GAZA – “Only aerial photographs of the Gaza Strip will make it possible to show and to comprehend the extent of the destruction,” a number of Western civilians said this week. They added: “But there isn’t a chance that Israel will allow anyone to come with a light plane and do aerial photography.”
The talk of aerial photography reveals the frustration felt by everyone who has managed to come here. The frustration derives from the conclusion that the real dimensions of the Israeli attack on Gaza are not being fully comprehended in the West and in Israel. They go beyond the physical destruction, beyond the numbers of the dead and the wounded, beyond the deadly encounter between a bomb dropped from an F-16 and the hollow concrete and gravel house in the Yibneh refugee camp in Rafah. Three siblings aged 4 to 12 were killed there. Parents and two sisters were injured. The mother – who was nursing her infant daughter and heard and saw the bomb rushing towards them – is in a state of shock. She stares out at the world from her hospital bed in Egypt, and does not speak. The physical injuries can be treated.
Volunteer doctors, architects who specialize in the rehabilitation of disaster zones, jurists whose aspirations reach into international courts for the investigation of war crimes, Red Cross teams, international human rights organization investigators with battle experience behind them, directors of government and independent development agencies, which transfer funds from development budgets to budgets for rehabilitation and rescue: All of them – not only journalists – are flooding the Strip, taking notes, taking pictures, exchanging information, documenting and carefully cataloguing what are emerging as patterns, phenomena that repeat themselves: shelling and bombing of buildings and enterprises that have no connection to the Hamas infrastructure – politically or militarily, the prevention of the evacuation of wounded, unfamiliar kinds of injuries, vandalism in homes that became Israel Defense Forces positions, destruction of agricultural areas and, above all, families – almost in their entirety – that were killed in their homes or as they tried to flee from the approaching tanks. This is the hardest work of documentation.
People have their own ways of trying to characterize their personal disaster: People whose homes or small businesses have been destroyed in the shelling and bombardments, though no one in their family was killed, say: “My damage is nothing,” as though embarrassed. This could be heard from a pharmacist and pharmaceuticals importer, whose warehouse of medications, the only on in the southern Gaza Strip, was bombarded. And nearly the same words were spoken by three brothers – a doctor, an engineer and a lecturer on biochemistry at Al Azhar University, whose family home in the eastern part of Jabalya was shelled with many different kinds of ammunition by the IDF. The house is included in the statistic of 17,000 homes that were partially destroyed, but it appears that it will be easier to raze it than to repair it.
“Tell Moshe and Kadosh from Moshav Mivtahim that the salaries they paid me for many years have been lost under the tanks of the Israel Defense Forces,” said a farmer from the area of Fukhari, east of Khan Yunis – and insisted on saying this in Hebrew. His house is a number in the statistic of about 4,000 homes that the IDF destroyed completely. In this agricultural area – “which in fact is called Kfar Shalom (Peace Village),” said some of its inhabitants, 92 houses were destroyed entirely and raked away along with their fields and groves and the livestock in them. We came there looking for an IDF position from which soldiers fired on Ibrahim Shurrab and his two sons: Kassab and Muhammad. The story of their killing has already been told in these pages. On January 16, during the daily cessation of fire, they were returning from their field to their home in Khan Yunis. One military position in a tank, at the end of the street, allowed them to keep driving. But from the second position they were shot at, from a distance of about 30 to 50 meters, as the father related. The position was in a house the inhabitants of which had fled several days earlier, together with all the people of the neighborhood. From the shooting, Kassab died on the spot. Muhammad, who was wounded in his leg, bled to death. The IDF allowed an ambulance to reach the site only about 23 hours later.
On Monday, on one of the walls of the house that became the IDF position from which soldiers shot the two brothers who died at their father’s side, we found two inscriptions in Hebrew: “The Jewish people lives” and “Kahane was right,” referring to right-wing extremist Rabbi Meir Kahane.
Everyone we meet has a tremendous need to tell his story. In minute detail. Again and again. Adnan told how he was saved from death seven times; Kauthar related how she fled with her children as the bullets and shells shrieked overhead and Taleb, in a tired voice, told how after 12 days in which he had lost all contact, the body of his sister and the body of her son, riddled with bullets, were found in their home in Beit Lahiya. This is the sort of thing that is impossible to quantify: The unending horror, for three weeks, the worry, the impotence, the thoughts that never leave about the relative who has bled to death, a meter or a kilometer away. In Gaza today, as students are returning to school and cars are again driving along the roads, the commonplace “life is slowly going back to normal” is more hollow and false than ever.
However, a count of the dead and the wounded is possible. And it has been and is being done. There is a difference of 85 dead between the figures that have been published by the Palestinian Ministry of Health and those that have been arrived at by the two leading human rights centers in the Gaza Strip – Mezan and the Palestinian Center for Human Rights. This gap, however, is not a result of an intentional inflation of the number of dead and wounded, but rather the result of a number of errors that occurred because of the heavy load: For example, in the aerial bombardment on Saturday, December 27, of the civilian police buildings in Gaza City, seven students of the nearby UNRWA vocational school were killed. All of them – inhabitants of Rafah. It is possible that they were listed twice – once as people from Rafah who were killed and once as people killed in Gaza City. There were people who were taken to Shifa Hospital who when they died were transferred to hospitals in the places where they had lived. It has happened that by mistake a number of names were listed twice. Sometimes there is an error in the name, which is later corrected. Sometimes neither a corpse nor remains have been located. In this way, the body of H., an Iz al-Din al-Qassam member, was lost. Only his shoes, which were found, confirmed that he had been killed. Four members of the Haddad family, parents and two children, got into a car and fled the army that was approaching the Tel al Hawwa neighborhood. A shell incinerated the car. The neighbors were able to identify the four scorched corpses only by the license number of the car, and they reported this to an investigator from the Palestinian Center. Nor is anyone able to intentionally lessen the number of Palestinian fighters who were killed. Every family is proud to say that its son fought and was killed in battle, so that sometimes the error could be the other way around: that someone is called a fighter because a certain organization adopted him, but in fact he was killed in his home and did not even know how to fire a rifle. Investigators who are very familiar with the field have their own ways of knowing who was an armed fighter and who was not. When on January 14 there was a report of four corpses in Shokka, east of Rafah, the field worker from the Palestinian Center knew the name of one of the dead and knew that he was from Iz al-Din al-Qassam. He concluded that two of the others, who were his age, were also in the military organization. However, the fourth man was 42 years old when he was killed, which is not so congruent with the profile of a “fighter,” and inquiries to his family confirmed that indeed he had no connection to the armed group.
In the two human rights organizations the confirmation of the names of those killed, their identity, their age and their sex is carried out in a number of ways: In real time, each of the organizations had field workers present at the hospitals. They saw the bodies and spoke with family members. Other investigators did everything in their power – in conditions of mortal danger and running between the bombardments – to get to the place where people were killed and wounded. If not there – then to the home of the family or the wake house. If this was not possible during the course of events – it is being done now. Each investigator has a detailed questionnaire that he goes over with all the affected families and in which all the details are recorded. The work of getting everything down in writing will take at least a month and a half or two months. Then in all likelihood the slight gaps in the figures of the two human rights centers will be corrected.
The data, according to the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, as of January 22, are as follows: 1,285 dead, of whom 1,062 were non-combatants (895 civilians and 167 civilian police). Of these, 281 were children (21.8 percent) and 111 were women. There are 4,336 wounded, among them 1,133 children. The 6-year-old girl who we saw in the Zeytun neighborhood, who holds her hands up in the air in fear every time the photographer brings his camera near her, is not included in the list of the casualties.