Around the same time that attack was taking place on Sunday evening, Benjamin
Netanyahu was charging Hamas on TV with using “human shields” to gather
“telegenically dead Palestinians for their cause”. It has long been
the Israeli case that the militants cynically and deliberately carry out attacks
and store weapons in residential areas and have also stopped people living there
from evacuating homes when fighting breaks out.
There have been instances in the 13 days of the current war when the Israelis
have sought to provide evidence proving their case. After warplanes targeted
the al-Farouq mosque, near the Nuseirat refugee camp, for instance, the military
issued aerial photographs which, it stated, showed that the building was being
used to store rockets. We have also had the UN agency for Palestinian refugees,
UNRWA, announcing that it had discovered 20 rockets hidden in one of its disuse
schools in a “flagrant violation” of international law. And rockets
are seen to be regularly fired from stretches of open ground close to homes.
Are militants also deliberately placing themselves in residences which are
then attacked? On the day that Al-Farouq was attacked, the Israeli military
also carried out a missile strike on a home for the handicapped in Beit Lahiya,
killing two disabled residents and injuring four others. A neighbour claimed
that a member of the Islamic Jihad group and his wife had also lived in the
building; but he could provide no names or dates for this.
Jamilla Alaiwa, a 59 year old social worker who founded the home 24 years ago
told me that this was categorically untrue. “If the Israelis have proof
of this let them make it public. There was no one from Islamic Jihad or Hamas
living there. We are not involved in politics.” The Israeli military stated
they were investigating what happened; their conclusions have not reached Gaza.
Were they, perhaps, fed false information?
Some Gazans have admitted that they were afraid of criticizing Hamas, but none
have said they had been forced by the organisation to stay in places of danger
and become unwilling human-shields. The Bani Sobeila area, near Khan Younis,
where the Abu Jamaa deaths took place received leaflets dropped from the air
last week warning them to leave.
But almost all stayed. One reason for that was many of the houses belonged
to the Abu Jamaa clan who felt there was safety in staying together. Another
reason was given by a neighbour, Abdullah al-Daweish: “Where do we go to?
Some people moved from the outer edge of Khan Younis to Khan Younis centre after
Israelis told them to, then the centre got bombed. People have moved from this
area to Gaza City, and Gaza City has been bombed. It’s not Hamas who is
ordering us in this, it’s the Israelis.”
Why did they think the house targeted? “We don’t know,” said
Saied Abu Jamaa, a cousin who was in his home next door when the blast took
place. “Tawfiq, who is the head of the family, is a policeman, but why
should he and his family and his neighbours die for that?” Tawfiq Abu Jamaa,
40, distraught figure in a brown jellabiya at the funeral was also at a loss
to understand why he had lost his wife and eight children. The sole survivor
has Nour, a son of four.
There were 10 recently destroyed buildings on the half-hour drive from Khan
Younis to Shujaiya, a town where 90 people had been killed in a 24 hours, an
onslaught condemned by the Palestinian government of Mahmoud Abbas as a “heinous
massacre”: and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon as “ an atrocious
Members of families who owned six of the buildings had moved in with relations
and neighbours in the area. Their reason for staying behind was primarily because
there was, they said, nowhere else to go. There were also declarations about
not giving up one’s land, not giving in to invaders.
There was denial of coercion by Hamas. “I am not going to go because I
can do something Hamas cannot do”, maintained Nabil al-Masri. “I know
from times before that if Israeli soldiers get into an empty house they will
ruin it on purpose. Hamas cannot stop them going into my house if we leave,
but, by staying here we can try to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
Hamas can, however, be accused of making people complacent, repeatedly stating
in the media that the Israeli warnings were psychological games and asking the
population to ignore them. Some mentioned this as a reason for staying behind;
returning home having initially left.
The counter-argument to that was the need to prevent panic spreading. Almost 85,000 people have been on the move, overwhelming the shelters set up by the UN by sheer numbers. Classrooms meant for 30 now hold up to 70, one typical example was the Girls Preparatory Secondary School, at a suburb of Beit Lahiya in the north, with a capacity of 800 which has taken in 1600. Homes of relatives, a traditional source of refuge, are also feeling the strain.