MIDEAST: Civilians Flee Homes in Encircled Gaza

  • by Mel Frykberg (ramallah)
  • Inter Press Service

So far 145 Palestinians have been killed in just the ground invasion that was launched late Saturday night. According to Palestinian sources, the total Palestinian death toll stands at 575 with more than 2,500 injured since the launch of Operation Cast Lead Dec. 27.

UN humanitarian chief John Holmes says that at least 125 civilians have been killed. Gaza health officials put that number at more than 200.

More than 20 Palestinians were reported killed Tuesday morning when Israeli warships off the coast of Gaza fired on Deir Al-Balah city and refugee camp in the centre of the Gaza strip.

Abdallah Al-Agha, 30, from Khan Yunis south of Deir Al-Balah said the night was punctuated by heavy explosions and continual artillery fire.

'It was impossible to sleep. We heard huge booms at regular intervals. My 15-year-old sister Furat was terrified of being alone, she insisted on somebody being with her at all times,' Agha told IPS.

'Everybody is staying indoors. It is a self-imposed curfew. We are hoping that as this area is civilian, we will not be bombed, but we are still very afraid.'

Palestinian fighters continue to shoot missiles into Israel, with 40 Grad and Qassem rockets fired Monday morning. Three Israeli civilians have been killed.

Four Israeli soldiers were killed in 'friendly fire' Monday, bringing the total to five killed since the ground operation began. The soldiers were in a vacated home in Jabaliya refugee camp on the outskirts of Gaza city when an errant shell fired by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) hit the house.

Al-Brej refugee camp, a 15-minute drive from Gaza City, was also heavily shelled Monday night and Tuesday morning. Raghda Al-Jadely, 44, a resident of Al-Brej, said dozens of people had been killed between Monday night and Tuesday morning.

'The majority of those killed were civilians but some fighters were killed too. The Israelis targeted the homes of several resistance leaders,' Jadely said.

'At present there are fighters everywhere in the street and we are scared that the Israelis will bomb us again today and kill us all. We are fleeing the camp to stay with family in another area,' Jadely told IPS.

Power networks are down in large parts of the Gaza Strip, with hospitals relying on generators. Israel has allowed token amounts of fuel into the territory but most has been blocked as part of Israel's siege of Gaza, according to the UN's humanitarian coordinator.

Seventy percent of Gazans are estimated to be without tap water. Gaza's Coastal Municipalities Water Utility (CMWU) has reported that the water and sewage system is collapsing.

Maher Al-Njjar, CMWU's deputy director, says 48 of Gaza's 130 wells are not working at all due to lack of electricity and damage to pipes.

'Forty-five other wells are operating only partially, and will shut down within days without additional supplies of fuel and electricity,' Najjar said. The crisis has worsened Gaza's already damaged water and sewage systems following Israeli sanctions.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) says medical supplies, including blood, medicines and body bags are desperately needed. An ICRC team of surgeons was prevented by the Israelis from entering Gaza.

While Israel has argued that the military operation is intended to stop rocket fire into Israel, it appears that complete annihilation of Hamas as a political movement is the main goal.

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni has said that Hamas's continued control of Gaza would be a problem for Israel and the entire region.

'What I think we need to do is to reach a situation in which we do not allow Hamas to govern,' Israel's Deputy Prime Minister Haim Ramon told Israeli TV Friday. 'That's the most important thing.'

And at the UN in New York, Israeli ambassador Gabriella Shalev told the media that Israel's Gaza incursion would continue for 'as long as it takes to dismantle Hamas completely.'

Much of Hamas's civilian infrastructure has been bombed by Israel, including police stations, which are not legitimate targets under the Geneva Convention.

Many of the casualties there were young policemen, some of whom were not even Hamas supporters but just young men desperate to earn some money in an area where unemployment stands at 70 percent.

The Israeli government is itself divided over a ceasefire with the Islamist group. Israeli Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi would like the ground incursion to be short in order to minimise IDF casualties.

In contrast Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defence Minister Ehud Barak are working hard on the diplomatic level to thwart any ceasefire. Both are running for Israel's leadership in the forthcoming elections, and the popularity of both has surged since the military assault on Gaza began.

Approximately 10,000 rockets have been fired from Gaza into Israel over eight years, killing 20 people. More than 800 Gazans were killed by Israel last year alone, and more than a thousand Palestinian children have been killed since 2000.

© Inter Press Service (2009) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service