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Gaza dispatch: When tanks shell refugee camps

In Jabaliya sustained Israeli shelling has obliterated entire families, leaving them homeless and with few options to rebuild.

Scenes of destruction abound along Gaza’s eastern border. From its northern tip to the southern town of Rafah, entire blocks along this 25-mile-long strip have been flattened, displacing hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, overwhelming the makeshift shelters of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, and threatening to delay the beginning of the school year here.

But for all the trauma felt by the newly displaced, residents of Gaza’s refugee camps have suffered an especially cruel fate since Israel began its ground and air invasion five weeks ago. Nowhere is that more pronounced than in Jabaliya, where sustained Israeli shelling has obliterated entire families, leaving them homeless and with few options to rebuild.

“UNRWA can only help people in its schools,” says 27-year-old Yusef Balata, who was just outside his home when Israeli shells killed all 11 family members inside, including five children. Balata and his cousins have returned to the scene everyday since the July 29 attack, picking through the rubble for reminders of the departed.

Ahmad Balata, 18, holds up a bib and tells me it belonged to his one-year-old cousin, whose body was buried in parts. Ahmad stands nearly seven feet tall but seems to shrink at the thought. He kneels down again and finds a birth certificate, a prescription, an immunization record – all bearing his cousin’s name.

Ahmad Balata digs through the rubble to find reminders of his one-year-old cousin, whose body was buried in parts (photo: Samer Bedawi)

Ahmad Balata digs through the rubble to find reminders of his one-year-old cousin, whose body was buried in parts (photo: Samer Bedawi)

Home to more than 100,000 people, the Jabaliya refugee camp is Gaza’s largest. Most here hail from villages and towns that were either destroyed during Israel’s creation or “cleansed” of their Palestinian inhabitants and rebranded with Hebrew names. But ask anyone in this 1.4-square-kilometer space, and they can still name where their families’ homes used to be.

That’s no minor detail for a population that, like Gaza’s itself, is mostly below the age of 29 – and certainly too young to remember the Palestinians’ 1948 nakba, or catastrophe. Unlike that first generation of displaced, though, Jabaliya’s youth have known only this ramshackle life, where rows of concrete and corrugated steel are their only sense of shelter.

Now, even that is gone.

At the outset of Israel’s most recent ground invasion into Gaza, this refugee camp suffered some of the most devastating tank shelling, including a July 30 attack on a UN-run school that killed 19 people seeking shelter there. A day earlier, at least two tank shells fell on the Balata home, according to neighbors and family members who helped extract the dead from the rubble.

Alaa Balata, 17, remembers carrying his eight-year-old brother, Yahya, to Kamal Adwan Hospital. “I held him in a blanket,” Alaa says. “He was still breathing, but his intestines were falling out.” Yahya later died on the way to Gaza City’s Al Shifa Hospital, where doctors had hoped to sew his wounds.

Alaa Balata is 17. On July 29, his entire family was killed by Israeli shelling (photo: Samer Bedawi)

Alaa Balata is 17. On July 29, his entire family was killed by Israeli shelling (photo: Samer Bedawi)

When I met Alaa fewer than two weeks after the attack, he was with his uncle, who is taking care of Alaa now. Abdel Kareem, 51, told me about his daughter Hadeel, whom he had nicknamed “Delo.” She died in the July 29 attack, but her father still speaks about her in the present tense, telling me she “wants to be a doctor.” He points to writing on the wall: “See, she wrote this.”

It reads: “Dr. Delo.”

Hadeel was 17. Her father, who nicknamed her "Delo," still speaks about her in the present tense, telling me "she wants to be a doctor." She and 10 of her family members were killed by Israeli shelling on July 29, 2014 (photo: Samer Bedawi)

Hadeel was 17. Her father, who nicknamed her “Delo,” still speaks about her in the present tense, telling me “she wants to be a doctor.” She and 10 of her family members were killed by Israeli shelling on July 29, 2014 (photo: Samer Bedawi)

“I don’t understand why they hit us,” Abdel Kareem says. Like other victims of Israeli shelling, he described the falling artillery as “random” – a claim backed by military experts who say there is no way to predict where the shells will fall. Abdel Kareem told me that researchers from a human rights organization (he couldn’t recall the name but said they were “foreigners”) had visited the scene days earlier and said they were looking into war crimes charges.

That stands to reason: Random tank shelling into civilian areas is bad enough. Even more horrific is when tanks shell refugee camps.

PHOTOS: Gaza’s half-million internally displaced
Dispatch from Gaza: Disaster zone
Refugees once again: Gazans who lost their home wonder what’s next

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    1. Whiplash

      Abdel Kareem says.

      “I don’t understand why they hit us,”

      Do you think it might be because Hamas located its military assets where you were. Hamas built underneath Jabalaia its military war machine, tunnels and stationed many of its fighters there. Hamas engaged in war, firing over 3,000 rockets at Israel, firing bullets and anti-tank rockets and planted other bombs and carried out attacks through its tunnels. Hamas transformed Jabalaia into a big battlefield. Hamas fired from in homes, hospitals, schools and all public areas. Their actions determined the response necessary to reduce the ability of Hamas to fight from that area.

      Israel warned the citizens to leave and those who did not leave have themselves to blame for not locating to another area not far away. And make no mistake, there are many areas in Gaza which have not been destroyed. It is quite remarkable the number of areas of Gaza with no apparent damage while other areas of intense fighting have been leveled. This tells one that Israeli strikes were not random against civilians but against the military complex of Hamas.

      Palestinians started a war and are paying the consequences.

      Reply to Comment
      • Felix Reichert

        Hamas only started firing rockets at Israel after Israel broke the truce with Hamas.

        Israel bombed sites in Gaza as early as June 14th, the third day of “Brother’s Keeper”, some of them belonging to the Al-Qassam-Brigades.

        Hamas only responded by firing its own rockets on July 8th, almost one month later.

        Reply to Comment
        • Whiplash

          There were approximately 150 rockets fired at Israel before Hamas kidnapped and killed 3 Israeli teenagers. Israel held Hamas accountable for every rocket fired and hit Hamas targets in response. There were approximately 80 Gazans dead when Israel offered quiet for quiet and about 150 Gazans dead when Israel again offered quiet for quiet. Hamas refused and Israel sent in the ground troops.

          There is a sense of deja vu here. In 1967 Israel warned Jordan to stay out of the 1967 war. Jordan believed Egyptian propaganda and attacked Israel, thereby losing the West Bank. In 1982 Palestinians broke their ceasefire with Israel and Israel invaded Lebanon and completely destroyed Arafat’s Palestinian Army. In 2001 the US asked Israel to hold back from responding forcibly to terror attacks and Hamas pulled off one more terror act killing 30 and injuring 150 at the Park Hotel in Netanya. Israel responded and re-took all of the West Bank. In 2008 Olmert warned Hamas if it did not stop attacking Israel, he would launch a ground offensive and he did.

          Palestinians must be extremely stupid or more likely extremely fanatical when they keep fighting wars which they can not win.

          Reply to Comment
          • Jan

            There is absolutely no proof that the Hamas leadership called for or approved the kidnapping and murder of the three teenagers. Netanyahu who knew that the boys were dead used their kidnapping as an excuse to unleash the IDF in Hebron and other parts of the West Bank. Hundreds of people were arrested and presumably are still in prison without trial. Hundreds of homes were ransacked on the pretext of looking for the boys. Several Palestinians were murdered by the IDF. That is what set off the rockets. Yes, there had been rockets before but Hamas had not sent rockets for some time. BTW, did you know that Sderot, the town where many of the rockets flew, was once the site of an Arab village whose residents were ethnically cleansed into Gaza in 1948? That village was one of close to 500 villages destroyed by Israel after 1948. Many of the people in Gaza are either those who were expelled or their descendants.

            Reply to Comment
          • Pedro X

            Israel has a confession from the Hamas operative who commmanded the kidnapping and murder. Times of Israel reports:

            “Mahmoud Kawasme’s brother, Hussam, was recently arrested by the Shin Bet and the police anti-terror unit near Jerusalem.

            Hussam Kawasme admitted during his interrogation that he was the commander of the two kidnappers, Marwan Kawasme and Omar Abu Aysha. All four live in the same area of Hebron. The latter two are from the Haris neighborhood, while the families of Hussam and Mahmoud live in the nearby Wadi Abu Ktayla neighborhood in the northwestern part of the city.

            Mahmoud Kawasme is a known Hamas operative who was imprisoned in Israel until the Gilad Shalit deal, when he was deported to Gaza under the terms of the agreement, which also obligated the former prisoners to not return to terror.

            Kawasme, though, continued to work with members of Hamas’s military wing there, in an attempt to bring about terror attacks in the West Bank. He maintained contacts with terror operatives in Hebron, as well as other cities like Tulkarm.

            According to Palestinian sources, Mahmoud Kawasme initiated and planned the kidnapping along with his brother Hussam. Senior members of Hamas’s military wing were aware of the plan, and gave him money to fund the attack. The kidnappers needed vehicles, Israeli license plates, weapons, and safe houses.”

            “After his arrest, Hussam admitted to receiving money for the attack from Hamas operatives in the Gaza Strip.”

            Reply to Comment
          • Mary Hughes Thompson

            Hamas didn’t kill the 3 Jewish settlers. It was probably Mossad, but it definitely wasn’t Hamas.

            Reply to Comment
      • catweasel321

        “Israel warned the citizens to leave and those who did not leave have themselves to blame for not locating to another area not far away.”

        I pity you, for you have no soul.

        Reply to Comment
    2. Tomer

      If you fire rockets at us, we will bomb your house. Its a very simple idea!!!!

      Reply to Comment
      • Sherri Munnerlyn

        It is a war crime.

        Reply to Comment
        • Whiplash

          Yes firing rockets at Israel is a war crime. Self defense against those rockets coming from Palestinian areas is not, even if there will be collateral damage. Israel warned them and they chose not to leave the battlefield created by Hamas. It is not like they could have not noticed the Hamas rockets flying out of residential, civilian areas. They knew before hand that Hamas had built a military complex under their neighborhood. All they had to do was to move a few kilometers west of their neighborhood.

          Reply to Comment
          • JG

            No, firing rockets at Israel is a form of resistance against ocuppiers. Not bthe best, but just a form. Deal with it.

            Reply to Comment
    3. carl

      Whiplash, you might be right, but in the 4 weeks before Hamas allegedly “kidnapped and killed 3 Israeli teenagers”, 12 Palestinians have been killed and this is something that goes on on a daily bases.

      Assuming that these kassamim can be somehow compared with the bomb dropped by Isreal on Palestinian families – I repeat, Families: http://www.btselem.org/gaza_strip/201407_families

      and ignoring for a second the fact that Palestinians cannot rely on any defense and are killed with live ammunition without any form of piety or justice:
      a) video 1 (9 Aug 2014):

      b) video 2: 11 year-old shot dead (10 Aug 2014): http://electronicintifada.net/content/photos-and-video-tender-farewell-hebron-boy-shot-dead-army/13745

      Furthermore, I think that without context we don’t understand much. This is part of the context (sorry if it is too long):

      From IMEU:

      Since 1991, Israel has made it increasingly difficult for Palestinians and commercial goods to enter or leave Gaza. Following Israel’s withdrawal of settlers from Gaza in 2005 and Hamas’ victory in Palestinian Authority parliamentary elections in 2006, restrictions on the movement of people, goods, and supplies were further tightened as Israel implemented a siege and naval blockade on Gaza in conjunction with Egypt. In doing so, Israel has deepened the separation it began imposing between Gaza, the West Bank and the rest of the outside world during the 1990s, in violation of the Oslo Accords, which specified that the occupied Palestinian territories should be treated as one territorial unit.

      Since 2000, Israel has prevented students in Gaza from traveling to study at universities in the West Bank, some of which offer fields of study and degrees not available in Gaza. According to a report from Haaretz newspaper, between 2000 and 2012 Israel let just three Gazans travel to study at universities in the West Bank, all of whom had received US government scholarships. (See fact sheet here for more on Israel’s violations of Palestinian academic freedom and right to education.)

      According to Israeli human rights organization Gisha, as of July 9, 2014, before Israel’s latest assault on Gaza began:

      More than 70% of the population of Gaza received humanitarian aid.

      The official unemployment figure as of the first quarter of 2014 was 40.8%, compared to 18.7% in 2000.

      From January to June, Israel allowed an average of 17 truckloads of exported goods to leave Gaza each month, less than 2% of what exited monthly before 2007.

      Israel prevents access to a “buffer zone” beginning 300 meters (328 yards) from the boundary line between Israel and Gaza, denying Palestinian farmers access large parts of Gaza’s already scarce arable land.

      As of July 6, 2014, Israel limited fishing in Gaza’s territorial waters to just three nautical miles off the coast, barring Palestinian fishermen from reaching fertile fishing grounds further out in violation of the terms of the Oslo Accords, which stipulated a fishing limit of 20 nautical miles.

      According to a 2012 joint report by Save the Children and UK-based Medical Aid for Palestinians:

      10% of children under five experienced stunted growth due to prolonged malnutrition due to the blockade and siege.

      58.6% of Gaza’s schoolchildren were anemic, as were more than 68% of children aged nine to 12 months and nearly 37% of pregnant women.

      According to UNICEF, more than 90% of the water from Gaza’s only aquifer is unsafe for human consumption due to pollution, while repairs to Gaza’s sewage and water infrastructure cannot be carried out because of Israeli restrictions on the entry of building materials and equipment.

      Gaza suffered from severe shortages of electricity due to Israeli restrictions on imports of equipment needed to replace and repair the electrical infrastructure, even before Israel bombed Gaza’s only power plant during its latest assault.

      In August 2012, the UN released a report entitled Gaza in 2020: A Liveable Place?, which noted that unless Israel ended its siege and urgent action was taken to reverse its effects:

      [By 2020 there] will be virtually no reliable access to sources of safe drinking water, standards of healthcare and education will have continued to decline, and the vision of affordable and reliable electricity for all will have become a distant memory for most. The already high number of poor, marginalized and food-insecure people depending on assistance will not have changed, and in all likelihood will have increased.”

      Reply to Comment
      • Whiplash

        Yes Carl Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank, usually during clashes, except for the murder of one child. Palestinians send their children and young men out to riot and confront Israelis troops. Confrontations can turn deadly. On top of the regular violence, Israeli troops and border police are fighting organized terror. Shin Bet says it stopped 284 such attacks in 1 and 1/2 years. Palestinians often try to interfere in arrest operations and start rioting, causing more opportunity for injury and death.

        Palestinians could have had a 20 km fishing zone if there was not gun and rocket running.

        The environment and related problems in Gaza are all related to the people of Gaza having embraced terror and not infrastructure building, health care or careful management of their water resources. Israel has invested billions in water management and desalination plants. The Palestinians have not. They invested in terror and in the meantime have polluted their own water resources in Gaza. They have drilled improper holes and have drawn down the resource in excess of which it can replenish itself.

        Palestinians can hardly complain of electrical shortages when their power plant is unable to work at full capacity since Palestinians never built out the relay networks required. There is poor health care because Palestinians invested billions of dollars of war material and paying terrorists salaries instead of in health care.

        When Israel permitted building supplies into Gaza they ended up in concrete tunnels and permitted Hamas to use smuggled supplies for its military activities instead of going into civil projects.

        Gaza only has itself to blame. Gaza can disarm and enjoy the fruits of peace in time.

        Reply to Comment
    4. maya

      With all sympathy for the displaced and homeless, something in this sentence makes no sense:

      “In Jabaliya sustained Israeli shelling has obliterated entire families, leaving them homeless and with few options to rebuild.”

      If entire families were ‘obliterated’, they cannot be at the same time homeless. They are dead.

      Reply to Comment
      • Gustav

        It is known as hyperbole, Maya.

        Reply to Comment