By Sudarsan Raghavan and Islam Abdel Kareem
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, December 29, 2008
NIR AM, Israel, Dec. 28 -- The family of Um Shadi al-Bardaweel did not sleep. The Israeli airstrikes and the explosions, the sirens and the screams of strangers outside their house near the Shati refugee camp in the Gaza Strip kept them awake into the predawn hours Sunday.
At the first light of dawn, the mother of five sent her son to the bakery to buy bread. Hundreds of Palestinians had the same idea, joining a never-ending line. "There's no food in the market," Bardaweel explained in an interview with a reporter. Her son did not return until nightfall.
Then came another airstrike close to their camp, rocking the house and shattering the windows. "Our children started screaming in a crazy way," she recalled. "After each airstrike, my sons ask me: 'Why are we targeted? Will they arrest us? Will they come after us?' I tell them not to panic. We are far away from the shelling. But then tonight, the bombing reached our doorsteps."
As Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip continued for a second day, Palestinians struggled to survive amid a growing humanitarian crisis. Meanwhile, Israeli citizens living along the Gaza border prepared for retaliation from Palestinian fighters, fleeing their homes and readying bomb shelters.
Humanitarian aid groups sounded the alarm Sunday about what they described as a deteriorating medical situation in the strip and urged the opening of Gaza's borders to allow supplies to flow to hospitals. There are growing shortages of vital medicines and equipment, the aid workers said.
"There are hundreds of wounded in the hospitals in the Gaza Strip, and what we have received so far has only been a fraction of our need. Our supplies have been depleted, and we are in desperate need for supplies," said Iyad Nasr, a spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Gaza. "We ask the parties to avoid striking the civilian population on both sides."
By late Sunday night, the toll approached 300 dead and as many as 1,300 wounded, Moawia Hassanain, a senior Palestinian Health Ministry official, said in an interview. The fatalities included 22 children younger than 16; more than 235 children were wounded, he said.
Many Palestinian residents said they received recorded messages purportedly from the Israeli Defense Forces saying that anyone with guns or weapons would be targeted without warning. When asked about the phone messages, an Israeli military spokeswoman said the military used "different means" of reaching out to Palestinians and declined to comment further.
A human rights group, the International Solidarity Movement, said Sunday that two houses where their staff members were staying suffered near-direct hits from Israeli missiles Saturday night.
"I was woken by an incredibly loud explosion that felt like it was on top of us. We ran for the door, but the blast had welded it shut. The windows had been blown in, so we crawled out through them," Jenny Linnel, a member of the group, said in a statement.
Bardaweel worried her house could be in the line of fire. "We are so afraid of our house being damaged," she said. "We are not afraid for ourselves, but we are afraid because of our children. There is no difference between those who got killed and us. We are already dead people."
On Sunday, in Gaza City, Abu Hisham al-Raies, who works at a gas station, struggled with the deaths of his two sons and a nephew, killed in Saturday's airstrikes. He sat inside his house solemnly greeting visitors who came to express their condolences over three days of mourning, as dictated by Islamic custom. Memorial posters of his sons and nephew were placed in front of Raies and around his house. As he recalled their deaths, his eyes glistened with tears; at times, he sobbed openly.
All three were killed outside a small store. When Raies rushed to Shifa Hospital, he first saw his eldest son, Hisham, 23.
"His body was full of shrapnel," Raies recalled. Then a hospital official informed him that his other son, Allam, 18, was also dead. And so was his nephew Abdullah, 21.
"I had a nervous breakdown. I collapsed," Raies recalled.
He blamed both Hamas and Fatah, the two political parties that control the Palestinian territories, for his woes. "We need a party that can control the situation in Gaza," he said. But he also called for revenge against Israel. "I am asking the Palestinian factions to kill their civilians as they are killing ours," Raies said. "I am asking the Palestinian factions to commit martyrdom operations against them."
"My wife is totally heartbroken. She raised her two sons for 23 years. And now, she lost them."'Both Sides Are Wrong'
In this Israeli kibbutz, near the Gaza border, Orna Schwartz, a 48-year-old nurse and mother of four, was worried. Of the 320 residents, more than half had left by Sunday morning, she said, including 30 families with children. "It's not fair that they are only talking about what is happening over there and not what's happening here," Schwartz said, looking toward Gaza, less than a mile away. "We have lived for eight years in this situation."
She expressed certainty that the Palestinians killed in the airstrikes were not civilians. "We have to comfort ourselves that the ones who died wore uniforms. I saw them on television. They wore blue clothes."
Like 90 other residents, she is building a concrete bomb shelter with 15-inch-thick walls attached to her cream-colored house. Israel's Defense Ministry has paid for all of the shelters, providing thick mattresses in the event of long stays under prolonged rocket attacks.
"Last week, a rocket landed near to me," Schwartz said. "I couldn't move. It was really scary."
She had planned a Hanukkah party on Saturday for the children in the kibbutz. But the Israeli military issued an order for all residents to stay inside their homes. So she had to cancel the party.
"I feel bad. You have to explain to the kids why you can't live a normal life," she said. "Every day I walk five kilometers around the kibbutz," she added. "Today, I didn't. I was scared."
Patrick Langere, 55, another resident of the kibbutz, didn't go to work Sunday. Because of the emergency, authorities had shut down the local silverware factory where he is employed. The reason: It was a non-essential business, and the Israeli government wanted to prevent gatherings of people from becoming targets of retaliatory rocket attacks from Hamas.
"It looks like this whole kibbutz has fallen asleep," Langere lamented as he sat outside his white house looking at the weeds and mud patches in the communal area. "It used to be very nice. Now, it is a catastrophe. Now, you see no grass, no birds."
He said he approved of Israel's strikes on Gaza. "The best step is what the Israeli Defense Forces are doing," he said.
At 1:30 p.m., a huge whoosh, like the sound of a giant arrow sailing through the air, forced Langere to look up at the sky.
"A rocket launched from a helicopter," he said calmly.
A few minutes later, a helicopter flew overhead, resembling a tan mosquito. "It's an Apache," Langere said.
Everyone in the kibbutz knows the sounds of war. Schwartz's children grew up, she said, learning the difference between artillery shells and mortar shells. Schwartz pointed at a crater from a rocket that landed near the kibbutz's office and tore a hole in the sidewalk. The windows of the office, however, did not shatter. They were bomb-proofed.
At 1:50 p.m., a fighter jet creased the sky. Schwartz instinctively stepped into a small bomb shelter. "Now, they are going to start bombing."
Eight minutes later, a thud in the distance. "It was a weak bomb. Or it was far away," Schwartz explained matter-of-factly.
Her brothers have tried to convince her to leave the kibbutz and move further inland. She has refused. "I was born here. I built this house. I am not leaving," Schwartz said.
She cares little about the politics surrounding her predicament or the appropriate solution to end the tensions. "I don't care how it is done," she said. "I just want it to be quiet here."
On Sunday, Palestinian workers, hands and faces coated with cement, worked feverishly to build the shelters. "The leaders of Israel and the leaders of Hamas are to blame. This is the reality," said Taha Hussein, 43, from the West Bank town of Nazareth. "Both sides are wrong."
His co-worker Alah Qarariya saw the irony of Palestinians building bomb shelters for Israelis, but he said he has no choice. "Why am I here? It's because of poverty," said Qarariya, from the West Bank town of Jenin. "Here, they have money to build. There," he added, looking toward Gaza, "they have only God to protect them."'I Want Things to Be Different'
In the Israeli town of Netivot, the lone Israeli killed in retaliatory strikes by Hamas was laid to rest Sunday.
Nearly 150 people gathered to pay their last respects to Beber Vaknin, 58, a reclusive bachelor. On Saturday afternoon, two hours after Israel launched its attacks on Gaza, he had stepped outside his apartment just as a rocket crashed into the building next door; the shrapnel instantly killed him.
"From here, we send a blessing to the Israeli government and the soldiers to strengthen themselves and continue what they are doing to bring peace in the area so that we can go back to our lives," the city's mayor, Yehiel Zohar, told those gathered.
Some of those attending had mixed feelings about the attacks. They fondly remembered the days when they coexisted with Palestinians, often traveling to Gaza to eat lunch and visit friends.
"I don't feel great. I don't feel bad," said Tamar Vaknin, Beber's sister-in-law. "I say to myself, 'They are poor people'. It's a shame. I want things to be different."
Others wanted Israel to escalate their attacks and invade Gaza again.
"I hope the Israeli army will not stop," said Mordechai Amar, 48, a family friend. "They should stop the terror. In order to win, you need the ground operation."
The funeral was kept short because everyone worried about incoming rockets.
Kareem reported from Gaza City. Special correspondent Samuel Sockol contributed to this report.