Pulitzer Prize-winning staff photographer at The New York Times.
independent journalist and Democracy Now! correspondent reporting from Gaza.
Israel says it is considering a new ceasefire proposal from Egypt that would take effect on Friday. There is no word yet from Hamas, which rejected the last proposal on the grounds its leaders were never consulted and the terms would have allowed for the continued siege of Gaza and for Israeli bombardment at will. The news of a fresh proposal comes just as a five-hour humanitarian pause has ended. The United Nations asked for the break to let Gazans receive supplies and repair damage following 10 days of Israeli bombings. On Wednesday, an Israeli gunboat shelled a beach, killing four boys who were playing. The boys were all between the ages of nine and 11 and from the same extended family. Seven other adults and children were wounded in the strike. The scene was witnessed by several international journalists, including our guest Tyler Hicks, a Pulitzer Prize-winning staff photographer at The New York Times. We are also joined from Gaza City by Democracy Now! correspondent Sharif Abdel Kouddous, who has interviewed family members of the young victims.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: A five-hour humanitarian truce has just ended in Gaza. The break was requested by the United Nations to allow residents of the Gaza Strip to gather supplies and repair damage following 10 days of attacks by Israel. The death toll in Gaza has reached at least 227, mostly civilians. One Israeli has died since the attack began. There are reports today of a new ceasefire agreement between Israel and Gaza, but details remain unclear.
AMY GOODMAN: On Wednesday, an Israeli gunboat shelled a beach, killing four boys who were playing there. The boys were all between the ages of nine and 11 and from the same extended family. Seven other adults and children were wounded in the strike. The scene was witnessed by a number of international journalists, including France 24 correspondent Gallagher Fenwick.
GALLAGHER FENWICK: We witnessed the incident. The first strike occurred, and we went out onto our balcony. You have to understand that this happened right in front of the hotels on the Gaza beachfront where most of the international media are staying, so there were very many witnesses of this incident. As I mentioned, there was a first very loud strike that hit a structure that is right on the Gaza port. So, many people looking out onto there. And after that first strike happened, we saw four very young children running away from the point of impact on a completely empty beach, so very clearly visible from a distance. And that’s why—that’s when, excuse me, there was a second strike that obviously hit the other children, so leaving four children dead on that beach—a very shocking incident given that, again, these children were clearly simply playing around and were very, very clearly visible from a distance.
AMY GOODMAN: Ashraf al-Qidra of the Gaza Health Ministry condemned the attack on the four children—[Ismail] Mohammed Bakr, age nine; Ahed Bakr, age 10; Zakaria Bakr, age 10; and Mohammed Bakr, age 11.
ASHRAF AL-QIDRA: [translated] The Zionist occupation committed a new crime against the Palestinian civilian population and the children who were playing near the Gaza port, which led to the death of four children, who died on the spot. In addition, the fifth is now clinically dead. Their ages vary from 10 to 12 years old. Medical teams are still in the area looking to evacuate the dead and wounded from the site that was completely destroyed. A large number of injuries arrived to Shifa Medical Center.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: On Wednesday, President Obama said he was, quote, "heartbroken" by the deaths of civilians in Gaza, but he maintained Israel had a right to defend itself.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Israel has a right to defend itself from rocket attacks that terrorize the Israeli people. There’s no country on Earth that can be expected to live under a daily barrage of rockets. Over the next 24 hours, we’ll continue to stay in close contact with our friends and parties in the region, and we will use all of our diplomatic resources and relationships to support efforts of closing a deal on a ceasefire.
AMY GOODMAN: We go now to Gaza City, where we’re joined by Democracy Now! correspondent Sharif Abdel Kouddous. Sharif, can you tell us what happened yesterday? Tell us what happened on the beach.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, Amy, as you heard, these four young boys, aged between nine and 11, were playing on a pier just jutting out into the sea, right in front of the Deira Hotel, which houses many foreign correspondents. There were more than four; there were eight kids, actually, playing. And apparently a naval gunboat fired on them. One of them was killed, and the rest of the children began to run. I visited the site today. There’s a lot of rubble and twisted metal where the initial hit came. About 20 or 30 yards away from that, while the children were running, which seems to indicate that an adjustment was made to give a direct hit on these children, they were hit. I spoke to a witness, a fisherman who was right there, who said the kids were blown apart. One landed about 20 meters from the other two. They were all killed. Mohammed was 11 years old; Zakaria, nine; Ismail, 11; and Ahed was nine—all from the Bakr family. They’re all cousins.
And there was four others who were injured. Two of them are in hospital. I spoke to one of them today. He said he was—they were just playing on the beach, and that they go to the beach every day. They come from a family of fishermen. And he said he was right next to his cousin Mohammed when the strike hit, and he somehow managed to survive. Another one is suffering deep psychological trauma. His name is Younis. He’s suffering deep shock from what happened.
So, and we spoke—I also met with the mother today of Mohammed, the 11-year-old who was killed. She said he was a child that loved the sea. He had seven—he has seven sisters. His father ruined his back about 10 years ago fishing, and they were waiting for him to grow and become the family breadwinner. And there was just deep, deep tragedy and sorrow in the house. So, you know, this is just some of the stories of people who are killed in Gaza. As we know, it’s almost 50 children have been killed over this 10-day bombardment, and close to 230 people overall have been killed.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Sharif—
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: As you mentioned earlier, we’re just approaching now the—go ahead.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Sharif, I just wanted to interrupt you. We also have on the phone with us Tyler Hicks, the New York Times photographer who was there on the scene when the children were killed. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Tyler Hicks.
TYLER HICKS: Thank you.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah. You wrote a firsthand account in the Times today of what you saw. Could you tell us, in your own words?
TYLER HICKS: Yes, actually, my hotel room overlooks the beach. I have a perfect view of that area that was actually hit yesterday. I had been out working for most of the day. This happened in the late afternoon. And I just, you know, heard a loud explosion, a big crack right outside the window. I immediately looked outside, with my—my driver was here with me. And I could see just this part of the port, this jetty that goes out into the water, just outside my window, with a small structure, really just like a little shack, that had just been hit by a bomb. And at that time, I could just see one child running away from that into the open sand. I knew that there was a strong possibility that there would be injuries or even deaths because of this, and I quickly started to grab my cameras, my protective flak jacket, when another second explosion happened outside about 30 seconds after the first one. When I looked back out, that very boy that I had seen running was then lifeless, killed on the beach in the open, and along with three other boys who were playing with him.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Tyler Hicks, prior to these attacks, had there been any shelling going on in that area or any missiles that you could see or rockets being fired?
TYLER HICKS: Not in that area. I mean, the whole—all of Gaza has, you know, rockets, all kind—it’s hard to tell exactly what these are, whether they’re mortars, rockets from a jet, from a drone. Unless you’re able to do the forensics and really know about those things, you can’t really tell exactly what it was. One thing we know is it’s coming from Israel.
This particular area is just—it’s a quiet little strand of beach, sometimes a few fishermen out there with nets trying to catch just small bait fish, occasionally a few children. We learned later that these kids had actually been warned by their families not to play on the beach because it’s an open area. But they would be no reason—now, this isn’t a military area. It’s a place that this part of the beach has hotels that are frequented by journalists. It’s not a place that Hamas would be gathering—certainly not this little shack that’s out on the seawall. There would be no reason that people would be out there in the sweltering sun having some kind of meeting that would be attacked.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Tyler Hicks, as you’ve been covering this, it was—the Israeli military used the words "this was a tragic outcome" when their missile from the ship hit the children. They didn’t say "tragic mistake." They said "tragic outcome." Can you explain, from covering this situation for a while now?
TYLER HICKS: Yeah, I mean, they have a very sophisticated military, and they can see what’s going on, whether it’s from a drone, from a ship. I mean, they know what they’re hitting. And it’s pretty hard—in my opinion, would be—to mistake grown men and, you know, Hamas militants, at that, for children no more than four feet high wearing beach clothes, scattering from this initial explosion. I mean, in my opinion, it would be pretty obvious, especially given the 30-second window between the first explosion and the second that killed three of the four. One was actually killed by that first bomb. But that 30 seconds should be enough to assess whether or not those are children or civilians or actual Hamas militants.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Sharif Abdel Kouddous, I’d like to go back to you for a moment. This temporary lull in the fighting, the talk of another possible truce, could you talk about that?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, as you mentioned, this five-hour ceasefire expired just as we went to air. The streets are already emptying out, as I speak. But earlier today, they were crowded for the first time in 10 days, thousands of people going to market to buy much-needed food and water, and just to see each other after these 10 days of bombardment. Banks and ATMs, there were massive queues outside for people trying to withdraw money. And I expect that it will go back to Gaza, you know, returning to kind of being more of a ghost town, to being quiet, except for these sounds of war that are everywhere—the incessant buzzing of drones overhead, loud booms from warships, the screech of F-16s and the constant blasts of missiles raining down.
And they’ve hit so many homes. I mean, there’s destruction almost around every corner. You see all these two-, three-story concrete buildings completely buckled under, their insides spilled out into the streets, people’s belongings. They hit many graveyards, which are open spaces, where I guess the Israeli military believes rockets are being fired from. But the driver that I’m working with here said, "The Israelis are even trying to kill the dead."
And there’s also thousands of people that have been displaced, many from Beit Lahia in the north, who came after the Israeli military dropped leaflets warning of attacks. They’re crammed into these U.N.-run schools. It’s very, very hot. It’s very humid. There’s usually somewhere between 10 to 20 people, families crammed into one room, many of them sleeping on the floor. They don’t have enough mattresses to go around. They have very little food and clean water. And many people have said, as well as Hamas officials that I’ve spoken to, that they feel abandoned by the international community, that this is going on and has been allowed to go on. They’re asking for people to intervene and for this to stop.
AMY GOODMAN: Sharif, you’ve just come from Egypt, and I was wondering if you can talk about these ceasefire agreements. The first one, it’s been reported, there was a secret conversation, phone conversation over the weekend, between General—the president of Egypt, el-Sisi, and the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Hamas says they weren’t consulted on this. Can you talk about the significance of this in this next ceasefire?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi apparently did have this secret phone call with Benjamin Netanyahu, the first time he’s spoken to Netanyahu since being inaugurated president in early July. This was apparently at the urging of Kerry, according to a report in Ha’aretz. I think, you know, this is—the difference between the last president that Sisi ousted, Mohamed Morsi, was that the Muslim Brotherhood had close ties with Hamas. During the 2012 assault, Mohamed Morsi sent in his prime minister, Hesham Qandil, into Gaza during the bombardment, which the people of Gaza here—I came to cover that, as well—said was a great show of solidarity. Other leaders came in after that, including the Turkish prime minister Erdogan. And so, he was really toasted for brokering a ceasefire.
And I think Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is trying to restore Egypt’s historic role as a broker between Israel and Palestine, but, in this instance, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has engaged in a severe clampdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, the ally of Hamas, and has constantly vilified and demonized Hamas as trying to collude with the Brotherhood to overthrow the military in Egypt and overthrow the state. And so, they have destroyed hundreds of tunnels that link between Gaza and Egypt, in the interim. And this ceasefire agreement that was negotiated—I just spoke with a Hamas official, who confirmed that they were not consulted whatsoever. They learned about the ceasefire agreement from the media when it was reported. So, you now, I think this was a move to try and restore Egypt as being seen as a possible broker, but also to marginalize Hamas as a political movement.
There’s talk of a new ceasefire. The details aren’t apparent yet. But everyone wants the shelling and the bombing to stop.
AMY GOODMAN: Is there reports of a ground invasion, a possibility, of the Israeli troops lined up on the Gaza border?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: We keep hearing different reports. There was an unnamed Israeli military official who spoke with foreign correspondents yesterday—it was reported by The New York Times and The Washington Post and other papers—that was saying, as each day passes, a ground invasion becomes more likely, saying it was very, very possible. If that happens, then we can only imagine that the level of violence will only go up.
AMY GOODMAN: Sharif, we want to thank you for being with us. Please be safe. Sharif Abdel Kouddous, Democracy Now! correspondent, reporting from Gaza. I also want to thank Tyler Hicks, the Pulitzer Prize-winning staff photographer at The New York Times, wrote the firsthand account of witnessing the attack on the four boys today on the Gaza beach. We’ll link to that report at democracynow.org. Tyler Hicks is also the photographer who worked with Anthony Shadid, the New York Times reporter who died as he was leaving Libya [sic]. Tyler Hicks carried him over the border. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow—when he was leaving Syria, that is. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.