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2006-06-13

Gaza Physician, British Journalist Refute Reported Israeli Military Investigation that Clears IDF, Blames Hamas for Deadly Beach Attack

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Nine Palestinians, including two children, have been killed in an Israeli air strike in Gaza Tuesday. We go to Gaza to speak with a reporter for the London Independent as well as a Palestinian physician who was at the hospital that received many of the victims of Friday’s deadly explosion on a beach in Northern Gaza that left eight Palestinians dead. The two contradict the reported findings of an Israel Defense Forces panel that concludes the IDF was not responsible for Friday’s bombing. [includes rush transcript]

Nine Palestinians, including two children, have been killed in an Israeli air strike in Gaza today. The Israeli army confirmed the attack, saying it had targeted a van carrying Palestinian militants just north of Gaza City. The group Islamic Jihad confirmed two of its members were killed in the attack which injured 20 others. Reports said the first strike was followed soon afterwards by another missile, which hit civilians who had gone to the scene of the first blast.

The deadly air strike came just four days after eight Palestinian civilians–including three children–died in an explosion Friday on a day of Israeli artillery shelling.

They had been picnicking on a beach in northern Gaza. One seven-year-old Palestinian girl lost her father, step-mother and five siblings. In images broadcast around the world, the child, Huda Ghalia, is seen moments after the bombing struck. She runs to the site of the attack where she comes across the body of her deceased father. She collapses to the ground next to him, repeatedly crying for her father. At least 40 people were also injured in Friday’s bombing. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas declared three days of mourning to mark what he called a "bloody massacre."

Israel initially acknowledged it was firing shells in the area to stop Palestinians from staging rocket attacks and said it regretted the civilian deaths. In just the past two months, Israel has fired over 6,000 shells into the Gaza Strip. But the Israeli newspaper Haaretz is now reporting an Israel Defense Forces panel is close to concluding that the IDF was not responsible. The panel is set to announce it believes the bombing was caused by a bomb planted by Hamas on the beach to stop Israeli naval commandos in Northern Gaza.

Following Friday’s killings, Hamas announced an end to its 16-month truce and said Israel had committed a war crime. Over the weekend Hamas fired at least 17 missiles targeting southern Israel.

For more on the latest we go to Gaza to speak with two guests:

  • Chris McGreal, reporter for the London Guardian. He joins us on the line from Gaza.
  • Dr. Mona El-Farra, a physician and community activist in northern Gaza. She was at the hospital that received many of the victims of Friday’s bombing. She runs a blog titled "From Gaza, With Love"

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We welcome you to Democracy Now!

CHRIS MCGREAL: Good afternoon.

AMY GOODMAN: Good to have you with us. Can you tell us the latest that you understand in Gaza.

CHRIS MCGREAL: We had this missile strike, which you just talked about, this morning. I was at the scene a few minutes later. What appears to have happened is that the Israelis hit a mini-bus carrying probably three or four people as it was going through a busy street, Salah al-Din street. That caused the bus to career a little way down the road and crash into a lamp post. People ran to the bus and then the second missile came in. It hit and killed two children, who were sitting outside their house. They looked to be 7 or 8 years old. And it also seems to have killed three people who worked in a hospital nearby who heard the first explosion. They were ambulance men, possibly a paramedic — ran out from the hospital to help people, also ran to the mini-bus and were killed in that — in the second strike.

AMY GOODMAN: Chris McGreal — what is your understanding of what happened on the beach on Friday?

CHRIS MCGREAL: Well, that’s becoming a highly politically contentious point. The — as you said, the Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert initially apologized, said he regretted it. But he’s in Europe at the moment, in Britain yesterday and today, going to France later today, and then on to the European Parliament. And those pictures that you were describing, the scene from the family being killed, have proved a severe embarrassment to him in Europe. He’s been asked about it a lot. It seems that this panel has been quickly convened to absolve the army and to raise sufficient doubt for Ehud Olmert and his foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, who’s also in Europe at the moment, to be able to say, "well, we’re still investigating, we’re looking into this, we can’t say for certain."

This has happened with previous extremely high-profile killings, perhaps the most memorable of which was Mohammed al-Dura, where the military set about trying to raise doubts. But the report that they’ve come up with, it has to be said — it’s full of holes. It’s based on the idea that, in fact, they were blown up by a Hamas landmine planted under the sand to try and deter Israeli commanders from landing. [Unintelligible] and that is, it would probably be very difficult for Hamas to know where Israeli commanders might land, and the idea would be that they would have several of them, and yet there are no other mines. Perhaps more interesting is that at the time this family was hit by shells — a shell, which it undoubtedly was — the Israeli army admits to having fired six shells. Three of them, you can see, landed on the beach, very close by. Probably no more than the closest — 100 yards away. And essentially the army is then asking people to believe that the — a sixth shell didn’t land on the family. That by pure coincidence, even though the beach was being shelled at the time, a Hamas mine happened to go off as well in the same area and at the same time.

Compounding this is the fact that the army admits it cannot account for the last of those six shells — where it landed. And there is a military expert, an ex-Pentagon official from Human Rights Watch, New York-based human rights group here at the moment. He’s been looking into this. And he’s come to his own conclusion: that it’s almost undoubtedly an Israeli shell, based on, firstly the shrapnel, which he — he found a piece of shrapnel that says 155 millimeter on it, which is precisely the size of shrapnel shell that the Israelis use in their Howitzers, and also if you look at the size and the nature of the crater, it’s identical to those on the beach that — from the other shells, including being lined with a white powder. So I think all of — on the whole, the evidence points much more to Israeli responsibility.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re also joined on the phone, Chris McGreal, by Dr. Mona El-Farra. She’s a physician and community activist in northern Gaza, also a health development consultant for the Union of Health Work Committees in Gaza. She was at the hospital on Friday that received many of the victims of Friday’s bombing, including the 7-year-old girl — the little girl who was crying for her father on the beach, Huda Ghalia. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Dr. El-Farra. What did you see on Friday in the hospital?

DR. MONA EL-FARRA: Hello, and thank you very much for interviewing me. The hospital — it was chaos. So many casualties. Our hospital capacity — emergency room capacity was for 14 beds, but some of the casualties we had on the floor. And I would like to attract your attention to something. Regarding the injuries and the weapons that have been used, the hospital staff — it was like the casualties we’d received during the [unintelligible] incursion two years ago. So it’s clear cut for us as physicians, as people working in the field — the injury was caused by Israeli shelling. So I’m surprised to hear that Israelis are investigating if it’s Hamas or not Hamas. This is one thing.

Another thing — our ambulance driver, who was first to reach the site of the shelling, he evacuated part of the family before reaching Huda, the child who arrived later. And while he was doing it there was shelling from the sea, he eye-witnessed this. So I would like to see this clear cut, that it was Israeli. And anyway, if Israelis investigated the incident, we know what is the outcome, we know what is the answer. "Sorry"? "Sorry" will not benefit us as Palestinians. And I have a chance to say something regarding the — talking on a program called Democracy Now!: Israel is supported by the U.S.A. in doing this to the Palestinian people, and this is leaving bitter feelings of revenge amongst people, feeling devastated, helpless. They have the — we are living in a big prison called Gaza and we feel helpless, devastated. This is on one hand. On the other hand, I am personally against civilian killings from both sides — Israeli and Palestinian. But what is the end for this endless violence cycle? This is my opinion.

AMY GOODMAN: You also work with children in Gaza. Talking about what — how they are affected right now. Can you describe what you see?

DR. MONA EL-FARRA: Ok. First thing — Gaza Beach for the last four days is nearly deserted. The whole beach. From north to south. People are afraid to go to the sea, despite the fact that the sea is the only outlet for us in Gaza, little escape for us living under this hardship life — is one thing. Another thing regarding children — children’s psychology through the years will be — already have been damaged and will be damaged more and more regarding relationships with others. Relationship with the other side of the world. The world, especially the western world represented by America — American government is something like — different for them.

And we work hard through our psychologists, psychiatrists, community workers, try to amend some of the psychological disturbance that have affected all of the children because of all of these atrocities. So we are hoping to succeed, but I think it’s a big building and a little work needs to be done, not only on the psychological level. We are lacking medications, at the moment, at the hospitals, especially the main governmental hospitals. I’m working with the nongovernmental sector, but the main health provider in Gaza and West Bank is the governmental hospital.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. El-Farra, on Friday, you saw Huda in the hospital and also a 6-year-old. Huda Ghalia is a 6th grader and is now becoming a symbol right now — that photograph of her on the beach. And the 6-year-old, what happened to that child?

DR. MONA EL-FARRA: That child is Huda’s sister. Her name is Heba. She’s staying at the hospital right now, at al-Awda Hospital, the hospital where I work. And this one — this little one, 6 years old — they kind of did not show Heba. The focus was on Huda, which has been seen everywhere, but Heba is 6 years old. She was nearly dipping her hand in her 6-month-old younger brother’s blood trying to help him, to do something for the child. So she’s severely psychologically traumatized and she’s still at the hospital. But Huda, the older one, has left the hospital and is staying with her relatives. But we are giving intensive psychological support for the younger ones, psychological — and she is recovering from her wounds, she has medium wounds.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you: Ha’aretz is reporting today on the IDF probe — the Israeli Defense Forces probe, saying that the findings that they will come out with have been bolstered by three new findings. One — "the shrapnel. Three people wounded in the blast are now hospitalized in Israel. Shrapnel was apparently removed from their bodies. This is likely to reinforce the conclusion that the explosion was caused by a bomb, rather than a shell." The crater — "based on photographs, the crater left on the beach by the blast seems to have been made by an explosion from below (a mine), not a hit from above (a shell)." And finally, intelligence — "Israel has amassed considerable information indicating that over the past few weeks, ever since Israeli commandos infiltrated Gaza and killed a rocket-launching cell, Hamas has been systematically mining the northern Gaza beach in an attempt to keep Israeli commandos from landing there again."

DR. MONA EL-FARRA: First, we found out about shrapnel, locally-made — actually, the shrapnel that has been found at al-Awda hospital, this is Israeli-made. Second, we have the eyewitness — many eyewitnesses — one of the eyewitnesses I met recently was the ambulance driver of the hospital. He — he literally explained and described what happened. Third, the Human Rights Watch guy I met personally, and he found shrapnel from Israeli gunshots. Another thing I would like to mention: the Qassam rockets and these things — just very, very primitive devices. It wouldn’t injure that number — 25 or 30 people at least were injured in that incident. So it is for me quite clear that it was Israeli. It was not Palestinian.

AMY GOODMAN: Chris McGreal — you also went to Sderot, where some of the Qassam rockets of Hamas have hit. What is the reaction in that community?

CHRIS MCGREAL: Well, I think it’s been quite interesting that on — after the family was killed on the beach on Friday, I think there was — suddenly Sderot was hit by a certain amount of doubt about the policy of shelling. As you said, 6,000 shells in a couple of months. They have claimed more than 20 lives. There’s this focus on the family for obvious reasons. But more than 20 civilians have been killed by these shells in northern Gaza. And I think there was some doubt, probably on the grounds that civilians were dying, partly on the grounds that it wasn’t stopping the Palestinian rocket attacks on Sderot.

But what has changed that is twofold. It’s the army raising the doubts and saying, "possibly this was the Palestinians," and people in Sderot are very much latched on to that and now are absolving the army. And then, secondly, there was a barrage of about 50 Qassam rockets towards Sderot on the weekend. And that has led the mayor of that town to demand the army reinvade Gaza, seize the Palestinian town in the north called Beit Hanoun, and either destroy it or force everybody out of it. And, so, there’s a — a very hostile mood now in Sderot towards — towards Gaza.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk about the infighting now between Hamas and Fattah, and what that means? The escalation, for example, in places like Ramallah?

CHRIS MCGREAL: Yeah, this is partly — as you know, it’s been going on for some months now, beginning with the tensions now with the elections in January, when Hamas won in a landslide, against the expectations of Fattah. But it’s taken on a new edge with the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas calling for a referendum for the end of July on essentially the question of recognition of Israel and the two-state solution. This is embedded in a document drawn up by prisoners in — the Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.

But essentially it’s a power struggle between Abbas and the Hamas government. And that is now reflected on the streets. There’s quite a lot of tension here in Gaza. There’s been quite a lot of shooting over a — over the past few weeks, and some yesterday and today. As you say, there was the incident in Ramallah yesterday, when the parliament building was attacked. There’s been killings down in the south of the Gaza Strip yesterday, more shooting in parts of Gaza today. It’s balanced on edge. It hasn’t spilled over to the point of — of civil war and it may be some way from that. But it’s certainly edging — getting more tense and getting more edgy and these kinds of clashes are becoming more frequent.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Dr. Mona El-Farra, can you describe the effect of the lack of funds for the Palestinians right now, with European countries, with the United States cutting off funding to the Hamas-led government.

DR. MONA EL-FARRA: Allow me a half minute to send a message to Israeli civilians. I am like many others in Gaza: against shelling any citizen inside Israel — any Palestinian, any Israeli citizen. But we have the right of resistance against the Israeli army. Not that — there’s a difference between resistance — between the army and the people, is one thing. Regarding the funds — I will talk about the health system. We are suffering a lot in the health system because now the fourth month with no salaries for people. So I am seeing it coming very quickly that the old health system might collapse, because of lack of funds. And this is something a few weeks to come.

But daily things — the lack of medications for cancer patients, for example. Some people might die or die because of lack of funds and lack of funds for — especially for the hospitals. And we are going through hardship and an impoverished economy. And this is edging to the already vulnerable and impoverished economy. So the situation is not promising and it is really serious.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for joining us. Dr. Mona El-Farra, physician, community activist in northern Gaza at the hospital where Huda, her sister were taken, and the other wounded from Friday. Also, Chris McGreal of the London Guardian speaking to us on the line from Gaza as well.

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