Each day, wherever we go we are struck by the extent of the destruction. We take photos and film everywhere we go, but the scale of the devastation is impossible to capture on camera. Previously busy neighbourhoods have been flattened into moonscapes.
Other large areas look like they’ve been hit by earthquakes. There is no lens wide enough to embrace the sheer dimensions of the devastation.
Orchards and road have been churned up by Israeli army tanks and armoured D9 bulldozers; the latter sometimes dragging plough-like hooks which ripped the roads behind them – just one example of wanton destruction. Buildings with no apparent military value have been destroyed in vast numbers.
Power lines have been torn down, and water mains ripped up. Gaza’s infrastructure, already much debilitated by previous waves of destruction and years of sanctions, is now in dire condition. Prolonged blackouts are the norm, tens of thousands of people have no access to clean water and sewage is now flowing in the open from the broken conduits.
Artillery shells, designed for use in conventional battlefield scenarios, have been fired into dense residential areas. It’s hard to see what military sense this makes. The Israeli army claims that they are firing at militants launching rockets, but artillery is, in military jargon, an area weapon, wholly unsuitable for pinpoint targets.
Israeli forces also fired mortar shells into the street outside an UNWRA school in Jabalia killing at least 41 people, among them 10 members of one family. In an UNRWA primary school in Beit Lahiya, where 1,898 people were sheltering from the fighting, an artillery shell hit a classroom on the second floor where 35 people were sleeping at 6am one morning. Two brothers, aged five and seven, were killed.
Their 18-year-old sister was grievously injured and had to have her leg amputated. Their mother lost a hand and sustained a serious head injury. Twelve others were injured. Their relatives told us that they had fled their homes to escape the bombardments and had come to the school hoping to find safety.
Shortly afterwards, a classroom on the same floor was burnt out in a fire caused by white phosphorus. Luckily, those sheltering there, including three disabled people, were able to escape.
Time and again today, Monday 19 January, people told us that during the past three weeks there had been nowhere for them to go where they could feel safe. Schools, medical facilities and UN buildings all took direct hits.
By the rubble of the American School in Gaza we met the father of school guard Mahmoud Mohammed Selmi Abu Qleiq, who was killed when Israeli F16 aircraft bombed the school campus. It was Gaza’s only international school, providing a progressive, co-ed style of education in English, and presented itself as ‘part of the vision for the future of Palestine’. Now all that is left of the school is a huge mass of tangled wire and gigantic concrete slabs.
The old man sat overlooking the rubble and explained how he tried to call his son’s mobile phone when he heard the huge explosions, but he never answered… His son’s body was found 50 metres from the school.
We also inspected the main UNRWA Field Office in Gaza City, which came under Israeli fire on 15 January. The warehouses full of food, medicine and other humanitarian aid were destroyed when white phosphorus and high explosive Israeli artillery shells hit the compound, causing a huge fire.
Four days later, the fire is still burning – the charred and smouldering remnants of millions of dollars’ worth of food and medicine all destroyed. The ground outside the warehouses is still slick with the thousands of litres of burning cooking oil that spilled out. Several UN vehicles were also destroyed in the attacks.
The compound is in a busy, densely populated area in the centre of Gaza City and at the time of the attack some 700 people had just flooded into the UNRWA compound to escape the Israeli bombardments. But it too proved to be a dangerous haven.
UN staff showed great personal courage in driving full fuel tankers out of the compound under fire. Repeated calls to the Israeli authorities by UN officials failed to stop some 10 shells being fired directly into the facility.
It appears to have been only by good fortune that the hall where the 700 plus people from neighbouring buildings were sheltering wasn’t hit, or that the fuel trucks didn’t explode. Many people escaped death and injury by the narrowest of margins. But the food and medicine have been destroyed, and so too has people’s belief that they could find safety in a UN compound.
At the al-Quds Hospital in Gaza City, we saw the wrecks of several destroyed ambulances. We heard from medical staff there how Israeli tanks had crushed ambulances to make roadblocks. The hospital buildings were hit in the attack, and their medical stores burnt. Doctors told us how panicked patients had to be evacuated from the hospital under fire.
Hundreds of people from nearby buildings had taken shelter in the hospital buildings, just as others elsewhere in the city had sought refuge in the UN compound or schools, believing that they were places safe from Israeli attacks. They were wrong.