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Israel’s killing zone in Gaza

6 January 2011 | The Electronic Intifada, Max Ajl

Ahmed Qudaih was skinny, in blue Converse sneakers and a black leather jacket, his mustache oddly making him look younger, not older, than his 27 years. His voice was even, his face rigidly composed, like human stone, as we sat down with him in the martyr’s tent in Khozaa, a rural village slightly to the east of Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip. Young men moved up and down the rows of plastic seats with brass coffee pots and tiny ceramic cups and platters of dates. Ahmed agreed to speak briefly about how the Israeli military had just murdered his 19-year-old brother Hassan Qudaih in the village’s borderlands.

Ahmed said that a few hours before sunset on 28 December, Hassan had entered the area where two nights before, there had been a firefight between the Palestinian resistance and Israeli soldiers, who were accompanied by several Apache helicopters and tanks. During the melee, the soldiers killed Issa Abu Rok and Muhammad al-Najjar, fighters from the al-Quds Brigades, the armed wing of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. They were also members of Hassan and Ahmed’s extended family. Hassan entered the area to look around, to search through it for anything that had been left behind after the bodies had been removed.

Ahmed said that a sniper sitting in a jeep abutting the border shot Hassan in the leg. Hassan treated himself, partially stanching the blood flowing from the wound. And then, according to Ahmed, “the [Israeli army] let him bleed slowly for the subsequent two hours, preventing any emergency vehicles, or his friends, from reaching him.”

His friends made repeated attempts to get close to Hassan, but were repelled by shots from the Israeli border patrol, and eventually incapacitated by a sort of “gas, which made them unconscious,” Ahmed said. Emergency vehicles from the Palestinian emergency services also repeatedly attempted to coordinate with the Israeli army to evacuate Hassan, but they were denied permission to do so, while Hassan continued to bleed, Ahmed explained.

After some time, Ahmed said, a beleaguered Hassan “took out his phone and tried to call for help.” Ahmed said it was at that point that the Israeli military “shelled him from a border-area tank, decapitating him.” Ahmed speculated that perhaps they tracked Hassan’s phone signal to the body. Hassan died instantly, his head apparently severed from his body.

Ahmed explained that “The area where they killed my brother is flat, free of any obstacles that could have blocked their view. The soldiers must have clearly seen that Hassan was a civilian, without any weapons, and shot anyway.”

A family photograph of Hassan Qudaih.
Ahmed showed us a picture of Hassan, as well as his shrapnel-damaged money case. He looked in the picture precisely like the young man he was, barely out of boyhood — frighteningly young — a stand-in for the stunningly young population of Gaza, more than 50 percent of which is under 18, and a wrenching reminder that war and siege on Gaza has meant war and siege on children.

Initial press reports, repeating information issued by the Israeli military spokespersons’ office, put Hassan amongst four other youth “planting explosives at the security fence.” However, subsequent investigations showed otherwise.

The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights reports that the five youth were roughly 300 meters from the fence, just on the edge of the “buffer zone” — the no-go area imposed by Israel covering a wide swath of land on the Gaza side of the boundary with Israel, in the east and north — when Israeli firing began. Relatives and neighbors agree: Hassan was unarmed and shot without provocation other than his presence in Israel’s unilaterally-declared “buffer zone.”

That buffer zone ruinously affects Gaza residents living in areas like Khozaa. Khozaa, and the whole rural area east of Khan Younis — which includes the towns and villages of Abasan al-Kabir, Abasan al-Saghira and al-Farrahin — have been the subject of numerous incursions, demolitions, shelling and shootings over the past several years, occurring with an increasing frequency in recent months. Homes with any exposure to the boundary with Israel are pocked with hundreds of bullet holes, and children are barred by their parents from playing in areas which are within the line-of-sight to the boundary after dusk.

Officially, the buffer zone is 300 meters wide, at least according to the leaflets the Israeli military dropped on all of Gaza’s hinterlands on 19 May 2009, showing a map of the Gaza Strip with clearly demarcated no-go areas. Unofficially, however, it extends as far as the bullets from Israeli snipers fly before they hit something.

According to a report put out by the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), 29 percent of Gaza’s arable farmland is inaccessible due to the belt of forbidden or dangerous land, which extends from 0.5-1 kilometer on the eastern frontier and 1.8 to 2 kilometers on the northern frontier.

In the southern governorates, the imposition of the buffer zone has hit agricultural production hard. For example, in the Khan Younis area, the administrative area of which includes the smaller zones to its east, agriculture and fishing-related activities plummeted from 24 percent of all jobs in the second quarter of 2007 to 7.2 percent in the third quarter of 2009.

If not enforced by physically present soldiers armed with sniper rifles, it is enforced by women soldiers manning remote-controlled motion-sensing machine gun turrets. The landscape there is marked by ditches, peppered by broken clumps of barbed wire. It’s a tableau of exposed dirt and sliced-off irrigation tubes. It looks like the war zone that it frequently is.

And soldiers often fire at anything that enters the buffer zone. Indeed, repeated calls to the Israeli military spokespersons’ office to ask how they made the determination that Hassan was a “militant” either were met with unfulfilled promises to call back shortly, or the response that “we can’t reveal that information for security reasons.” Nor has the Israeli military issued a correction in response to the repeated queries.

And the assault continues apace. Abd Alazeer Yousef Abu Rijla, Hassan’s uncle and the owner of the land where the young man was killed, described how on 29 December Israeli armor-plated bulldozers entered their farmland in Khozaa and ripped up the remainder of the crops growing there. The total area destroyed comes to about four dunums, or roughly 4,000 square meters. “We cannot go there anymore, even though we are three families that depend on that area,” Abu Rijla said. Although he said that he needed to return to his land, the area was far too dangerous for the time being.

Fifty-nine Palestinians were killed in Gaza by the Israeli military last year, 24 of them civilians, most in the buffer zone. The number of wounded — 220 — has been ten times that, with approximately forty of them occurring since the beginning of November. The tempo of rockets fired from Gaza has increased in response to ongoing Israeli provocations and pummeling, as well as the need to resist the 42-month-long siege.

Meanwhile, the next war slides in and out of view, as Israeli politicians and generals openly discuss timing and strategy. General Gabi Ashkenazi said that the Israeli military “holds the Hamas terrorist organization solely responsible for any terrorist activity emanating from the Gaza Strip. We hope that the security situation in the south does not deteriorate, however the IDF [Israeli army] is preparing for any scenario” (“Ashkenazi: We’ll be ready if Gaza tensions escalate,” The Jerusalem Post, 27 December 2010).

Indeed, a cable released by WikiLeaks, dated 15 November 2009, confirms that planning for the next incursion began even while the Palestinians of Gaza were still sifting through the rubble of the winter 2008-09 invasion. Ashkenazi told a visiting American Congressional delegation that “I am preparing the Israeli army for a large-scale war,” likely against Hamas and Hizballah (“Israeli army chief was preparing for ‘a large scale war’,” Agence France Presse, 2 January 2011).

A few think this is just posturing, meant to tamp down rocket fire to a more tolerable level and more importantly, to incite massive and paralyzing fear amongst Gaza’s population. If so, perhaps it has worked: the resistance groups recently agreed to cease rocket fire for the time being, while most everyone I talk to in the streets worries that Israel will commemorate the biennial of the 2008-09 Gaza invasion by repeating it, while they grow tortuously frustrated by the stalled peace process.

“We are trapped here, and upset … there is nothing,” a meat seller in the middle class Gaza City neighborhood of Tel al-Hawa told me, before giving me a ride home. Meanwhile, the subdued roar of F-16s is audible nearly daily here and there in the Gaza Strip, while on the horizon grey Israeli warships hulk in the steel blue sea and Israeli drones buzz overhead in the washed-out sky — watching, waiting, preparing and gathering information for the next massacre from the north.

All images by Max Ajl.

Max Ajl is a doctoral student in development sociology at Cornell, and was an International Solidarity Movement volunteer in the Gaza Strip. He has written for many outlets, including the Guardian and the New Statesman, and blogs on Israel-Palestine at www.maxajl.com.