WHEN I got there, the gates of Beit Hanoun hospital were shut, with teenage men hanging off them. The mass of people striving to get inside was a sign that there had been an attack. Inside the gates, the hospital was full. Parents, wives, cousins, emotionally frayed and overwhelmed, were leaning over injured loved ones.
The Israeli Apache helicopter had attacked at 3.15pm. Witnesses said that two missiles had been fired into the street in Hay al Amel, east Beit Hanoun, close to the border with Israel. With rumours of an imminent invasion this empty scrubland is rapidly becoming a no-man’s land which people cross quickly, fearing attack by Israeli jets.
But the narrow, busy streets of the Boura area rarely escape the intensifying airstrikes.
Eyewitnesses said children had been playing and waiting in the streets there for their parents to finish praying at the nearby mosque. "We could see it so clearly, it was so close, we looked up and everyone ran. Those that couldn’t were soon flat on the ground," said Khalil Abu Naseer, who was lucky to have escaped the incoming missile.
"Look at this, take it," insisted men in the street, handing me pieces of the missile the size of a fist, all with jagged edges.
"All the windows were blown out, our doors were blown in, there was glass everywhere," explained a neighbour. It was these lumps of missile, rock and flying glass that smashed into the legs, arms, stomachs, heads and backs of 16 people, two of them children, who had been brought to Beit Hanoun Hospital on Thursday afternoon.
Fadi Chabat, 24, was working in his shop, a small tin shack that was a community hub selling sweets, cigarettes and chewing gum. When the missile exploded, he suffered multiple injuries. He died on Friday morning in Kamal Adwahn Hospital in Jabaliya. As women attended the grieving room at Fadi Chabat’s home yesterday to pay their respects, Israeli F16 fighter jets tore through the skies overhead and blasted four more bombs into the empty areas on the border. Two elderly women in traditional embroidered red and black dresses carrying small black plastic shopping bags moved as quickly as they could; others disappeared behind the walls of their homes, into courtyards and off the streets.
At Fadi’s house the grief was still fresh. Nearly all the women were crying, a collective outpouring of grief and raw pain with free-flowing tears.
"He prayed five times a day, he was a good Muslim, he wasn’t part of any group, not Fatah, not Hamas, not one, none of them, he was a good student, and he was different," said one of his sisters. She took me to see Fadi’s younger brother, who had been wounded in the same airstrike. Omar, eight, was sitting on his own in a darkened bedroom on a foam mattress with gauze on his back covering his wounds.
"He witnessed everything, he saw it all," the sisters explained. "He kept saying, I saw the missile, I saw it, Fadi’s been hit by a missile’."
The memory sets Omar off into more tears, his sisters, mother and aunts breaking down along with him.
Nine-year-old Ismaeel, who had been on the street with his sisters Leema, four, and Haya, 12, had been taking out rubbish when they were struck by the missiles.
Ismaeel had been brought into the hospital still breathing and doctors at first though he would pull through, but in the end he died of internal injuries.
Within the past six days in Beit Hanoun alone, according to hospital records seven people have been killed, among them three children and a mother of ten other youngsters. Another 75 people have been injured, including 29 children and 17 women.
As well as the fatalities and wounded, hundreds of homes have had their windows blown out and been damaged by flying debris and shrapnel. Two homes have been totally destroyed. Nearby the premises of two organisations have been reduced to rubble. One of them, the Sons of the City Charity, associated with Hamas, was blasted with two Apache-fired missiles, gutting a neighbouring apartment in the process and breaking windows at Beit Hanoun Hospital. The Cultural Development Association and the offices of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, were levelled by bombs dropped from F16 jets.
It is hard to imagine what the Israeli pilots of these aircraft see from so far up in the sky. Do they see people walking; standing around and talking in the street; kids with sticks chasing each other in play? Or are the figures digitised, micro-people, perhaps just blips on a screen?
Whatever is seen from the air, the victims are often ordinary people. Last Thursday night saw volunteers from the Palestinian Red Crescent Society in Beit Hanoun take to the streets in an effort to save lives. Like all emergency medical staff in Gaza, they risk death working in the maelstrom of every Israeli invasion, during curfews and night fighting.
In one of the ambulances during an evening of total darkness caused by nightly power cuts, I meet Yusri, a veteran of more than 14 years of Israeli incursions into the Beit Hanoun district of Gaza. Moustachioed, energetic, and gregarious, Yusri is in his 40s and a local hero. Seen by people within the community as a man who rarely sleeps, he is a front-line paramedic who zooms through Gaza’s streets to reach casualties, ambulance horn blaring as he shouts through a loudhailer for onlookers and the dazed to get out of the way.
"Where’s the strike?" Yusri asks locals, as we pick our way through a gutted charred charity office and the house of the Tarahan family. Their home, on the buffer zone, has been reduced to a concrete sandwich. There are six casualties, but miraculously none of them are serious.
Beit Hanoun Hospital is a simple, 48-bed local facility with no intensive care unit, decrepit metal stretchers and rickety beds. I drink tea in a simple office with a garrulous crowd of ear, nose and throat specialists, surgeons and paediatricians. The talk is all about politics: how the plan for Gaza is to merge it with Egypt; how Israel doesn’t want to liquidate Hamas as it serves their goal of a divided Palestine to have a weak Hamas alienated from the West Bank.
The chat is interrupted by lulls of intent listening as news crackles through on Sawt Al Shab ("The Voice Of The People"), Gaza’s grassroots news station. Almost everyone here is tuned in. It is listened to by taxi drivers, families in their homes huddled around wood stoves or under blankets and groups of men on street corners crouched beside transistor radio sets.
It feeds live news on the latest resistance attacks, interspersed with political speeches from various leaders, and fighter music – thoaty, deep male voices united in buoyant battle songs about standing up, reclaiming al-Quds (Jerusalem) avenging fresh martyrs, and staying steadfast.
News is fed through on operations by armed wings of every political group active in Gaza; the Qasam (Hamas), the Abu Ali Mustapha Martyrs Brigade (PFLP), the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade (which is affiliated with Fatah) and Saraya al-Quds (Islamic Jihad). One thing is widely recognised – the attack on Gaza has brought all armed resistance groups together. However, everybody adds wryly that "once this is all over, they’ll all break apart again".
One of the surgeons asks me about whether I’m scared, and whether I really think I have protection as a foreigner here. I talk in detail about Israel’s responsibility to protect emergency services; to cease fire; to facilitate movement;, to respect the Geneva Conventions, including protection of civilians and injured combatants. The surgeon talking to me is an intelligent man, highly respected in the community, in his late 40s. He takes his time, explaining to me in detail that all the evidence from everything Gazans have experienced points to Israel operating above the law – that there is no protection, that these laws, these conventions, do not seem to apply to Israel, nor does it abide by them, and that I should be afraid, very afraid, because Gazans are afraid.
He recounts a story from the November 2006 invasion which saw more than 60 people killed, one entire family in one day alone. About 100 tanks invaded Beit Hanoun, with one blocking each entrance for six days. He remembers how the Red Cross brought water and food and took away the refuse. All co-ordination was cut off with the Palestinian Authority. The same will happen this time, he insists. He remembers too how one ambulance driver, Yusri, a maverick, a hero, loved by all the staff and community, faced down the tanks to evacuate the injured. Yusri, the surgeon says, just drove up to the tank and started shouting through his loudhailer, telling them to move for the love of God because we had a casualty, then just swerved round them and made off.
Yusri has carried the injured and dead in every invasion in the past 14 years. He shows me a leg injury sustained when a tank rammed into his ambulance. The event was caught on camera by journalists, and a case brought against the Israel Occupation Forces, but they ruled the army had acted appropriately in self defence.
"Look in the back of the ambulance here, how many people do you think can fit in here? I was carrying 10 corpses at a time after the invasion, there was a man cut in two here in the back, it was horrific. But you carry on. I want to serve my country," he says.
During a prolonged power cut in that six-day invasion there was no electricity to power a ventilator, and doctors took turns hand pumping oxygen to keep one casualty alive for four hours before they could be transferred. Roads were bulldozed, ambulances were banned from moving, dead people lay in their homes for days, and when permission was finally given for the corpses’ collection, medics had to carry them on stretchers along the main street.
Today in Gaza everyone is terrified that such events are now repeating themselves, only worse. Gazans now feel collectively abandoned. The past week’s massacres, indiscriminate attacks and overflowing hospitals, and the fact that anyone can be hit at any time in any place, has left people utterly terrorised. No-one dares think of what might become of them in these difficult and unpredictable days. As they say in Gaza, "Bein Allah" – "It’s up to God".
Ewa Jasiewicz is a journalist and activist. She is currently the co-ordinator for the Free Gaza movement and one of the only international journalists on the ground in Gaza