Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, August 2006, pages 18, 25
On the Ground in Gaza
Operation Summer Rain: Hell Emerging From the Mist
By Mohammed Omer
ROCKETS BLAZED across a pitch-black sky, illuminating Gaza, its empty streets concealing traumatized families praying behind closed doors for an end to the terror. The onslaught commenced around 2:30 in the morning of Wednesday, June 28, first targeting the main bridges connecting Gaza City, refugee camps and other towns—isolating residents of “the world’s largest prison.” Moments later, another missile found its mark: the main power station. By the end of the night, both power stations were out. In an instant, Gaza was plunged into darkness.
Peering from inside their homes and businesses, families watched in horror as the flames of destruction shot from combat helicopters in the sky, providing a glimpse of the carnage surrounding them. All around, shells exploded, the sharp ting of shrapnel bouncing off empty walls in desolate streets, echoing in warning.
Through the smoke, parents sheltered their children within whole body embraces, nearly paralyzed by fear as they gazed from their hiding places into blackness. Slowly through the mist of smoke and dust, outlines became clear. Israeli troops mounted on tanks, armored vehicles and bulldozers descending on southern Gaza, seeking a soldier captured during a military raid on an Israeli outpost that had been bombing Gaza’s people for weeks.
The raid by Palestinian resistance fighters succeeded in taking out the position and embarrassing the Israeli military, which vowed revenge—collective punishment being the preferred method. With no army to defend itself, no tanks, helicopters, jets or bulldozers to fight the world’s fourth largest, and nuclear, military power, Gaza prepared for the worst. Each advancing second provided a clearer picture of the army emerging from the smoky mist: large, powerful and seemingly endless.
This invasion had little in common with the events of September 2005, when Israeli forces withdrew from Gaza to encamp on its perimeter. Then Palestinians rejoiced in the streets, waving flags in the belief that the humiliation of checkpoints, the waiting and daily incursions were forever relegated to the past. That reality never arrived, however. Instead Israel withdrew and placed Gaza in limbo, retaining total control over all aspects of life, including its airspace, water and commerce. Even the shelling did not end, as Israel fired more than 5,000 missiles and mortars at Gaza between October 2005 and June 9, 2006 (see story p. 10).
The morning after the attack, as the sun graduallly illuminated the sky, families piled into cars and horse-drawn carts, fleeing before the advancing Israeli army which was quickly overwhelming Rafah. Through back alleys and former markets, its soldiers prowled the streets, disabling the Gaza International Airport, which Israel continues to prevent from operating. Upon seeing the advancing tanks and bulldozers using the scorched earth policy and destroying everything in their path, Palestinian airport security fled. Behind them, Israeli snipers eliminated the airport’s electricity sources.
In eastern Rafah, Abu Adnan, 48, confirmed that Israeli bulldozers were demolishing greenhouses, olive trees and orange groves near the airport.
Impoverished and fragmented by lawlessness and political feuding, the Gaza Strip occupies a tiny sliver of land bordered by Israel, Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea. Israel has ensured it is under siege from all sides: its bulldozers and tanks are massed in the north, near the Eretz Crossing, and in the south, near the Karem Shaloum Crossing. Helicopters and F-16s bomb Gaza from the air, while the Israeli navy seals off the coast.
As Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri noted, the current reinvasion of Gaza was planned well before the capture of Cpl. Gilad Shalit. As was the case with Israel’s deadly 1982 invasion of Lebanon, the precipitating incident was just an excuse. The Popular Resistance Committees, Izzeddin Al-Qassem Brigades, the militant wing of Hamas, and the newly formed Army of Islam took full responsibility for the capture of the Israeli soldier, and offered to release him as part of a prisoners exchange. In return they demanded the release of the Palestinian women and children currently imprisoned in Israeli jails—many held without charges and several under the age of 10.
But Israel refused to exchange prisoners, stating instead that its army would attack Gaza.
“It’s obvious that this time the occupiers are not coming to play,” commented Salim Al Odaini, a resident of Rafah and the father of five, who at daybreak was running with his children, sandals dangling from their limbs, as they tried to escape the encroaching Israeli army. “They want to destroy and kill us,” he said. “They want to commit these crimes against humanity. I couldn’t sleep last night, fearing for my children, who also could not sleep and didn’t want to go back to their beds.”
A primary target of the Israelis were the main water stations, which supply the central part of Gaza with all its water. In the sweltering summer heat, often exceeding 85 degrees, lack of water is a death sentence for the elderly, the very young and the ill, who easily succumb to heatstroke and dehydration. After five months of blockades and siege, and now the loss of water and utilities, several hospitals no longer are able to function. Ultimately, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health, this will significantly increase the number of casualties.
“We are all leaving,” screamed Bahia Madi, who held her children tightly as she ran. “We’re afraid of the sweep.” Ahead of her lay Rafah Camp’s Abu Yousef Al Najjar hospital, where, God willing, she hoped to find shelter for her family.
Behind her, the faint outline of tanks emerged from the blackened mist.