There was blood on a broken plastic yellow slide and a crippled, dead donkey with an upturned vegetable cart beside it. Aubergines and splattered blood covered the ground. A man began to explain in broken English what had happened. ‘It was full here, full, three people dead, many many injured.’
An elderly man with a white kuffiyeh around his head threw his hands down to his blood drenched trousers. ‘Look! Look at this! Shame on all governments, shame on Israel, look how they kill us, they are killing us and what does the world do? Where is the world, where are they, we are being killed here, hell upon them!’ He was a market trader, present during the attack.
He began to pick up splattered tomatoes he had lost from his cart, picking them up jerkily, and putting them into plastic bags, quickly. Behind a small tile and brick building, a man was sitting against the wall, his legs were bloodied. He couldn’t get up and was sitting, visibly in pain and shock, trying to adjust himself, to orientate himself.
The police station itself was a wreck, a mess of criss-crossed piles of concrete – broken floors upon floors. Smashed cars and a split palm tree blocked the road.
We walked on, hurriedly, with eyes skyward at four apache helicopters – their trigger mechanisms supplied by the UK’s Brighton-Based EDM Technologies. They were dropping smoky bright flares – a defence against any attempt at Palestinian missile retaliation.
Turning down the road leading to the Diere Balah Civil Defence Force headquarters we suddenly saw a rush of people streaming across the road. ‘They’ve been bombing twice, they’ve been bombing twice,’ shouted people.
We ran too, but towards the crowds and away from what could be target number two, ‘a ministry building’, our friend shouted to us. The Apaches rumbled above.
Arriving at the police station, we saw the remains of a life at work smashed short. A prayer mat clotted with dust, a policeman’s hat, the ubiquitous bright flower-patterned mattresses, burst open. A crater, around 20 feet in diameter, was filled with pulverised wall and floor debris and a motorbike, tossed on its side, toy-like in the crater’s depths.
Policemen were frantically trying to get a fellow worker out from under the rubble. Everyone was trying to call him on his phone. ‘Stop it everyone, just one, one of you ring,’ shouted a man who looked like a captain. A fire licked the underside of an ex-room now crushed to just three feet high. Hands alongside hands rapidly grasped and threw back rocks, blocks and debris to reach the man.
We made our way to Al Aqsa hospital. Trucks and cars loaded with the men of entire families – uncles, nephews, brothers – piled high and speeding to the hospital to check on loved ones, horns blaring without interruption.
Hospitals on the brink
Entering Al Aqsa was overwhelming, pure pandemonium, charged with grief, horror, distress and shock. Blood-covered and burnt bodies streamed by us on rickety stretchers. The morgue was a scrum of shouting relatives, crammed up to its open double doors. ‘They could not even identify who was who, whether it is their brother or cousin or who, because they are so burned,’ explained our friend. Many were transferred, in ambulances and the back of trucks and cars, to Al Shifa hospital.
The injured couldn’t speak. Casualty after casualty sat propped against the walls outside, being comforted by relatives, wounds temporarily dressed. Inside was perpetual motion and the more drastically injured. Relatives jostled with doctors to bring in their injured in scuffed blankets. Drips, blood-streaming faces, scorched hair and shrapnel cuts to hands, chests, legs, arms and heads dominated the reception area, wards and operating theatres.
We saw a bearded man, on a stretcher on the floor of an intensive care unit, shaking and shaking involuntarily, legs rigid and thrusting downwards. A spasm coherent with a spinal cord injury. Would he ever walk or talk again? In another unit, a baby girl, no older than six months, had shrapnel wounds to her face. A relative lifted a blanket to show us her fragile bandaged leg. Her eyes were saucer-wide and she was making stilted, repetitive, squeeking sounds.
A first estimate at Al Aqsa hospital was 40 dead and 120 injured. The hospital was dealing with casualties from the bombed market, playground, Civil Defence Force station, civil police station and also the traffic police station. All levelled. A working day blasted flat with terrifying force.
At least two shaheed (martyrs) were carried out of the hospital. Lifted up by crowds of grief-stricken men to the graveyard with cries of ‘La Illaha Illa Allah’, there is no god but Allah.
According to many people here, there is nothing and nobody looking out for them, apart from God. Back in Shifa hospital tonight, we meet the brother of a security guard, who had had the doorway that he was sitting in fall down upon his head. He said to us, ‘We don’t have anyone but God. We feel alone. Where is the world? Where is the action to stop these attacks?’
Majid Salim, stood beside his comatose mother, Fatima. Earlier today she had been sitting at her desk, at the Hadije Arafat charity, near the headquarters of the security forces in Gaza City. Israel’s attack had left her with multiple internal and head injuries, a tube down her throat and a ventilator keeping her alive. Majid gestured to her, ‘We didn’t attack Israel, my mother didn’t fire rockets at Israel. This is the biggest terrorism, to have our mother bombarded at work.’
The groups of men lining the corridors of the overstretched Shifaa hospital are by turns stunned, agitated, patient and lost. We speak to one group. Their brother had both arms broken and has serious facial and head injuries. ‘We couldn’t recognise his face, it was so black from the weapons used,’ one explains. Another man turns to me and says, ‘I am a teacher. I teach human rights – this is a course we have, “human rights”.’ He pauses, ‘How can I teach,my son, my children, about the meaning of human rights under these conditions, under this siege?’
Its true, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) and local government schools have developed a human rights syllabus, teaching children about international law, the Geneva conventions, the International Declaration of Human Rights, the Hague regulations. To try to develop a culture of human rights here, to help generate more self confidence and security and more of a sense of dignity for the children. But the contradiction between what should be adhered to as a common code of conduct signed up to by most states, and the realities on the ground is stark. International law is not being applied or enforced with respect to Israeli policies towards the Gaza Strip, on ’48 Palestine, the West Bank, or the millions of refugees living in camps in Lebanon, Jordan and Syria.
How can a new consciousness and practice of human rights ever graduate from rhetoric to reality when everything points to the contrary – both here and in Israel? The United Nations has been spurned and shut out by Israel, with Richard Falk the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights held prisoner at Ben Gurion airport before being unceremoniously deported this month. Deliberately blinded to the abuses being carried out against Gaza by Israel, the international community speaks empty phrases on Israeli attacks, urging ‘restraint’ to ‘minimise civilian casualties’.
The Gaza Strip is one of the most densely populated regions on the planet. In Jabbaliya camp alone (Gaza’s largest camp), 125,000 people are crowded into a space only two kilometres square. Bombardment by F16s and Apaches at 11.30 in the morning, as children leave their schools for home reveals a contempt for civilian safety. As does the 18 months of a siege that bans all imports and exports and has resulted in the deaths of more than 270 people as a result of lack of access to essential medicines.