World

Hamas unscathed by hi-tech war

Chris McGreal

Although Hamas leadership is in hiding, Israel's missiles have failed to obliterate its authority, writes Chris McGreal in Beit Lahiya.

Few Palestinians are prepared to question publicly whether the one-sided battle of the past week has been worth it. (AFP)

Mohammed al-­Khoudry was staring at the rubble of a house where two young children and their father died on Tuesday this week.

"I've really tried to understand the Israelis. I used to work on a farm in Israel. I speak Hebrew. I watch their news. All the time, they talk about fear. How they have to run to their bunkers to hide from the rockets. How their children cannot sleep because of the sirens. This is not a good way for them to live," said Khoudry, who now scrapes a living growing his own produce.

"We Palestinians do not talk about fear; we talk about death. Our rockets scare them; their rockets kill us. We have no bomb shelters, we have no sirens, we have nowhere we can take our children and keep them safe. They are scared. We are dying."

The dying continued on Tuesday, even as a ceasefire was being negotiated. The victims included Suhaib and Mohammed Hejazi, aged three and four, and their father Fuad, killed when an Israeli missile hit their house in Beit Lahiya as they were sleeping. The boys' mother, Amna, was badly wounded.

As the day wore on and word came from Cairo that a halt to the violence may be just hours away, the bombardment intensified with Israeli missile strikes on cars in Gaza City and buildings to the north. Scores of casualties were packed into ambulances.

The Palestinian death toll rose above 130, a large number of them civilians, including at least 27 children. In Israel, five people, all civilians, have been killed by the ­hundreds of rockets fired from the Gaza enclave.

Different bombardment
Khoudry joined the funeral procession for the Hejazi brothers through the streets of Beit Lahiya. The boys were swaddled in white cloth and Hamas flags. They might have been mistaken for sleeping if it was not for the bruising and cuts to their faces.

A few hours after the funeral, the shelling gave way to a different bombardment: thousands of leaflets floating down on Beit Lahiya warning of worse to come. They told tens of thousands of people to get out of parts of northern and eastern Gaza nearest to the Israeli border. Some families did not hesitate, although they were not sure what the leaflets meant. Was it to warn of even more bombing? Or were the tanks on their way? What did it mean for a ceasefire?

Israel has sent its armoured tanks into northern Gaza often enough that the Palestinians around Beit Lahiya, where the open ground has been a favourite launching site for rockets into Israel, know what to expect.

Within hours, hundreds of people were following the explicit Israeli instructions to take specific roads to Gaza City and shelter there. Others headed to United Nations-run schools in the hope they would be protected from attack. But some stayed put, saying they had nowhere to go or that they would take their chances.

The deaths of the Hejazi brothers was regarded by many in Beit Lahiya not only as a tragedy, but also as a crime.

If Israelis live in fear of the randomness of Hamas rockets, Gazans have a perhaps overly confident sense of Israel being in absolute control of where its missiles land.

On Sunday, Fateh Nasser, a resident of a block of flats in neighbouring Jabaliya that was home to five families, received a phone call in which an anonymous voice told him that everyone had five minutes to get out of the building. Minutes later it was destroyed by an Israeli missile. That sense of Israeli all-pervasiveness draws many Palestinians towards what they say is an ­inevitable conclusion.

Sticking to the shadows
"If they know who to call then they know who they are killing," said Mohammed Yunis at his vegetable stall. "They know every inch of Gaza. They have maps from the occupation. They have cameras in the drones. How can it be an accident that our children are killed?"

Other leaflets dropped by the Israelis on Tuesday warned Palestinians to stay away from Hamas.

That is not easy, even if the Hamas leadership and functionaries, such as policemen, have gone underground over the past week or are at least sticking to the shadows. Hamas has abandoned police stations, government offices and the border post from northern Gaza into Israel. Instead, passport control is at a small desk far from the frontier.

But if the Israeli intent is to try to break Hamas's authority in the enclave, there is little sign that it is working. No one else, least of all its rival, Fatah, which controls those parts of the West Bank run by the Palestinian Authority, is stepping into the breach.

And if anyone was in any doubt that Hamas continued to exert a form of authority, even from the shadows, the bodies of six men alleged to be collaborators with Israel were dumped on a Gaza City street on Tuesday afternoon. Some of their bodies were dragged through the streets, tied to the backs of motorcycles driven by armed men.

Belligerent answer
Few Palestinians are prepared to question publicly whether the one-sided battle of the past week has been worth it, mostly out of solidarity with the right of resistance against Israel. The hoped-for truce is presented as a victory on the streets.

"The Jews brought all their tanks to the edge of Gaza and then they thought about what would happen if they came here," said Ayman Salameh, after attending the Hejazi boys' funeral. "Many Palestinians would die, yes. But so would many Israelis. For what? Do they think the resistance will go away? They will have to kill every Palestinian. They know this. It is the lesson the Americans learned in Iraq and Afghanistan. When resistance is everywhere, the size of your guns does not matter."

But ask about why the fighting happened in the first place and a less belligerent answer is sometimes offered.

Khoudry said the blood-letting was provoked by the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, because he had an election coming up. "Killing Palestinians makes him look strong. It is good politics in Israel," he said, adding cryptically: "He is lucky he has Hamas."

What does he mean? Khoudry hesitates. "Hamas will always fight," he said. – © Guardian News & Media 2012

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