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2009-01-06

Israeli F-16 Attack Kills Father of Palestinian Journalist; Israel Bombs UN School, Killing Three

Guests

Fares Akram, Gaza correspondent for The Independent of London, lost his father in Israeli F-16 attack on Saturday. He wrote about the attack in his article 'Gaza: The Death and Life of My Father'

Christopher Gunness, spokesperson for UN Relief and Works Agency, speaking from Gaza.

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The UN says around a quarter of the dead are civilians, but that figure only counts women and children, excluding adult males. Today, we will look at one of those men killed. I am joined by Fares Akram. He is the Gaza correspondent for The Independent of London. His father was killed in an Israeli F-16 attack on Saturday. His wife is nine months pregnant. We also speak with UNRWA’s Christopher Gunness on the Israeli bombing of an UN school that killed three people. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

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

AMY GOODMAN: The Palestinian death toll continues to mount on the eleventh day of Israel’s attack on Gaza. The Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz reports 100 Palestinians were killed in Israeli attacks Monday, “a large number” of them civilians. At least twelve of the dead were children. At least two whole families were wiped out, one family of seven inside the Shati refugee camp and another family of eleven in the neighborhood of Zeitoun. Earlier today, at least ten Palestinian civilians were killed when an Israeli naval boat shelled their home on the Gaza shore. Witnesses say Israeli tanks have now entered a second major Palestinian city, Khan Yunis, in addition to Gaza City in the north.

Meanwhile, five Israeli soldiers were also killed Monday. The Israeli military says four of them died in two separate incidents when Israeli tank shells errantly hit the areas where they were operating. The mistaken killing of its own soldiers could serve to further bolster criticism of Israel’s claim to be attacking Gaza with precise strikes on military targets.

Overall, an estimated 562 Palestinians have been killed with more than 2,500 wounded.

The Bush administration, meanwhile, continues to support Israel’s attack. On Monday, the veteran correspondent Helen Thomas question White House Press Secretary Dana Perino.

    HELEN THOMAS: Why is the President letting more people be killed in this situation, instead of going for a ceasefire and calling for restraint, as they have in the past, on both sides?

    DANA PERINO: We are calling for a durable ceasefire. That’s what we are trying to establish.

    HELEN THOMAS: But why don’t you call it today and stop people from being killed?

    DANA PERINO: Well, I think, Helen, strong views are held on this by all sides. We believe that Israel has a right to defend itself, and —

    HELEN THOMAS: Do the Gazans have a right to defend themselves?

    DANA PERINO: I think that what the Gazans deserve is a chance to live in peace and security. What President Bush has worked for is a chance to establish a two-state solution, so that the Palestinians could have their own state, so that they could live in their own democracy. And that’s what President Abbas, who is the President of all Palestinians, has been working towards.

    HELEN THOMAS: The President did not recognize their election, which was fair and square under international law, as observers —

    DANA PERINO: Look, when — the President did call for the — did support the elections. And when the elections were held, I don’t think that Hamas was elected because they said, “Vote for us, we’ll take you to war” or “We’ll hold you hostage” or “We’ll send rockets into Israel every day.” But they won because they were tired — the people of — the Palestinians, people of Gaza, were frustrated with the services that they were getting from the Fatah party, which was a wake-up call for the Fatah party as well. And they have worked to try to improve what they could provide governance-wise for all of the Palestinians.

    HELEN THOMAS: So knowing that, why did the US cut off all relation — all aid to the people?

    DANA PERINO: We certainly have not done that to the people of Gaza. We do not deal with the terrorist organizations, of which Hamas is designated as one.

AMY GOODMAN: The UN says around a quarter of the dead are civilians, but that figure only counts women and children, excluding adult males. Today, we’ll look at one of those men. I’m joined by Fares Akram. He’s the Gaza correspondent for The Independent of London. His father was killed in an Israeli F-16 attack on Saturday. His wife is nine months pregnant.

Fares Akram, welcome to Democracy Now!, and our condolences on the death of your father.

FARES AKRAM: Welcome, and thank you for your sympathy and support.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what happened to your dad?

FARES AKRAM: I’m talking to you now, and I think you may hear the sound of the shooting going on from the Israeli tanks, which are only two kilometers away from our house.

My father was killed on Saturday when he was in our farmland in the northwest of Gaza Strip, very close to the border with Israel. We were very shocked with his death, especially that we have never expected he would be killed by Israelis, because he’s very close to the border, and that area is under control of Israeli cameras and the watching towers, and there are only a few houses scattered there amid the very large open spaces up for eight kilometers to the south until we get to Gaza. All that land, that area, are open, and there are no militant activities. We often thought that my father would be hurt from the rockets that are fired from Gaza, because, as I said, the farm is very close to the Israeli border. But we have never expected that he would be killed by the Israelis, who were watching him from nearby.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain who your father was, Fares?

FARES AKRAM: My father was a judge within the — working within the Palestinian Authority under — led by President Mahmoud Abbas. After Hamas seized Gaza last year, he had to quit his job, because Hamas has taken over the judiciary system of the Palestinian Authority in Gaza. And he moved to the farm, where he set up a large farm to produce dairy products. We have hundreds of cows there.

We asked my father to stay here with us and not to go to the farm. That was at the beginning of the aerial onslaught on December 27. But he said he will go there to look after the cows, because, you know, if the Israelis have a —- launch a ground operation, the roads will be cut, and no one will be looking after the cows. So he went there on December 27 and remained there. I want -—

AMY GOODMAN: Fares Akram, I’m going to ask you to pause for one minute —-

FARES AKRAM: OK.

AMY GOODMAN: —- as you recount what happened to your father, because we’ve just been joined by Christopher Gunness, who’s a spokesperson for UNRWA, the UN Relief and Works Agency. He’s on the line with us from Gaza. And we’ve just heard that a school in Gaza has been hit, as well as a health clinic, and we want to get the latest. And then we’re going to come back to you.

Christopher Gunness, welcome back to Democracy Now! Can you explain what has happened?

CHRISTOPHER GUNNESS: Thank you very much. It’s more bad news, I’m afraid. Last night at 11:30, at the Asma Elementary School in Gaza City, there was an air strike in which the school compound suffered a direct hit. I’m not suggesting that it was definitely targeted. Three people who had taken refuge in the school had actually asked permission from the supervisor there to go out and use the toilet facilities, which were at a building in the school compound. As they were returning back to the school, there was an attack, and an explosive of some sort landed in the school compound, and they were killed.

We are strongly protesting these killings with the Israeli authorities, and we’re calling for an immediate and impartial investigation. It’s important to say that the coordinates of all of our facilities in Gaza were handed over to the Israelis well before this offensive began. The schools were clearly marked. So it should have been known exactly where they were. The fact is that our compounds and our facilities are being used to shelter people. There were over 400 people in the Asma school who had left their homes, fleeing the fighting from the northern areas of Gaza. We say that there has to be an investigation, because the facts don’t come out and speak for themselves. If there have been violations of international humanitarian law, then they have to be — people have to be held accountable.

We’re also just confirming that there was an attack at 11:00 this morning. It appears that it’s a mosque in the Burej camp that may have been targeted, but an UNRWA health center that was nearby was very badly damaged. Six of our staff were wounded, and three of those are in a serious condition. And those are really all the facts that I can confirm for you now.

AMY GOODMAN: Is it true that the people who went into the school for protection, some of them were responding to the pamphlets dropped by the Israeli military telling them to leave their homes?

CHRISTOPHER GUNNESS: It’s very likely that that is the case. But let’s be clear here. When you get a leaflet saying “Leave your house. It’s about to be attacked. Go to safety,” there is no safety in Gaza. Your listeners must realize that there is a large fence around Gaza. In conflicts, people grab their children and flee to safety. There’s no safety in Gaza today. There is nowhere for these people to flee, which is why we echo the words of the Secretary-General: “Stop the fighting.”

It just has to stop, because scores of innocent people are now being caught up in this. Humanitarian supplies are not getting to the places where they’re needed. Ambulances aren’t getting access to the sick, the dying, the injured, and they’re not getting access to hospitals. We’re not able to get medical supplies to the hospitals because of this offensive. We have had to cancel today — I hope that might change, but so far we’ve had to cancel the delivery of our trucks, because of the security situation is just too bad.

AMY GOODMAN: We’ve reported over 500 Palestinians have been killed. And we’re talking with Fares Akram, who is the Gazan reporter for The Independent of London. And my question to you is — we’re talking about his father, who was killed on his farm in the first day of the attack. The UN says the number of Palestinians who have been killed, something like 20 percent of them, at least, are civilians. But is it true that that is only counting women and children?

CHRISTOPHER GUNNESS: Well, it’s extremely confused, and we’re being very careful in UNRWA about this figure. What John Holmes, the head of OCHA, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in New York, said last night was that at least 25 percent of all these — the fatalities are civilians. And I’m afraid that’s about as accurate as we can be, given the sheer confusion on the ground.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you, Christopher Gunness, for joining us, spokesperson for the UN Relief and Works Agency, speaking to us from Gaza, as we return now to Fares Akram.

Fares, you were describing what happened to your father, who was a judge, who returned to his farm. This is on the first day of the Israeli attack on Gaza.

FARES AKRAM: Mm-hmm. After that, we kept in contact with my father, who was saying that it’s very safe there and it has been very quiet and no fighting at all there. But suddenly, on Saturday, three days ago, as Israel was about to start the ground invasion into Gaza Strip, an F-16 warplane suddenly dropped a bomb at our two-story house there, turning it to little more than boulders, destroying it completely.

We got the news after one hour, because the mobile networks were down in Gaza due the overload and because the Israelis hit some of the signal transmission antennas.

We tried to go there, but, of course, the road was cut. But my brother and my uncle took the risk, and they drove there, drove a jeep, sped by a jeep there. And they said the Israeli gunboats were firing at the jeep all of the way, but because the jeep was driving very speedy on a dodgy road, the missiles did not hit the jeep.

When they arrived there, they found the dead body of my father as a pile of flesh, in addition to another teenager from our extended family. Though he was walking with my father into the villa, we found the second teenager thrown 300 meters away from my father’s body. At that time, when some other people from my family arrived to help evacuate the facility, another Israeli air strike took place, but this time by Apache helicopters targeting one of our cottages there, and a cousin of me was seriously injured when they were there. And the Israeli gunboats also kept firing on them on their way back to Gaza.

AMY GOODMAN: When did you hold the funeral?

FARES AKRAM: We held a very quick funeral next day, on Sunday morning. The convoys of the cars in the funeral were very small and short, because the shelling was ongoing and the Israeli airplanes were flying overhead and were striking everywhere.

I would like to mention that thousands of air strikes have took place in Gaza, and they are still ongoing. But here, we have to mention that Gaza is only 360 square kilometers. When you drop this amount of bombs into this small area, it means there is no safe place in Gaza at all, and it means everything is targeted, as you may be hearing that families there were killed. Complete families made up of the parents and their kids were completely eliminated.

AMY GOODMAN: I thought it was very interesting in reading your piece about your dad, reporter’s father first casualty of Israel’s ground offensive, that you said he was born in Gaza, educated in Egypt, a lawyer and judge who worked for the Palestinian Authority. “After Hamas took over, he quit and turned to agriculture. Dad’s father, Fares” — who you’re named for, I suppose — “who had been driven out of his home in what is now Israeli Ashkelon in 1948, had bought the land in the 1960s”?

FARES AKRAM: Yeah, that’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: And Jewish settlers had taken it over during the Second Intifada?

FARES AKRAM: Yeah, during the Second Intifada, which started in 2000, until the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, the Israeli army had sealed off all the roads leading to our farm, because at that time it was located among three Israeli settlements. But they allowed us to go to our farm only two times a week, and we have had to pass through Israeli checkpoints. And the Israeli army had given us special ID cards and permissions to enter the area. The ID cards were written in Hebrew, and they bore our photos. It means that the Israelis know all of us and know who are the people who live there. During the eight years of violence, the area in which our farm is located has been the most quiet in all over Gaza Strip.

AMY GOODMAN: You write, Fares, that your father “hated what Hamas was doing to Gaza’s legal system, introducing Islamist justice.” He completely opposed violence, would have worked “for a just settlement with Israel and a better future for Palestinians. When the PA gained control over the West Bank, he moved to Ramallah to help establish the courts there.” Your feelings, as we wrap up right now? You write, “My grief carries no desire for revenge, which I know to be always in vain. But, in truth, as a grieving son, I am finding it hard to distinguish between what the Israelis call terrorists and the Israeli pilots and tank crews who are invading Gaza.” You ask a question about the difference between the pilot who blew your father to pieces and the militant who fires a small rocket.

FARES AKRAM: Yeah, I don’t see any difference between them, and there is no difference between the pilots who drop a 1,000-kilogram bomb in a mosque in Jabalya — Jabalya is a refugee camp. It’s the most densely populated area not only in Gaza Strip, but maybe in all over the world. Jabalya is the most densely populated area. And when you drop a bomb in a mosque surrounded by very fragile houses, it means that of course their victims will be the residents who live in these houses. So I don’t know how the pilots don’t hesitate to carry out the air strikes in civilian areas.

AMY GOODMAN: Fares Akram, your wife is about to give birth?

FARES AKRAM: Yes. And this is another problem, another dilemma for me. Today, I have evacuated — I had to evacuate my wife to her family’s house, because it’s closer to the clinic where she’s supposed to deliver birth. It’s closer to the clinic than our house. In order to — you know, I can’t describe my feeling when I have to leave my wife alone in this situation and send her to her family house.

And she’s also worried about me, because the tanks are getting more close to our house. And we know what the Israelis will do if they get near our house. They will call on us on a megaphone to come out of the house. And after that, most probably they will hit the house. They have set fire now to ten houses in the north of Gaza Strip, where, when I look from the window, I see [inaudible] of black smoke rising from the houses. I can’t imagine what will happen to our house.

AMY GOODMAN: Why don’t you leave it?

FARES AKRAM: I’m very sad for having to leave my wife in these circumstances, but if she goes into labor while she is in our house here, and especially if it was dark, I know it will be very impossible to go to the hospital, even if we call the ambulance. The ambulance can’t come in the night.

And also in the day it’s very dangerous, because when there is an incursion, when there are Israeli tanks nearby, the airplanes would be clearing the way for the tanks to advance in. And you know how the airplanes clear the way for the tanks: they fire on every moving object. They hit houses. They use the F-16s to help open spaces among the houses, in order to force the residents to flee, and so the army can go in.

And even if we fled our houses, we would go to the UNRWA schools. And you heard the UNRWA spokesman, you heard what he said. He said that they attacked also the schools where the people have taken refuge. So the best thing, I think, is to stay in house and to pray that you won’t be harmed.

AMY GOODMAN: Fares Akram, I want to thank you for being with us. Be safe. Gaza correspondent for The Independent of London, he lost his father in the Israeli F-16 attack on Saturday.

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