Although Ariel Sharon’s plan for the withdrawal of Israeli settlements from Ghazzah, and the redeployment of troops in the area, is part of a larger plan to secure Israel’s control over Palestine as a whole, it has been severely criticised by zionists who are determined that Israel should never, under any circumstances or for any reason, surrender any land at all to the Palestinians. As the crucial parliamentary vote on the plan approached (the plan was endorsed by 67 votes to 45 on October 26; see Editorial, p. 4), Sharon resorted to the one tactic he knows always rallies support among Israelis: attacking and killing Palestinians.
The Israeli attacks on Ghazzah began on September 30, when the Israeli army launched what it called ‘Operation Days of Penitence’, supposedly in retaliation for the firing of rockets from Ghazzah into Israel by Palestinian mujahideen. Palestinians had no doubt, however, that Sharon would have found some excuse for launching attacks at this time, because of the political pressure on him, and that the rocket attacks were only a pretext.
The murder of Iman al-Hams: brutal even by Israeli army standards
In a conflict in which Israeli troops have proved capable of incredible brutality, the killing of one 13-year-old Palestinian girl shocked even some Israeli soldiers.
It was 7am on October 5 when Iman al-Hams left home for school, a short walk from her home in the Tal as-Sultan neighbourhood of the Rafah refugee camp. Her school, near the Egyptian border, is overshadowed by an Israeli security tower, but children routinely pass it going to school, even though a 13-year-old boy was killed there last year and two pupils and a teacher were wounded earlier this year.
As Iman walked past the tower towards her school, she apparently entered a forbidden area, even though she was several hundred meters from the tower. Witnesses say that soldiers emerged from the tower and fired at her from a distance. She was reportedly struck by two bullets in the leg, fell to the ground, and then was executed by the commander of the Israeli troops, who walked up to her and fired a stream of bullets into her body. Doctors later reported that she had been struck by at least 17 bullets all over her body, and that her head was virtually destroyed.
Fouad Zaroub was among several Palestinians who saw the killing. “The girl was walking in the sand. She was shot from the army post, was hit in the leg, and started crawling. The shooting went on and soldiers arrived by foot. One came close to the girl, shot her, then walked away, turned back, and shot her some more.”
The Palestinian accounts were confirmed by Israeli soldiers quoted in the Israeli press. One reported that soldiers had told their commander not to shoot, it was just a small girl. “The commander approached her, shot two bullets into her, walked back towards the force, turned back to her, switched his weapon to automatic and emptied his entire magazine into her. We were in shock, we couldn’t believe what he was doing.”
General Don Harel, commander of Israeli troops in Ghazzah, investigated the killing and concluded within days that the officer had done nothing wrong. However, he was transferred “for losing the confidence of his soldiers”.
The operations began with a general invasion of the north of Ghazzah by Israeli troops and armour, supported as usual by aircraft and helicopter gunships, and followed by the armoured bulldozers with which the Israelis routinely destroy large swathes of built up areas, farmland, orchards, roads, and electricity and water supplies. Seventy-five Palestinians were reported to have have been killed within the first five days of the operation; by the time it was officially ended with Israeli troops pulling out of the Jabaliyyh refugee camp on October 17 (although operations continued at the Rafah refugee camp and elsewhere), at least 130 people had been killed, about a fifth of them children. Twenty acres of the camp had been razed to the ground, matching the destruction caused by the attack on Jenin two years ago. According to some reports, up to 5,000 people may have lost their homes and livelihoods.
As the debate in Israel on the withdrawal from Ghazzah intensified, Brigadier General Obed Tira, a former commander of Israeli forces in Ghazzah, wrote of the problems of forcing settlers to vacate the Ghazzah settlements: “Evicting someone from the home they have lived in for 20 years isn’t a simple matter... to remove a family from its home is embarassing and difficult, and that is why the removal needs to be done with a lot of love and a lot of wisdom.”
There was, however, little embarassment, love or wisdom to be seen as the Israeli troops moved to destroy Palestinian homes in Ghazzah’s refugee camps. The invasions often come in the middle of the night, with Palestinians being woken by blaring loudspeakers ordering them to vacate their homes within minutes as they are about to be destroyed. As Palestinians try frantically to wake and prepare their children and elderly relatives in the time available, those leaving their homes are frequently fired on by Israeli troops, particularly if they are seen to be carrying possessions with them or trying to re-enter their homes to help relatives or pick up more possessions.
The Guardian newspaper quoted a few of the experiences of residents in Khan Younis: “‘I grabbed [my blind brother and sister] by the hand and shouted to my mother to follow us’, said Ghalia Abu Radwan. ‘Think of it – 25 children, two blind adults and my parents who cannot run. My sister-in-law left her three-year-old behind in the chaos and had to go back to get him. When we got back, they had destroyed all the houses.’
“Mrs Abu Radwan’s mother, Ommuhammad thought she would also die. ‘I kept imagining a piece of shrapnel hitting my head. I was so exhausted I had to crawl in the sand sometimes or put my hand on Ghalia’s shoulder and let her pull me,’ she said. ‘Since 1948, the Israelis have demolished three of my homes. This is the most difficult because before others helped us to rebuild. But now everyone needs help and I don’t know who will help us.’”
As the Israelis subdued the attempts of Hamas and Islamic Jihad to resist their invasion, and settled into occupation of large areas of Ghazzah, close to the border with Israel, there was terror also for those Palestinians who were trapped in Israeli-controlled areas, forced to remain in their homes, sheltering in basements or backrooms, remaining away from the windows for fear of being shot by marauding Israeli soldiers, and trying to survive as best they could while the Israelis wilfully destroyed roads, water and electricity supplies, sewage pipelines and other parts of the area’s already-limited infrastructure.
Guardian journalist Chris McGreal also confirmed that families trapped in the Israeli-controlled areas are used as human shields, reporting that “when the Israelis set up a sniper’s post, for instance in an apartment that is on the fourth floor of a building, they usually force the family to remain in the flat because it discourages the insurgents from blowing up the building.” (Democracy Now, October 4, 2004).
Once the Israelis withdrew from their areas, Palestinians tried to return to their homes to retrieve what they could. Slowly they drifted back into the devastated areas, having difficulty in identifying the remains of their own homes, so great was the destruction. Entire buildings had not only been destroyed, but reduced to piles of rubble and bulldozed into the ground, so that it was impossible even to tell the remains of buildings apart, let alone retrieve anything from them.
Although some expected that the suffering of the Palestinians in Ghazzah would decline once the withdrawal plan was announced, in fact it has increased, with the Israelis determined to punish the Palestinians for forcing them out, destroying as much of Ghazzah’s infrastructure as possible. Kenneth Ross, director of Human Rights Watch in Ghazzah, said after visiting the Jabaliyyah camp that “One would have thought that the Israeli withdrawal would decrease house demolitions. In fact they have increased dramatically. This seems to reflect on the one hand a political show of force and Sharon’s desire not the be seen to withdraw under fire, but also part of a plan to create a buffer zone around Ghazzah’s borders. It is also part of the wider pattern of collective punishment against Palestinian civilians.”
As usual, the Israelis also targeted Hamas and other community leaders, to inflict as much damage as possible on the Islamic movements that lead the Palestinians in Ghazzah, organizing the social and community welfare programs as well as political and military resistance. This policy, which has resulted in the deaths of nearly 200 leaders and activists, as well as many more civilians, has been compared to the “elitocide” carried out by the Serbs in Bosnia, when all public figures and professionals were systematically murdered in order to deprive the Bosnians of leadership and guidance.