Picking up the pieces

Red Cross's team in Gaza works to ease humanitarian crisis there.

By LARRY DERFNER
January 22, 2009 09:51
Picking up the pieces

Gaza damage 88 248. (photo credit: )

 
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When the cease-fire went into effect this week, the people of Gaza came out of three weeks of hiding and running to see who and what was left. With them were humanitarian aid workers such as Antoine Grand, head of the International Red Cross's team in Gaza. It was "like waking up from a nightmare," he said by phone from the Red Cross residence, which has a shell crater and fallen white phosphorus in the garden and broken windows and shrapnel inside, in the battered neighborhood of Tel el-Awa. (The IDF responded that it uses only weaponry allowed under international law.) "We saw destroyed houses with traces of tanks having run over them. Houses that were completely black from fire. Ambulances that had been crushed down. Pieces of artillery shells in houses and apartments. Roads destroyed, gardens with olive trees destroyed," said Grand, a Frenchman who has been in Gaza some 10 months. "Some of the houses that had been occupied by Israeli soldiers had graffiti on the walls. Some of it was in English. 'Don't f-ck with us.' 'Where is Hamas?' There were obscene drawings, such as a penis pissing on a Palestinian flag." (The IDF had no immediate response to these claims.) Grand and his 15 Red Cross colleagues from overseas spent the beginning of the cease-fire distributing plastic sheeting to cover the broken windows and keep the cold out of the houses that were still standing, as well as trying to get an idea of the needs for mattresses, blankets, basic kitchen and health supplies, while assessing the damage to essential infrastructure such as water treatment plants to deal with the raw sewage flowing through the Strip. "But beyond the number of killed and wounded, beyond the damage to infrastructure," he said, "one of the biggest effects of the operation has been on the psyches of the population. One-and-a-half million people lived for three weeks in a permanent state of fear. There was no safe place in Gaza, they were moving from one place to another and didn't know where to run. I think that will have a big impact on the children." During the war, Grand and the Red Cross team slept in the basement of the sturdier of their two residences. They evacuated many people from bombed-out apartments, at one point coming upon a group of children cowering next to their mothers who had been dead for days. Their movements were limited by the fighting and the IDF's orders; twice their convoy was fired on by troops even though the trip had been fully coordinated, said Grand, adding that the IDF is now investigating the incidents "very seriously." In his eight years with the Red Cross, Grand, 32, has worked in war zones such as Congo, Ethiopia, Ivory Coast and Afghanistan. "I'm not saying that what happened in Gaza was worse than what happened in those countries, but I personally have never witnessed such destruction as I have here in the last three weeks," he said. After the UN, the Red Cross is the main international humanitarian agency operating in Gaza and the West Bank, but its reports and public criticisms about Israeli actions toward the Palestinians tend to be much less inflammatory than the UN's; of the dozens of humanitarian agencies and NGOs operating in the territories, the Red Cross probably enjoys the best working relationship with Israeli officials. KATRINA RITZ, chief of the Red Cross mission here for the last five years, got into Gaza about two weeks into the war, and, in a phone interview last week from her Jerusalem office, gave a very measured view of some of the disputes and moral issues arising out of Operation Cast Lead. Throughout the fighting, Gazans, humanitarian workers and journalists spoke of terrible shortages of food, medical supplies, fuel and other basics - while Israeli officials denied this, saying that trucks laden with supplies were moving through the Kerem Shalom crossing. After the first week or so, a "humanitarian window" of three or four hours was opened - both the IDF and Hamas ceased fire - so residents could come out of hiding to stock up on food and seek medical attention. In rejecting international pleas for a "humanitarian cease-fire" in the war, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said early on: "There is no need for a humanitarian cease-fire because there is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza." Ritz disagreed. She said that while the supplies were getting to distribution centers, the fighting was so fierce that it was extremely difficult to get the supplies from the centers to the residents. "There are elderly people, handicapped people, people who are living in the ruins and cut off from access who couldn't get to the distribution centers, they couldn't get to the medical clinics. There were people who were bleeding for days. Sometimes we escorted them 10 kilometers to get help. The three-hour or four-hour window between fighting wasn't enough. If you are bleeding heavily, you can't wait for the next humanitarian window. And there were others who were simply afraid to venture out even during a cease-fire." She gave the IDF credit for getting food and water to a number of families, about 100 people in all, who were trapped in no-go areas. "We made an intervention, and the army escorted these civilians to a safer area, which is exactly what the army in such a situation is required to do. Some of these people had no access to food for eight days. I'm not aware that the army has assisted large populations, but we know that they have assisted some families, and I give them credit for taking our concerns seriously." The greatest controversies of all, though, are over Israel's claim that Hamas used "human shields" in the fighting and whether Israel deliberately or at least recklessly killed civilians. Regarding Hamas, Ritz says she doesn't know why Hamas fought among civilians and near ostensibly off-limits targets like hospitals and schools - whether because it thought this would protect it from Israeli fire, or because it was indifferent to civilian casualties, or because it was simply fighting wherever it could - but she says Hamas did fight among civilians and that this is prohibited by international law. But she said the law also requires state armies to use weapons that will cause the least amount of civilian casualties, and that it seemed that Israel had not done this. Noting the Al-Kuds hospital had been shelled although 100 patients and 500 civilians had been taking shelter inside, she said that even though, as Israel alleged, Palestinian gunmen had been firing from the vicinity, "we still say you can't just bomb a hospital, you should warn them that they need to evacuate the wounded and the civilian population because the hospital is being abused by combatants." She said the same principle held true in the IDF shelling of a UN school in which as many as 43 civilians taking shelter were killed. After this incident, IDF officials maintained that a number of mortar shells were fired at IDF units "from within the Jabalya school. In response to the incoming enemy fire, the forces returned mortar fire to the source." An IDF statement said that the bodies of two Hamas operatives, Imad Abu Ashkar and Hassan Abu Ashkar, were among those found at the school. Noting that Gaza's population density is 75,000 per square kilometer - three times that of Manhattan - Ritz said: "When you have such [military] superiority over your enemy, when you're using tanks and mortars and missiles in such a highly crowded area, it's very difficult [for an army's firepower] to distinguish between who's a civilian and who's not." There has been great discrepancy between the IDF's estimate of the percentage of civilian casualties - about 10 percent to 15% - and outside estimates, which range to upward of 50%. "We accept what seems to be a general consensus that over one-third of the casualties were civilians," she said. In her 13 years with the Red Cross, Ritz has also worked in Afghanistan, Iraq, Rwanda, Angola and Eritrea. "What's different about this one is the intensity and duration of the shelling, so the wounded coming into the hospitals tend to have very, very serious injuries. You're not seeing many people with gunshot wounds, they're almost exclusively suffering multiple major traumas from the the blast of the shell." DR. HARALD VEEN, a Red Cross-affiliated surgeon from Gibraltar, spent eight days working at Gaza's Shifa Hospital. Speaking by phone from Jerusalem on his way to catch a plane home, he said he didn't get much sleep during his stint. "You're simply sitting in the middle of bombardment with shells falling all around, the windows are shaking, and when you think things are quieting down, there's a huge bang. It's the kind of thing nobody gets used to. You can't go out, there's no place in Gaza that's safe." Aside from four or five previous stints in Gaza, Veen, 49, has worked in war zones including Chad, Somalia, Congo, Sierra Leone and Rwanda. What distinguished the scene at Shifa from those in war zones where the casualty rates were incomparably higher, he said, was that "here we were treating people with the most horrific injuries from all the shelling and bombing, whereas in other countries, they never would have made it to the hospital. Here the injured were being brought in so quickly. There was never a lull, there was a continuous flow of wounded. On average, I took part in 25 to 30 major operations a day. "There was a lot of maiming, brutal wounds, always a combination blast injuries - cerebral, penetrating, traumatic, legs and arms blown off, blunt injuries and burns, some patients dying on the operating table, corpses brought in in parts. "We treated many children," he continued. "Many children were brought in dead. That was the hardest part of it. Since I left Gaza a day and a half ago, I've been walking around, and those pictures come back - corpses of children, with big holes in the back, spinal cord damage, paraplegic, traumatic amputations, shrapnel in the brain. We treated a lot of children, women and older people. It looked like a cross section of the population." Outside the operating rooms, it was "chaos," he said. "There was always a lot of family around. The mothers were holding the leftovers of the bodies of their children, and you cannot do anything. You just stand back with respect and silence." Asked his political opinion of the war, Veen said he didn't have one. "I'm a doctor and I do my little bit to limit the suffering. I'm just frustrated that such conflicts exist. I'm just terribly sad about all the suffering. All I can say is: Politicians, diplomats, don't let people go on throwing bombs. Now I just want to go home and hold my kids."

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