Back from Gaza

I was able to enter Gaza on Thursday 22 January last, thanks to a Franco-Palestinian organisation that I have been cooperating with for a long time (Association of Twinned Cities with Palestinian Refugee Camps), and thanks to some diplomatic intervention, after a 24-hour wait at Rafah (Egyptian border).

This association's usual contact people - who have no link with the current authorities in the Gaza Strip - accompanied us throughout the territory. Apart from journalists and humanitarian activists, we were therefore amongst the first people to discover with our own eyes the horrors of the war, from south to north. We were able to come into direct contact with the population, on the ground and with residents, staying with families, sharing food with Palestinians from the most-affected refugee camps, talking for hours on end, in the darkness of a night without electricity, with victims who obviously felt the need to liberate themselves by testifying.

The main stages of our journey were Rafah, Khan Younis, Gaza City, Zeitoun, Jabalia and Al Attatra. It is to the north and east of Gaza City where we discover the worst devastation and where we heard the most serious stories for the Israeli army. In going there, one understands why journalists were kept well away from the military offensive!

But traces of the terror inflicted for 22 days and nights on the population of Gaza are visible from the very first locality in the southern part of the territory: Rafah, a town of 180 000 inhabitants, 85% of whom are refugee families. There is no need for a guide. The people call out to you. They need to show the world the destruction they have suffered, to tell about the agony they have endured, to express - with great discretion and dignity -their long-standing suffering. A crowd of children follow you, no matter where you go: "What is your name? How are you?" they ask, laughing. They play, ask you to take a photo of them, but when we ask them about the war, a small child cries "we were trembling"!

In the centre of Rafah, there is a dense crowd around a small market and we are told that products are being sold there at prohibitive prices and have been smuggled in through the famous tunnels... The price to pay for the blockade. Around us, houses are in ruins, roofs are torn off, and entire families are sitting in the wrecks of their former homes. They tell us that a single strike by an F16 was enough to cause such destruction - a total of 80 impacts. This happened on the night of 31 December.

We were told, but it was impossible to verify this information, that the woman who piloted this fighter jet had just been condemned in Israel to two years' jail for refusing to "finish the job" with a second flight. An elderly resident let us visit his "house" - which had become an open-air slum since the bombings. "There were never any weapons here, sir!" he repeated. "The aircraft didn't have a target. It bombed all of us!" Despite everything, the neighbourhood was teeming with people. Everyone was going about their daily business. Petrol has become inaccessible for most people and a cart drawn by a donkey replaces a van. People make do as they can. Life proves stronger than F16s.

A discussion gets under way with the leader of the Rafah refugee camp. He is a cautious and courageous man. He has already spent five years of his life in Israeli jails and another period under supervised residence. A member of Fatah, he is experiencing other difficulties since Hamas came to power. But today, he only wants to speak about the war "that is striking all the people of Gaza". And for him, "Gaza is the soul of the Palestinian cause. The demand for a nation originated right here."

Near Khan Younis, there is a new illustration of the collective punishment inflicted indiscriminately on the population. In one place, we see a completely ravaged vineyard. In another, a water treatment plant, servicing the entire sector, crushed under shells fired by tanks. All around, all the houses are destroyed, except one building of which only the frame remains. We discover, sketched on a wall, an outline of neighbouring targets - including the sewage treatment plant - annotated in Hebrew. All the people here stress "there are no soldiers among us. Why do they destroy everything? Why do they kill our children?" Exasperation is at its highest. Downtown, we stop near a crowded mosque: the Friday prayer service has become a political meeting against ... Mahmoud Abbas and "all those smooth talkers. Faith and perseverance are our strengths" - we hear them say. "With the help of God, we will be victorious." This should be food for thought for those who supported the war "to get rid of Hamas."

We arrive in Gaza city. We stop at one of the schools run by UNRWA, the United Nations relief agency for Palestinian refugees: seriously damaged by bombs. Neighbours show us on their mobiles the unbearable images of the deluge of fire which rained down on the city! Another "military" target: the seat of ... the Palestinian Red Crescent, adjacent to Qods hospital! Here again, there remains only the burnt-out frame: the phosphorus bombs have done their work. A little further, an enormous stock of medicines was destroyed by bombs. Also bombed, the building housing the civil registry. Elsewhere, a lemonade factory was destroyed, from which 27 corpses were dug out. Further on, a kindergarten, also destroyed. Then the Barcelona park - built by Spain: destroyed. Nearby, an 11-storey building: destroyed. Further on, a cemetery: destroyed!

We think we have reached the limits of horror. This was before we arrived in Zeitoun, to the east of Gaza City. Before us, as far as the eye can see, an immense landscape of ruins. Everything is devastated: houses, farms and factories. Nothing remains. The smell is there, more than two weeks after the drama and is unbearable. The testimonies paralyse us with fear. The press, in the meantime, reported the essential facts of this story. This is where the Samouni family lost 33 of its members, in a building where Israeli soldiers, who were there in large numbers, held them for over a day without food or water! Before crushing them under shellfire. The survivors' accounts left us speechless. This was obviously a deliberate massacre of civilians. Accompanied, in addition, by acts of infinite cruelty. They were committed on 5 January.

Two days later, it was east of Jabalia, in Ezbet Abed Rabbo, that another terrible war crime was perpetrated, according to witnesses' accounts. Between 1 p.m. and 2 p.m., Khaled tells us, three tanks approached his house. An order to leave the house was given by loudspeaker. The whole family complied, raising a white rag. In front of them, two young tank soldiers were eating bars of chocolate and packs of crisps indifferently, without addressing a word to them. Suddenly, a third soldier gets out of the tank, fires, killing two of the family's small girls and wounding a third. For more than two hours, the soldiers forbade the family to move before telling the father of both girls: "you can leave "!

After a moment's silence, Khaled continued: a neighbour tried to help the survivors by bringing his ambulance closer. Soldiers forced him to get out of the vehicle before crushing the ambulance with a tank. (The remains of the ambulance were there for all to see.) Slightly further away, another neighbour came to help them, with his cart drawn by a donkey. Both the man and the animal were slaughtered in turn, said Khaled, giving us this person's name.

These allegations are so serious that naturally they need to be checked. The vision of horror, as far as the eye can see, in any case substantiates the hypothesis of relentless violence and of barely imaginable cruelty on the part of the Israeli army.

We arrive in Jabalia, a major urban centre in the north. The only refugee camp there counts more than 100,000 inhabitants. It is there that one (other) United Nations school was bombed: 47 bodies were pulled out from under the debris. The father of the one of the victims, 24 years old, desperately repeats: "we were brought here so that we would be in safety. We no longer have anywhere to go where we can shelter." It was the repeated bombings targeting United Nations' premises that led the UN Secretary-General to return there, shortly before our arrival, and to legitimately make some very harsh remarks.

Another neighbourhood, another landscape of ruins, and another devastating testimony: "they came into our home", said the tired, monotonous voice of an old man sitting in front of his undamaged house. He tells us about the drama experienced by his family: "they flattened them against the wall, the men on one side, and the women on the other. They took my 42-year-old son to the first floor and shot him. Then, on their way back downstairs, they said to my other son: "your brother is dead. You can call for help." But when he came out with his hands up, they cut his fingers off with a blast of gunfire. Then they stayed there, preventing the ambulance from approaching. They also fired on an UNRWA (UN) car which had come to help my family, because my son had been employed by them for 20 years. They managed to contact an Arab MP in the Knesset. He contacted Ehud Barak so that he could intervene. Barak refused, stressing that "where the army is present, the army decides". When my family was finally able to see my son, they realised that he had not died immediately. They had left him to suffer and bleed to death! He leaves eight orphans. Five of them were present when they fired." Prostrate, the old man then stopped speaking.

The eyewitness accounts are equally distressing in a gymnasium, a library and a festival hall in the city's refugee camp which have been transformed into an accommodation centre for 575 victims of the devastation in the district, most of whom are women and children. The buildings are well maintained but the overcrowding there is unbearable. "We have lost everything" people repeat like a leitmotiv. A lady thanks an NGO for having delivered two camp beds. Another person calls for "a real solution: to be able to live as a family and for children to be able to go to school." When we start to leave, a voice calls out: "Don't forget us! We are counting on you! Tell them!" We have not forgotten them.

That evening, we gathered in the courtyard of a building housing a refugee camp. Many neighbours crowded there. Especially young people. Soon, there are about forty of us sitting around a simple torch. No electricity, no gas. Repairs were being done. Somebody went to look for the gynaecologist, whose cries of pain were heard live on Israeli television and broadcast the world over. He is a neighbour. This morning, he went to visit the grave of his two small daughters killed by a bomb while he was answering a telephone call from an Israeli journalist. We will not see him this evening. He is in Tel Aviv, where he has resumed his work in the big hospital there...

We are served tea and coffee, and then the words start flowing… You can imagine. Around midnight, one o'clock, we took our leave, promising to reveal what we had seen and heard and to act accordingly: to call for emergency aid, for the lifting of the blockade and for the opening of the access points to Gaza, for the sending of an international force for the protection of the population, for the setting up of an international committee of inquiry so that the truth be established and all those responsible be punished, and, for a much more offensive policy by the European Union for a fair and lasting peace in the Middle East.

This implies above all much greater political courage and independence so that historic opportunities are not lost, such as the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002 and 2005 - which would have allowed for the normalisation of relations of the entire Arab world with Israel in return for a return to the 1967 borders! Or the Palestinian government of national unity of 2007 set up on the same bases between Mahmoud Abbas and the Hamas. This more generally implies relations with Israel, which would no longer be based on complacency and impunity, but on the strict respect of international law and of the relevant resolutions of the United Nations.

Truth, justice, peace… After all, we are only calling for these "European values" to be translated into acts.

Francis Wurtz is Chair of the United European Left Group in the European Parliament