It’s the most scary way to die, by a tank shell,” Palestinian journalist Mohammed Omer told Socialist Worker. “They just bomb and bomb and bomb. At least with an Israeli F16 missile, you know that someone is watching you. And he knows he is going to kill somebody. So it’s deliberate.
“But tank shells, they just go anywhere. You don’t know what they’re going to hit.”
Mohammed was describing what it was like to live through Israel’s six-week long assault on the Gaza Strip, which began a year ago this month.
His new book, Shell-shocked: On The Ground Under Israel’s Gaza Assault, is a series of dispatches written during those six weeks in which Israel killed 2,251 Palestinians.
Mohammed’s book tries to tell the human stories behind the figures.
“The book is based on people that I met, events I have survived and attacks I have seen with my own eyes,” he explained.
“The international media has dealt with people killed in the Gaza Strip as numbers. But who are the Palestinians?
“There are the mothers, there are the children, there are the fathers. There is the little girl who got stuck, and her body needs to be dug out of the ruins of her destroyed home. And her brother is alive underneath the rubble—but they can’t get him out under the heavy bombardment of tank shells.”
The book follows the release of a United Nations (UN) report detailing Israel’s actions during the assault.
The UN said it had gathered “substantial information pointing to the possible commission of war crimes by both Israel and Palestinian armed groups”.
Any equating of Israel’s crimes with the actions of Palestinians resisting them will rightly anger many people. But Israel’s tactic of deliberately targeting residential areas is central to the UN report.
It pointed out, “Many of the incidents took place in the evening or at dawn, when families gathered for iftar and suhhur, the Ramadan meals, or at night, when people were asleep.
“The timing of the attacks increased the likelihood that many people, often entire families, would be at home.”
Like every Palestinian living in the Gaza Strip, Mohammed has experience of Israel’s attacks on people’s homes.
“I remember I was talking to Mr Jundia—who I talk about in the introduction of the book —and then suddenly this F16 missile hit a house nearby,” he said.
“We were just taken by the pressure of the airstrike. This was a civilian home. There is no misunderstanding here.”
The Shujai’iya neighbourhood in the east of the city was among those that suffered the most.
At least 100 Palestinians were killed and more than 300 injured in just one day of heavy bombardment.
Mohammed’s book relates the scale of the carnage in vivid detail.
One resident, Omar, witnessed a family of 12 trying to flee the bombs being “blown to pieces, splattered all over the walls and concrete”.
“Then he saw a small child’s face—the top of a child’s head,” Mohammed wrote.
“The rest was split into pieces. His mother’s body was blown into small pieces.”
The main purpose of Israel’s assault was to crush the Palestinian resistance group Hamas along with other groups like it—something it failed to do.
But for Mohammed, the attack was also about collectively punishing ordinary Palestinians.
Israel’s bombing of Gaza’s cemeteries the night before the first day of Eid showed this up.
This is a day when Muslims in Palestine traditionally visit graveyards to pay their respects to the dead.
Israel also targeted hospitals and UN schools sheltering Palestinians who had fled their homes.
Mohammed reported from Al-Aqsa hospital in central Gaza. “Dr Khalil Khattab, a surgeon, was operating on a patient when the ?rst shell struck,” he wrote.
“He ran to the doors below to discover at least four dead and dozens of colleagues—doctors, nurses, orderlies and administrators—injured.
“The medical staff had become patients.”
And he described one scene from Beit Hanoun in northern Gaza, where three UN schools were acting as shelters before Israel shelled them.
“The peaceful light-blue walls of UN schools are still spattered with blood. The children who once studied here have suddenly been forced to see another face of their school.
“The black-and-white ?oor is covered with pools of blood. A bloodsoaked blanket and a pair of lonely sandals are scattered nearby.
“The blood belongs to the people who were fasting here, waiting to break their fast three hours later.”
But Mohammed is also keen to show the spirit of resistance among Palestinians.
In one dispatch he told how displaced Gaza residents, sheltering in a school, resolve to bake a traditional Eid cake despite the bombardment.
“The Israelis should know they will not stop us from ?nding some joy in making Eid cake,” one of the refugees told Mohammed.
She added that the cake represents “resilience and resistance”.
Mohammed also reported how support for resistance groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad grew during the assault.
He told Socialist Worker the reason for this was simple.
“The mentality of people here is that we are dying anyway,” he said.
“It’s better to die with some form of resistance than die when you are totally naked, without any support.”
Mohammed interviewed a number of Palestinians during the assault.
Ibtisam, who Mohammed identifies as a housewife, said, “We have only Allah, then Hamas. I have always respected them for the work they do.
“They have helped through charity—helping many women and orphan children when the rest of the world turned their backs on them.”
Even many of those who disagreed with Hamas politically supported their physical resistance to the Israelis.
Othman, a taxi driver, said, “I never liked Hamas, because I disagree with their approach to ending conflict, but I am afraid we could not achieve our rights through other methods.
“Now, Hamas sacrifces their lives and are owed our respect for trying the new approach—which is armed struggle—to end Israel’s siege and open the borders to freedom.”
A year on, Palestinians are still suffering the aftermath of the war.
Some have tried to flee the Gaza Strip via tunnels, before joining the thousands of other migrants and refugees trying to cross the Mediterranean.
Those who remain are stuck in a destroyed city. The UN estimated that more than 100,000 Palestinian homes were damaged or destroyed over the course of the bombing—leaving 108,000 people homeless.
But the reconstruction process—that forces Palestinians to apply to Israel for building materials—has barely begun.
“Not one single home has been rebuilt in Gaza,” Mohammed told Socialist Worker.
“When you have a destroyed home there is a committee. Israel looks and says, you need five bags or six bags of cement, two kilos of steel and 15 or 20 kilos of gravel, something like that.
“And they give it to you and you end up saying, this is not enough.Also, they haven’t taken into consideration the cost of labour.
“It costs maybe one or two thousand shekels for a worker to come. They don’t have that.
“So people took the cement, sold it in the local market for a much higher price, and they survive.
“It used to be 25 shekels per cement bag. Now it’s close to 120 —before it was 200. So the easiest thing to do is to sell it, then get some plastic or rent a home and live like that.”
The suffering is compounded by the fact that the onslaught badly damaged much of Gaza’s basic infrastructure.
The destroyed sewage system meant that Gaza was hit by severe flooding after torrential storms in the winter.
And the Strip still has power cuts—Gaza’s only power plant was also deliberately bombed last year.
But Israel’s assault also meant that, just as support for the resistance grew inside Gaza, so did support for the Palestinians internationally.
Millions around the world watched in horror and disgust as Israel’s slaughter of the Palestinians continued last summer. Hundreds of thousands of people protested in towns and cities in different countries across the world.
In August, more than 150,000 people took to the streets for the biggest march in solidarity with Palestine Britain has ever seen.
It was part of an international Day of Rage that also saw up to 200,000 march through Cape Town in South Africa.
And the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which calls for a boycott of Israeli goods and services, has grown in strength.
This has been so effective that Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu denounced the National Union of Students in Britain when it backed BDS last month.
Mohammed welcomes this. “Mobilisation, advocacy and working for justice in Palestine is getting more and more organised,” he told Socialist Worker.
“Now we see the more Israel is imposing aggression on Palestinians, the more solidarity movements like BDS are getting powerful around the world.”
Mohammed hopes his book can boost the growing number of people who want to take action against Israel.
“I’m really hoping that the book will be educational,” he said.
“I’ve always liked the idea of a book being talked about at the dinner table—to be brought into the discussion to talk about Gaza.
“So that’s what I try to do with my book. To try to help people understand what’s going on. To bring a voice for those who have no voice.”
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