GAZA CITY // There is a framed picture on a shelf in the office of the spokesman of Gaza's police force. It is a blurred, low-resolution TV footage still. It shows the yard outside the window of the spokesman's office minutes after missiles struck the Arafat Police Headquarters in central Gaza City in the first salvo of Israel's Gaza offensive, at around 11.30am on December 27. In the picture, the yard is littered with the bloodied and mangled uniformed bodies of several young men. At the back, one man, flat on his back, has his right hand raised, finger pointing straight up.
The footage was shown over and over again on local TV stations and the picture has become iconic among Gazans. But Mohammed Abu Laban has only a hazy memory of the moment when the missiles struck and does not remember raising his arm. "I thought everyone had dropped to the ground for cover. But no one answered my calls. Then I remember thinking my leg had gone," said Mr Abu Laban, 25, one recent evening at the Faisal Equestrian Club, south of Gaza City.
Mr Abu Laban, a father of three young children, lost a few toes but kept both legs. His right leg, however, is paralysed below the knee, and in the left there's only a "numb feeling". He gives the impression that it would all be bearable if only he could still ride horses, a lifelong passion. It was his passion for horses that saw him employed with the police as a riding instructor. He said he had never considered joining the police - "I like to work with animals" - but in Gaza's dire economic situation, where unemployment hovers above 40 per cent and the private sector has been ravaged by an Israeli-imposed blockade, his options were severely restricted.
No one expected the strike that day, he said. In fact, even though a shaky six-month truce between Israel and Hamas had ended nine days earlier, the initial aerial onslaught had caught most of Gaza by surprise. Hamas and police officials say they received indications from Cairo, where Tzipi Livni, the then Israeli foreign minister, had just concluded a visit, that a tense situation would remain calm. After a week in which police had been on high alert and many stations were evacuated, that Saturday saw them return to work as normal.
Then, half an hour before noon and almost simultaneously, 88 Israeli aircraft struck 100 locations around Gaza, including Hamas training bases, weapon depots, the presidential compound and security force headquarters. The Israel Air Force claimed a 95 per cent accuracy rate. Twenty-four police stations were targeted on that first day. Over the three-week offensive, a total of 34 police stations were destroyed and nearly 250 policemen killed. Indeed, the police constitute the single most afflicted group in the war, with around one in six fatalities from among its ranks.
There is no dispute over the numbers - Israel puts the number of policemen killed at 240, Palestinian officials and NGOs say it was 248 - or whether the intention was to deliberately strike the police. But under international law, police forces are considered part of the civilian population and therefore not a legitimate target in conflict. Israel, however, claims that the "overwhelming majority" of Gaza's police were members of the Izzedin al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas's military wing, and therefore could not be classified as non-combatants.
This is fiercely rejected in Gaza by officials as well as the families of the dead and injured. Major Ayman Butnigi, the police spokesman, said that while it is true that a majority of the police were, and are, Hamas supporters, this made them neither members of the Qassam Brigades nor legitimate targets. He conceded that some police officers had been drawn from militant ranks, but put the percentage at less than a third and said they had been non-active.
For his part, Mr Abu Laban said he had "never been political" nor had the majority of the 50 who were killed around him in that one strike. One of those, Mohammad al Burei, died of his wounds in a hospital in Egypt 27 days later, with his father, Mahmoud, by his side. Mr al Burei said his son "wouldn't know Fatah from Hamas" and like Mr Abu Laban, had only taken a job with the police because there was no other work.
"How can the police be a legitimate target?" asked Mr al Burei, 64. "They direct traffic, resolve family disputes. This was a war against innocent people." The UN's Goldstone commission concluded that Israel, by deliberately attacking police stations, had "failed to respect the principle of proportionality" and was therefore in "violation of customary international law". Israel had also violated the right to life of those policemen killed who were not members of militant groups. Moreover, the policemen killed in that first surprise attack could not have taken part in any hostilities and thus "did not lose their civilian immunity".
Israel has rejected the findings of the Goldstone commission, whose report is looking increasingly moribund. This comes as little surprise in Gaza where "we all know Israel has no respect for law or ethics", according to Major Butnigi. "I hope," said Mr Abu Laban, "that one day, Israelis will know how it is to live like us." @Email: firstname.lastname@example.org