New Internationalist

The witness

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Just over a year ago, Israel launched ‘Operation Cast Lead’ in Gaza. Those 22 days were the most brutal and violent the Palestinians had seen since 1967. Some 1,400 Palestinians died including more than 400 children. More than 5,000 Palestinians suffered serious injuries. 13 Israelis died. Ewa Jasiewicz was one of a handful of ‘internationals’ on the ground. A year later, she remembers and shares her reflections with Frank Barat.

Photo by: Alberto Arce
Photo by: Alberto Arce

Frank Barat: You were in Gaza a year ago during Operation Cast Lead. Why and how did you and other activists get to the Gaza Strip?

None of the fear paralysed us but nevertheless it was present. But we all accepted early on that we could die, and took on the risks because it was worth it, the Palestinian people are worth it

Ewa Jasiewicz: Myself and several solidarity activists from Lebanon, Spain, Canada, Australia, Italy, the UK, Ireland and Greece managed to get into Gaza aboard the Free Gaza Movement’s Dignity boat. FGM sailed five successful missions to Gaza between August and December 2008, bringing in human rights workers to build political solidarity activism, to break the isolation of ghettoized communities and to directly confront Israel’s illegal and punishing siege. FGM’s missions are political – we know Palestine is not a charity case, and that the solutions to 60-year policy of ethnic cleansing, apartheid and militarized ghettoization are not extra bags of flour, medicine, new tents and millions in aid, but, political will and direct action, currently un-forthcoming from governments around the world – so our actions are about directly applying international law from the grassroots up because it isn’t being respected and is being violated, daily, from the top-down – the siege of Gaza and occupation of Palestine is international, the states supporting it either with their silence or direct complicity in economically supporting Israel are co-occupiers and collaborators in war crimes against the Palestinian people, along with Israel.

FB: You had already spent some time in the West Bank during various Israeli operations (more particularly in Jenin). What were the main differences between the two places and what did you expect to see in Gaza? Did you expect the attack?

EJ: I didn’t expect the attack – but people in Gaza and the Hamas authority did expect an attack because the ceasefire had expired and Israel was sabre-rattling, threatening to eliminate, as always but with greater intensity and focus, resistance leaders – military and political – and their supporters. There was an increase in UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles – drones) flying 24-7. I had experience of smaller operations in the West Bank, in Jenin and Nablus, following Operation Defensive Shield in 2002. Operation Defensive Shield had been massive, hundreds of Palestinians were killed, the heart of Jenin refugee camp was bulldozed and dozens of civilians massacred in the process. By the time I came, all the ruins and trauma were still very fresh but the worst of the destruction and killing had subsided.

The smaller invasions were carried out under curfew, involving hundreds of troops, carrying out house-to-house searches, and mass arrests with every man aged between 15-50 rounded up, interrogated and beaten – a typical operation, with groups of children throwing anything they can at tanks and APCs in the street – and often getting shot at for doing it. There would be sporadic resistance at night from fighters, but many of the most experienced had been killed at that point. Troops would carry out collectively punishing home demolitions using bulldozers or explosives and civilians would be used as human shields. What was different at that time in the West Bank was that a lot of the Palestinian Authority (PA)’s infrastructure, and the military infrastructure of the resistance – fighters and leaders, had been destroyed during Defensive Shield by F16s. Israel was executing its cyclical strategy of having decimated the leaders of the armed and political resistance of major political factions, moving on to target the social infrastructure – community leaders, social activists – continuing to arrest relatives of ‘The Wanted’ and trying to bait out and kill the younger, more inexperienced fighters.

Because of the tunnels, fighters in Gaza have had access to more sophisticated and threatening weaponry than their West Bank counterparts, so Israeli aggression has been more intense in Gaza and heavily reliant on aerial bombardment. Since the withdrawal of the colonists and military bases, this has increased.

In the West Bank activists could be much more mobile and confront and dialogue with soldiers. In Gaza in 2009 that was impossible. I only once saw soldiers – a special forces soldier trained his gun and apparently shot at our ambulance. In the West Bank we were often between tanks and armoured personnel carriers (APCs) and following and observing soldiers close-up. If you got close to soldiers in Gaza they’d kill you, everyone kept telling us.

The community were glad we were there and kept telling us, ‘please report what you see, we can’t even believe this is happening to us, let the world know! It’s your duty to speak out about what you witness’

FB: What had you planned to do there? Did your plans change once Operation Cast Lead started?

EJ: I’d planned, as had other activists, to work with Palestinian partners – civil society groups, unions, farmers and fisherfolk, local campaigns for the right to education and to end the siege. My role was going to be to co-ordinate and guide visiting delegations coming aboard Free Gaza’s boats along with Caoimhe Butterly. Once Operation Cast Lead started, it became immediately clear that what we needed to do as foreign activists was to fulfil our role of witnessing and reporting, mitigating the risk to those most likely to be attacked – which during invasions are the medical services. The Israel Occupation Forces (IOF) killed 16 rescuers in 22 days and injured dozens more. By volunteering with medics we attempted to deter attacks on them by informing the media and our embassies that we would be accompanying all services – 13 of the medics killed were from the Civil Defence services. We did not differentiate between ‘independent’ and ‘government’ services; all must be protected under international law. Also, we didn’t just sit in the ambulances, we physically carried the injured and dead and tried to assist where possible. We were also able to remain mobile – ambulances were the only vehicles moving around 24 hours a day, and we needed to be able to document and report on the attacks as fully as possible. In our mobility and proximity to the front line we could witness the effects of the bombardment on civilians in their homes, and take testimonies from families and Palestinian human rights workers inside hospitals.

FB: Could you describe a day in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead?

EJ: The constant sneer of surveillance drones, repetitive bombing and crashing sounds – some close, some further away – muted panic, empty streets, rubble everywhere, ambulance sirens wailing endlessly, screaming relatives coupled with the groans of the bloodied and dust-covered crushed and injured, medics praying, and smoking, heart-beating perpetual ratcheted-up adrenaline, a constant readiness for the next strike and yearning for it to all end, endless stream of bodies and blood-soaked stretchers, cyclical dread, pierced with fresh surges of shock and horror, unabsorbed, and a deep fear of the night and whether we would make it through and whether each ambulance run might be the last. None of the fear paralysed us but nevertheless it was present. But we all accepted early on that we could die, and took on the risks because it was worth it, the Palestinian people are worth it. We wanted to save lives and I know I let go of my attachment to mine, inspired and encouraged by the bravery of those around me, and their willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice for the sake of others.

FB: What was the feeling of the population on the ground? How were they surviving and responding?

EJ: Everybody was terrified but defiant. The feeling on the ground was that anything could happen, all red lines had been crossed – not just with this operation; we have to remember that Cast Lead was only an intensification, and a drastic one at that, of an existing policy of massacre and deliberate targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure. In Jabalia, many of us were expecting another Sabra and Shatilla, with all witnesses banned from seeing the worst and the media being attacked, and tanks moving in closer and closer. We felt that the atrocities already happening signified more could come and on a much wider scale.

Everybody needs a witness when they’re going through hell – wherever and whatever that hell is – it’s a form of solidarity, of verification, that the unbelievable really is happening to you

FB: What was the most useful thing you think international volunteers were able to achieve and contribute? What did the Gazans think of your presence there?

EJ: The community were glad we were there and kept telling us, ‘please report what you see, we can’t even believe this is happening to us, let the world know! It’s your duty to speak out about what you witness’. And that’s what we did, through TV and radio interviews and our own written reports and films. I think we contributed to the testimony of the Palestinian community – that white phosphorous was being used, that civilians were deliberately being targeted, that hospitals, schools, emergency services were being targeted. And that counteracted Israel’s propaganda. Also, I know for a fact that we lifted the spirits of the medics we worked with: they felt they had a witness with them in case of their death, and a possible small bit of protection against Israeli attack. Everybody needs a witness when they’re going through hell – wherever and whatever that hell is – it’s a form of solidarity, of verification, that the unbelievable really is happening to you. Also, we were urging people on the outside to step up their protests and direct actions and advocacy for BDS (Boycott Divestment and Sanctions) (6) – getting that narrative out was important too, people’s eyes were opened and many people wanted to get involved and deepen their activism.

FB: Could you recount one event that truly shocked you during this period?

EJ: There were so, so many. Probably the bombing of a house just a few feet away from four of our ambulances. I was in the passenger seat with my hand on the door, my friend and driver told me just wait, wait a little, and suddenly there was this enormous explosion – everything went bright fire-orange and rubble and debris showered our ambulance. One of our drivers was injured and needed to be carried out on a stretcher. Our exit route was blocked by rubble, a family was screaming and gathering their belongings and getting out, we were stumbling with our casualty, and surveillance drones were thundering above, and we feared a repeat strike, more casualties, and losing four ambulances when every single one was vital. We cheated death that night. The Israelis saw us and our solo-movement in the streets of Jabalia, and bombed a house less than 10 feet away from us – this is a criminal, reckless use of force. Another was the bombing of the Beit Lahiya Elementary School with white phosphorous. We arrived in our ambulances after evacuating dozens of residents suffering from phosphoric inhalation and after the school had taken a direct hit. I was masked up but the stench and smoke was still penetrating, and when we got there a second round exploded above us. I was frozen to the spot and could see these burning blobs raining down next to me, I had to be screamed at to move and shelter. The refugees in the school were screaming and crying under a flimsy metal shelter in the schoolyard. The third floor of the school was on fire. We brought Bilal Ashkar, aged 7 – just this limp boy – into our ambulance. He’d been hit by the phosphorous shell and thrown down the stairs of the school by the force of the explosion. He was dead on arrival.

FB: A ceasefire was declared on 18 January. Did things change much after this? What did Gaza feel like and look like after the ceasefire?

EJ: The IOF flew F16s over people returning to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives in Ezbit Abid Rabo; drones continued to sneer above us every night. There was this hollow humiliation and undigested horror, and loss, such a profound sense of dislocation and loss, of lives, of the loved, homes, whole communities, streets, mosques, shops, gone. People literally felt physically lost in their own neighbourhoods. It was like another Nakba (1948 Palestinian Catastrophe). People felt mocked by the international community. ‘Homme yidhak aleina’ was what we frequently heard; ‘they’re laughing at us, the whole world doesn’t care, they’re mocking us’. It felt like a tsunami had hit.

There was this hollow humiliation and undigested horror, and loss, such a profound sense of dislocation and loss, of lives, of the loved, homes, whole communities, streets, mosques, shops, gone

FB: Many reports coming from UN bodies, aid agencies and human rights organizations came out very quickly in the months following Operation Cast Lead. Most of them agreed on the fact that war crimes and possible crimes against humanity had been committed during the Israeli attack. You’re not an expert, but did you ever witness actions that for you were crimes of this magnitude?

EJ: Absolutely. The targeting of civilians and civilian areas, the reckless and wanton destruction of property, the disproportionate and indiscriminate use of force, seen with the bombing of the Beit Lahiya School, Samouni family massacre, the F16 bombardment of the Hamdan children in Beit Hanoun, the utter disregard for our ambulances, the blocking of access to the injured, resulting in hundreds of deaths, the extra-judicial killing of Sayed Al Seyam and Nazar Rayan and scores of their family members… We picked up so many men (and some women too) axed by heavy-duty bombs released by surveillance drones – these can carry a 150kg payload and are sophisticated enough to detect the colour of a person’s hair. According to Al Mezan, proportionally, most people in OCS were killed by UAVs, followed by F16s.

FB: A year later (on 27 December 2009), people marched in hundreds of cities around the world to ‘commemorate’ those horrific events. What do you think of those demonstrations, and rallies? What type of effect do they have on Gazans? Are they useful at all in your opinion?

We are all complicit in the reproduction and reinforcement of the occupation – it is an international occupation, it is an international issue, and international solidarity for Palestinian human rights can create the conditions for a local solution

EJ: The rallies are a focus point. We do need collective mourning, remembrance and action in our streets, but its also important to target companies violating international law and which are key in perpetuating Israeli apartheid, which we must always remember is not limited to Gaza – the West Bank is 15 times larger than Gaza and is full of mini Gazas – Bantustans surrounded by the apartheid wall. Companies like Veolia, Alstom, Caterpillar, Elbit Systems, CRT Holdings, Carmel-Agrexco could be charged with aiding and abetting war crimes of ethnic cleansing and illegal colony-building. The call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions from Palestinian civil society in 2005 needs to be responded to and supported – actively, daily. We are all complicit in the reproduction and reinforcement of the occupation – it is an international occupation, it is an international issue, and international solidarity for Palestinian human rights can create the conditions for a local solution.

FB: A few weeks ago, 16 aid agencies issued a report saying that the international community had ‘failed Gaza’. On the ground things not only have not changed at all for ordinary Gazans but have got worse. Keeping this in mind, what do you think is the role of popular resistance or citizen activism?

EJ: Yes, the international community facilitates and pays for Israel’s occupation, and pathologizes and de-develops Palestine in the process. Ordinary citizens have a responsibility not to fund or politically support the bomb and build industry which hides a relentless project of ethnic cleansing and colonialism of Palestine, but to build a critical mass of political pressure by all means available – through BDS and direct action – to bring about sanctions against Israel and to enforce international law by targeting the companies that violate it with respect to Palestinian human rights, and to expose Israel in the same way South African apartheid was exposed and eventually brought to an end.

Like so many activists that go to Palestine, what we witness never leaves us. We learn from and are humbled by the people that we work with, and it’s an honour and a privilege to participate in this struggle

FB: What, in your opinion, is most urgently needed in Gaza? What can people do to help and change the status quo?

EJ: Palestinians in Gaza should answer that, but what many say, is that what Gaza needs is the rest of Palestine: people living in camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the West Bank want to be reunited with their families and homes. The inalienable and legal right of return for all Palestinian refugees needs to be enacted. The Israeli tactic of divide and torture, of chopping up the Palestinian community, is a long-term tactic designed to break down the strongest weapon against ethnic cleansing that Palestinians possess – memory, community, family. As long as you have a people who remember their homes and lands, and know each other, refer to one another as cousin, uncle, sister and brother, and can ask, ‘Min dar mean?’ (From which home/family are you?) then the struggle can never be alienated or abstracted. Palestinians in Gaza need to have the means to speak and act for themselves and not be spoken for, and to have access to the rest of the world – twinning relationships and projects between schools, mosques, universities, hospitals, youth groups, initiatives – these are all means to break the isolation inside and build a more intimate and motivated solidarity movement on the outside. Aid is not the answer. Solidarity is.

FB: Will you ever go back?

EJ: I am going back! I only meant to leave for a month, I deeply miss Gaza. It became like a home to me, I miss my friends and ‘family’ there. Like so many activists that go to Palestine, what we witness never leaves us. We learn from and are humbled by the people that we work with, and it’s an honour and a privilege to participate in this struggle.

Ewa Jasiewicz is a human rights activist, union organizer and journalist. She has spent years working in occupied Palestine and Iraq with oil workers, refugees, paramedics and community groups. She is a co-ordinator for The Free Gaza Movement and part of the editorial collective of Le Monde Diplomatique Polish Edition. Her book Gaza: Getto Nieujarzmione (Gaza – a Ghetto Unbroken) will be published in Poland by Ksiazka i Prasa in March.

Frank Barat is a human right activist. He lives in the UK.

Books and films produced by activists in Gaza include:

Vittorio Arrigoni Gaza, Stay Human

Sharyn Lock Gaza Beneath the Bombs

Fida Qeshta and Jenny Linnel To Shoot an Elephant

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