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Last Updated: 01/05/2009An eyewitness report from Gaza
Vicky Rossi in discussion with Ramiz Younis and his wife Sarah, both of whom have been living and working in Gaza. They were able to escape to Jerusalem on the third day of bombing, thanks to the intervention of the United Nations.
Jerusalem, Wednesday 31 December 2008
On the fifth day of Israel’s aerial assault on Gaza, 374 Palestinians and four Israelis had been killed according to BBC. The number of Palestinians injured was estimated to be 1,600. These figures for the dead and injured rose in the days subsequent to this interview with Ramiz Younis and his wife Sarah, who managed to get out of Gaza on the third day of bombing thanks to the intervention of the United Nations.
Ramiz is Palestinian. He has been working, in Gaza, as a Programme Coordinator for Save the Children (Sweden). Previously, he worked for eight years for the Al-Mezan Centre for Human Rights. Ramiz obtained a Presidential Scholarship that enabled him to complete an MA in International Policy Studies in the US. His specialisation was human rights and conflict resolution.
His wife Sarah is an American national, who works for the Food and Agriculture Organisation. She is six-months pregnant.
Vicky Samantha Rossi: What were you doing on Saturday 27th December when the first Israeli Air Force (IAF) missile hit Gaza?
Ramiz Younis: We were having a really nice morning. It was sunny and I was reading some emails. Suddenly I heard an explosion far away. I asked Sarah if she had heard it and she said yes quite causally.
Sarah: We hear that kind of stuff all the time. Often they’re just random explosions and you don’t give it a second thought.
Vicky Samantha Rossi: What are the causes of those explosions usually?
Ramiz Younis: It could be various things. Sometimes it’s real shelling. Sometimes it’s from Israeli ships out at sea firing at the Gazan shore.
Sarah: During the recent truce, we didn’t hear too many explosions, but before that it was pretty common.
Ramiz Younis: On Saturday, for some reason, when I heard the explosion I unconsciously made my way to where Sarah was. Then, all of a sudden, the whole building shook violently and all the window panes shattered. Both of us were thrown to the ground.
Sarah: Fortunately, we were in the bathroom so we were protected from the broken glass.
Ramiz Younis: We were trying to help and protect each other. A few seconds later, there was a second explosion, which was even stronger than the first one. You could hear more glass shattering and there was dust everywhere. I remembered I had seen a sign in the stairway of the building indicating the way to a safe area, so we decided to try to reach it. We started hearing more explosions, further away, but from different locations. I couldn’t figure out what was going on. The first thing that came to my mind was that they were attacking ourbuilding.
Sarah: The whole thing was very disorienting.
Ramiz Younis: In the stairway, we could hear somebody shouting, “I’m wounded.” The electricity had gone off and it was really dark.
Sarah: The dust was very thick.
Vicky Samantha Rossi: While you were living through all of this, did you ever think it was Hamas who had caused the explosions, or did you immediately know it was the Israeli forces?
Ramiz Younis: From the first explosion, I knew straight away that it was the Israelis. [Sarah nods.] My past experience was that they bombed once or twice and then that was it, so you could get away. That’s why I wasn’t scared to start with. I was more worried about Sarah because it was the first time she was in such a situation. I was also worried about the baby. It was very emotional.
Sarah: I was terrified because it was the first time that I had been that close to an explosion.
Ramiz Younis: I got scared later, when we were in the stairway because we could hear bombing on all sides. It was totally disorientating. I thought the Israelis were shooting the building from different angles and from sea. When there is constant shelling, it’s usually from Israeli gunships out at sea. This happened often during the Intifada [2001-2002]and many people were killed. Later on Saturday, we saw lots of wounded people - disorientated like us. Everybody was covered in thick dust.
Sarah: Before leaving the building, we went back to the apartment to get the cell phones and my medicine. At that point, I saw from our window that it was the Presidential Palace, 200 metres away, that had been bombed twice by an F-16. The Israeli navy bombs that are fired at Gaza from the sea have a particular sound. With the F-16, we didn’t hear anything except the final explosion. It was like a ghost.
Ramiz Younis: Usually there’s some interference on our TVs just before a drone passes or there is shelling from the sea, but this time although the TV was on, the reception was perfect. There was no indication that we were going to be bombed.
[ Sarah used her VHF radio to call the UN security. She reported the two explosions and told them where she and Ramiz were. An armour-plated vehicle was sent for them and they were taken to the UN compound, where they remained until they were evacuated two days later. ]
Vicky Samantha Rossi: It’s important to bring conflicts and violence down from the political level to the human dimension. You work for Save the Children (Sweden) in Gaza, do you have any statistics for the number of Palestinian women and children killed or injured in the first five days of Israeli air strikes?
Ramiz Younis: There are conflicting statistics in the media for the time being. They’re saying that around 380 people have been killed and 1,800 injured. According to the Al-Mezan Centre for Human Rights (1), the number is lower. They say that the number of children killed stands at 42 and the number of women is 9.
Sarah: I think there has been a lot of duplication in the names of people who have been injured because they were transferred from one hospital to another. Also if they received multiple injuries, they might have got logged in 2-3 times because they would have been treated by different departments within the hospital. Apparently, many of the injuries were in fact multiple.
Ramiz Younis: The major problem has been with the main Shifa hospital in Gaza because it’s seeing waves and waves of causalities. It’s proving very difficult for them to keep track. I’ve also been informed that many people who have died were not registered, either because their bodies were sent directly to the morgue or because they were immediately buried by their families. According to the Islamic custom, dead bodies are not left for a long time.
“The UN says at least 62 of the Palestinians killed so far have been women and children.”
Vicky Samantha Rossi: The Qassam rockets and Grads fired by Palestinian militants from the north of Gaza into Israel are acts of violence that aim to harm and bring fear to Israeli citizens. They shouldn’t, therefore, be condoned. Do you know how many Israeli women and children have been killed or injured as a result of these rockets in the first five days of this Israeli military operation?
Ramiz Younis: I only know from reading the news. It seems two people have been killed. I think one was a woman and the other was an Arab Israeli working on a construction site in Ashkelon. I’m not sure about the number of injuries.
Sarah: I think it is 4-5 people.
Vicky Samantha Rossi: It seems there is a substantial difference between the number of deaths and injuries on the Palestinian side compared to those on the Israeli side. How about since the siege on Gaza began in June 2007, when Hamas took over the Gaza Strip? Do you have any statistics about the number of Palestinian women and children killed or injured since then compared to the number of Israeli women and children killed or injured?
Sarah: Since I’ve been in Gaza, which was a year on Christmas day, I only remember one Hamas rocket that killed an Israeli. The biggest operation that Israel undertook in Gaza since I have been there, previous to this one, was the Warm Winter operation in February 2008, when 100-120 Palestinians were killed. Of course during this year that I was in Gaza, there were many other Palestinians who were killed before and after Warm Winter.
Vicky Samantha Rossi: You’re saying that the rockets are used for Palestinian propaganda to give the impression of being strong.
Ramiz Younis: Yes. Propaganda to say, “We are strong and we are defending our nation.”
Vicky Samantha Rossi: Israel has said that it is because Hamas continues to fire these rockets that it decided to launch the current military attack. However, it seems that the number of Israelis killed or injured by these rockets is in fact very few. Of course on both sides there will be definite psychological effects on the civilian populations, even though the number of deaths and injuries is highly disproportionate. Can you speak about the likely psychological effects that children and adults in Israeli towns like Sderot and Ashkelon are likely to suffer as a result of the rockets fired on them?
Ramiz Younis: I have no doubt that it has a negative psychological impact on them. They are human beings. Of course they will get scared, especially the children. There is another issue, though; it is the exaggerated way in which these fears are expressed. If a person pokes you and you react by killing him; that is disproportionate.
Sarah: I think that the effect of any rocket or missile attack on the Palestinian and Israeli sides is felt differently. The Israelis have the ability to really take action; whereas on the Palestinian side you feel completely powerless. You have to just absorb the impact of what’s happening to you. If there is any shelling or killing, you can’t really do anything. There are no means. Your rights are not upheld by the international community. On the Israeli side, by contrast, it seems that the mechanisms work in their favour. They can say, “We have the right to defend ourselves” and then take action. The Palestinians can also say they have the right to defend themselves, but for them to actually do something about it is a whole different story. The Palestinians just have to absorb it, take it and go on with their lives. I think that makes a big difference.
Ramiz Younis: Gaza has been called the biggest jail in the world. It has two major exits – one is Eretz [into Israel] and the other is Rafah [into Egypt]. Both exits are locked.
Vicky Samantha Rossi: What is the psychological impact likely to be on Gazan children who are living through these days of IAF missile attacks?
Ramiz Younis: All Gazans, not just the children, are psychologically traumatized because of what they have experienced. Even during the truce. The current crisis adds to that trauma. For children, in particular, it’s having a disastrous consequence.
Sarah: Common symptoms of trauma amongst children are bed wetting, night terrors – when they wake up screaming, attention-deficit.
Vicky Samantha Rossi: Before the current Israeli military attack on Gaza, what were the psycho-social repercussions on Palestinian children and their families following the long siege in which the borders have been kept shut by Israel and Egypt since June 2007, when Hamas took over the Strip?
Ramiz Younis: The children have taken all the violence and bombings they have experienced and they are internalising it. They are reacting by becoming violent themselves. Save the Children (Sweden) is working with UNRWA (2) now to deal with this cycle of violence amongst children: by children towards other children, by children towards teachers, by teachers towards children.
As a result of the Israeli violence, the new generations in Gaza are full of anger, frustration, depression, helplessness. They are losing hope. Some are becoming political extremists. What is Israel creating for itself in Gaza? What will happen in ten years time if things continue like this?
Also, in Gaza, they have lost their sense of a normal life. People get used to all the shocks and ever-increasing limitations on their rights.
Sarah: The ability to adapt to new circumstances is a coping mechanism for human beings. This is normally good. The problem is when a situation is getting ever worse. It’s not good to become too accepting at those times, otherwise, you forget what is “normal” and what is not. This is especially true for the young people. Half the population in Gaza is under 15 years old.
Vicky Samantha Rossi: Is that because of a high birth rate?
Sarah: Yes, fertility is very high. It’s not uncommon for people to have 6-7 kids.
Vicky Samantha Rossi: When you return to Gaza, what do you imagine your priorities will be in your work for Save the Children (Sweden)?
Ramiz Younis: We had already planned for an emergency situation before this current crisis, so the priorities are set. The first three months will be relief work, providing food, medical supplies, water and sanitation. The six months after that will mainly focus on psycho-social support. Later, we will carry out an assessment to see what else needs to be done. Throughout, we will of course be doing advocacy and dealing with protection issues.
Vicky Samantha Rossi: How do you feel about being here in Jerusalem, when your family is still in Gaza? Do you have mixed emotions?
Ramiz Younis: Yes, the mixed emotions began as soon as we crossed Eretz and got to the Israeli side. We went to a small coffee shop, which was full of Israeli army guys. Five or ten minutes after all the shelling and air strikes in Gaza, we found ourselves surrounded by Israeli officers and soldiers who were sitting drinking coffee, talking and laughing.
Vicky Samantha Rossi: That’s like suddenly seeing what’s going on back-stage.
Ramiz Younis: Exactly. I was thinking how just a few minutes earlier, in Gaza, we were all terrified. Yet here, very close to the border, these Israelis were relaxing and drinking coffee.
Sarah: It felt very tense. Not that we felt threatened, it just felt very uncomfortable for me, especially since Ramiz hadn’t been allowed out of Gaza for the last year and a half.
Vicky Samantha Rossi: To clarify, Ramiz you haven’t been allowed to visit Jerusalem because Israel has not given you a permit to travel here?
Ramiz Younis: Yes, that’s right. It’s next to impossible for Gazans to come to Jerusalem. If you’re lucky and have a good reason, Israel might give you a permit to go to the West Bank, but not to Jerusalem. Right now Sarah and I are living in the Old City, which is like a dream come true for me. The last time I was allowed to come to Jerusalem was ten years ago. It’s unbelievable to be here. Also I have cousins in Ramallah, whom I haven’t seen since 2005 because I couldn’t get a permit. It’s so great to see them again.
[ Israel uses a number of means to restrict Palestinian movement in the West Bank. These means, which are part of a single, coordinated control mechanism, which Israel adjusts to its needs, include the following: permanent and temporary checkpoints, physical obstructions, the Separation Barrier, forbidden roads or roads with restrictions on Palestinian use, and the movement-permit regime. ]
1. Al-Mezan Centre www.mezan.org
2. UNRWA – United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees.
Vicky Samantha Rossi is a TFF Associate and Board member. This article was originally published by TFF (www.transnational.org) Comments directly to firstname.lastname@example.org