x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

No protection and nowhere to hide

The overcrowded and impoverished Gaza becomes ghost town as people brace for more attacks.

A Palestinian man collects shrapnel following an Israel air strike at Hamas police headquarters in Gaza Strip December 28 2008.
A Palestinian man collects shrapnel following an Israel air strike at Hamas police headquarters in Gaza Strip December 28 2008.

Terrified, grieving and angry, Gazans braced for another sleepless night of horror. The overcrowded and impoverished Palestinian territory resembled a ghost town, witnesses said. Apart from the noise. Israeli Apache attack helicopters and F-16 fighter jets throbbed and screeched overhead. The wail of ambulances was constant along with the boom of earth-shuddering explosions. And there was screaming from bereaved families as they took the bodies of loved ones to the cemetery for burial.

"There's no protection and nowhere to hide. Everyone accepts that they could be killed at any minute," said Ewa Jasiewicz, a rights activist in Gaza City. "Gaza is an open prison and the attacks are indiscriminate." Palestinians had known an Israeli military onslaught was coming - they had been warned bluntly - but none had expected its ferocity. Saturday was said to be the bloodiest day for Palestinians in Gaza since Israel occupied the coastal enclave in 1967.

"The intensity and concentration of the military fire is off the scale. People here have never experienced anything like this before," Ms Jasiewicz, a 30-year-old Briton who has dual Polish nationality, said in an interview. "Gaza is a ghost town today. There are very few cars on the street and there's an acrid smell of burning everywhere. You hear the sound of Apache helicopters and F-16s and you brace yourself for the impact" of their bombs, she said. "People are very tense and subdued."

Ms Jasiewicz is the project co-ordinator in the Palestinian territory for the Free Gaza Movement, a US-based international human rights organisation that in recent months has successfully broken Israel's siege of Gaza several times with protest boats sailing from Cyprus. She spent Saturday night with the family of a Palestinian doctor, huddled in a corridor of their home away from windows. The house was "badly damaged" by burning shrapnel.

"You can't have so-called precision bombing in a place as densely populated as Gaza," she said. Flying shrapnel puts many at risk and slabs of masonry blown off buildings targeted as Hamas military facilities could smash into neighbouring buildings housing civilian families, she added. Sharon Lock, another Free Gaza Movement activist, said a few brave souls had dared venture on to the streets to the area of Gaza City where she has been living with a Palestinian family. They were clearing away rubble to allow ambulances and cars to ferry casualties to desperately under-equipped hospitals.

"The hospitals were already short of supplies because of the long siege on Gaza before this bombing even started," said Ms Lock, 35, an Australian-British dual national. "Now they're having to deal with emergency amputations. "Everyone's dreading tonight because Israel said more [attacks] were coming. But it's hard to know what's left for them to attack. Everyone's house has been damaged." Ms Lock spent Saturday night in a basement with her Palestinian hosts who had been cast into sudden mourning. "The grandmother had insisted on going out to search for bread ? and was killed in a missile strike. The family was devastated."

Helping to calm and comfort the family's young children, Ms Lock had no time to think of the danger she was facing. "When you're next to a terrified one-year-old, you don't think of yourself," she said. Eyad Sarraj, the president of the Gaza Community Mental Health Centre, 65, said: "Today is worse than yesterday. The carnage is continuous. Gaza is like a ghost town. No one dares go out." He added: "We're short of everything in Gaza - food, fuel, medicine, and doctors can't cope."

Dr Sarraj is one of nine brothers and sisters, but he is the only one still in Gaza. "All left in the last eight years. Only I am here with my wife and three children, aged 14, 10 and three," he said. "There's a mood of real fear in my house. Most of the time we're huddled in the corridor because of the incessant sound of bombing. We haven't slept since it started on Saturday." Haider Eid, a professor of social and cultural studies at Al Aqsa University in Gaza, has a commanding view of the unfolding scene from his 10th floor apartment.

"The streets are mostly empty, and I can see no fishermen at all out at sea," he said. "The mood is extremely sad and extremely angry. People feel they have been abandoned by the international community. They have completely lost hope in the European Union, the United Nations - and in the Arab world ? In less than 15 minutes 270 people [were killed] and we've also been under a terrible siege for two years."