Despite truce, Gaza bomb squad lay their lives on the line
NUSEIRAT, GAZA STRIP // An anxious crowd watched on Thursday as Hazem Abu Murad and his team stood over a unexploded one-tonne Israeli bomb in a field of tomato and potato plants.
The tension increased as Mr Abu Murad calmly approached the bomb, seemingly unfazed by the task. Moments later, he reassured the crowd in a rather dramatic fashion.
“It’s already been disabled! Don’t worry – it won’t explode!” he shouted, jumping up and down on the bomb.
Mr Abu Murad, 39, heads field operations for Gaza’s police bomb squad and is perhaps the Hamas-run territory’s foremost expert at disarming unexploded Israeli munitions such as artillery shells and incendiary bombs fired from F-16 fighters.
His 70-member team has been very busy during the 72-hour ceasefire between Hamas and Israel that began on Tuesday morning.
They have received scores of calls daily from frantic residents about unexploded artillery shells in bedrooms and hospitals, or multi-tonne bombs from military aircraft that have burrowed into fields and living rooms.
Mr Abu Murad estimated that Israel’s latest war against Hamas had left about 2,000 unexploded munitions across Gaza.
It is an all-too-familiar problem in the enclave, which has endured three wars with Israel since late 2008. Even children are quick to identify attacking aircraft from their sound, crying “F-sita’ash!”, meaning F-16, or “zanane!” for unmanned drones.
Many, if not most, of the unexploded munitions are found in residential areas, although the Israeli military says it seeks to avoid civilian deaths.
“The IDF has gone through incredible lengths to prevent civilian casualties,” an IDF spokesman said, “but at the end of the day, Hamas chooses where this battle will play out.”
Mr Abu Murad said his team has also dealt with “tens” of rockets launched at Israel by Hamas and other militant groups that failed to reach their target, falling instead back onto Gaza.
“This is dangerous work. It’s life and death. One small tweak in the wrong direction, even a millimetre, and you’re dead,” he said.
A young boy lost a hand in a blast from an unexploded munition on Thursday afternoon and “tens of children” had been by killed by them since 2008, including one who set off a shell three months ago near Khan Yunis, Mr Abu Murad said
Yet, 15 years on the job has turned the blood in his veins to ice as he delicately disables fuses or disarms triggers.
“Of course I’m not afraid,” said the father of five. His wife accepts the risks his job entails, although reluctantly. “She says it’s all in God’s hands.”
Mr Abu Murad said Israeli attacks while he and his team were at work posed a greater threat.
Three members were killed in Israeli strikes during this war, while another two were injured. Another, a brigadier named Samir Al Najjar, was snatched by Israeli troops in his neighbourhood of Khuzza in Khan Yunis, and is believed to be in Israeli custody, he said.
Two of the group’s vehicles were destroyed by airstrikes and shelling, and another badly damaged.
“Israel targets us. They know who we are,” Mr Abu Murad said.
Israel has attacked police in Gaza before, saying they are legitimate targets because of their link to Hamas, which is considered a terrorist organisation by Israel, the United States and the European Union.
But Mr Abu Murad, who has master’s degree in Islamic law from a Tunisian university, said his team, despite being overseen by Hamas, has no military affiliation.
Before the Islamist group took control of Gaza in 2007, he said he and his crew, who then worked for the western-backed Palestinian Authority, received training from American, British and EU experts.
“But Israel refuses to allow us to leave for training and it refuses to allow us to obtain new materials and machines for our work,” he said.
The unit does most of it work without flak jackets or other protective gear.
Mr Abu Murad’s deputy, Ibrahim Ali, 40, responded to a call of a live shell at Gaza City Al Aqsa Hospital on Thursday wearing only a cotton shirt and trousers.
“Usually we take it apart and then I just pick up and walk out,” Mr Ali said.
In this case though, it turned out to be a false alarm – there was no shell at the hospital, which was bombarded heavily during the war.
Neither Mr Ali nor any of other Mr Abu Murad’s team wore protective gear when they disarmed dozens of shells at the police station in Nuseirat later in the afternoon.
Though it is in a residential area with a United Nations-run school nearby, the station is where munitions collected in the area are stored “temporarily” before being detonated, Mr Abu Murad said.
He acknowledged that the police station was probably not the safest place to disarm a shell, but said it “saved them petrol” because the facility is centrally located and near the residential areas that Israel attacked during the fighting.
The detonations are carried out in a field to the north that used to be a Jewish settlement before Israel dismantled all settlements in Gaza in 2005.
The bomb Mr Abu Murad defused in the tomato and potato field had been reported by Bassem Mhadi, who fled the area with his family after it struck several days ago.
“It was so scary the only thing we could do was leave,” said Mr Mhadi, 21.
As Mr Abu Murad watched a tractor carry the bomb away, his phone rang. He answered, then called to his colleagues.
“There’s another F-16 bomb. It’s in a house. Yella, let’s go!”