in invasions.

Children aren’t completing their studies, we are told. They are too scared to stay at school long, just do a few courses here and there.

Drifting from the subject of invasions and Israeli gunfire, another Khoza’a resident gushed about the area. “It was a calm region, a great place to visit,” he bragged. “The families here are close, help one another,” he said, saying that this contributed to the general feeling of tranquility that visitors to the village enjoyed.

Khoza’a is left with a distinct absence of and longing for that tranquility, longing for the days when they could walk freely in their fields, yield a decent harvest, enjoy their small region of a very small Strip.



Thursday, February 26, 2009

OCHA report 18-24/2/2009: 2 Gazan farmers injured

extract from OCHA weekly report (18 - 24 February 2009) posted on 26 February

Two of the civilians were injured in two separate incidents when Israeli forces reportedly opened fire on Palestinian farmers.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Soldiers kneecap 17 year old Khoza’a girl

Posted on Tales to Tell on 25/2/2009

17 year old Wafa: her kneecap is entirely gone

17 year old Wafa: her kneecap is entirely gone

We went to see 17 year old Wafa Al Najar, who was shot yesterday, in Naser Hospital today in Khan Younis. In Palestinian tradition, both her family and neighbours were keeping her company. But they were able to do little for her, and while they all at once told us the story of her shooting and of Khoza’a, their village (where Israel has been accused of war crimes in the recent attacks) Wafa sobbed intermittently in pain.

During the recent Israeli attacks on Gaza, somewhere between Dec 27-30, Wafa’s 20 year old brother, Jihad Ahmad Al Najar, died in a Cairo hospital, evacuated there after he was shot in the head. Then, like thousands near the border, her family’s Khuza’a home was one of 163 local homes destroyed by the Israeli army. (The army also bulldozed 1500 denems of farmland there.) Yesterday at about 4pm, for the first time, Wafa (already with her arm bandaged after a fall on the school stairs) her mother Amal (Hope), and her brother Shahdi, ventured out to see their home’s remains.

Wafa's family, including mum Amal and brother Shahdi

Wafa's family, including mum Amal and brother Shahdi

Wafa was 70 metres from her home, and and 800 metres from the border fence. Her mother and brother were 300 metres away from her. There were 3 shots, a neighbour who was 900 metres away says they were fired from two army jeeps and he saw a soldier shooting from the top of one. The first two bullets hit the ground beside Wafa. The third destroyed her kneecap, and she collapsed to the ground. Amal immediately thought she was dead. Shahdi tore off his white shirt to wave at the soldiers and began to move towards his sister.

“Don’t go! She’s dead! Come back!” his mother cried. And the soldier began to direct further shots at Shahdi and his makeshift white flag and he couldn’t continue, so he phoned for the ambulance. The ambulance was there within ten minutes, but before it got there, the jeeps had left and Shahdi was able to reach his sister and meet the ambulance with her in his arms.

Is there often shooting from the Israeli soldiers across the border into Khuza’a, we ask?

Kulyoom!” everyone choruses - Every day. The various villagers tell us about life in Khoza’a.

“Along the border, there are normally two jeeps and a tank every 500 metres. And every 2 1/2 km, there is a gate they can drive tanks through to our side if they want to. And they have put microphones on the border fence, so they can play the sound of barking dogs at us, and shout at us, as well as the shooting.”

“We often see women soldiers,” someone adds.

“In the Dec/Jan war here, 25 were martyred (killed) and 70 injured. In the first days the army didn’t let the ambulance reach us so people died from small injuries. But before that, in the past five years, we had 130 killed in Khoza’a by Israel - from shooting, from attacks.”

Various people start talking about the Khoza’a school. It was built in 2003, after the Oslo accords, exactly one mile from the border, as a result of an agreement between Yasser Arafat and Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak. Prior to that, the children had 8 km to walk to get to a neighbouring school.

Since then, it’s been bombed twice and occupied by Israeli soldiers at least once. This is a school that serves 380 girls, 400 boys, and 800 pre-schoolers, by starting at 6.30am and finishing at 6.30pm, holding two school shifts. But currently, the shooting directed at it is so intense that the kids spend a lot of their time on the floor, and only a handful of lessons happen each day.


“The reason the Israeli army gives publicly is, because resistance fighters are firing from behind the school.”

And are they?

“No.” Everyone is very clear on that point.

“In the past, lots of people from Gaza would come to visit Khoza’a. It is the eastern most point of Gaza. And the Najar family is one of two very big, very well respected families here.”

“It took us 8 years to build our house. We only lived in it for 9 months. And we so wanted to see what was left of it. I just had to see it.” says Amal. “Other people had walked into that area since the war, but we hadn’t, not til yesterday.”

Why did she and Shahdi and Wafa go yesterday in particular?

“We heard there were internationals in the area.”

Oh no. E, EJ, and I look at each other, hearts sinking. We clarify.

They didn’t have any particular information - it was just a rumour - there were internationals around, maybe that meant a delegation of important people, maybe that meant something was arranged with Israel via the Red Cross, maybe that meant it was safer than a normal day, maybe things for once would be ok.

But they weren’t. Because the internationals were us. Getting shot at with the farmers. Just like a normal Khoza’a day. Only for Wafa, so much worse.

A couple of people want to tell us something else. Something they want in Khoza’a. EJ translates again. They have a lot of doctors and other health care workers living there, they say. Maybe as many as 30. Beside Wafa’s bed now are two of them, a young male nurse and another young man who volunteers here at Nasser. And everyone is hoping that maybe, one day soon, some funding organisation from the outside world would help them build a Khoza’a hospital.

They have it exactly right. They have a much better chance that some country, some international organisation somewhere, will give them money for a hospital to treat their wounded closer to home, than that any country, any international organisation anywhere, will stand up to Israel and protect Khoza’a’s children from being wounded in the first place.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Israeli Occupation Forces Fire on Farmers and Internationals

24th February 2009

Khoza'a, Khan Younis , Gaza Strip: Palestinian farmers, accompanied by international Human Rights Workers (HRWs), were fired upon by Israeli forces in the village of Khozaa, near Khan Younis, this morning. The farmers and HRWs were attempting to work on land around 300m from the Green Line.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Palestinian boy killed, farmer injured

This is extract from the PCHR weekly report No. 07/2009 12 - 18 Feb. 2009

Saturday, 14 February

At approximately 12:00, the body of Hammad Barrak Salem Silmiya, 13, from al-Qerem area east of Jabalia town in the northern Gaza Strip, was brought to Shifa' Hospital in Gaza City. The child had been shot in the head. According to his family, IOF troops fired at him while he was herding animals in the east of Jabalia town. His body was found at approximately 11:30.

Wednesday, 18 February

At approximately 10:30, IOF troops positioned at the border between the Gaza Strip and Israel, east of Khan Yunis, fired at a number of Palestinian farmers and 6 members of the International Solidarity Movement, who were nearly 500 meters away from the border. As a result, a farmer, 21-year-old Mohammed Rezeq al-Buraim, was wounded by a gunshot to the left foot.

Deaf Palestinian Farmer is 4th shot in 3 weeks

Mohammed, shot in foot Feb 18, pic from

Mohammed, shot in foot Feb 18, pic from

The following by my colleage E, first posted on her blog In Gaza yesterday, Feb 18.

What caused the Israeli soldiers to shoot a deaf farmer today? Was he threatening? Was it because the group of farm labourers had successfully worked quickly to harvest their day’s wages? Was the sight of retreating, unarmed, clearly non-threatening civilians too tempting to resist?

Whatever the motivation, the result is another casualty of Israeli soldiers’ malevolence: a 20 year old deaf farmer, Mohammad al-Buraim, working the land to support his family of 16, may not walk easily again. The bullet which targeted his ankle penetrated straight through and landed in the tire of the truck he’d been pushing.

Abu Alaa, owner of the land and Mohammed’s uncle, said: “When they first shot, we knew it wasn’t ‘warning’ shots. We started to run away. They shot again.”

Another farm labourer from Khan Younis, Yasser Rizek Samoud (20), was next to Mohammed when the Israeli soldiers’ shooting broke out.

“We had stopped our work and were ready to leave. The truck wasn’t starting. We were pushing the pickup truck. The Israeli soldiers started shooting at us from the border area. Mohammed was hit in the leg. I carried him about 2 metres before they started shooting again. We were able to get him to a truck on the road, which took him towards the town. An ambulance picked him up from the truck and took him to Nasser hospital in Khan Younis.”

Samoud attests there was quiet before the Israeli soldiers shot al-Buraim. “There weren’t any (Palestinian) fighters, there was nothing happening except for us farming. We work because we need to. We get 20 shekels a day, it isn’t a lot, but it’s the only work we can get.”

It was 17 February approximately 10:15 am and farmers were leaving the land they’d harvested, roughly 500 m from the Green Line. The lightly-dressed, unarmed farmers were clearly visible to and seen by the several Israeli army jeeps and the Hummer which had patrolled the border fence, stopping for long intervals to watch the farmers work, then moving on.

The farmers’ proximity to the border fence was more than off-set by the very visible nature of their work and of all present, including the 5 international human rights workers wearing bright vests and using a megaphone. The farmers’ tools are a kitchen knife slightly sharper than one used for eating, binding cord, and donkey carts or pickup trucks to haul away the harvest.

Before the shooting occurred, the Hummer sat directly across from the working farmers for over 30 minutes, observing. There was no threat from the farmers who glanced worriedly at the vehicle from time to time but otherwise kept swiftly working. Israeli soldiers inside the vehicle would have had no problem seeing the actions of the farmers cutting and binding spinach and parsley, and loading it into the back of a small pickup truck.

The farmers finished for the morning, packed the truck, and attempted to leave. Still unarmed.

The Israeli soldiers shot at the sides and backs of unarmed farmers pushing their pickup truck which had stalled. Even after al-Buraim had been hit, the shooting continued although the snipers would have been able to see that someone had been shot.

The firing continued as the farmers, surrounded by international human rights observers, walked away from the field and took shelter behind a nearby house, reaching it at around 10:30 am. Israeli soldiers continued to shoot at the farmers and internationals taking cover, for a period increasing their shots to every 5 seconds, with that unmistakably close “pftzzzz” of the bullets whizzing past.

After time, internationals evacuated farmers in 2 groups, again surrounding them as we walked, wary of the sniper’s abilities.

Given that the soldiers were shooting at the backs of retreating, unarmed, farmers and internationals, the pretext of ‘defending the border’ or Israeli soldiers’ having felt ‘threatened’ becomes blindingly transparent.

There was no shooting from the Palestinian side, no threat, no reason to shoot, other than malevolence. The farmers were clearly involved in the task of working the land, and the internationals accompanying them were visibly and audibly recognizable.

U.K. citizen Jenny Linnel also present during the shooting said: “The farmers were in the process of leaving when the IOF shot. And the IOF continued to shoot as the farmers tried to leave, continued to shoot, sniper-style, as the farmers cowered for cover. It was aggression for the sake of aggression.”

The life of a farmer is never easy, and is all the more difficult for farmers in the “buffer zone,” the band of land which has been imposed and extended arbitrarily to 1 km from the Green Line (on the Gaza side, not the Israeli side) by the occupying force which insists it has ‘withdrawn from Gaza’ [yet somehow controls borders, imports and exports, and the entry of humanitarian aid (entry denied), and which can impose no-go zones in a land not its own, for its ‘safety' (as with the separation wall cutting deeply into the west bank and carving the occupied land into smaller, militarily-controlled, chunks, the imposition of a "buffer zone" on Palestinian land in Gaza begs the question: if Israel is erecting the Wall and imposing no-go zones out of safety concerns, why not do so on Israeli land?)].

Were farming merely made difficult due to the ban of seeds and fertilizers into Gaza, as well as the ban on machinery replacement parts (extended to hospital equipment replacement parts, and replacement parts for basically anything that breaks down in Gaza), people could perhaps get on with it. But with Israeli soldiers’ near-daily shooting on Palestinians living on, working on, their land in an arbitrarily confiscated zone, then farming becomes seriously problematic.

Ironically, as we near-daily accompany farmers in these troubled ‘buffer zone’ regions, vigilantly keeping watch of the many jeeps scurrying to and fro and taking long pauses parked directly across from wherever we are farming, we see unhindered farming activity on the Israeli side: crop-dusters circle in wide arcs, tending the plots below with chemicals and planes unavailable to Gaza; tractors plow the land…in broad daylight! At a leisurely, unworried pace!

Back in the Gaza prison, farmers struggle with broken trucks, hand-harvesting, and an obstacle course of bullets.

Israeli soldiers have made a regular practice of targeting civilians, including farmers, in the arbitrarily-imposed “buffer zone,” a practice that continued throughout and despite the June 19 ceasefire.

And while the demeanor of the farmers makes it evident that they are accustomed to being shot at, they are nonetheless clearly afraid. Until this close call, their need to work the land had overridden fear for their lives. A sort of resigned determination seemed to guide them, along with the adage, “hek iddinya,”(”This is our life”), explaining in words and gestures that they have little option but to continue working the land, for the produce itself or for a mere 20 shekels a day.

Yet, Abu Alaa says they will not go back to the fields any time soon. “How can we go back? Its too much now, too dangerous. We will wait until it feels calmer.”

From his hospital bed, charismatic and likeable Mohammed al-Buraim, assures that he’ll be okay, even after the assault. But no way will he go near the field. “You think I’m crazy?!” he signs.

The shot was so near. It could have taken his life. Just a few feet up…just a slightly slower, slightly faster reaction… it was close. They were close to again killing an impoverished farm-worker.

On 27 January, in the same area, IOF soldiers killed 27 year old Anwar Zayed al-Buraim, shooting him in the neck while he picked vegetables on land approximately 600 metres from the Green Line. Anwar was Mohammed’s cousin.

These fertile rural eastern border areas of the Gaza Strip are emptying, because farmers, many of whom have farmed here for generations, are now too frightened to live and work on their own land. The confines of the Gaza Strip, which is just forty kilometers long and ten kilometers wide, are being shrunk even further by relentless Israeli invasions, by the imposition of an arbitrary and expanding “buffer zone” and by the targeting of civilians and farmers trying to live on and earn a living from their land.

Mohammed al-Buraim marks the fourth shooting of Palestinians in the ‘buffer zone’ in the last few weeks. The three shootings prior to Mohammed’s were: on 18 January, Maher Abu-Rajileh (24), from Huza’ah village, east of Khan Younis, was killed by IOF soldiers while working on his land 400m from the Green Line; on 20 January, at 1 pm, Israeli soldiers shot Waleed al-Astal (42) of Al Qarara, near Khan Younis, in his right foot; and on 27 January, Anwar al-Buraim was shot in the neck and killed.

While attacks on farmers in other border communities, especially those on the Israeli side, would not go unnoticed, somehow the international community remains silent about these deaths, injuries, and breaches of international law.

Just as the international community has stooped silently complicit to the siege on Gaza which has denied Palestinians of every conceivable means of existence and livelihood, so too are international leaders silent to the oppression of the farmers and fishermen, the poorest and the bravest, facing Israeli fire and ending up like Mohammed, Anwar, or 23 year old Rafiq who was targeted 2 miles off Gaza’s coast while in a small fishing boat. Israeli soldiers sprayed the boat with bullets, the ‘dum-dum- exploding bullets hitting Rafiq in the back and exploding into numerous tiny shrapnel pieces which pierced his lungs and remain dangerously close to his spine, impossible to remove.

These are not isolated and random instances. They are part of the policy of cutting off any means of self-sufficiency the Palestinians try to engage in, and of continuing in the efforts to break Palestinians’ will, efforts which have included a years-long, brutal siege, a 23 day bloody war killing over 1370 Palestinians, and the ongoing targeting of civilians throughout the Gaza Strip.

OCHA report 11 – 17/2/2009

extract from OCHA weekly report (11 – 17 February 2009) published on 19th of February

In addition, IDF troops fired towards
Palestinian farmers east of Deir El Balah,
forcing them to leave their land. On one
occasion, IDF tanks and bulldozers entered
Gaza, leveled land and conducted
excavation operations before withdrawing.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Israeli Military Shoot Gaza Farmer

18th February 2009

Israeli forces shot a twenty year-old Palestinian farmer as he worked his land in the village of Al-Faraheen, east of Khan Younis in the Gaza Strip.

International Human Rights Activists were accompanying the group of farmers at the time as they worked approximately 500m from the Green Line.

Mohammad al - Breem, 20, was shot in the right leg as the farmers, together with the international Human Rights Activists, attempted to leave the area having worked on their land for 2 hours in full view of the Israeli forces situated along the Green Line.

As the farmers were loading up the parsley and spinach from the agricultural lands shots were fired from Israeli forces on the border. Mohammad was shot in the right leg and evacuated, while still under fire, to hospital.

International Human Rights Activists have repeatedly witnessed Palestinian farmers being shot at by Israeli forces as they attempt to work on agricultural land situated within 700m of the Green Line.

On Tuesday 27th January 2009, in Al Faraheen, Israeli forces shot at several farmers, killing a 27 year old farmer.


Friday, February 13, 2009

OCHA report 4-10/2/2009:

extract from OCHA weekly report (4 – 10 February 2009) published on 13 of February

On one occasion, IDF tanks and bulldozers entered
approximately 300 meters into Gaza and leveled
land before withdrawing.

Monday, February 9, 2009

International activists denounce Israel targeting Gaza farmers

Posted on the ISM webpage on: February 9, 2009

Press TV

Israeli forces open fire on Palestinian farmers and internationals in Al Faraheen eastern Khan Younis in the southern Gaza strip

Updated on February 9, 2009

Friday, February 6, 2009

Israeli forces open fire on Palestinian farmers and internationals in Al Faraheen

Posted on the ISM webpage on: February 6, 2009

5th February 2009

Israeli soldiers open fire on Palestinian farmers and international Human Rights Workers twice in three days

Israeli soldiers again opened fire on Palestinian farmers and international Human Rights Workers (HRWs) on Thursday 5th February, as they attempted to harvest parsley in agricultural land near the Green Line.

Returning to farm-land of Al Faraheen village, in the Abassan Jedida area, east of Khan Younis, where soldiers had opened fire on Tuesday 3rd February, farmers and HRWs were able to harvest the parsley crop for only half an hour, before soldiers again began to shoot. A number of shots were fired into the air, before the soldiers started to aim in the direction of the farmers and international accompaniment. Bullets were heard to whiz past, close to people’s heads.

The soldiers continued to shoot on the group, despite the fact that many members of the group had their arms in the air and were wearing
fluorescent vests to make them highly visible, and identify them as Human Rights Workers; had erected a banner indicating that the farmers
and accompaniment were civilians; contact had been made with the Israeli army to advise them that Palestinian civilians and internationals would be working in the area; the various international embassies had been advised of the planned accompaniment; and the internationals were announcing their presence via a megaphone - demanding that the soldiers stop shooting on unarmed civilians.

“We are unarmed civilians! We are farmers and international Human Rights Workers! Stop Shooting!”

With internationals acting as human shields, the farmers - after initially lying down to avoid being shot - attempted to continue harvesting. After a few moments, however, the shooting intensified and farmers decided to leave the area, rather than be killed. Internationals announced on the megaphone that the group was leaving the area - asking that the soldiers halt their fire. Instead, as the group started to leave, the shooting further intensified in rapidity and proximity. Even after the group had taken refuge in a house, approximately 1km from the Green Line, the soldiers continued to shoot at nearby houses that were demolished during the recent Israeli Operation Cast Lead.

This behaviour on the part of the Israeli soldiers was an almost exact repeat of their response to the presence of the farmers and internationals, in the same area of farm-land, two days before. On the Tuesday, however, the group was able to harvest for two hours before soldiers began to shoot. Whilst farmers had hoped to be able to wait-out the shooting, in order to continue harvesting, it quickly
became clear that the situation was too dangerous for that to be possible.

The farmers of Al Faraheen are particularly aware of the level of danger they face when entering farm lands that are within 1 km of the Green Line - after watching their friend and colleague, 27 year old Anwar Il Ibrim, from neighbouring Benesela, killed by a bullet to the neck while he was picking parsely in the same area, just one week before.

The owner of the land, Yusuf Abu Shaheen, commented after Tuesday’s gun-fire “If you [internationals] hadn’t been with us today, the soldiers would have killed us all”.

Whilst it has become increasingly dangerous for farmers to enter their lands near the Green Line, especially since the recent Israeli attacks, for farmers like Yusuf, there is an economic imperative to harvest his crops. Yusuf explains that just to plant the crops and keep them watered and fertilised, costs him $2000 each month - money that has already been spent. There is the additional factor of a lack of water that increases the sense of urgency to harvest crops planted in the vicinity of the Green Line. Israeli forces broke the pipes for the area one week before their war on Gaza began. The parsley in the most dangerous areas, with water, could very well have been left for another week or two without harvesting - in the hope that the soldiers might become less aggressive over time. Without water, the plants are becoming increasingly tough, sweet and salty. If they are not harvested soon, they will become worthless.

The workers, who are employed by Yusuf to harvest the crops, also put themselves in mortal danger every time they enter the lands close to the Green Line. Like most in the Gaza Strip, they too are compelled by economic concerns to risk their lives for the meager sum of 20
shekels ($5)/day. With an unemployment rate of 40%, and almost two-thirds (900 000) of Gaza’s residents reliant on the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the levels of poverty existing in Gaza mean that, for many families, money earned by sons and farmers risking their lives near the Green Line, might be the only money they have.

Anwar’s mother explains that her son hadn’t worked in the Al Faraheen area for 6 months - not since a large-scale Israeli incursion into the
area in May 2008, and the following Israeli military aggression, made agricultural work in the area extremely dangerous. Anwar, the only
son in the family, felt compelled to try to earn whatever he could to support the family - in particular to buy medicine for his ailing and paralysed father.

The ability of farmers to earn money from these lands is not only being threatened by the daily shooting from the Israeli army, however, but also by the inability to irrigate the crops. On Tuesday, Yusuf took the opportunity to remove expensive connecting valves from the irrigation pipes. On Thursday, an elderly farmer was pulling up all of the irrigation pipes themselves - now useless as it is impossible to get water to the area. This crop the farmers have spent two days trying to harvest, seems likely to be the last that will be planted there for some time.

Such actions - shooting at farmers trying to work their lands; and destroying irrigation systems - are part of the wider, systematic economic oppression of Palestinians. Along with sanctions and a siege that prevents Palestinians from importing and exporting goods; and denies freedom of movement to work in other countries, Israeli military forces also attempt to prevent Palestinians from deriving income from other methods, such as fishing and farming - through extreme levels of military force. Indeed, throughout the 23-day war on Gaza, the Israeli military, along with demolishing approximately 10,000 homes, and damaging many thousands more to the extent to which they are uninhabitable, intentionally killed hundreds of thousands of livestock, and bulldozed thousands of dunums of agricultural land.

In order to stand in solidarity with farmers in their struggle against this economic oppression, international HRWs will continue to accompany farmers to dangerous lands - challenging Israeli military imposition of “closed military zones” in areas that they claim to no longer occupy.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Leaving the land

Posted on Writing from Gaza on February 7, 2009

“That wasn’t gunfire, it was construction work”.
“No, it was gunfire”.
“No, it wasn’t. It was construction work”.


“It’s gunfire - there was a whizz”.
“Really, I didn’t hear a whizz”.
“Yeah, there was a whizz.”

Crack. Crack. Crack. Crack. Whizz.


It was a relaxed start to the gunfire. Everyone thinking it was construction work for a little while. Not unreasonably - there were bulldozers working not so far away.

It quickly picked up pace, however, with bullets flying thick and fast overhead. They sounded so close that many of us were ducking. Instinctively, I would drop my arms to cover my head - the noise often making it impossible for me to keep my arms in the air.

I was sure the donkey was going to get shot. Every so often I thought the donkey had been shot, as it shied nervously from the crack of gunfire so close - the rattle of its harness making me think the harness had been hit.


A friend from the media office called me, to ask if they were still shooting. “Yep”, I told him.

Crack. Crack. WHIZZ.

“I heard that bullet whizz past you!” he cried, sounding freaked out. More freaked out than me. Later, he called me to tell me he was really worried that I might die whilst on the phone to him. “Yeah”, I agreed. “That would be really crap. For you. Not so much for me”.

The farmers, who had decided they were going to stay even if there was shooting, decided to leave. The boss had gone off, and the decision was left with one of the workers. They decided not to die for their 20 shekels that day.

Again, as on Tuesday, the shooting intensified as we were leaving. Somehow it seemed scarier to be shot at while we were moving - the chance of walking into a bullet. Once we were out of range, they went nuts with the shooting - aiming at demolished houses.

“Are they trying to write their names?” asked one activist?

Whilst the farmers try to be brave, to harvest what is left of the crops with international accompaniment, there seems to be a realisation that this is not sustainable. They have seen their friend die, and they know they could be next.

In a number of plots within 1km of the electric fence that divides Gaza from southern Israel, farmers have been pulling up the irrigation systems whilst they have the chance. Materials like these are expensive and hard to get. Most likely they are brought through the tunnels.

removing the irrigation pipes

removing the irrigation pipes

They are preparing to abandon these lands - to pull back to the 1km mark the Israelis are insisting upon, with their incessant gunfire. It’s just too dangerous to keep trying to farm there. Perhaps they will try to return to these lands later, when they feel like the situation is calmer - less dangerous. Or perhaps these lands, too, will be given up, as those within 300m of the Green Line have been.

Looking east from the village of Al Farahin, there is an uninterrupted view all the way to the Green Line. It was not always this way. Before 1st May 2008, the lands were filled with fruit-bearing trees - olives, citrus, avocado, almonds… In betweeen were many varieties of crops; and then a multitude of livestock. As Leila, a resident who can no longer live in her home because the proximity of the Green Line makes it too dangerous, recalls that, prior to May 08, she never used to have to shop. “We had everything there - chickens, eggs, fruit, vegetables, dairy - everything”. In May 08, however, Israeli soldiers crossed the Green Line and bulldozed the entire area.

view to the green line

view to the green line

Since then, aware that this could happen again at any moment, farmers plant only short-term crops that don’t require large investment - radishes; parsely; spinach; peas; beans. Even wheat is often seen as too risky, because the time between planting and harvesting is relatively long. It could easily be destroyed before farmers have a chance to harvest.

Now, since the war, even these crops have become impossible to plant, maintain and harvest. It is estimated that somewhere between 70-80% of Gaza’s agricultural land was destroyed during the recent Israeli attacks. The further sequestration of some 25 square kilometres (based on the length of the Israeli-Gaza border being 51km, and lands up to 500m from the border already declared off-limits for an Israeli “buffer zone”), of mostly agricultural land, works to devastate an already crippled industry; and render an entire segment of society - subsistance farmers - destitute.

Shooting at Farmers

Posted on Writing from Gaza on February 4, 2009

“If you hadn’t been here with us, they would have killed us all”.

It seems like a bit of an overstatement from Yusef Abu Shaheen, after 7 international activists and 4 members of an Italian tv crew accompanied him and 5 other farm workers to his land in Al Farahin - a village east of Khan Younis, close to the Green Line. But then, exactly one week before, they had watched their friend, 27 year old Anwar, shot down by Israeli soldiers, while he was doing exactly as we did yesterday - harvesting parsely.


The farmers were clearly nervous when we got out into the fields - our distance from the Green Line the subject of much debate. The farmers were claiming we were 700m from the electric fence that marks the boundary. Others thought 500m. It seemed more like 300m to me - but I have been ever poor with distances. The debate was largely meaningless, however. Currently, anyone who ventures within 1km of the Green Line throughout most of the Gaza Strip risks being shot.

Bearing this in mind, they requested we position ourselves around them - shielding their bodies with our own - all of us aware that even with the recent levels of carnage, the Israeli soldiers patrolling the borders will think twice before shooting an international. At least we hope.


In this way, we were able to harvest for around two hours. It was a gorgeous day, and the mood became jovial - there was lots of posing for photos with enormous bunches of parsely. Farmers posed with each other; with internationals. We picked and ate the sweetest and saltiest parsely I’ve ever tasted, under the warm winter sun. The workers were efficient, but not working too hard. Tasks were divided up between cutting and tying bundles of parsely; and collecting them to load onto the donkey carts. One cart was stacked high, with a second cart about a third done, when the shooting started. The farmers all dropped to the ground immediately - taking cover from the bushy parsely plants.

Israeli jeeps had been passing along the road that runs the length of the Green Line as early as 15 minutes after we arrived. A few had stopped momentarily, but then continued. A few shots were fired - maybe 4 or 6. And then I was convinced they had finished. I was wrong. They then went on to fire at various degrees of closeness for next 45 minutes. Some bullets were close enough to hear the whizz; some fired in entirely the wrong direction - prompting jeers from a number of internationals. Some hit the dirt metres in front of our feet.

It was the first time I had experienced so much gun-fire, and it would be a lie to say I wasn’t scared. But I wasn’t as scared as I imagined I might be. My mob-instinct, that often had me running from tear gas and rubber bullets during demonstrations in the West Bank (believing that if so many people were running away, then the apocalypse must be behind them), was to immediately go to ground with the farmers. But a quick glance around at all of the other international activists standing tall, with arms in the air - indicating to the soldiers that they bore no weapons - helped me to remember my role, and I remained standing. We stood there, not so much in the belief that they wouldn’t shoot us - many international activists have been shot by the Israeli army with live ammunition (including one in Ni’lin just last week) - but in the hope that they wouldn’t aim to kill.

One of the internationals began to get angry. ”They know we’re civilans!”, she stormed. “They wouldn’t be walking around the jeep like that if they thought we had weapons!” It was true. The combination of fluorescent vests; megaphone announcements; press releases; phone calls to embassies and to the IDF humanitarian hotline left the soldiers in no doubt that they were firing on unarmed civilians. They just didn’t care.

The farmers tried to wait out the army, hoping they would get bored and leave. And during lulls in the shooting, they would get up to continue harvesting. But the gun-fire intensified in rapidity and proximity, until finally, the farmers decided to leave without completing the day’s harvest. Not surprisingly, it was when we started to leave that the shooting was the most intense. (It was the same in Ni’lin last week - the Palestinian and Swedish activists were shot as the demonstration was departing).

No one was injured, happily - though mostly out of luck. Any number of the bullets that hit close-by could have ricocheted into someone’s body or head. At one point when I was walking back to the village - accompanying a farmer and a donkey - bullets that I surmise weren’t aimed at us, whizzed loudly past our heads. I ducked then.

We will go out with the same farmers again, tomorrow. Many of us are more worried about this than we were about Tuesday’s action. There is a concern that the second time around the soldiers will be more vicious - and more likely to start shooting sooner. Because of this concern we have made the decision that when the farmers decide to leave, we will all leave with them - rather than accompanying the farmers to safety before returning to the fields until the soldiers leave, as has previously been the strategy. Largely, this is due to the belief that Israeli soldiers are particularly psychotic at the moment - having just massacred more than 1000 civilians. As one friend put it, “It is very difficult to put that back in a box”.

Urgent call to all social movements

Posted on the ISM webpage: February 4, 2009

Open Gaza Borders!

We reiterate the need for a call from Palestinian community based organisations and the over 130 grassroots NGOs in the Palestinian NGO Network for an immediate opening of all border crossings currently controlled by Israel and Egypt.

Gaza is in the grip of a man-made humanitarian crisis. Thousands of tons of food, medical and emergency shelter aid including blankets and mattresses, donated by countries including the United States and aid organisations, is being denied entry through crossings by both the Israeli and Egyptian governments.

The United Nations has stated that 900,000 Gazans are now dependent on food aid following Israel‘s 22-day assault on the tiny coastal territory. Only 100 aid trucks are being allowed into Gaza each day - 30 less than were being brought in last year and substantially less than before Israel’s operation ‘Cast Lead’: an attack that has left over 1,300 Palestinians dead, the vast majority of them civilians massacred in their streets and homes. With over 5,000 injured and 100,000 homeless, admittance of aid is crucial at this time.

This is a fraction of the estimated 500-600 trucks deemed necessary to sustain the population of Gaza according to the United Nations. According to UNRWA, food trucks are delivering enough food to feed just 30,000 people per day.

Hundreds of medical patients, the injured from this war and Israel’s previous invasions, are being prohibited from leaving Gaza for indispensable medical treatment. Over 268 people have died of preventable and treatable conditions after being denied access to treatment since the beginning of the ongoing siege two years ago.

Israel and Egypt have designated February 5th as the final day for all foreign nationals to leave Gaza through the southern Rafah border. Egypt has said it will close the Rafah border indefinitely. Despite a statement from the Egyptian Ministry of Health that humanitarian cases will be allowed through, many patients have already been turned back, before the closing of the border. Hundreds of patients and some of those wounded from ‘Cast Lead,’ are still waiting for permission to exit Gaza through Rafah for medical treatment.

The Gazan community is concerned that Israel will be stepping up its’ economic, political, cultural and militarised stranglehold on Gaza in the upcoming weeks.

Post Israeli elections, Gazans fear the Israeli government will conduct extra judicial killings and continue their deadly strikes on Palestinian governmental figures, targeting of social and economic infrastructure and indiscriminate killings of civilians in the process. Actions that have proven to not only end lives but successfully cripple Palestinian development including reconstruction of homes destroyed by Israeli bombings and bulldozing during and before Operation ‘Cast Lead’.

Thousands of internally displaced people face an uncertain future residing in flimsy canvas tents reminiscent of the mass dispossession through the ethnic cleansing of 1948 when the state of Israel was first established on Palestinian land.

A de-facto land grab and re-colonisation of Gaza is underway, with the demolition of hundreds of homes and destruction of farms in the Israeli defined ‘buffer zone’ areas of Rafah, Eastern (Shijaye) and Northern (Beit Hanoun) areas of Gaza. Killings, shelling and shootings of farmers and residents in border areas are continuing.

The ‘buffer zone’ has been expanded to cut into Palestinian lands by one kilometre. Israeli occupation forces have shot at residents that have attempted to retrieve their belongings from the bombed and bulldozed remnants of their homes along the border of Beit Hanoun. The army also continues to fire at farmers planting their fields in village areas such as al Faraheen near Khan Younis.

The Palestinian Ministry of Agriculture says Israeli occupation forces have destroyed 60% of Gaza’s agricultural land during this winter’s war.

Effective international direct action and an escalation of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction campaign is necessary to resist the intensification of the collective punishment, imprisonment and ongoing war on the people of Palestine.

The situation is worsening: the stranglehold on the people of Gaza is tightening, humanitarian relief is being deliberately choked, trauma is deepening, people are being humiliated on a daily basis and development is not just blocked but in the process of being actively reversed.

We call on social movements, particularly No Borders networks, and people of conscience to target Israeli and Egyptian embassies, institutions, and corporations. Particularly in the coming days of intensified border closure, we must work to pressure both governments to abide by international law and open Gaza for the free movement of aid, goods and people.

End the collective punishment of the Gazan people, open the borders.

Shooting at farmers, what gives Israel the right?

Posted on the ISM webpage on: February 4, 2009

Eva Bartlett | In Gaza

3 February 2009

I was fairly certain that one of us would be shot today.

This morning, farmers from Abassan Jadiida (New Abassan), to the east of Khan Younis , the southern region, returned to land they’d been forced off of during and following the war on Gaza. The continual shooting at them by Israeli soldiers while they work the land intensified post-war on Gaza. The Israeli soldiers’ shooting was not a new thing, but a resumption of the policy of harassment that Palestinians in the border areas have been enduring for years, a harassment extending to invasions in which agricultural land, chicken farms, and the houses in the region have been targeted, destroyed in many cases.

Today’s Abassan farmers wanted to harvest their parsley.

Ismail Abu Taima, whose land was being harvested, explained that over the course of the year he invests about $54,000 in planting, watering and maintenance of the monthly crops. From that investment, if all goes well and crops are harvested throughout the year, he can bring in about $10,000/month, meaning that he can pay off the investment and support the 15 families dependent on the harvest.

The work began shortly after 11 am, with the handful of farmers working swiftly, cutting swathes of tall parsley and bundling it as rapidly as it was cut. These bundles were then loaded onto a waiting donkey cart. The speed of the farmers was impressive, and one realized that were they able to work ‘normally’ as any farmer in unoccupied areas, they would be very productive. A lone donkey grazed in an area a little closer to the border fence. When asked if this was not dangerous for the donkey, the farmers replied that they had no other choice: with the borders closed, animal feed is starkly absent. The tragedy of having to worry about being shot once again struck me, as it did when harvesting olives or herding sheep with West Bank Palestinians who are routinely attacked by Israeli settlers and by the Israeli army as they try to work and live on their land.

It would have been hard to miss or mistake us, with fluorescent yellow vests and visibly unarmed–our hands were in the air.

Via bullhorn, we re-iterated our presence to the soldiers, informing them we were all unarmed civilians, the farmers were rightfully working their land, the soldiers were being filmed by an Italian film crew. We also informed some of our embassies of the situation: “we are on Palestinian farmland and are being shot at by Israeli soldiers on the other side of the border fence.”

For a brief period the shots ceased. Then began anew, again seemingly warning shots, although this time visibly hitting dirt 15 and 20 m from us. Furthest to the south, I heard the whizz of bullets past my ear, though to estimate the proximity would be impossible.

As the cracks of gunfire rang more frequently and louder, the shots closer, those of the farmers who hadn’t already hit the ground did so, sprawling flat for cover. The international observers continued to stand, brightly visible, hands in the air, bullhorn repeating our message of unarmed presence. The shots continued, from the direction of 3 or 4 visible soldiers on a mound hundreds of metres from us. With my eyeglasses I could make out their shapes, uniforms, the jeep… Certainly with their military equipment they could make out our faces, empty hands, parsley-loaded cart…

There was no mistaking the situation or their intent: pure harassment.

As the farmers tried to leave with their donkey carts, the shots continued. The two carts were eventually able to make it away, down the ruddy lane, a lane eaten by tank and bulldozer tracks from the land invasion weeks before. Some of us accompanied the carts away, out of firing range, then returned. There were still farmers on the land and they needed to evacuate.

As we stood, again arms still raised, still empty-handed, still proclaiming thus, the Israeli soldiers’ shooting drew much nearer. Those whizzing rushes were more frequent and undeniably close to my head, our heads. The Italian film crew accompanying us did not stop filming, nor did some of us with video cameras.

We announced our intention to move away, the soldiers shot. We stood still, the soldiers shot. At one point I was certain one of the farmers would be killed, as he had hit the ground again but in his panic seemed to want to jump up and run. I urged him to stay flat, stay down, and with our urging he did. The idea was to move as a group, a mixture of the targeted Palestinian farmers and the brightly-noticeable international accompaniers. And so we did, but the shots continued, rapidly, hitting within metres of our feet, flying within metres of our heads.

I’m amazed no one was killed today, nor that limbs were not lost, maimed.

While we’d been on the land, Ismail Abu Taima had gone to one end, to collect valves from the broken irrigation piping. The pipes themselves had been destroyed by a pre-war on Gaza invasion. “The plants have not been watered since one week before the war,” he’d told us. He collected the parts, each valve valuable in a region whose borders are sealed and where replacement parts for everything one could need to replace are unattainable or grossly expensive.

He’d also told us of the chicks in the chicken farm who’d first been dying for want of chicken feed, and then been bulldozed when Israeli soldiers attacked the house and building they were in.

My embassy rang me up, after we’d managed to get away from the firing: “We’re told you are being shot at. Can you give us the precise location, and maybe a landmark, some notable building nearby.”

I told Heather about the half-demolished house to the south of where we had been, and that we were on Palestinian farmland. After some further questioning, it dawned on her that the shooting was coming from the Israeli side. “How do you know it is Israeli soldiers shooting at you?” she’d asked. I mentioned the 4 jeeps, the soldiers on the mound, the shots from the soldiers on the mound (I didn’t have time to go into past experiences with Israeli soldiers in this very area and a little further south, similar experience of farmers being fired upon while we accompanied them.).

Heather asked if the soldiers had stopped firing, to which I told her, ‘no, they kept firing when we attempted to move away, hands in the air. They fired as we stood still, hands in the air. “ She suggested these were ‘warning shots’ at which I pointed out that warning shots would generally be in the air or 10s of metres away. These were hitting and whizzing past within metres.

She had no further thoughts at time, but did call back minutes later with Jordie Elms, the Canadian attache in the Tel Aviv office, who informed us that “Israel has declared the 1 km area along the border to be a ‘closed military zone’.”

When I pointed out that Israel had no legal ability to do such, that this closure is arbitrary and illegal, and that the farmers being kept off of their land or the Palestinians whose homes have been demolished in tandem with this closure had no other options: they needed to work the land, live on it… Jordie had no thoughts. He did, however, add that humanitarian and aid workers need to “know the risk of being in a closed area”.

Meaning, apparently, that it is OK with Jordie that Israeli soldiers were firing on unarmed civilians, because Israeli authorities have arbitrarily declared an area out of their jurisdiction (because Israel is “not occupying Gaza” right?!) as a ‘closed area’.

Israel’s latest massacre of 1,400 Palestinians –most of whom were civilians –aside, Israel’s destruction of over 4,000 houses and 17,000 buildings aside, Israel’s cutting off and shutting down of the Gaza Strip since Hamas’ election aside, life is pretty wretched for the farmers and civilians in the areas flanking the border with Israel. Last week, the young man from Khan Younis who was shot while working on farmland in the “buffer zone” was actually on land near where we accompanied farmers today. Why do Israeli authorities think they have an uncontested right to allow/instruct their soldiers to shoot at Palestinian farmers trying to work their land?

If Israeli authorities recognized Palestinian farmers’ need to work the land, Palestinian civilians’ right to live in their homes, then they would not have arbitrarily imposed a 1 km ban on existence along the border, from north to south. What gives Israel the right to say that now the previously-imposed 300 m ban on valuable agricultural land next to the order extends to 1 full kilometre, and that this inherently gives Israel the right to have bulldozed 10s of houses in this “buffer zone” and ravaged the farmland with military bulldozers and tanks.

Furthermore, what gives Israel the right to assume these impositions are justifiable, and the right to shoot at farmers continuing to live in and work on their land (as if they had a choice. Recall the size of Gaza, the poverty levels)?

Nothing does.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Life in the border zones

Posted on the ISM webpage on: February 1, 2009

“If you stay here for five minutes, you will hear gunfire”, explain locals in Wadi Salqa. “They shoot at anything moving in the village”.

Palestinian radio stations have reported that people living in Wadi Salqa are scared to death. Arriving in the village, this seems no overstatement. “If you move beyond the end of this road, you will be shot”, explains Mohammad Abu Magaseeb, pointing to the end of the road we have just arrived on.

He takes us into his uncle’s house, situated just 1km from the Green Line - the electrified fence and military bases clear from the three-storey home. It’s a beautiful home, only partly finished, but it’s already been bombed. Tank shells were fired through the second storey during the war. They take us into the newly-furbished bathroom - the bathtub full of rubble and the southern wall missing. Somehow
the damaged mural of a waterfall on the tiling seems particularly tragic. No one is sure exactly when this shelling happened, because, like most other villages near the border with Israel, the entire village evacuated as soon as the War on Gaza started - drawing back into villages closer to the centre of the strip.

Mohammad’s uncle is lucky, however. Whilst his home is badly damaged, more than 30 houses in the village of 6000 people were demolished during the war, leaving 120 families (approximately 10% of the population) homeless. The rest of the 70 houses in the southern border area were damaged or partially destroyed. Mohammad and the neighbours who accompany us are clearly nervous to be in the house, especially to be near the windows, for fear of getting shot.

We move up to the rooftop, from where we can see the Green Line on one side, and the Mediterranean on the other. At this point, halfway between Gaza city and Rafah, the Gaza Strip is just 5 kilometres wide. “We are in a small cage”, one neighbour notes. They point out the destroyed houses in the south of the village, as well as a pipe factory that was attacked with tanks and Apache helicopters. In that neighbourhood, the only building standing is the village water reservoir. Al hamdalilah.

Whilst being in the house itself is considered dangerous, nowhere in the village is really thought to be safe. Certain types of behaviour, though seem to be more dangerous than others. “If any guy carries just a pipe in the village, they shoot at him”, Mohammad advises. “They can see everything. They have cameras and are filming everything that happens in the village. When guys have been arrested, they have been shown the footage that the soldiers have”. This intense level of surveillance takes place not just in Wadi Salqa, but throughout the villages close to the border. Beit Hannoun in the extreme north of the Strip, for example, has white, camera carrying, fish-shaped balloons floating above the border, looking for all the world like childrens helium balloons, filming everything.

The other sure-fire way of getting shot at in Wadi Salqa is to be within 1km of the electric fence, regardless of your age of what you might be doing there. On 26th January, Israeli forces shot a 13 year old boy who was working on farmland approximately 500m from the Green Line - an area that was previously considered safe. Yousef Al Akhrasi was shot in the back whilst he was working harvesting peas to help earn some money for his family, villagers advise.

Whilst we are standing on the roof, a tank appears on the dirt-road that runs behind the electric fence, and we are quickly ushered downstairs.

The extension of the “no-go” area of the village, from 500m to 1km from the Green Line, has been replicated throughout the Gaza Strip. In almost every border village, farmers are unable to enter their lands; families are unable to reach their (mostly destroyed) houses. Not only have their houses been destroyed, they now have no hope of rebuilding them. In Wadi Salqa, where the majority of the villagers are farmers, approximately 4000 dounums (1000 acres) of land have been effectively confiscated - hugely significant in the sixth most densely populated region in the world.

Wadi Salqa is a village living with precarity in the extreme. Whilst villagers will enter the town during the day, since the cease-fire approximately half are sleeping in other villages - with friends; relatives; friends of friends.

Visiting another house in the village, Salim’s house, gunfire starts. People shuffle to make sure the house is between them and the Green Line. His four year old daughter, Sara, shows us the cast on her leg - she broke it when she fell down, running from gunfire. His neighbour, Tubi, explains how he no longer sleeps at night - how he is kept awake by the shooting, and the fear of it. Tubi’s mother, whose house is even closer to the Green Line, hasn’t stayed in her house since the start of the War. It seems she has no intention of returning any time soon.

Salim shows us the gunshots holes in his house, and explains that they never sleep with only one wall between them and the Green Line. The bullets used can penetrate through walls, so the family always make sure they have at least two walls between them and Israel when they sleep.

“The cease-fire is for the cities - the centre of the cities”, he cries. “Not for the people near the borders!”.

Chaos in Khoza’a

Posted on the ISM webpage on: February 1, 2009

Jack Shenker | The National

For over 24 hours earlier this month, a village in southern Gaza was devastated by an Israeli army attack. Jack Shenker revisits a day of destruction.

Khoza’a village has a small white-brick mosque, a smattering of donkey carts and a rusting water tower. It has neat rows of olive and citrus trees, and low-cut picket fences shading the main street. But the first thing that greets you as you enter the southern Gaza village from the west are its demolished houses: slabs of destroyed domestic comfort stacked and folded in on each other in impossible-looking ways.

They have shed their loads onto the alleys below, where they sit amongst rubble-shard mountains and steel reinforcement rods standing starkly in the wind.

Everyone in Khoza’a has a story about what happened when Israeli forces launched a 24-hour assault on their farming community of 12,000 earlier this month. It began when Apache helicopters appeared overhead late in the evening of January 12th, day 17 of Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s three week onslaught of the Gaza Strip. Mohammed al-Najar’s wife was giving birth that night in a hospital in nearby Khan Younnis; the missiles stopped him from witnessing the arrival of his new son. Instead, he spent the early hours of the 13th quieting the cries of the village’s infant population.” They were screaming that night,” he told me. “They screamed through the bombs and they screamed through the jokes and soothing prayers we whispered to calm them down.

Khoza’a isn’t screaming anymore, but it is garrulous, every corner stumbling over itself in an effort to tell its story. Kids swarm around in excited packs; I can’t move without wrinkled black munitions balls being pressed into my hand, or serial numbers from rockets being thrust before my camera.

The first independent investigators entered Khoza’a on January 14th. Over the next eight days, local researchers and I conducted interviews with as many of its residents as possible, including local paramedics and doctors who dealt with the wounded. Many of their witness statements are corroborated by testimony collected by the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem and Palestinian researchers.

The attack on Khoza’a began at 9:30pm on January 12. For over five hours, the village was blanketed by F16s, helicopter gunships and unmanned drones. At 3am on January 13, the second phase of the attack began when Israeli bulldozers trundled up to a cluster of houses on Khozaa’s eastern fringe, a mere 500m from the “green line” separating Gaza from Israel. Scared and confused, the residents of these buildings poured onto their roofs, waving white flags under the cold night sky. “There were over 200 people from 36 families up there calling down to the Israelis,” remembers 29-year-old Iman al Najar.

As their houses were demolished one by one, a stream of people headed 100 metres uphill to the west to a small, grass-strewn courtyard off a paved alleyway, dodging fire on the way. There they were flanked by walls on three sides and sheltered from the surrounding buildings, where IDF special forces had taken up positions. As night ticked away and the small 7m x 10m square filled up with villagers, it became clear that the Israeli soldiers were intent on levelling every house on the eastern street. Rawhiya al Najar, a 50-year-old mother of three, ran back to her street to urge those still in their homes to evacuate. By 7am, when she had reached the last house, all 200 of the former roof-wavers – over half of them children – were now gathered in the courtyard. Trapped between bullets and bulldozers, the villagers had nothing to do but wait.

One kilometre to the west, on the opposite side of town, members of Rawhiya’s extended family had formed an assembly of their own. Over 20 al Najars were taking refuge in the house of Khalil, their elderly patriarch, having been forced from Riyad al Najar’s home across the street by rocket fire. As explosives pounded the area from land and air, the children were now wedged quietly under the stairs. “The adults thought this would be the safest place to be if the building collapsed,” recalls Joma’aa, 18. They were wrong. A rocket sliced through the roof and the first floor and landed under the stairs, where 16-year-old Ala’a and her 15-year-old brother Ayman had taken cover. Most of Ala’a’s waist and pelvis was blown away, as was a third of her face; she eventually died after 10 hours of surgery in Khan Younis hospital.

Ayman survived, but the burns he received were so severe that his bones were visible through the wounds. Five more missiles quickly followed, taking the lives of a 22-year-old neighbour and 75-year-old Khalil himself, who had chosen to sit out in the garden to watch his village light up with gunfire. A rocket split him in half, and his family had to lay him to rest twice; they only discovered his legs a day after burying his torso.

Stunned by the volley of explosives, the rest of the family escaped across the alley to another home, where they huddled together on the ground floor. The drones spun around and followed accordingly. First a series of missiles blew holes in all the buildings, then white phosphorus flares looped down and into the holes. This time a young boy was hit in the eyes and legs; his skin, coated in chemical toxins, could not be touched. “Trying to pick him up was like trying to carry sand or liquid in your hands – he was just falling apart,” said one relative.

Since the dead and dying were covered in phosphorus, they had to be left behind as the group sought safety once again, clambering over a low back fence and back into Riyad’s house. Having run out of homes to protect them, the al Najars – filthy, exhausted, and fewer in number than ever before – were back where they started.

It was now 8am. Back in the grass-strewn courtyard, Rawhiya and her tightly-packed companions were in a similarly tight situation. Having finished with the houses, Khoza’a’s concrete-razing visitors were moving on – to the very space where the newly homeless were now trapped. Eight bulldozers surrounded the courtyard’s northern wall and began crunching into it, sending rubble flying forward. Each time the crumbling outer wall showered the villagers with metal and concrete, the courtyard became smaller and more claustrophobic.

Realising that they would all soon be crushed, Rawhiya grabbed a white flag, got a small group together, and tentatively stepped out in the alleyway to see if it was safe. Several villagers claim that Israeli soldiers shouted across at them to turn right and head up the path; they complied. “Rawhiya and I were at the front, followed by the rest of the women, then children, then men,” recalls 23-year-old Yasmin al Najar, her neighbour. “As we rounded the corner, I saw a special forces soldier in a window at the end of the street. He smiled at me and we thought that meant ‘go ahead’, because they were telling us our evacuation had been co-ordinated. So we went ahead and they shot Rawhiya in the head.”

The bullet was fired by a sniper in a house the Israelis had commandeered at the start of the incursion. They had two hostages in the basement: a 14-year-old boy and a woman in her 40s. The boy was Iman al Najar’s brother, Mohammed.

Outside, there was chaos. Fragments of Rawhiya’s bullet had sprayed Yasmin too; clutching at her wounds, the young woman spun around and followed the others back into the courtyard. When their supposed saviours returned blood-spattered and shrieking, the villagers who had waited behind moved closer to outright panic. Mobile phone calls were put in to emergency services in the hope that the Palestinian Red Crescent would be allowed to come in and save Rawhiya. The answer came through shortly afterwards: the Red Crescent had contacted the IDF and been told that Khoza’a was now a closed military zone. Medical staff were not allowed to enter. Witnesses claim that one ambulance that attempted to reach Rawhiya anyway was shot at from the ground and air, forcing the paramedic, Marwan Abu Raeda, to seek cover in a nearby house. He was not able to remove Rawhiya’s corpse until 8pm: she had taken almost 12 hours to die.

Meanwhile, the villagers had a desperate choice to make. “We had to decide – death by rubble or by guns,” explained Iman. “I didn’t want to be buried alive, nor did anyone else. So I said to everyone, we have to stay together; we either live together or die together.” The villagers agreed and sunk to the floor, slowly crawling as one out onto into the alleyway.

At noon, bits of shrapnel were still flying through the air from rocket attacks on nearby houses. Iman led the villagers (including Yasmin, who had tied some loose fabric to her leg to stem the bleeding) out on their hands and knees across the pathway where Rawhiya lay, alive but dying under the midday sun. The group made it to a UN school 300 metres away just before helicopters swooped back in for a new round of devastation. Inside, they called the Red Crescent again. But with Israeli special forces still manning positions along the street, only one ambulance could make it to the gates. “We insisted on the children getting out first, but there were so many of them and just one ambulance. They were climbing all over each other in terror to try and get inside,” recalled Iman. Those children who couldn’t fit in the ambulance stood banging their heads against the school walls.

Marooned in their separate corners of the village, Khoza’a’s residents waited for the missile fire to ebb away. By the evening it had stopped, and the hunted started edging out of their hiding-holes. Evacuations got underway. One particularly courageous organiser was Mahmoud al Najar, a 55-year-old father of three, who shepherded residents from the bullet-torn backstreets into cars and trucks driven over by concerned relatives. Mahmoud had been unaware of the dramas faced by his family members across the village; several members of the al Najar family report that when he heard that Rawhiya had been shot, he strode back towards the courtyard pathway to look for her. As he was heading to search for his relative in the gloom, a single shot from a special forces sniper hit Mahmoud in the head. He died instantly.

(The IDF, contacted for comment said, issued this statement: “The IDF does not target civilians. For 22 days the IDF fought an enemy in Gaza who does not hesitate to hide behind civilians and fire from humanitarian aid facilities. IDF forces have clear firing orders, but in the complex situation in which fighting takes place inside towns and cities, placing our forces at great risk, civilian casualties are regrettably possible. In response to the claims of NGOs and claims in the foreign press relating to the use of phosphorus weapons, and in order to remove any ambiguity, an investigative team has been established in the Southern Command to look into this issue. It must be noted that international law does not prohibit the use of weaponry containing phosphorus to create smoke screens and for marking purposes. The IDF only uses weapons permitted by law. The IDF is obligated to international law, and in light of the [claims made in this article] some of the issues will be investigated.”)

By the time night fell on January 13th, 14 residents of Khoza’a had been killed, 50 lay wounded, and 213 had been taken to hospital for gas inhalation. Given the scale of destruction wrought by the invading army Khoza’a’s death toll was remarkably low. Indeed, the village’s story is significant largely because it is so ordinary.

Geography has etched violence into Khoza’a’s landscape for years. Farmers tending their fields regularly come under fire from Israeli troops across the border. Only two days prior to the invasion, a string of air strikes had devastated a group of houses near the “green line”. Seven months earlier – just two days before the old ceasefire came into effect – Aiya al Najar, an eight-year-old girl, was shot by an apache rocket as she stood on the roof of her home. It tore her body apart so extensively that they carried it away in buckets, “like pieces of meat in a plastic bag”, according to one cousin. Two years before that Aiya’s brother, 18-year-old Zaki, was shot dead in a ground operation.

Residents are adamant that the closely-knit village has never been a base for Hamas fighters. They are convinced that the attacks are part of the Israeli state’s plans to expand its border buffer zone westward. “They wanted to send a message to our village: ‘Leave, leave your land behind,’” says Samer al Najar, Yasmin’s father, while monitoring his daughter’s recovery at home. “But this was the land of our fathers and will be the land of our children, so we stay. We sleep in tents in the rubble rather than finding shelter elsewhere. And although there is no armed resistance here, amid this violence the act of staying becomes a resistance, and that is why they are afraid of us.”

Nor has the incursion really ended, at least in the minds of those who bore it. The day before I visited Khoza’a, a local who was inspecting the municipal water lines near the border – in co-ordination with the Israeli authorities – was shot at by troops, three days into a supposed ceasefire. The day after the cessation of hostilities was announced, Maher Abu Rajila ventured down to his farmlands to inspect the damage caused by the bombardment. He was killed by gunfire from within Israel. The children who sought shelter in the UN school are unwilling to return. “They’re too scared,” Imam tells me flatly.

In the aftermath of Khoza’a’s incursion, it’s the inanimate objects that stand out. Ala’a’s school notebooks flutter in the wind, blown open to the elements by the bombs that also twisted her bedroom upside down. Dusty teacups stand neatly to attention on kitchen windowsills bereft of their kitchens, the rest of the home curled up in pieces in a nearby street. These are the details that residents of the village keep pointing out to me, along with the animals and foliage: sheep, pigeons and trees mowed down from the sky.

Trails of phosphorus from the incursion remain buried under sandy ditches on the side of the road. Expose them to air and they burst into flames again; douse them with water and they splutter back into life within seconds. The kids kick them around sometimes for fun, half-heartedly pulling their jumpers up over their noses to smother the fumes. Last week, a nine-year-old boy named Adam al Najar took hits to his legs and chest when he triggered an unexploded landmine.

“They keep us awake at night with their bombs so we can’t sleep like other people sleep,” says Iman. “They fire missiles at our streets so our children can’t play like other people’s children. They bulldoze our land so our trees can’t grow like other people’s trees. But no matter how many they cut down, we will plant more and keep on standing.”