By Jeremy Salt – Ankara
(Mads Gilbert and Erik Fosse. Eyes in Gaza. London: Quartet Books, 2010.)
"They bombed the central vegetable market in Gaza City two hours ago. 80 injured, 20 killed, all came here to Shifa. Hades! We are wading in death, blood and amputees. More children. A pregnant woman. I have never experienced anything so terrible. Now we hear tanks. Pass this on, send it on, shout it out. Anything. DO SOMETHING! DO MORE! We are living in the history books now, all of us."
So wrote Dr Mads Gilbert at 1.50 pm on January 3, 2009. It was a message he tapped into his mobile phone. A professor of medicine at the University of North Norway in Tromso, he had come to Gaza with his old friend Erik Fosse, a professor of medicine at the University of Oslo, specialising in general surgery. Eyes in Gaza (London: Quartet Books, 2010) is their record of what they saw and experienced during this onslaught on a civilian population by 'the most moral army in the world', as the Israeli government and the army command itself routinely describe their military.
Mads and Erik arrived in Gaza City on New Year's Eve. By then Israel had been slaughtering civilians since December 27. On that first day of Operation Cast Lead, waves of Israeli aircraft and helicopters bombed government offices and police stations. Somewhere between 270 and 290 Palestinians were killed on that first day. The bodies of police cadets about to be admitted to the force were scattered across the road like leaves. The air attacks continued day after day, the death toll mounting remorselessly. No western journalists were there to record what was happening because the Israelis would not let them in. This edict was accepted docilely by governments and media organisations.
On January 4 the Israelis herded members of the Samouni family into a warehouse in Al Zaytun and kept them there overnight. Early the next morning the building was hit by two missiles. At least 26 members of the family were killed, ten of them children. When the smoke and dust cleared Meysa Samouni looked around to see the bodies and brains of her relatives lying on the floor, but the Samouni atrocity was only one of many. On the night of January 5 the Israelis bombed the four-storey building where the patriarch of the Daya family had gathered his children, grandchildren and other relatives for protection. At least 30 were killed. Many of the dead were children. Elsewhere children were killed as they played on roof tops and in their school grounds. Nizar Rayyan, a popular figure in Hamas, with a Ph.D. in the history of religion, refused to leave his house and died there with his wives and nine children when Israeli planes bombed it.
Wondering about the massacre of the Samouni family, Mads Gilbert asks the question: 'Could such a well organised and experienced army as Israel's have carried out a comprehensive massacre of defenseless, unarmed Palestinians?'. His answer to his own question is that it could and it did. 'There was a massacre. It was no mistake but evidently a systematically planned and executed Israeli military operation. Soldiers from the Israeli armed forces had carried out this monstrous operation. Our patient, little Jumana [nine months old and one of the survivors] was just one of many victims in the Samouni family that day'.
And monstrous is the word. Israeli unleashed its power against a defenseless civilian population. This was collective punishment on a huge scale. Planes, tanks, helicopters and missile-firing unmanned drone aircraft were thrown against the 1.5 million residents of the Gaza strip. Apartment blocks, schools, mosques and government buildings were pulverized. So were the people living in them or caught on the streets. One only has to think of Lebanon 2006, Lebanon 1996 (Operation Grapes of Wrath and the bombing of the UN compound at Qana) and Lebanon 1982 (17,000 dead topped off with the massacre of 800-3000 Palestinians by Israel's Falangist iron guard in the Sabra and Shatila camps) to understand that the large-scale killing of civilians is always a large part of Israel's 'military' operations. Go back and forwards over Israel's bloody history to the very beginning and it is strewn with the body of the dead.
There is a pattern here. The Israeli government knew what it was doing in Gaza. So did the military command. So did the pilots firing missiles at apartment blocks and the computer operators firing missiles from drones. They can watch the course of the missile from the time it is fired to the point of impact. They can see exactly what they have done. Over decades Israel has shown a total contempt for Palestinian life. Palestinians are expendable. Inflict enough suffering on the civilian population of Gaza and maybe Hamas will give in – that seems to have been the failed logic behind Operation Cast Lead.
Gaza was another example of how Israel has routinised and normalised extreme violence against the Palestinians. It never shows any sign of remorse for anything it does. It has an answer for everything and someone else is always to blame. Hamas, Hizbullah, Syria, Iran, even the US government when it does not do exactly what Israel wants. Netanyahu crows that he has Obama in the palm of his hand. Nine Turks are killed in an act of murder on the high seas and Israel tells Turkey to go jump. This was actually a casus belli for war – not that anyone seemed to notice. Now Israel is threatening Lebanon with a level of destruction in the next war that will eclipse what it did in 2006 yet noone in the 'international community' dares even to warn it off. If there is a point at which it will stop at nothing to get its way we have yet to see it. Not even the killing of hundreds of children in Gaza was enough to shake the conscience of the world. After all, they are only Hamas children, as a spokesman for the Israeli military said, as reported by Erik Fosse, and after all again, hadn't Hamas been firing missiles into Israel?
Mads Gilbert and Erik Fosse take us into the bloody heart of what the Israelis did in Gaza. And it is bloody – blood everywhere, blood on the floor of hospitals, blood on the bodies of the dead and wounded and on the clothes of the people carrying them in, blood smeared over the smocks of the surgeons, nurses and hospital orderliers, blood in bandages and waste thrown on the floor in the urgency of the moment. What they are describing is carnage. The bloody heart of Operation Cast Lead is severed limbs, bandaged heads, brain-dead children and screaming relatives in the Shifa Hospital, night after night and throughout the day as the hundreds of civilian victims of Israel's most moral army are brought into a hospital deprived of the means of providing proper treatment by the blockade.
The pictures tell much of the story. There is Jumana watching us, nine months old, a survivor of the Samouni family massacre, half her hand amputated. There is the casualty ward, two people being operated on the same time, doctors in green and the patients covered in green. There is the leg with shrapnel wounds, huge patches of flesh missing all the way up to the knee – how can that leg possibly be repaired? And there is one of the worst photos, of Ahmad, twelve years old, both of his legs and most of his genitals blown off:
“There was soot and signs of burn on both the stumps. They were not bleeding which is a sign that much of the remaining tissue is dead. I examined his scrotum – it had been torn open and the one remaining testicle was laid bare. We laid him on to his side to assess the injury to his back. I saw that the whole of the anus and lower rectum had gone, along with most of the musculature of the left buttock. The skin was burst and it looked as if the muscle had been cut away with a knife. In the lower part of his body there were hundreds of little puncture wounds. I had never seen this type of injury before. It must be a new type of weapon.”
The new weapon appears to have been a DIME (Dense Inert Metal Explosive) bomb made of glass fibre, with wings and a navigation system of its own and so light and small that several can be carried by a drone aircraft. It is designed to kill people within a very specific area. Ahmad died, of course, but the surgeons managed to keep him alive for long enough for his father, a surgeon at the hospital, to come and say his farewells.
Here are other photographs. A victim from the bombing of the Maqadma mosque in Beit Lahya. A boy lying in bed with a fatal shrapnel injury to the brain. An even younger boy lying on his back, his body flecked with shrapnel injuries after being hit by a missile. His cousin died immediately. He died in hospital. An elderly man waiting for his hand to be amputated. 'What have I done wrong?'. A young man screaming out as he carries the bloody body of a young girl into the hospital. A four year old girl with a massive wound in her back, exposing the vertebrae and spinal cord, still conscious but not crying. Even as the doctors and the orderlies struggled to repair the damage the Israelis made it less likely that they could, bombing hospitals, destroying ambulance depots and 29 ambulances and killing 16 health workers.
Mads Gilbert and Erik Fosse were witnesses to another dark episode in Israeli history. 'DO SOMETHING!' Mads implored the world in that mobile phone message but the world did nothing except stand by and let Israel get on with the job. One day it will surely regret all those occasions when it had the opportunity to punish Israel for its crimes but instead allowed it to continue on its bloody, destructive ever-widening path. Norway gave the Palestinians the 'peace process', unfortunately. Thankfully, it also gave them Mads Gilbert and Erik Fosse, two decent and compassionate men. Their record of what Israel did in Gaza will stand alongside the Goldstone report as part of the record of war crimes committed by Israeli soldiers and pilots and commissioned by their government and the heads of their armed forces. May the day come when they are brought to justice.
- Jeremy Salt is associate professor in Middle Eastern History and Politics at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey. Previously, he taught at Bosporus University in Istanbul and the University of Melbourne in the Departments of Middle Eastern Studies and Political Science. Professor Salt has written many articles on Middle East issues, particularly Palestine, and was a journalist for The Age newspaper when he lived in Melbourne. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.