As Israel pulls ground troops from Gaza, Israeli aircraft continues to carry out bombing raids. On Sunday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas formally suspended contacts with Israel to protest what he called a criminal war on the Palestinian people. We speak with Palestinian journalist Mohammed Omer and Israeli journalist Amira Hass. [includes rush transcript]
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: Israeli troops have reportedly pulled out of northern Gaza after days of fighting that killed more than 112 Palestinians in the deadliest military assault on Gaza in years. The assault drew worldwide protests for excessive use of force, but Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has warned the withdrawal of troops does not mean Israel’s military operation there is over.
The clashes reached a peak on Saturday, after Israel sent in a regiment of ground troops in an operation dubbed “Hot Winter” that killed seventy-seven Palestinians in two days. According to Gaza health ministry statistics, twenty-two children were killed. More than 350 people were wounded. Since last week, three Israelis have died: one civilian and two soldiers.
Amid the bloody assault, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas suspended peace negotiations and cut off all contacts with Israel.
On Monday, Hamas claimed victory over Israeli forces and mounted a rally in Gaza City. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is due to arrive in the region for talks tomorrow. Meanwhile, a senior Israeli official told Reuters, “This very limited (Gaza) operation was intended to show Hamas what could happen, what you may call a ‘prequel.’” He went on to say, “If they continue to fire the rockets, then there will be more operations like this one or worse.”
We go now to Gaza to speak with Mohammed Omer, a Palestinian journalist living in the Gaza Strip. He writes for several publications, maintains a blog at rafahtoday.org.
We welcome you to Democracy Now!, Mohammed. Can you describe what is happening?
MOHAMMED OMER: Thank you. Thank you very much. I’m not sure if you can hear me right now. Actually, I’m in the middle of some funerals here in the northern part of the Gaza Strip. If you can hear me now, I’m not sure, actually.
AMY GOODMAN: We can hear you fine. Can you describe what has happened over the last few days?
MOHAMMED OMER: Well, in the last two days and up ’til the moment, on the northern part of the Gaza Strip, a Jabalya refugee camp, where the Israeli F-16s [inaudible] at the moment, the Israelis were talking about the withdrawal from the northern part of the Gaza Strip, but the situation is quite difficult right now. The ambulance crews are trying to evacuate bodies of people, and they were able to find the body of one of the ambulance workers. His name is Mahmoud Zakut [phon.], and he was drove by an ambulance by the Israeli military forces. And it seems to be, from the damage on his body, that this ambulance — the Israeli bulldozers, they drove over his body. And this came just a few hours ago. And his body arrived to the hospital, and they said that he had disappeared for nearly three days in the Gaza Strip, in specific in the north of the Gaza Strip.
AMY GOODMAN: You were describing over the weekend the smell of bodies and body parts. Where were you? What did you see?
MOHAMMED OMER: Well, this was yesterday. I found arms and legs and fingers scattered in the streets everywhere. And this was the situation — burned flesh in the streets with children and kids and women. And so far, 130 Palestinians were killed in the last few days. Out of 130, there are thirty-nine children, ten women, in addition to 370 children who were injured in the past few days. And there is 35 percent of those cases who were injured in the head and the upper side of the body, this which makes the whole situation at Kamala Adwan hospital quite difficult for the ambulance crews to deal with such cases, especially those people who are arriving from the far north of the Gaza Strip, where ambulances could not reach, because the Israeli bulldozers and F-16s were not able to evacuate the bodies.
Right now, I can see also some ambulances. They are trying to get inside one of the areas, and they are trying to get some more bodies into the area by getting the arms and fingers and legs of people that they were not able to reach. And I’m actually close right now to the area where the ambulance crews are patrolling, and they’re trying to get the bodies of those people into the hospital. And I can say that they are collecting at the moment, by collecting with some plastic bags some remains of human flesh, like arms and fingers and legs, and mostly children’s and women’s. And I can say that I cannot identify right now how many the numbers of the people — how many the numbers of the people who are affected by that or who were killed. Right now, I’m also close to one of the medical workers here, and they are trying hard to get the bodies of the people who are inside the area, who are inside the area of the northern part of the Gaza Strip.
People here still don’t have food. They have difficulty in accessing food, have difficulty in accessing different kinds of things. And probably you can hear the Israeli F-16 right now. It’s hovering in the sky, and it has been bombing since the early morning, and that was the case since the last few days. There is shortages of fuel, as well, for the ambulance workers. And I’ve been talking to one of the medical workers here, and he confirmed to me that seventy kinds of medicines that they could not find in the Palestinian hospitals in the northern part of the Gaza Strip, and that makes the whole situation quite difficult for them.
Let me say here that among the people who were targeted or injured, there were three journalists, and one of them was severely injured in the northern part of the Gaza Strip. We were shot at at different places, in addition to three medical workers and rescue teams who were injured, beside Mahmoud Zakut, who’s a medical worker who was droven by an Israeli tank while he was inside the area of the northern part of the Gaza Strip, Jabalya refugee camp, as he was trying to evacuate some bodies of the people lying collectively. There is nothing to collect here, but it’s only human flesh of people and injured and killed people that makes the whole situation quite difficult for ambulances to collect them.
And the most tragic that I have seen in this hospital is to say some of those medical workers, when they are trying to collect — as I’m right now next to an ambulance, and they are trying to collect, I can see, some arms and legs of scattered people, and you cannot tell what is the ages, but you can tell that these fingers could be fingers for children and these fingers could be fingers for women or man, I’m not sure, but they are all human flesh coming out of the Gaza Strip, due to the Israeli missiles.
Israel has been using the heaviest missiles by F-16s. Some experts here estimate that there are one-ton weight of Israeli missiles that Israel has been using. And that’s the case, as one of the medical sources here told me about the whole situation. And we have been told also that there is a bombing by F-16s in a close area nearby, and there are more ambulances coming with more casualties and with more people who are coming to the hospital. We are not sure who is a target. But I can tell you that most of the casualties were children and women. And among those 130 people, there are thirty-nine children and ten women. And in addition to that, there is 370 children who are also among the targets by the Israeli occupation forces.
AMY GOODMAN: Mohammed Omer, a quote from Reuters of an Israeli official calling this all a “prequel,” going on to say, “If they continue to fire the rockets, [then] there will be more operations like this one or worse.” And Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai last week threatening a “holocaust” in Gaza if rocket fire continues, saying, "The more Qassam fire intensifies and the rockets reach a longer range, [the Palestinians] will bring upon themselves a bigger shoah [holocaust] because we will use all our might to defend ourselves." Your response, Mohammed Omer?
MOHAMMED OMER: While that’s true, still, you know, in the same time, while the Israeli occupation forces are attacking in the northern part of the Gaza Strip and other parts of the Gaza Strip, launching rockets has continued by the Palestinian resistance. They are launching rockets towards Israel up ’til the moment, as Israel is attacking. They are — there is news that Israel has left the Gaza Strip, and to do that some bulldozers back out from some areas, but still the F-16 is occupying the skies of Gaza. And I can tell you that the launching of rockets is continuing. And when you talk to those resistance guys, they inform you and they tell you that this is simply because of them being attacked by the Israelis, and it’s Israel who should stop in the first place, according to Hamas and other factions.
But Israel has been attacking civilians. The latest one was a seven-months child, baby child, who was killed, beside there is also a one-week child who was killed last night, beside many other ones who were killed. And if we want to make a comparison, three Israelis were killed in the last few days, and this was since eight months that Israeli citizens are killed by home — rockets from Gaza, while if we look at this last period, there is more than 130, so from three to 130. And look at what Israel — the weapons that Israel is using. It is heavy weapons, and they are targeting also these civilian houses, so I’m not sure if we can compare the primitive weapons that the Palestinian resistance is using with the well-equipped army, one of the most powerful armies in the world, Israel. And they are using missiles that burns the bodies. And I can tell you and I can tell all the American people listening to this interview, that they’re using the missiles that they’re burning the bodies.
And it can make a smell — it smells really bad here. It smells like if you are — if you are — like an American barbecue, actually, in a house. It is actually — but this is not an — this is not a cow, this is not beef; this is a human being’s flesh. It is scattered in the streets, so they can smell this smell awfully. And this also beside the sewage system, which smells bad, as well.
I’m receiving news here from one of my colleagues here, and he says that the Israeli warships also in the eastern —- in the western part of the Rafah refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip, are firing rockets towards the fishermen and towards the houses of civilians. We’re not sure if there are casualties, but they are confirming that the tanks in the north are launching rockets, and the Israeli warships in the south are also launching missiles towards the fishermen and the civilians’ houses.
AMY GOODMAN: Mohammed Omer, do these attacks strengthen Hamas?
MOHAMMED OMER: I’m not sure if I can hear you, because it’s quite noisy here.
AMY GOODMAN: Do these attacks strengthen Hamas? Do these attacks by Israel -—
MOHAMMED OMER: They strengthen Hamas, definitely. Such attacks — I can confirm to you that, you know, such attacks makes Hamas stronger by people. And one hour from now, there will be demonstrations all over the Gaza Strip from the mosques and from the south, from the north, from the Middle East. And there will be tens of thousands of people going out by these demonstrations and calling for Hamas to take revenge for the killing of those Palestinians. So I can tell you that this is strengthening Hamas, and this is empowering Hamas, and this is making Hamas more power, because people who have elected Hamas democratically, they want Hamas to defend them by firing rockets towards Israel. So I can confirm to you that this is something that Hamas is finding the support, despite the fact that all this killing and bombing and killing.
And people believe that, you know, the problem is not with the rockets; the problem is with the occupation, because — let us take example. In Bethlehem, in Jenin, in Nablus, in Ramallah, there is no rockets, but there’s still occupation is existing. The occupied wall is existing. And the occupation is destroying a killing on daily basis. Forty-five Palestinians were injured and one Palestinian was killed, mostly students; they were coming in a protest in solidarity with Gaza in Hebron yesterday. And that shows that the Israelis are not really interested in any kind of peace or dialogue or negotiations. So there is no dialogue, and there is no peace when it comes to this, but I can tell you that this shows that the Israelis are — they mean to make the situation miserable for the Palestinians. The excuse they are using is rockets, but in West Bank there is no rockets. The occupation is continuing, and that makes people believe here that the problem is not with the rockets, but the problem is with the occupation.
Let me tell you here that I can also confirm to you that here the F-16s are quite hovering, and I can see three F-16s hovering. It might be that they bomb any target in any minute. I’m not sure if you can hear that right now, but it is low, actually, and I can see also the two helicopters on the other side, as well, coming from the direction of the southern part of Gaza Strip.
AMY GOODMAN: Mohammed Omer is speaking to us from Gaza, and Amira Hass, correspondent for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, one of Israel’s leading journalists, is on the line with us from Tel Aviv.
Amira, do you hear reports like this in Israel on Israel television or radio?
AMIRA HASS: This is exactly what I thought when I listened to Mohammed Omer, that this kind of news is completely absent from the news diet, the journalistic diet of Israelis [inaudible] Israeli. I, for personal reasons, am today in Tel Aviv and not in Ramallah, so I have not been listening to Palestinian or Arab radio and did not watch Arab TV, so I’m also — you know, I was stunned by hearing Mohammed Omer, even though I talk all the time with my friends in Gaza. And this is indeed life here — actually, I can report about how life sixty kilometers north to Gaza, how life is normal, how everybody — except for one demonstration yesterday, that the group of leftwing Israelis held in front of the Ministry of Security, Israeli Ministry of Security, there is nothing. Hello?
AMY GOODMAN: Yes, we can hear you fine.
AMIRA HASS: Yeah. You hear me, yeah. So there was one demonstration, and that’s it, and people live their life.
AMY GOODMAN: And the perception of what is happening now in Gaza, the comment of the Deputy Defense Minister saying that they will launch a “holocaust,” trying to get to be very careful. He’ll bring — he said, "The more Qassam [rocket] fire intensifies and the rockets reach a longer range, [the Palestinians] will bring upon themselves a bigger shoah [holocaust] because we will use all our might to defend ourselves."
AMIRA HASS: OK. I must say that there is some misunderstanding here. Matan Vilnai was very, very insensitive to use the word — a word which can — which is, of course — it is shoah, what we all know is "holocaust." But in Hebrew, it also means “disaster.” And here, I tend to believe that he didn’t mean to say that there will be a holocaust. He meant that the Palestinians will inflict upon themselves — and that’s what he said — the Palestinians will inflict upon themselves a worse disaster if they continue. This is the correct translation. Unfortunately — of course, he had to think about the words he was using, of course, because you say “shoah,” it’s not a neutral term anymore. But he didn’t mean "holocaust," that’s for sure. So let’s — I think that here we should be accurate. Then Arab and Palestinian media picked up on it and made all kind of other, you know, media —-
AMY GOODMAN: So, Amira Hass, what do you see then happening now? Tomorrow, Condoleezza Rice is expected to arrive, the US Secretary of State.
AMIRA HASS: I couldn’t understand.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you expect to see happening now? Tomorrow, the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, is arriving.
AMIRA HASS: Yeah, I -— look, this has been — what is true is that Israel is opting all the time for an escalation. And I agree with Mohammed Omer that it only strengthens Hamas, even though Israelis say, claim that what they want to do is to topple Hamas, actually, by the attacks. And what happens is the opposite. So I tend to believe that maybe they only want to strengthen Hamas, and not only Hamas, but to strengthen those wings of Hamas or those currents of Hamas which oppose any, any sort of — how would I say — ceasefire with Israel and only opt for more struggle against Israel.
Look, as long as — Gaza is not separated from the West Bank. We see, even though the Israelis have succeeded, and unfortunately with the help of Abu Mazen and Hamas, have succeeded to disconnect Gaza from the West Bank. But the people feel it’s the same people. And we see, whenever Gaza is so atrociously attacked, people in the West Bank come out and protest. As long as Israel continues its policies of colonization and [inaudible] — and at the same time negotiations with never come to an end, I think that we can only wait for more escalation, more — maybe some weeks or days of tranquility, and then another outburst, another explosion. It seems like a perpetual mobile of fightings and escalations.
AMY GOODMAN: Amira Hass, I want to thank you for being with us, correspondent for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz
, speaking to us from Tel Aviv. Mohammed Omer was speaking to us from Gaza. He writes for several publications, including Washington Report on Middle East Affairs. His blog is rafahtoday.org.