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Gaza dispatch: Why the destruction in Beit Hanoun is different

Local residents tell me that previous Israeli attacks on Beit Hanoun had targeted homes much closer to the border. This time, the military took aim at the center of town. Why? 

As negotiations over a long-term Gaza truce draw to a close in Cairo, their success may hinge on a key Hamas demand – facilitating civilian access to the West Bank. The demand, say observers here, is about more than humanitarian needs. Linking the two territories would strengthen a Palestinian reconciliation deal forged in April – a deal Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has refused to recognize.

On the ground in Gaza there is little evidence that Netanyahu intends to accede to the Hamas pre-condition. Nowhere is that more plain than in Beit Hanoun, the Palestinian town at Gaza’s northeastern edge that is home to the only civilian passage out of the territory. The lone administrative building on the Palestinian side of the Erez crossing has been destroyed by an Israeli airstrike, and during a site visit there on August 6, the only incoming passenger was a foreign journalist.

Erez: The lone administrative building on the Palestinian side of the Erez crossing has been destroyed by an Israeli airstrike (photo: Samer Badawi)

Erez: The lone administrative building on the Palestinian side of the Erez crossing has been destroyed by an Israeli airstrike (photo: Samer Badawi)

Nearby residents say the desolation is nothing new. Permission to exit through Erez falls to the Israeli Security Agency, and permits are limited to “humanitarian cases, with an emphasis on urgent medical” ones, according to the Israeli human rights organization Gisha.

What’s different after Israel’s latest military campaign here is that the areas surrounding Erez have themselves become no-go zones, pummeled by shelling and airstrikes that have displaced thousands and destroyed homes deep into the heart of Beit Hanoun.

A stone’s throw from the centrally located UN-run school shelled by Israel on July 24, killing at least 15 people seeking shelter there, 10-year-old Ahmad Kafarneh is camped out with his father, younger sister and cousin, across from a pile of rubble that used to be their home in Beit Hanoun. When I ask Ahmad where exactly his home was, he points to a wooden trunk shorn of bark, and tells me: “There, where the tree used to be.”

The scene is a familiar one all along Gaza’s eastern border, where the UN estimates that Israeli bombing has forced more than half a million Palestinians from their homes. In areas like Shejaiya and Khuza’a, though, the destruction is eerily “neat” – rows of homes, up to a kilometer deep, leveled to the ground or so badly damaged that they are uninhabitable.

A mosque minaret rises among the ruins of Al-Nada towers after they were destroyed by Israeli strikes in Beit Hanoun, northern Gaza Strip, August 4, 2014. The towers had 90 flats. So far, Israeli attacks have killed at least 1,870 Palestinians, and injured 9,470 since the beginning of the Israeli offensive (photo: Activestills)

A mosque minaret rises among the ruins of Al-Nada towers after they were destroyed by Israeli strikes in Beit Hanoun, northern Gaza Strip, August 4, 2014. The towers had 90 flats. So far, Israeli attacks have killed at least 1,870 Palestinians, and injured 9,470 since the beginning of the Israeli offensive (photo: Activestills)

In Beit Hanoun the damage extends much further. Local residents tell me that previous Israeli attacks had targeted homes much closer to the border, but this time the military took aim at homes and facilities at the center of town.

The UN school-turned-shelter was one of them. Not far from its location, 18-month-old Muhammad Wahdan was badly burned by the blast of an Israeli airstrike that killed his mother and father and injured his two other brothers, Omar and Mus’ab. The three share a room in the pediatric ward of Gaza City’s Al Shifa Hospital, surrounded by surviving relatives who spoke of relentless bombing at the outset of Israel’s military campaign a month ago.

Eighteen-month-old Muhammad Wahdan was badly burned by the blast of an Israeli airstrike that killed his mother and father, and injured his two brothers, Omar and Mus'ab (photo: Samer Badawi)

Eighteen-month-old Muhammad Wahdan was badly burned by the blast of an Israeli airstrike that killed his mother and father, and injured his two brothers, Omar and Mus’ab (photo: Samer Badawi)

“The thing about Beit Hanoun,” said one visitor at Al Shifa, “is that it’s exposed from the east and the north” – a reference to Israel’s ability to station tanks along its western and southern borders near the Gaza town. (I saw as much while entering Gaza myself on July 31: Dozens of tanks filed in and out of the northern tip, and entering reporters could hear near-constant shelling from multiple directions.)

If there was a military rationale for the bombing along Gaza’s eastern border, it’s unclear how it would apply to Beit Hanoun. Israel has justified its actions in the hardest-hit Palestinian towns, like Shejaiya and Khuza’a, by claiming that Hamas tunnels ran underneath their eastern-most neighborhoods – a claim undercut by the military’s repeated shelling of central Gaza. A more likely explanation is that the destruction in Beit Hanoun is aimed at further eroding Gazans’ access to Erez and, through it, the West Bank and Israel. That the majority of Gaza’s population traces its roots to towns and villages largely depopulated by Israel in the run-up to its creation, only adds insult to injury.

For now, Gaza’s Palestinians continue to pay a heavy price for their aspirations. As Erez lies in ruins, more than 1,800 Palestinians have been killed in Israel’s latest military campaign, some 10,000 injured, and a further half a million displaced from their homes. If the destruction in Beit Hanoun is any marker, their suffering has only just begun.

This is Netanyahu’s final status solution
Gaza’s half-million internally displaced
Refugees once again: Gazans who lost their home wonder what’s next

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    1. Whiplash

      Samer, you know why there is no link between Gaza and the West Bank. Hamas and Islamic Jihad have coordinated from Gaza the funding of and the carrying out of terrorist attacks against Israelis from operatives from the West Bank. 1100 Israelis were killed and over 8,000 injured in the second intifada. So the link was severed.

      In 2005 Israel left Gaza with a substantial hi tech greenhouse business in tact with a plan to provide a link between Gaza and the West Bank. Gazans tore down the greenhouses and Hamas used the former Israeli communities in Gaza as launching pads for missiles. In addition Hamas attempted on many occasions to export their missile technology to the West Bank but so far have failed.

      Hamas since the end of the second intifada re-established its terror cells and community organizations. In the last one and a half years the Shin Bet says it has stopped 284 terror plots, 45% of which Hamas was planning. 28 of those attacks by Hamas were planned kidnappings.

      Then Hamas in 2014 succeeded in the kidnapping and murder of 3 Israeli teens. Court documents show that the lead Hamas operative in the abduction was funded by Hamas in Gaza. The Hamas operative in the West Bank provided the guns to the kidnappers who killed the youth and helped bury them on land he bought from monies he earned as a Hamas terrorist.

      Until Hamas and the other terror groups are completely disarmed, there should be no link between Hamastan and the West Bank. Israel should not be expected to make it easier for terrorists to kill more Israelis.

      Reply to Comment
      • Gearoid

        Documents show no such thing you dishonest shill. They show that the main kidnappers brother in Gaza provided money. Not Hamas. Numerous Israeli intelligence officials have said there is no link they’ve found yet.

        “Disarming” Gaza is not a realistic goal. That’s just a cheap talking point.

        Reply to Comment
        • Pedro X

          You say it is not true. National Post:

          “A Palestinian arrested by an Israeli anti-terrorism unit has confessed that the abduction and murder of three Israeli teenagers in June was funded by Hamas from Gaza, according to court documents made public Wednesday.”

          Globe and Mail:

          “The court document said Kawasme had admitted to helping to organise the kidnapping – securing funding from the Hamas Islamist group in Gaza and purchasing weapons which he passed on to the two other suspects who carried out the attack.

          Kawasme also helped to bury the bodies of the teenagers in a plot of land he had bought a few months earlier, it said.”

          New York Times:

          “According to the court documents, Mr. Qawasmeh told the police during an interrogation that he had helped organize the kidnappings and had gotten money for the task from Hamas.”

          Maan News:

          “According to Israeli media, Hossam Kawasmeh said during interrogation that he received financial help from Hamas operatives in Gaza to recruit and arm the kidnappers.”

          Reply to Comment
          • Ray

            A few holes here. For instance, the questions still remains as to why:

            A. Hamas bosses would want to jeopardize (which is exactly what happened) their involvement in Abbas’ coalition government, and basically their entry into mainstream civil society, and possible electoral dominance of Palestinian politics.

            B. Why Hamas has not claimed responsibility, like it has always done in this situation (and other groups have).

            There is also the possibility that the person in question simply told his interrogators what they wanted to hear, or that they were doing what the Soviet secret police had a long history of doing: using interrogations as a means of coercing a certain kind of “confession” out of a suspect, one that would be of political use to them, regardless of truth.

            Reply to Comment
          • Pedro X

            Why? Hamas’ military wing are calling the shots. It did not want a coalition government with Fatah. This is similar to when Cpl Shalit was kidnapped by Hamas’ military wing and other terrorist groups. The political wing had no idea that the operation was taking place.

            The political wing did not take responsibility because it knew the children kidnapped were dead and there was no political gain from taking responsibility. The military wing did not take responsibility because they had no hostages since they were killed.

            Reply to Comment
          • Pedro X

            Goldmarx, the Buzzfeed article has someone saying that the Hamas operative was tortured without ever having talked to him. How credible is that? The lawyer who is related to the suspect, suggests that other people have been heavily tortured, so the suspect must have been also. Heavy torture in Buzzfeed eyes is being made to stand or hang in an uncomfortable position. Police forces in North America routinely make suspects stand or sit in uncomfortable positions.

            Reply to Comment
          • Goldmarx

            If you read the link carefully, you’d see that it is not BuzzFeed, but Fadi Qawasami, the lawyer, who uses the term ‘heavy torture’ to describe what his client endured. He does not detail what that consisted of.

            Only the word ‘torture’ is used to describe being made to sit or hang in uncomfortable positions, not ‘heavy torture.’ And the fact that the US does it as well does not make it right. These matters are constantly being challenged in this country by the American Civil Liberties Union, among others.

            Reply to Comment
          • Pedro X

            The person who claimed the Hamas terrorist was tortured was his lawyer, Fadi Qawasami, who had never spoken to his client. So what is that worth?

            Reply to Comment
    2. Average American

      You’re joking Whiplash. Israel’s objective is clear. Control all of The Land Of Israel for The Jews. Nobody else. That is the charter of the State of Israel. Israel was created to expand. So why not make Gaza what the West Bank is, occupied and controlled by Israel? There were no qualms about occupying West Bank, why are there for Gaza? Then no more rockets from Gaza, right? No more brave Israeli soldiers killed. No more Gazans killed. Why doesn’t Israel do that? Because Israel needs an enemy to fuel its ultra-nationalist xenophobic racial fascism.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Whiplash

      Israel did and does not want to control or rule Gaza. After the 1967 War Israel proposed giving Gaza back to Egypt and Judea and Samaria back to the Jordanians. The Arabs said no peace, no negotiations and no recognition of Israel. They tooled up for war and waged a war of attrition for several years followed by the Yom Kippur War in 1973.

      In 1978 Israel and Egypt offered the Palestinians a place at the peace table and autonomy to rule themselves. The Palestinians said no, they only wanted to destroy and takeover the Israeli state. When Israel made peace with Egypt in 1979, it proposed to hand Gaza to Egypt to administer and control. Egypt said thanks, but no thanks.

      Pursuant to the Oslo Accords of 1993 Israel handed control of Gaza to the PA. In 2005 Ariel Sharon pulled out all troops and Jewish communities. In 2007 Hamas conducted a coup and threw the PA out. Hamas intensified its rocket attacks on Israel and on border crossing points. Israel implemented a legal blockade.

      Hamas has now fought three wars with Israel attempting to get Israel back into Gaza. However, Israel does not want to control or rule Gaza.

      As far as the disputed or unsettled territories in the West Bank and Judea and Samaria go there is no solution, only the status quo. After the latest flare up in Gaza, Israel is not likely to proceed with another Sharon like disengagement from any part of the disputed territories. The Palestinians are not likely to acknowledge Israel as a Jewish state or give up their demands to implement a fictitious right of return or to have a right to continue the conflict after a peace treaty agreement is signed.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Tomer

      The Arab Pomogromchiks have been taught a painful lesson. Next time, the whole of Aza will be destroyed – not just Bet Hanoun.

      Reply to Comment
      • Reza Lustig

        I see only one group of Pogromchiks in this whole situation. It’s the ones who destroy entire neighborhoods on the suspicion that they may be harboring “terrorists,” and allow their troops to take out their frustrations on innocent civilians.

        Kind of like what the original Pogromchiks did, back in Czarist Russia.

        Reply to Comment
    5. Eliza

      I think Samer is right. The only way to understand Israeli action in Gaza is that it is an attempt to stifle any Palestinian unity. It is easier for Israel to maintain its occupation of the West Bank (and its steady appropriation of Palestinian land) if Fatah and Hamas can be kept at odds with each other. I think Israel is happy enough to let go of Gaza and keep as many Palestinians imprisoned as possible. But it wants as much land in the W/B with as few non-Jews as possible. Israel fears Palestinian unity.

      Unless of course, the Zionist state really is unhinged. Always possible, I suppose.

      Reply to Comment
      • Pedro X

        What unity, Eliza? When the PA controlled Gaza, it tortured and killed Hamas men. When Hamas gained control of Gaza they shot Arafat’s cousin in the street like a dog and threw Fatah men off roofs. Recently during the latest war, Hamas has been kneecapping Fatah men in Gaza. The PA’s jail are full of Hamas. I say again, what Unity?

        Reply to Comment