By Flora Nicoletta – Gaza
It was just the beginning. The first day of the war launched by Israeli Occupation Forces against the Gaza Strip, was Saturday 27 December 2008. In Gaza City, many targets were bombarded; among them, the Arafat police compound (Al-Jawazat), Al-Mashtal interrogation and detention center, Al-Abbas main police station, the headquarters of the Security and Protection Force, the Saraya security compound – including Gaza Central Prison. The destruction of the Ministry of Interior, located in the compound of ministries, started at 1:30 three nights later, on Tuesday, 30 December.
I saw what I thought to be collaborators already on duty on the very first afternoon in front of the destroyed Al-Abbas police station. I saw the same spies in the evening at Al-Shifa hospital in front of the morgue.
There, lined up on the tarmac, were lying twenty, thirty corpses of martyrs. Since the early morning, families came to collect their loved ones and more and more bodies were brought in. It was like a nightmare. Blankets, sheets, newspapers were insufficient to cover all of them. The morgue was too small and their number too big. Nothing was sufficient to cope with such carnage.
The third evening of the war I lost my small bag containing the two keys to my home. At that point there was nowhere for me to report the loss of the bag; all uniformed officers and police vehicles had disappeared.
A few days later, in a completely deserted street, in the early afternoon, I saw two young men. They could be only from the security. I asked them to help me because I didn’t know what to do or where to go. They replied: "Don’t worry, we are here and we work in the street." They made a call, and shortly thereafter, a couple of young security men arrived and collected all the information concerning my bag. The appeal was forwarded on their wireless.
Later on, I met a police officer who used to patrol the fishing harbor. He told me the police were in the street, under the tree. The man I met there was acting like a simple policeman. He introduced himself as a colonel. He wore his winter police jacket, dating back from the time he was an officer under the Fatah regime. He was a real colonel, confident and spoke good English. Although he used to be a commander, he looked fragile and vulnerable. He sent two security people to speak to the owner of my flat. And then I could see first hand how the police were always present and bravely worked under the shelling of the city. But that is another story.
I ventured daily to Al-Shifa hospital to admire with my own eyes the exceptional results of precise Israeli air strikes, US smart bombs thrown by the Israeli air force, the we-hit-Hamas-only and, alas, the unfortunate collateral damage.
The main entrance of the hospital was kept free for the continuous arrival of victims transported in ambulance, private vehicle, taxi, truck and by human transport – victims carried in the arms of family or friends. And a lot of people were going there, even after the old Al-Burno mosque was bombarded and entirely destroyed, on Sunday, 28 December, 2008, at 1:00, just a few steps from Al-Shifa, causing heavy damage all around and to the hospital itself.
The colonel was present each and every day, somewhere in the city, working in the open under the evergreen trees. The citizens could find the police force and the security at their disposal. It was surreal. They were like magicians trying to make things happen with little or no resources, under the constant threat of F16 warplanes, drones, helicopters, bombings, explosions, demolitions, shootings and the blaring of ambulance sirens. One morning, I saw a group of armed men fleeing. Their mission was to arrest someone who was selling overpriced flour to a desperate public.
In the streets, one would come across people wearing long jackets. Their beards were cut. Sometimes, the butt of a rifle was coming out from the bottom of a jacket. With the passing of days and the increase of the military aggression more and more, they appeared to be former Fatah forces in civilian clothes. Perhaps, it was a tactic from Hamas to disguise themselves… or, perhaps, Fatah militants joined them indeed.
One morning, in Al-Shifa courtyard, appeared several new ambulances. It was written on each of them: a gift from the Turkish government. An ambulance driver told me: "Ankara has given fifteen ambulances to the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah [the second government of the Palestinian people]. They have kept ten for them and given five to Gaza. Maybe, in Ramallah, they don’t know there is a war here."
Then came to help foreign doctors from Europe and the Arab world. One Algerian told me that they faced enormous difficulties to cross into Gaza on the Egyptian side of Rafah. My friend, an independent UK surgeon, with a Greek TV crew had to battle several days at the Rafah border before being able to enter Gaza. She saw two senior Iraqi surgeons turned back at the border by the Egyptian police and two ambulances sent by the Dubai government were turned back too.
One afternoon, an inert man covered in blood was brought to the Emergency Dept on a donkey cart. Another afternoon, in the courtyard, we saw very elegant ambulance drivers and paramedics wearing orange and green overalls and caps, the same colors of their ambulances. They were sent by the Cairo government.
Not a single place was safe. Under the constant threat of Israeli air strikes, Al-Shifa hospital – the main treatment provider in the Strip – became the center of life and death in Gaza in every sense of the word. The compound was a bee-hive soaked in blood. The heart of Gaza was beating in Al-Shifa.
In the astonishing always cleanliness of the courtyard one morning my friend from Al-Daya family was standing alone: "Today [Tuesday 6 January], at 6:00, they bombarded a building inhabited by my relatives in Al-Zaytoun, twenty-six were killed." Finally, the death toll was only twenty-two and one injured.
Here, in the courtyard, I saw the boy Loa’i Soba, 10, who lost his eyes to the white phosphorous – on Wednesday 7 January, in Beit Lahia – taken by ambulance to Egypt. Here, the beloved John Ging, head of UNRWA operations in the Gaza Strip, spoke to the media: "I’m not a doctor… but I have seen horrible injuries!"
Here, I met my friend Nahed Abu Harbeed from Beit Hanoun, a former journalist with the now defunct local radio station Voice of Freedom: "One week before the war one of my brothers was martyred. During the war, [on Saturday 3 January] a missile was fired at the doorstep of our house: one brother was killed, another one lost his two legs amputated in the middle of his thighs, the third one lost one leg."
It is here that one of his colleagues informed me that my friend Hamza Al-Sharnubi had been martyred, on Saturday 3 January, in Al-Zaytoun neighborhood. Hamza worked with the security unit in charge of the foreigners’ protection. I met him first in August 2008 when arrived the first two boats from Larnaca. Hamza, 22, father of a baby girl, was tall and handsome, flamboyant and superb, elegant and sweet. Last autumn he was riding a motorcycle with his eternal smile… a smile to conquer the world. He was a resistance fighter. Everybody loved Hamza.
One evening, the always present Nidal, always in black, always in the street with his rifle on the stomach – a sort of secretary-bodyguard for the colonel – lent me five shekels to have some drink in the cafeteria of the hospital. Established a few years ago, the cafeteria was like an oasis, raised in the middle of green belts and medical buildings: handsome and modern, with beautiful colors, lighted thanks to the hospital generator, and with a TV set. There, the Palestinians were watching themselves in the hands of barbarians, in their solitary confinement in the Gaza Strip, on Al-Jazeera TV.
With the passing of time, maybe the colonel found it more comfortable to work behind a desk. So he installed an old table and a broken chair under eucalyptus trees, in the street. An extremely precarious location. I was trembling for the colonel. Till the end he never lost his smile and his kindness, only a few times I saw him with a very grim face.
When we woke up, on Monday 19 January 2009, "Operation Cast Lead’ was over. We all went out of our homes and we were speechless… we found the desert around us. Israel, famous for having made the desert bloom, had made the desert in the Gaza Strip. However, we congratulated each other for being alive.
We saw on television the enemy ground troops leaving Gaza. Perched on the top of their monstrous tanks the soldiers were making with their fingers the "V" sign for their spectacular victory in the land of milk and honey.
It is true I have never seen my small bag again and was homeless most of the time, but I have seen the best of the Palestinian people, the best of humanity here. I have seen indescribable suffering. I have seen an immense chain of solidarity during a genocide in progress. I have seen heroes, but also cowards, altruists and crooks. I have seen the courage of anonymous and humble citizens, of the local media, the human rights field workers, the civil defense, the ambulance drivers, the police and the security apparatus, their steadfastness and efficiency. I had the privilege to be a witness of contemporary Palestinian history. The Gazan people were left completely alone. The people won.
Nidal got his first star and 100 dollars as a reward the day after the war ended for his bravery in the street. One of the commanders of Hamza Al-Sharnubi told me: "Nothing has been left of Hamza, not even the nail of his little finger. One-ton bomb was dropped on the building." The old Al-Burno mosque was rapidly rebuilt: a metal structure covered with different kinds of nylon sheets.
I heard the salaries of the police were paid during the war passing from hand to hand. Ali, a young police investigator and one of the survivors of Al-Abbas – 9 killed, 23 injured – blamed me: "Despite everything you knew I was injured you didn’t come to visit me… you didn’t even take the pain to call me…." Three months later, with his usual gentleness, he added: "You’re my sister… you were wrong!"
After the war the international media were authorized to enter the Gaza Strip. The foreign NGOs returned precipitously with their flags like a cloud of hungry crickets. The international community came to count the dead.
However, the injuries didn’t heal and the limbs of the amputees didn’t grow back…The spring that followed was an autumn.
– Flora Nicoletta is a French freelance journalist who lives in Gaza. She is currently working on her fourth book on the Palestinian question. She contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.