Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, August 2006, pages 10-11

Gaza on the Ground

Israel Incites Violence With Massacre on Gaza Beach

By Mohammed Omer

A handout photograph released by the Israeli army shows an Israeli navy vessel shelling a beach in the northern Gaza Strip June 9 (AFP Photo/HO/IDF).

CELEBRATING the end of the school year, hundreds of families gather on the vanilla sands of Al Sudania. A salty breeze coaxes kites higher, their rag-tag tails snapping a rhythm as children splash, play and bob in the gentle waves of the Mediterranean. As mothers unpack picnic baskets, giggles mix with the sound of sea birds fighting for crumbs, and children transform wet sand into towns and villages. Above it all, proud fathers survey their families, trading tales beneath the soothing rays of the sun.

A day at the beach, a time of innocence and memory cherished by millions around the world—the essence of childhood. But this beach is in northern Gaza, not in Brazil, Spain, California or anywhere else in the world.

For the families enjoying an afternoon at the beach in Beit Lahiya, Gaza, June 9, 2006 will be forever remembered as the day heaven collided with hell. Few on the beach registered concern over an Israeli gunboat trolling off the coast. Its maneuvering went unnoticed—until, in an instant, giggles turned to screams, laughter to terror, and the serene vanilla sands bled red as the gunboat’s shell exploded in the midst of the Ghaliya family’s picnic.

The Smoke Clears

A sulfuric pungency clung like a fog, mixing with drying blood. The acidic smell of burnt flesh quickly replaced the crisp salty air and friendly breezes. As the smoke cleared, crimson-stained sand settled, revealing a mangled kite perched atop several pairs of children’s sandals, discarded sand sifters, beach toys and body parts. The scene was an eerie eulogy to the carefree and happy circumstances present only minutes before. Now seven people, including three small children, were dead. On beach blankets surrounding ground zero, another 40 lay bleeding and wounded.

A young girl writhed and, wailing, dropped to her knees in anguish beside the body of a slain man.

“Father, father, father!” screamed 12-year-old Huda Ghaliya.

But 49-year-old Ali Ghaliya would never again answer his daughter’s pleas. He, his 35-year-old wife, Raisa, and Huda’s four siblings—Haitham (5 months old), Hanadi (18 months), Sabreen (4 years) and Elham (15 years)—lie in pieces, dead on the shores of the Mediterranean. No stranger to tragedy, two years before Huda lost two other relatives when an Israeli shell hit their Beit Lahiya farm.

Mustering her courage at the hospital, still shaking in disbelief, Huda’s voice wavered as she described her family’s last moment.

“I was eating corn...,” she sniffled. “And my mother was nursing Hanadi. My sister [from her father’s first marriage] was laughing and hugging her baby, Mohammed. Four-year-old Sabreen sat making domes for her sand mosques as my sister Elham laughed at her.”

Huda paused, her clothes still stained in blood.

“I walked a few meters away eating my corn; then a rocket hit my family. I didn’t know what happened. All I saw was my mother and sisters,” she added, tears streaming down her cheeks and falling to the ground.

“I saw them bleeding. I saw hands, legs and heads mixed with our belongings, I’m afraid, afraid,” she cried uncontrollably, as a nurse walked up to comfort her.

Zakaria Abu Harbid, the cameraman who took the video shots shown around the world, described the tragedy. “I got a call saying bombing,” he explained, “then I went with an ambulance driver. I was the first to arrive there.

“I found people’s flesh scattered everywhere. I didn’t know what to do, but I immediately began filming the child hysterically crying. I cried while I was filming, seeing children’s clothes and all things mixed with flesh and blood,” he said.

Another witness, Adham Abu Heen, his voice constrained by shock, mumbled in disbelief, “Yellow corn mixed with red-stained mudsand; pieces of flesh covering blankets where they sat together. I didn’t know what to do. I grabbed something to help. I don’t remember if it was an arm or a leg—horrible, horrible. How can I ever go to the beach again?” he asked, his eyes vacant and searching.

The Official Response

Three young children were among the seven people killed when an Israeli military vessel shelled a Gaza beach where families were picnicking (Photo M. Omer).

President Mahmoud Abbas condemned the attack, stating, “What the Israeli Occupation Forces are doing in the Gaza Strip constitutes a war of extermination and bloody massacres against our people.”

Said Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri, “The Zionist Occupation insists on killing and doesn’t distinguish between civilians and freedom fighters.”

Indeed, for 16 months the Islamic Resistance Movement of Hamas refrained from retaliating against numerous Israeli attacks on Palestinian civilians. As more children die, however, more people demand action, revenge and retribution. The militant factions appeared to have had enough, issuing the statement: “The earthquake in the Zionist towns will start again; the aggressors will have no choice but to prepare their coffins or their luggage.”

When Israel was held accountable for the attack, it came up with three excuses. First, it said the shelling was an accident. Then that it was defending itself by targeting a location from which it said Qassam rockets were fired into Israel. But Qassam rockets have a maximum range of four kilometers, and Israel is farther away. Then it began to insist that responsibility lay with the Palestinians—who do not have access to the kind of weapon used. The litany of excuses obscures the real question: who benefits?

Despite Israel’s weekly bombing raids, its confiscation of Palestinian tax revenues, border closures and attempt to starve the population into submission, Hamas refused to engage Israel in a tit-for-tat “cycle of violence.” Diplomacy, not retaliation, was the preferred response. But after the Israeli naval ship fired onto a crowded beach, Hamas will be seen as inept if it does nothing. If it does act, of course, Israel will use the retaliation to insist that Hamas can neither govern nor live in peace. The trap is being laid.

When Hamas called for the end of Israel’s apartheid state, the West heard only “Israel.” Screamed the headline in the following Sunday’s New York Times: “Ending Truce, Hamas Fires Rockets into Israel”—conveniently omitting the fact that Hamas was the only party observing a truce. The number of Palestinian civilians killed by Israeli forces since February 2005 is proof that Israel never did.

Now seven more people are dead and 40 more are wounded. A girl not yet a teenager is orphaned. By attacking a crowded beach, Israel has gotten what it wants: conflict. Diplomacy, the hallmark of a civilized society, lies shredded beneath the propeller of a gunboat. In its wake, the Israeli government now has an excuse to avoid negotiations. And the people of Gaza, entering their 40th year under Israeli apartheid, have their rallying cry: a family’s blood-soaked sandals lying in crimson sand.

Mohammed Omer reports from the Gaza Strip in occupied Palestine, where he maintains the Web site <http://www.rafahtoday.org>. He can be reached at <[email protected]>.

SIDEBAR

E-mail From Gaza

“Listen, I have a few minutes left on this laptop battery, and now the battery is ringing. I’m in the hospital taking photos of the attack and wearing my heavy bullet-proof jacket. It’s not easy here. I’m afraid—not about getting killed, but about get injured, paralyzed or losing my sight. It’s tense now...Hell hell hell...

“There is no electricity in Gaza, and water is running out, cash machines aren’t working, we can’t......sorry, the battery is ringing and it can stop any second. I must run now. Bombing here nowwww...”

—M.O., June 28, 2006

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