Rassegna Stampa Elezioni Israeliane 2009

Monitoraggio attraverso i media internazionali delle elezioni in Israele del Febbraio 2009

The Gaza war in microcosm

Posted by claudiacampli su 4 febbraio, 2009

IHT

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

EL ATATRA, Gaza Strip: The phosphorus smoke bomb punched through the roof in exactly the spot where much of the family had taken refuge – the upstairs hall away from the windows.

The bomb, which international weapons experts identified as phosphorus by its fragments, was intended to mask troop movements outside. Instead, it blew its storm of fire and smoke into Sabah Abu Halima’s hallway, releasing flaming chemicals that clung to her husband, three small children and her baby girl, burning them to death.

The Israeli military said that it was unaware of the Abu Halima disaster or of any other civilian deaths in this farming village in northwest Gaza. While locals said 11 more civilians were killed during the first few days of Israel’s ground invasion, Israeli officials said that its soldiers had killed gunmen and militants in this village, which it considers a Hamas stronghold. At least four Israeli soldiers were wounded in the fight.

The war in El Atatra tells the story of Israel’s three-week offensive in Gaza, with each side giving very different versions. Palestinians describe Israeli military actions as a massacre and Israelis attribute civilian casualties to a Hamas policy of hiding behind its people.

In El Atatra, neither appeared true, based on 50 interviews with villagers and four Israeli commanders. The dozen or so civilian deaths seemed to be a painful but inevitable outcome of a modern army bringing war to an urban space. And while Hamas fighters had placed explosives in a kitchen, on doorways and in a mosque, they did not seem to be forcing civilians to act as shields.

The different versions reflect not only a desire to shape public opinion but something more significant: a growing distance between two peoples who used to have daily interactions, but who are being forced apart by violence, mutual demonization and a policy of separation.

Palestinians almost never question the legitimacy of firing rockets into Israel as a form of resistance and therefore seemed shocked that Israel would go to war over it.

Meanwhile, Israel sent a double message. On one hand, it made clear that it was furious over the years of rocket fire and would not restrain its reaction. On the other, it argued that it took an exceptionally humane approach to the civilians of Gaza, in contrast to its enemy, Hamas.

Unlike most Gazans, many people in this village are not refugees from the 1948 Independence War, but farmers and landowners who for years sold strawberries to Israel until an embargo on the Hamas-run territory began a few years ago.

Israel warned locals, in leaflets, radio broadcasts and telephone calls to leave, but many felt the Israeli incursion did not threaten them.

“I figured it would be like all the other times when they dropped leaflets, so we went inside and waited,” said Rafik Gambur, 45, a car mechanic who worked in Israel for years, including in Sderot, where Hamas rockets have taken the biggest toll.

So when disaster struck at the Abu Halima house Sunday, many did the only thing they thought might save them: They got on the phone with their Israeli friends.

As the sun set and the bodies burned, a crowd of panicked villagers waited as two farmers made frantic phone calls to merchants on the other side of the border. “There was no one I didn’t call,” one of them said.

A man who identified himself as Danny Batua, a 54-year-old Israeli Jewish businessman whose family has been friends with the Abu Halima family for years, said by telephone that he believed the Abu Halimas were not involved with Hamas and that their suffering was a result of overblown intelligence on the part of the Israeli military.

“What can I tell you?” Batua said. “The army has no idea.”

But according to Captain E., an Israeli military commander whose men took the western sector of the village on the first night of the ground war, most houses in that area were empty of civilians. What is more, he said, militants had remained and begun gun battles with his soldiers.

“We faced fire mostly from snipers,” he said. “We found tunnels, maps, Kalashnikovs, uniforms from our army and many large explosives throughout the houses we searched,” he added, showing photographs of what his men had collected. “We also found a bucket of grenades inside a mosque.” The military made him available for an interview in Israel, but limited his identification to the initial of his first name.

Some of what the army contends is clearly real. Rockets were launched from near the town’s school and from many of its fields, Israeli commanders and several locals said.

Hamas leaders were in the village and Israeli commanders displayed evidence of four tunnels throughout the village. That was not the extensive network that higher-level commanders asserted. The militants also had weapons, but while the commanders say they destroyed houses that corresponded only to weapons caches, that does not seem to have always been true.

“My principle for blowing up houses was not to destroy a house that just had one AK-47, but only if we found real infrastructure or large amounts of explosives,” said the brigade commander for the area, Colonel Herzl Halevy, by telephone from Israel.

“I checked this out personally,” he added.

Forty to 50 houses were destroyed.

But when the platoon of Captain Y. took over the neighborhood where the Ghanem family lived, it blew up their house without going inside, he made clear in an interview. A search of it two weeks later by a Times correspondent joined by Chris Cobb-Smith, a 20-year veteran of the British Army and weapons consultant for Amnesty International, showed no evidence of explosive material or of a secondary blast.

So why was the house destroyed?

“We had advance intelligence that there were bombs inside the house,” said Captain Y., in the phone interview. “We looked inside from the doorway and saw things that made us suspicious.” That seemed to be the guiding principle for a number of operations in El Atatra – avoid Israeli casualties at all cost.

The school was a similar story. Intelligence suggested explosives inside and an F-16 dropped a bomb on it, producing a house-size hole. When the Israelis inspected, they found written material from Hamas but no explosives, he said.

For the Ghanem family’s 23-year-old son, Bakr, the act will not easily be forgotten.

“A house is something physical but also something in your heart,” he said, as he stood outside his collapsed home, taken over by cats and putrid odors. “The place in our heart has also been injured. There can be no peace after this.”

Many here believe that the Israelis feel the same about them and that they were treated with the suspicion and contempt of would-be fighters. That might help explain what happened, they say, when Omar Abu Halima and his two teenage cousins tried to take the burned body of his baby sister and two other badly burned girls to the hospital Sunday.

The boys were hauling the girls and six others on a tractor, when, according to several accounts from villagers, Israeli soldiers told them to stop. According to their accounts, they got down, put their hands up, and suddenly rounds were fired, killing two of the teenagers: Matar Abu Halima, 18, and Muhamed Hekmet, 17.

An Israeli military spokeswoman said that soldiers reported that the two were armed and firing. Villagers strongly deny that. The tractor that villagers say was carrying the group is riddled with 36 bullet holes.

The question of how Israel handled civilians in this war has become a matter of keen controversy. Human rights groups are crisscrossing Gaza documenting what they believe will form the basis of war crime proceedings aimed at demonstrating that Israel used disproportionate force.

Israeli officers say they took special care not to harm civilians.

Both sides engage in their own denials and deceptions.

Israelis argue that this war was especially difficult because they had waited so long before taking action against the thousands of rockets over eight years.

Yet after Israelis withdrew their settlers and soldiers from Gaza in late 2005, they killed over the next three years the same number of Gazans in numerous military actions here as those killed in this war – about 1,275.

For their part, few Palestinian villagers even acknowledged the existence of fighters here. Hamas is now asserting that it achieved a victory.

But in the ruins of El Atatra, perhaps the biggest damage has been to any memory of a shared past and any thoughts of a shared future.

“We used to tell fighters not to fire from here,” said Nabila Abu Halima, looking over a field through her open window. “Now I’ll invite them to do it from my house.”

Taghreed el-Khodary and Nadim Audi contributed reporting.

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