Originally published December 2, 2023.
After seven weeks of relentless Israeli bombing throughout Gaza, according to the modest estimates of the UN as of November 23 (right before a humanitarian ceasefire came into effect), more than 14,800 people have been killed in the enclave, including about 6,000 children and 4,000 women.
While these Israeli attacks on Gaza are by far the worst yet, with Israel dropping a reported 40,000 tons (update: now 50,000 tons) of explosives in less than two months, it is worth recalling that Israel has repeatedly waged assaults against the Palestinians of Gaza over the past 15 years.
Living in Gaza for years between late 2008 to March 2013, I was witness to two major Israeli assaults (and countless smaller ones over the years). Here, I will highlight what I saw and documented, to show that the horrific Israeli war crimes we are seeing coming out of Gaza are not new, even if they are exponentially worse this time around.
On December 27, 2008, Israel unloaded 100 bombs on Gaza within the first minutes of what would be its three week war on Gaza Lead. I saw a large crowd, some running from the direction in which I headed, others running in that direction. Some ran to escape, others ran to help pull bodies to safety. Around the corner and down Omar Mukthar street I saw the remains of a police station, rubble and blood strewn everywhere. As I watched Palestinians approach the station to begin extracting bodies, I witness a last rocket hit the street 150 meters away, where crowds had already gathered to try to extract the dead bodies.
Together with a handful of international activists in Gaza I made the decision to ride in ambulances with Palestinian medics as they searched for the wounded and took them to hospitals. We did so aware that Israel barred journalists from Gaza, and knowing that, in the past, medics and ambulances had been targets for the Israeli army.
I would see this first-hand soon after first joining the medics, when an Israeli sniper targeted the ambulance I rode in, injuring one medic in the leg. The last of at least 14 bullets hit the rear of the car as we sped away.
This was during the January 7, 2009 “humanitarian cease-fire” hours. The Geneva Conventions explicitly state that “medical personnel searching, collecting, transporting or treating the wounded should be protected and respected in all circumstances.”
He was rescuing injured Palestinians, standing at the rear of the ambulance when it was hit with a shell containing flechettes. Flechette munitions are designed to spray thousands of small metal darts in a wide arc, increasing the chance of injuries and death. The dart’s sharp head is designed to break away, increasing the amount of internal damage done. Another 21-year-old medic, a volunteer, was injured, his legs lacerated.
Photo | Eva K Bartlett (2009)
The day after Arafa was killed, the Israeli army fired three times within two minutes on the neighborhood where family and neighbors had gathered to pay their respects. The shelling, again with flechettes, killed six more civilians, including a young pregnant mother, and injured 25 more.
Before his murder, I’d gone with Arafa the northwest, just after 4 am, where a high school has been bombed. I wrote: “We have to navigate roads that are more than pot-holed, destroyed by time, lack of construction materials (the siege), and more recently, the F-16 missiles. Finding only the one injured man, we take him to hospital, returning after daybreak to find the corpse.“
“The medics work to load the corpse, first having to replace the flat tire. Working frantically, still fearful of potential strikes, they crowd the ambulance, hoist the van, replace the flat. A missile hits 50 metres away. Surely, undoubtedly, those warplanes above us know –from the markings of the ambulance, the clothes of the medics, the crystal clear photos their drones can take –that we are civilians and medics below. Yet they fire.
They change the tire, load the body, and we’re off, screeching as much as the tired ambulance and mangled roads will allow. It’s straight around the back of the hospital, to the mortuary, where men mourning the latest dead before ours are ushered out, ordered to make room for this new body. In the cold room, the body is transferred to the fridge shelf, but while that happens the blanket comes undone. The patch of burned skin, in no way human, reveals itself to be a half-body, the head hanging loosely by what neck remains.
The medics have seen ghastly things and urge me to keep it in, keep working. They must, and so I do. We return to the centre, I leave them intending to return a day later, to spend my day reporting and writing.” It is later this day that Arafa is murdered.
The night the Israeli land invasion began, on January 3, shells flew dangerously close to the Red Crescent station in the district east of Jabaliya I was then based in, when not in one of the ambulances. By morning it was impossible to access, and by the end of the war, we returned to find it riddled with bullet holes from machine-gun fire and blasted by shelling.
The ambulances and their medical equipment were some of the most bare-bone I’ve seen, supplies depleted by the long Israeli siege and blockade of Gaza. The medics drove quickly (video) over bumpy roads to get to the people in need, wasted little time collecting them, and bolted away, trying to avoid being targeted by the Israeli army.
After invading the Tel al-Hawa district in the third week of its war on Gaza, the Israeli army repeatedly bombed the Quds hospital, while Israeli snipers targeted Palestinians fleeing residential areas. I was with an ambulance that went to evacuate civilians from the hospital and take them to the Shifa hospital (which had no space), going back repeatedly to save Palestinian civilians, each time at risk of being shot by Israeli soldiers. [Evacuations video HERE]
By the end of the 2009 war, the Israeli army had killed 23 medics, and injured 57 more, destroying at least nine ambulances and damaging 16 more. None of the journalists or medics that I knew had protective body armor – including me. Given the massive bombs which Israel was dropping on us, it would’ve made little difference.
One evening, after giving an interview to RT about what I’d seen while riding in ambulances in the extremely dangerous areas of Gaza’s north, just after finishing the interview, Israel shelled the building at least seven times. We scrambled down ten flights of stairs, thankfully intact. Incidentally, in 2021, Israeli airstrikes destroyed the same building as well as another, collectively housing 20 media outlets. By now, Israeli forces have killed at least 73 Palestinian journalists during the past two months.
During and after the 2008-2009 war, I took countless testimonies of Palestinian parents who said their children were deliberately murdered by Israeli soldiers: shot point blank, drone struck during ceasefire hours, shot by a sniper.
In Shifa hospital, I met the mutilated survivors whose home had been shelled with white phosphorus munitions, killing six family members, including an infant burned alive. I followed up on their story afterwards, learning more chilling details and seeing their bombed-out home with my own eyes. Graffiti, apparently left on the walls by Israeli soldiers, included hate messages and threats, like “it will hurt more next time.” (Warning: disturbing images) I knew the medic who found baby Shahed’s, “burned, gnawed corpse,” as he told me. Her charred remains had first been found by street dogs. “For the rest of my life I’ll remember that day. I’ll never get over it.”
In the last two months, Israel has repeatedly bombed schools, including UN-affiliated ones that housed displaced Palestinians seeking safe shelter. It did the same back in January 2009, bombing numerous UN schools, including the Fakhoura school that has suffered in the current war as well.
With medics elsewhere in Gaza’s north when Israel fired four shells at Fakhoura, I went there the next day and learned 43 civilians were killed in that bombing, including from homes nearby. A medic I knew told me of being there when the bombing happened and seeing people “shredded” in front of him.
Another medic arrived after the shelling. “I saw dead bodies everywhere. I helped carry 15 dead. I had to change my clothes 3 times. These people thought they were safe in the UN school, but the Israeli army killed them.”
I could, unfortunately, write pages more on what I saw and heard in those three weeks of Israeli bombing, and also during the November 2012 Israeli campaign (when I was based at a hospital in Deir al-Balah, central Gaza), but for the sake of some brevity will stop. What did not stop were the Israeli bombings and shooting immediately post ceasefire, both in 2009 and in 2012.
I saw the mangled bodies of civilians, especially children, pour into the Aqsa hospital in Deir al-Balah. Two of the children were killed just hours before a ceasefire—already agreed upon—was to be implemented.
The four year old girl’s family had returned to their home, from which they’d fled, thinking it would be safe since the ceasefire was coming. Israeli forces shelled their district, shattering their hopes of calm. The girl, Reham, died of shrapnel to her temple, standing next to the door of her home. Nader, the fourteen year old, likewise thought the pending ceasefire meant he was safe to move, walking to a small shop up the lane to buy food for his siblings who’d only had bread the past five days. He was targeted by a precision drone strike which tore his body into the shreds I saw in the hospital.
But almost as brutal as the Israeli bombing campaigns has been the over-16-year-long strangling siege on Gaza. I’ve written about it at length, but which in summary it has caused a vast increase in poverty, food insecurity, malnutrition, anemia, stunted growth, diabetes, treatable illnesses going untreated, water that was 95% undrinkable (already back in 2014).
The Israeli tactics have been so sadistic that Israel in 2008, “went as far as to calculate the minimum amount of calories needed to keep Palestinians not quite fully starving.” Alive, just barely.
But in addition to the myriad serious issues of Israel’s siege (forced poverty, education abroad denied, medical care abroad denied), compounding the brutality of living in Gaza is Israel’s relentless, near-daily, deadly firing on Palestinian farmers and fishers, under the pretext of “security”.
I witnessed this on countless occasions during my three years in Gaza, accompanying farmers while they were on land. We routinely came under Israeli gunfire. I can state definitively that in those many, many, many experiences of coming under Israeli gunfire, none of us were armed: not myself, not the elderly grandmothers, not the children, not the paid labourers. They posed zero threat to Israel other than simply existing.
I wrote about going, on June 14, 2009, to Gaza’s northern region of Beit Hanoun to search for the corpse of a young man gone missing two months prior. A shepherd in the area had reported having smelled what seemed to be a dead body in the northeastern region near the border fence. As we walked in a line, combing the ground for the body, Israeli soldiers began firing on us. The dead man’s father walked with us, ducking with each shot fired our way. The bullets came closer and more quickly as we located the badly decomposed body, loaded him onto a sheet, and hauled him away, the father wailing. The Israelis deny Palestinians even the dignity of recovering the bodies of their loved ones.
Likewise, Israeli attacks on Palestinian fishers (machine gun fire, heavy duty water cannoning, shelling) is a daily occurrence which I’ve written about at length, but which many outside of Gaza don’t know about and would be horrified at the extent of this Israeli terrorism against fishers. This includes kidnapping fishers and stealing their boats.
Further, what many don’t realize is that even when Israel is not officially warring upon Gaza, it still routinely bombs throughout the tiny Strip.
Before the 2008/9 Israeli war on Gaza, I’d been there since November 8, having gotten to Gaza by boat from Cyprus, along with a number of European MPs who were gravely concerned about the brutal siege Israel had imposed on Gaza the year prior (and imposes to this day). Israeli journalist Amira Hass was also on the boat and spent a few days in Gaza. When the delegation left, I stayed, my only means of getting to and staying in Gaza.
Prior to the late 2008 January 2009 Israel bombardment of Gaza, Israel had been bombing and killing Palestinian civilians, some of whose families I visited. Many others times in Gaza there would be relative quiet and then Israeli bombings nearby.
On November 24 of this year, a four-day ceasefire was implemented, to allow for exchange of Hamas hostages for Palestinians imprisoned by Israel, as well as for deliveries of desperately needed food, water, fuel and medical aid, of which the 2.4-million population of Gaza had been deprived for weeks. Unsurprisingly, there were reports of the truce being violated, including snipers firing on Palestinian civilians.
In the first day after the ceasefire expired, over 100 Palestinians were killed, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, as Israel started to deliver the promised “mother of all thumpings,” ostensibly to Hamas militants.
There is no space for me here to outline all the horrors inflicted upon Gaza in the past two months, nor do I need to: social media and Telegram channels are filled with horrific scenes of schools housing displaced civilians getting bombarded again, entire blocks of refugee camps bombed, hospitals and churches housing tens of thousands of displaced civilians bombed, white phosphorous again rained down on densely inhabited residential areas, and on, and on.
What I do what to highlight is that there is no doubt in my mind, or in the minds of numerous other international reporters and observers who have seen the situation on the ground first-hand, that Israel has committed war crimes in Gaza, and the intent, if not the reality, is genocidal.
We have globally watched as Israel commits the definition of genocide: “The intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such.” Raz Segal, a genocide expert, wrote of this after only one week of Israel’s bombardment, since which Israel has committed uncountable heinous crimes.
In late October, former Director of the UN’s New York (OHCHR) office, Craig Mokhiber, resigned from his position in protest and disgust, stating, “Once again, we are seeing a genocide unfolding before our eyes, and the organization that we serve appears powerless to stop it. As someone who has investigated human rights in Palestine since the 1980s, lived in Gaza as a UN human rights advisor in the 1990s, and carried out several human rights missions to the country before and since, this is deeply personal to me.”
He explicitly stated that Israel’s “wholesale slaughter of the Palestinian people…coupled with explicit statements of intent by leaders in the Israeli government and military, leaves no room for doubt, this is a textbook case of genocide.”