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March 2002 • Vol 2, No. 3 •

‘In Three Hours, I Heard 28 Missile Strikes’

By Phil Reeves

No one doubted punishment was coming. Israel’s armed forces waste little time before retaliating for attacks by the Palestinian militias; they were hardly likely to allow the killing of 10 Israelis within 48 hours to pass. Hitting back fast and with even more force is part of their doctrine. The only question was the timing, and the toll.

So the Gazans lay in their beds and waited. The night was cool, starry and unsettlingly tranquil. Not a car moved. The landscape offered no clue of the seething hubbub of the day, or the fact that Gaza contains 1.2 million people within a tiny, tumbledown oblong of Middle East coastline, ringed by an electric fence and blockaded for more than a year by the Israeli army. So quiet was it that you could hear the tiny waves of the Mediterranean on the sand, even from my beach-side hotel room, eight floors up.

Then it began. By my clock it was 2.31am when the first nerve-scything blast occurred. For three hours and 11 minutes the assault continued. In that time, I counted 28 missile strikes within a few miles, making it one of the most intense Israeli assaults of the 17-month intifada. Some landed only a few hundred yards away.

The start was announced by the sudden sound of an F-16 jet sprinting across the sky, followed by an enormous, hair-raising thump—the noise, we later discovered, of a 1,000 lb (450kg) bomb bringing down Gaza City’s half-built, empty police academy. Then the Apache helicopters and the Israeli patrol boats, stationed a few miles out to sea, took over.

Sometimes they lured us into a false sense of security by doing nothing for 20 minutes; sometimes they blasted out a rocket—signaled by a sheet-lightning flash and a loud detonation—every minute. They hit at 4am, 4.01, 4.02 and 4.04. And yet the hush from the Gazans continued. There was no air-raid siren, no wail of ambulances, no anti-aircraft fire, no shouts of anger or panic and no cathartic, but futile, shooting of Kalashnikovs into the air. Still not a soul moved on the streets. The strip suffered a caning from its unwanted masters and occupiers in a strange, unapologetic, resentful silence, interrupted only—still more bizarrely—by the persistent crowing of a cockerel.

Terrorism is not a word that should be applied to this conflict between unless it is used of both sides. The Palestinian Islamic-nationalists who dispatch suicide bombers, or fire their mortars and homemade rockets into Israel, intend to sow terror and insecurity, hoping to undermine the government. So does Ariel Sharon, Israel’s Prime Minister, by sending F-16s and Apaches to shoot missiles into Gaza at night. 

Israel’s psychological warfare

Israel’s aim is not to kill civilians—though it is scarcely careful with Palestinian lives—and certainly not in large enough numbers to cause an international outcry. Its missile strikes attack the infrastructure of the Palestinians’ stillborn state, particularly the police and security services. But they also belong to psychological warfare, intended to sap the Palestinians’ will to fight or, more importantly, to support the armed minority who do so. That the attacks seem to have hardened the hatred of the Palestinian “street” for Israel appears not to have swayed the former general Sharon.

Four officers from Yasser Arafat’s Force-17 security organization were killed during yesterday’s attack on Gaza. They were among 18 Palestinians killed before nightfall by the Israeli army, as it tried to claw its way back from the jarring blow of Tuesday night, when six Israeli soldiers were killed at a West Bank checkpoint in the army’s worst single loss in the field since the intifada began.

But Israel’s chief reason to blast Gaza was to cause fear, not death. As the bombs pounded the strip, both the Gazans and the Israeli military must have been praying that their U.S. technology would hold up. One stray bomb into Gaza could produce a catastrophe.

The strikes were aimed mostly at makeshift security buildings, or at sites that have been bombed before. The sprawling civil police headquarters in Gaza City have been hit so often they look like a patch of Grozny after the worst of the Russian artillery assaults. And yet yesterday an Israeli F-16 hit them again. The blast was huge, and sent boulders the size of football flying into the grounds of the UN school next door. The school was empty. But plenty of the children of Gaza City will have been scared to their wits’ end by the noise. Riad Aqluk’s grandchildren are aged two and three. “When they hear a plane in the sky they shout ‘bombs! bombs!’” he said. “They live in a state of permanent terror.”

I was able to go home to Jerusalem yesterday, to try to repair the tears in the brain and the shattered nerves that wars create. But very, very few of the Palestinians of Gaza are allowed through the Israeli-controlled borders. They are prisoners. So they have learnt to live with their nightmares, no matter how many bombs fall from the starry skies.

The Independent, February 21 2002





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