Hazem Balousha and Chris McGreal
Gaza City/Jerusalem: It has never been like this before. The assault is coming from the sky, the sea and the ground. The explosion of shells, the gunfire from the tanks and the missiles from planes and helicopters are incessant. The sky is laced with smoke, grey here, black there, as the array of weaponry leaves its distinctive trail.
Most Gazans can only cower in terror in whatever shelter they can find and guess at the cost exacted by each explosion as the toll for those on the receiving end rises remorselessly.
As Israeli forces carved up the Gaza Strip on Sunday, dividing the territory in two, the U.N. warned of a “catastrophe unfolding” for a “trapped, traumatised, terrorised” population.
Among the terrorised was Mahmoud Jaro. He was sheltering with his wife and four young children in his home in Beit Lahiya, on the eastern side of the Gaza Strip, within sight of the Israeli border, when he heard the first tank engines in the early hours of Sunday.
He grabbed his children, the youngest only three, and fled. “I couldn’t see anything. The area was dark,” he said. “They cut off the electricity. We were moving in the pitch dark.
“There were shells, rockets everywhere. I was just trying to protect my children. They were very scared and afraid. My youngest son was crying all the time.” Eventually the family made it across Beit Lahiya to his in-laws’ house in a relatively safer part of the town.
“I don’t know what’s going on. I don’t know what the Israelis want. This time it’s from the air, the sea, the ground at the same time. I’ve never experienced it like this,” he said.
The Israeli army warned others who had stayed in their homes to get out.
It seized control of Palestinian radio frequencies, jamming Hamas and Islamic Jihad stations, and broadcast a warning in Arabic telling people to move towards the centre of Gaza City for their own safety.
Others did not escape the assault. The wounded and dead were piled up at Gaza’s Shifa hospital on Sunday.
Eric Fosse, a Norwegian doctor there, said Hamas fighters were a small minority of the casualties brought in. “This hospital has been filled up with patients,” he added. This morning they [Israeli forces] bombed the fruit market. There were a large number of casualties.
“We became like a field hospital. There were two patients at a time in the operating rooms and we were operating on other people in the corridors. Some were dying before we could get to them.”
Moawya Hasanian, the head of Shifa’s emergency and ambulance department, said the hospital had taken in 33 dead and 137 wounded by lunchtime on Sunday.
Among those killed was a paramedic after his ambulance was hit by Israeli fire. Three of his colleagues were wounded.
“Only three of the dead are from Hamas, the rest are civilians,” Mr. Hasanian said. “There are many children under 18. There are many in critical condition. We are working under pressure. It’s not easy to work with bombs and air strikes everywhere. It’s not easy for ambulances to move.”
The Israeli military said Hamas fighters were not engaging them in close combat but using mortars and roadside bombs.
Occasionally, through the Israeli attack and Palestinian resistance to it, there came the sound of a Hamas rocket launched into Israel — a reminder that the invading army is going to have to move even deeper into Gaza to achieve its declared aim.
By dusk on Sunday, Hamas had fired at least 30 rockets.
John Ging, the head of the U.N. relief agency in Gaza, described the situation there as “inhuman”.
“We have a catastrophe unfolding in Gaza for the civilian population,” he said. “The people of Gaza City and the north now have no water. That comes on top of having no electricity. They’re trapped, they’re traumatised, they’re terrorised by this situation ... The inhumanity of this situation, the lack of action to bring this to an end, is bewildering to them.”
The U.N. has been particularly angered at the contention of Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni that there is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza.
Mr. Ging also accused Israel of a campaign of destroying public buildings vital to the administration and governance of Gaza. “The whole infrastructure of the future state of Palestine is being destroyed,” he said.
“Blowing up the Parliament building. That’s the Parliament of Palestine. That’s not a Hamas building. The President’s compound is for the President of Palestine.” — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2009