4 February 2009: As we leave after more than two weeks in Gaza, we are still shocked and horrified by the scale of the destruction caused by the 22-day offensive the Israeli army launched on 27 December. The task of reconstruction will be truly immense.
The main priority in our fact-finding research has been to investigate the Israeli forces’ direct and indiscriminate attacks on civilians and their homes, but, before concluding our visit, we also spent some time focusing on the wholesale destruction of factories, workshops and farms, for which it is difficult or impossible to see any possible justification. What we found was even worse than we had first realized.
In the industrial areas to the north-east and south-east of Gaza City there is total devastation; each factory has been methodically destroyed. At the cement factory near the Zaitoun district of Gaza City, we found the same. Every single vehicle – trucks, cement mixers, even the car of the factory’s elderly watchman – had been overturned, dragged through the yard and partially crushed. Whether by design or due to some bitter irony, only a previously broken down vehicle was left untouched and in its place.
To the east of Jabalia, in the ‘Izbet ‘Abderrabbo/Al-Qarm industrial area, we saw just piles of debris between the Haddad tile factory at one end and the Abu ‘Ida cement factory at the other. Pieces of machinery, merchandise, metal sheets from the roof and bricks from the surrounding walls had all been smashed and mangled together by the Israeli army’s destructive machines – particularly their infamous D9 armoured bulldozers.
In the same area, dead cows and sheep still litter the grounds of what used to be a dairy farm, posing a health risk to the thousands of now homeless residents who have set up camp nearby by the ruins of their destroyed homes.
Children are especially at risk. The mountains of rubble left from destroyed houses and factories are now virtually their only playground. Gaza’s schools, which had to be turned into shelters during the three-week conflict for the tens of thousands forced to flee their homes, are now functioning again, but, once the school shift, is over, children have to return to the reality of their devastated homes and neighbourhoods.
It is hard to think of a more unsafe environment for children to play than among the smashed buildings with their often dangerously hanging ceilings, collapsing walls and with metal spikes and the thick dust from crushed asbestos roofs all around. But that is all they have for now and can expect to have for a long time to come, so great is the destruction.
As well, there is a constant danger from unexploded ordnance, as we witnessed at the site of one demolished house, where we saw children handling an Israeli anti-tank mine that had failed to explode; Israeli soldiers used these mines to demolish Palestinian homes. By the rubble of another house, we found children setting alight RDX high explosive; this appeared to have been scattered because the bomb, which had contained it and which had been dropped on the home, had malfunctioned and failed to explode.
Children also keep unearthing the remains from white phosphorus shells fired by Israeli forces into civilian areas, whose fragments re-ignite as soon as the phosphorus is exposed to oxygen and cause a dense smoke, placing children at risk of being burnt and or inhaling the smoke and fumes.
John Holmes, the UN’s Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, who visited Gaza briefly last week, described what he saw as devastating. The UN has launched a flash appeal for US$613 million to aid the reconstruction of Gaza. However, as the people of Gaza begin trying to piece their lives back together, both they and the UN and other humanitarian relief agencies and NGOs who are leading relief efforts face an additional challenge – the ongoing Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip.
The fact is, conditions for the civilian population of Gaza – some 1.5 million people, the majority of them children – were already desperate before the latest Israeli military offensive was launched on 27 December. For the previous 18 months, Gazans had been surviving mainly due to assistance provided by the UN and other humanitarian agencies and NGOs due to the tight blockade of Gaza enforced by the Israeli army, though these agencies faced great difficulties in bringing even basic essentials into Gaza.
The Israeli blockade restricted or prevented entirely the entry of most goods into Gaza via the authorized crossings, leading to a dramatic increase in the use of underground tunnels to smuggle basic necessities into Gaza from Egypt. However, such smuggled goods – ranging from powdered milk and nappies for babies to live cattle to be slaughtered for meat – cost far more than most Gazans can afford to pay and their supply has been and is notoriously irregular.
In recent days and weeks, Israeli forces have targeted the tunnels, accusing Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups of using them to smuggle in parts to make rockets to fire at Israel, and have carried out extensive bombardment of the tunnels along the Gaza-Egypt border. Even so, some tunnels continue to function and it appears that more are being dug, despite continuing Israeli bombing and the risks this poses to those who dig and repair the tunnels so that goods and supplies can be passed through them.
Reconstructing Gaza will be a gargantuan task. Even clearing the rubble left over from the destruction of homes and factories, which must be done before any proper rebuilding can be started, presents a mammoth challenge. It requires heavy machinery and the fuel to operate it, but neither of these is available in Gaza.
Enormous as it is, the challenge facing the people of Gaza and the humanitarian agencies and NGOs trying to assist them is made even greater by the continuing Israeli blockade. This must be lifted and without delay. The Israeli authorities must allow free and unfettered passage into Gaza of the material and other resources, including machinery, spare parts and fuel, which are desperately needed for reconstruction.
And they must allow the unhindered passage of food and other necessities. The civilian population of Gaza must be permitted to resume their lives and not any longer be condemned to struggle for bare survival.
As well, the international community must put in place a robust mechanism to ensure accountability and reparation for the unlawful actions of all the parties to this grim conflict, which have caused such loss of life and wanton destruction. For the latter, it is time too for the international community to insist that Israel pay its share of the cost of reparation for what its forces wantonly destroyed.