Saturday, January 17, 2009

The costs of "Cast Lead"

Truly amazing - and IMHO, wonderful - is the fact that, no matter how much the Israeli government has tried to keep journalists out of Gaza and otherwise shape the messages that the world is receiving about the IDF's rampage in Gaza, journalists are nonetheless finding ways to get at "the story" and bring it to the world's attention. For thousands of Gazans who have lost their lives, limbs, families, houses . . . like the children described in the Daily Telegraph story below, or the doctor from Gaza, a gynecologist at an Israeli hospital no less, whose daughters were killed by the IDF . . . it's happened much too late, of course, to make a difference to them. But for decades since 1967, when Israel in effect conquered the West Bank and Gaza and embarked upon their colonization and occupation, observers sympathetic to the Palestinians' cause have been trying to bring to light the brutality of Israel's policies, only to be shouted down most of the time as anti-Semites, anti-democracy (a shining example of which Israel has been supposed to be), anti-"freedom", supporters of terrorism, etc., etc.

Well, here's hoping that the world is finally waking up. The IDF's demolition of Lebanon in summer 2006 perhaps got some sleepy eyelids fluttering awake, although the Bush administration worked long and hard to shape US opinion in favor of an Israel whom they saw as inducing (in the memorable phrase of Condoleeza Rice) the "birth pangs of a new Middle East" (even while it was bombing hundreds of Lebanese to their deaths, as well as parts of Lebanon back to Stone Age lifestyles). But journalists from across the world were able to get into Lebanon, and with the ever-growing panoply of modern information-gathering and communication technologies, they were able to make available for us, in "real time," accounts and pictures from "on the scene" that painted a picture, not of birth pangs, but of an overwhelming modern military machine that could inflict wholesale devastation yet at the same time be stymied and harried by the outnumbered, outgunned, highly motivated guerrillas of Hezbollah.

It's now abundantly documented that after the military setbacks and public-relations disaster it suffered in Lebanon in 2006, the IDF - with the help of the US, who built (at US taxpayers' expense) a model urban-warfare set to help them train - went to work straightaway to prepare for the assault on Hamas in Gaza. This time, the IDF's overwhelming superiority was to be made plain, both for the world to see and for the people of Gaza to be educated properly and once and for all in the utter hopelessness of their situation. The Israeli home-front citizenry were psyched up, convinced of the righteousness of whatever tactics their boys in the IDF had to employ in the mission of teaching Gaza and Hamas a lesson.

And the mistakes of the 2006 Lebanon campaign were not to be repeated. The press were not to be allowed into Gaza to witness the inevitable "collateral damage." The IDF was determined to limit the visuals, to censor the reporting, to shape the message of how the self-proclaimed "most moral army in the world", with its "purity of arms," would be able to impose its will by wielding its arsenal with pinpoint precision and excruciating care for civilian life.

Could they truly have been so foolish, so clueless, to think that they could pull the wool over the eyes of the entire world, and keep it pulled down, day after day, week after week? What kind of hubris clouds the minds of IDF commanders - not to mention the troika of Olmert, Livni, and Barak - for them to believe that they could dictate their version to the world? Did they truly believe that they could control the message so completely? Or were they so sure of their own righteousness that they assumed they could convince the world that the destroyed humanity of Gaza were simply stage props, necessarily expended for the imagined greater good - that, of course, being the perpetuated dominance of a Jewish state?

The world finally seems to be catching on. Whatever the lofty intentions and historical humanitarian imperatives that fostered the long Zionist project and the creation of a Jewish state in 1948, people around the globe have begun to conclude that they have surely been superseded by another imperative - specifically, the right of the people of Gaza, and the West Bank, to what we in the USA have long proclaimed to be "inalienable rights" to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Ironically, and tellingly, those same rights are enshrined and celebrated in the holiest scriptures of Judaism. How is it then that an Israel that purports to bind its own identity so intimately to the principles of Judaism, can so cavalierly deny those rights to its Arab neighbors?

Bullets in the brain, shrapnel in the spine: the terrible injuries suffered by children of Gaza Doctors at a hospital near Gaza are almost overwhelmed by the number of Palestinian children needing treatment for bullet wounds to their heads.

1 of 2 Images
An injured Palestinian boy - Bullets in the brain, shrapnel in the spine: the terrible injuries suffered by children of Gaza
An injured Palestinian boy is one of those who has made the 40 mile round trip from Gaza to a hospital in Egypt

On just one day last week staff at the El-Arish hospital in Sinai were called to perform sophisticated CAT brain scans on a nine-year-old, two 10-year-olds and a 14-year-old - each of whom had a bullet still lodged in their brain, after coming under fire during the Israeli ground assault on Gaza.

Dr Ahmed Yahia, the head of the trauma team, broke the news to the grandmother of Anas, aged nine, that the girl was not expected to live.

"Anas was deeply comatose when she came in, and she remains deeply comatose," said Dr Yahia. "The bullet has damaged a big part of her brain. It came in, hit the skull wall and then changed direction downwards. I've seen a lot of gun injuries and the damage here is so extensive I think it may be fatal."

Dr Yahia, a professor of neurosurgery who has worked in both the United States and Britain, believes that the bullet was shot from close range. "If it changes course inside the brain it has high velocity and its penetrative force is also high," he said.

"I can't precisely decide whether these children are being shot at as a target, but in some cases the bullet comes from the front of the head and goes towards the back, so I think the gun has been directly pointed at the child."

As Israel prepared for a possible ceasefire yesterday its officials continued to deny that its soldiers had deliberately targeted civilians, blaming Hamas fighters for sheltering in the houses of ordinary Gazans and using them as human shields.

But there is no disputing the scale of the suffering in Gaza, or its heavy impact on the young. The United Nations has counted 346 Palestinian children killed since the Israeli assault began, while Hamas, the radical Islamic movement that Israel has been trying to dislodge, says there are 410 children among the 1,201 Palestinian dead.

An even larger number of children have been wounded - 1,630, according to Hamas - and a disturbing number of them have suffered serious injuries to the head.

Hundreds of victims of Israel's three-week campaign in Gaza have been transferred across the Egyptian border at Rafah for urgent treatment. They are seen first at El-Arish, nearly 40 miles from the border. For patients who are often on ventilators it is a hazardous journey across a war zone.

One of the medical team leaders at the hospital, Dr Ayman Abd al-Hadi, said that this was the worst conflict he had experienced. "We've had one child with two bullets in the head and nowhere else," he said. "We think that this shows something."

He praised the medical teams in Gaza for managing to save so many lives despite a shortage of staff, supplies and equipment. "But only a very small percentage of children can survive bullet wounds to the head," he said. "If we see three children here who have survived bullet wounds to the head, there are probably 97 still in Gaza who have not."

Doctors at the small but well equipped hospital do not attempt to remove the bullets, but perform a full assessment and attempt to stabilise their patients - most of whom are unconscious - before sending them to hospitals in Cairo, and in some cases abroad, for more complex treatment. Of those who survive, few are likely to recover fully. Most child victims of such injuries are likely to be paralysed for life.

Other children have different but horrific injuries - like Samer, not yet three years old, who lay playing with an inflated surgeon's glove as her Egyptian doctor tried to distract her from the suffering he was about to inflict upon her as he inserted a drip containing painkillers into her hand.

After she was shot in the back outside her Gaza home, it took three hours for medical help to reach the captivatingly pretty child. Her uncle, Hassan Abedrabo, said that Samer was hit by an Israeli bullet which damaged her spinal cord and has left her paralysed. Her two sisters, aged two and six, were shot dead in the same close-range attack as they tried to escape from tanks bombarding their home in Jabaliya, north of Gaza City.

The girls' mother was hit twice but survived; Mr Abedrabo said that their grandmother, waving a white flag at the front of the terrified family procession, lost an arm to another bullet.

Samer has now been transferred to a Belgian hospital but the Egyptian doctors who treated her in El-Arish believe she will never walk again. If she is too young to grasp what her future now holds, Samer thinks she knows what happened to her. "The Jewish shot me," she said in Arabic. "And they killed my little sister."

Mr Abedrabo, Samer's uncle, insisted that there were no Hamas fighters in their home when Israeli tanks opened fire last week. He is a supporter of Hamas's bitter political rivals Fatah, led by the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas.

"The tanks opened fire on the fourth storey," said Mr Abedrabo, as he watched over his niece in hospital. About 30 people were sheltering on the ground floor as the tanks began pounding the third floor; then the second; then the first.

"The house began to shake and we were terrified," he said. "The women and children were screaming as they thought the house was going to collapse.

"I speak Hebrew so I shouted to the Israelis. The officer said, 'Come out' so the women went first, waving a white flag. They opened fire from just 15 metres away. How could they not tell they were children? They could see them."

Three hours later, when a cousin arrived with Palestinian doctors, eight people remained in the house. At that point, Mr Abedrabo said, missiles fired by Israeli F16 jets destroyed what was left of the building, killing those still inside.

The hospital's psychiatrists, who see every patient, were particularly concerned about a 13-year-old boy who lay trapped, terribly wounded by shrapnel, for three days beneath the rubble of his home. Other family members lay dead around him, and he saw dogs begin to gnaw their bodies.

As international pressure grew on both sides to agree a ceasefire last week, there was little sign within Israel of public opinion turning against the campaign.

In a controversial move, the country's Association for Civil Rights launched a protest over the plight of Palestinian children by taking out a full-page, obituary-style advertisement in the daily newspaper Haaretz. It lamented the deaths of children of various ages and featured the word "Stop" in bright red letters.

"There is little desire to address the price the civilian population in Gaza is paying," said Nirit Moskovitz, a spokesman for the group. "Israeli society needs to be reminded that actual people and innocent children are getting hurt. Children are everyone's soft spot and therefore we chose to focus on them."

The doctors in El-Arish cannot independently verify the accounts given by Gazan victims. But nothing they have seen discredits claims by civilians that they have been deliberately targeted.

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