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“Days of Penitence”: Over 70 Palestinians Killed in Deadliest Israeli Offensive in Gaza Since Intifada

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Over 70 Palestinians–many of them civilian–have been killed during a five-day Israeli assault on the Gaza Strip. We go to Gaza to speak with longtime Palestinian political leader Dr. Haidar Abdel Shafi and Chris McGreal of the London Guardian at the Jabalya refugee camp. [includes rush transcript]

An Israeli air strike on a northern Gaza refugee camp killed at least four Palestinian militants on Monday bringing the Palestinian death toll to 73 over the past five days–many of them civilians.

The offensive, called Operation Days of Penitence, was launched in response to a Palestinian rocket attack on the Israeli border town of Sderot which killed two Israeli children. The past week has marked one of the deadliest periods for Palestinians since the Intifada began four years ago.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said the army would expand a “buffer zone” in the region to stop rockets being fired into Israeli towns ahead of his planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip next year. Israeli tanks and armored vehicles have now seized three square miles of the northern strip.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has called on Israel to halt the raids saying they have “led to the deaths of scores of Palestinians, among them many civilians, including children.” Annan also called on Palestinian leaders to help curtail rocket attacks.

Egypt and France joined Spain, Switzerland, the International Committee of the Red Cross and Canada in expressing concern at the operation.

  • Chris McGreal, reporter from for the London Guardian. He joins us on the phone from Gaza City.
  • Dr. Haidar Abdel Shafi, veteran Palestinian politician and political leader from Gaza. He has led several Palestinian delegations to peace talks, most prominently at the 1991 Madrid Conference and the subsequent Washington talks. He is also a physician and is head of the Red Crescent in the Gaza Strip. He joins us from Gaza.

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

AMY GOODMAN: We now go to Gaza. Chris McGreal, a reporter from the London Guardian, joins us from Jabalya. We are joined by Dr. Haidar Abdel Shafi, veteran Palestinian political leader from Gaza. Chris McGreal, can you describe what has happened, what you have written about over the last few days?

CHRIS MCGREAL: Well, one of the things that we have just heard is that in fact two more children have been killed. A 15-year-old girl was shot in her house, evidently by an Israeli soldier near here which is just north of Gaza city. And in a refugee camp south of the strip, we have been told there’s a four-year-old boy who was killed by shooting from an Israeli tank. So, there are more deaths today, more deaths of civilians. Essentially, what I have been writing about is the takeover of a fairly large swath of northern Gaza by the Israeli army. This is the largest reoccupation of Gaza during the past four years of intifada. In the early days, there was quite — this has been going on for six days. In the first couple of days, there was a lot of fighting. I think 100 people have been injured alone on Thursday, and a couple of dozen people killed that day, mostly Hamas and Islamic jihad fighters resisting the Israeli push into Jabalya. The Israelis seem to have more or less settled in place now and are clearing whole areas, bulldozing whole areas immediately outside of the refugee camp, apparently to make it impossible for Hamas to hide and fire rockets from the areas. Inside the camp, there’s been quite a lot of destruction. We have been able to communicate with people who are trapped on the Israeli side. They say that dozens of houses have been bull-dozed. They’re trapped in their homes, mostly without water and electricity, roads and sewage pipes ripped up and of course, always living in fear of the Israeli snipers.

AMY GOODMAN: Chris McGreal speaking to us from Jabalya refugee camp. Dr. Abdel Shafi. Can you describe what’s happening now? You are in Gaza city?

DR. HAIDAR ABDEL SHAFI: I must say that I am not hearing your voice clearly. I can’t follow very well. Although, the — my partner, who was being questioned, I heard his — what he said clearly, but your voice is not clear. I’m not able to follow what you have been asking.

AMY GOODMAN: If you could just describe from your vantage point what is happening right now in Gaza city.

DR. HAIDAR ABDEL SHAFI: Well, in Gaza, it is a situation of frustration about the Israeli — about what Israel is doing. You know, we have been exposed to aggression, and it’s obvious that our response is an unorganized response, and so it’s not effective, and it — I mean, in many ways, it poses a negative picture for our response. I mean, they — the thing that’s lacking on the Palestinians’ side is really a good organization. But this does not mean that we bear the responsibility for what’s going on. It’s obvious that Israel is out to follow its scheme of you know claims and this is, from our side, we believe it is a frank aggression by the Israelis on us, on us Palestinians.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain —

DR. HAIDAR ABDEL SHAFI: I’m sorry to say that our response is not organized.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean it’s not organized?

DR. HAIDAR ABDEL SHAFI: Our attempt to defend ourselves against the Israeli aggression, we are not doing it in a well organized form, and this first of all, it’s not really very effective, and also doesn’t impress the outside world effectively about what we are suffering.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Haidar Abdel Shafi has led several Palestinian delegations to peace talks, most prominently, the 1991 Madrid conference and the subsequent Washington talks. He’s a physician and head of the Red Crescent in the Gaza strip. What about the U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan calling on Israel to end its offensive and the Palestinians to halt rocket attacks against Israel? And Egypt and France, joining Spain and Switzerland, the Red Cross and Canada in expressing concern at Israel’s action? How does that play out on the ground, these kinds of international demands?

DR. HAIDAR ABDEL SHAFI: Well, I must say, I mean, briefly, that the whole situation is a result of frank aggression on the Palestinian people by Israel. I mean, this is the core of the problem. Now, our response is not organized. It is not in many ways — it has its negative aspects, but because, I’m sorry to say, that we have not achieved a real organization in our response to the Israeli aggression. But this does not belittle the fact that we are victims of aggression by the Israeli side.

AMY GOODMAN: Chris McGreal, you write Ariel Sharon said yesterday, an assault on the Gaza strip that has claimed more than 60 lives and your injured more than 250 people, the bloodiest of the intifada will be expanded until it puts an end to Hamas rocket strikes against Israel. At least eight people were killed yesterday, most of them insurgents, but the dead also included a 13-year-old boy. Can you talk about how people are protecting themselves?

CHRIS MCGREAL: Well, it depends where they are, of courses. Those who are trapped on the Israeli side are forced to remain in their homes. And when the shooting begins, to shelter as best they can, sleeping, you know, in inside rooms, back rooms, whatever. Some of these families are in fact used as — effectively as human shields by the Israelis. When the Israelis set up a sniper’s post — for instance in an apartment that’s maybe on the fourth floor of the building — they usually forced the family concerned to remain in the flat at the back because they believe that that discourages Palestinian insurgents from blowing the building up with them inside, because the Palestinian family is inside. So, those who live much closer to the front lines, so to speak, say in Jabalya simply get out of their houses and get away, if they can, if they have somewhere else to go. In other parts of Jabalya — the main area of Jabalya has been occupied by the Israelis is called block four. Large parts of Jabalya have not been occupied by the Israelis. People simply maintain a wary eye. They stay at home, they stay on the streets around their houses, but they don’t really know whether the Israelis are going to make a push deeper into the camp. And if the Israelis do, there’s really not much they can do to protect themselves other than if they can get ahead of the push and get away. Some do, but on the whole, people just go into their homes and hope for the best.

AMY GOODMAN: And what is the response inside Israel, from the peace movement and the society overall?

CHRIS MCGREAL: I mean, the peace movement no longer reflects society overall. Israeli public opinion on the whole has moved quite far to the right, and it’s pretty firmly behind Sharon. So, the peace movement raises questions, criticizes, and certainly there are voices now, dissident voices in the military amongst the refuseniks who with question these kind of tactics and ring alarm bells but on the whole, I think most of the Israeli population tends to support this not because in the end they think that it’s going to resolve the problem of the cassam rockets fired by Hamas, but because I’m afraid the societies have gotten themselves into a cycle of wishing when they suffer to see the other side suffer, too. And with the deaths of the two small children and the Israeli town of Steratt, there’s a mood reflected in the Israeli press that, you know, they — the army should hit back, and make the Palestinian populations of Gaza pay the price.

AMY GOODMAN: Chris McGreal — -

CHRIS MCGREAL: There’s a belief in some quarters, probably a mistaken belief, that if the army puts pressure on the civilian population of, say, Jabalya, it will turn on Hamas and stop the rocket attacks. Certainly, amongst many of the civilians I spoke to in Jabalya, they’d rather Hamas were not launching rockets from, in or around their refugee camp. And they — they are unhappy that it brings Israeli retaliation. But they are not of a mind to stand up to Hamas. It’s perceived as collaboration, and certainly, they are much angrier with the Israelis than they are with Hamas.

AMY GOODMAN: Chris McGreal, we have to leave it at that. Chris McGreal is a reporter with the London Guardian, speaking to us from the Palestinian refugee camp. Dr. Haidar Abdel Shafi, a leader who has led several peace delegations and a physician head of the Red Crescent in the Gaza strip.

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