Editor’s Note: When regular Boulder Weekly freelancer Haley Gray — who speaks fluent Arabic — told us she was going to be spending a few months in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, we made arrangements for her to write a few stories on subjects that we felt our readers would enjoy. We had no idea that tensions between Israelis and Palestinians in the region would escalate to the extraordinary levels we are now seeing.
As a result of what is unfolding on the ground, we changed directions and asked Gray to report on the conflict as it is unfolds. We believe that with her being positioned in the Palestinian Territories and speaking the native tongue, we have the opportunity to provide a unique perspective on this important news story. The following is Gray’s report on all that has happened since three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped and murdered.
On Sunday, July 6, Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip killed nine people and injured at least 20 more. It was the single bloodiest day for Gaza since Operation Pillar of Defense, an eight-day campaign carried out by Israeli forces in 2012 in which 180 Palestinians and four Israelis were killed.
News of the attack spread through the Strip the following day, as did the expectant whispers of another war on the horizon.
“They’re waiting for the war,” said Gaza local Muhammed Rajab that day. “And on another side, they do their normal life, they go out, they drink coffee, it’s Ramadan. ... But they’re sure there is a war coming for Gaza.”
Eleven days have passed since Israel began its offensive on the Gaza Strip. Dubbed “Operation Protective Edge,” the stated purpose of the campaign is to dismantle the military capability of Hamas, the political party and Islamist movement governing the besieged Strip and which has been firing rockets into Israeli communities. As of press time Wednesday, July 16, 214 Palestinians have been killed — approximately 80 percent of whom were civilians, according to a United Nations report — and 1,489 have been injured, many severely. Ten Israelis have been injured and one Israeli was killed when a rocket hit the Erez Gaza border crossing.
The current offensive has been nervously anticipated for the last three weeks. Tensions in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories have been festering under mounting Israeli actions in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Gaza has endured nightly air strikes since three settler teens, Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaer and Eyal Yifrah, went missing in mid-June, while the occupied West Bank saw a brutal crackdown associated with Israel’s two-week manhunt for the missing teens and campaign against Hamas, whom Israel blamed for the kidnapping.
Unlike the last two bloody conflicts, Pillar of Defense in 2012 and Operation Cast Lead in 2009, the West Bank and Palestinian citizens in Israel were on edge even before the bloodletting began and observers believe that they may be prepared to show solidarity with Gazans under siege this time around.
When the three teens went missing June 12, Israeli officials placed blame swiftly and squarely on Hamas. No evidence has been presented to the public connecting Hamas to the kidnapping at this time, although Israeli officials have vehemently insisted they have definitive proof. Hamas denies responsibility for the three teens, dismissing the accusations of its involvement as “stupid.”
Israeli forces carried out a massive ground campaign in the occupied West Bank, calling their efforts “Operation Brother’s Keeper.” The Israeli military raided more than a thousand homes, demolished 17 homes, arrested 628 individuals and fatally shot five Palestinians, two of whom were children, in the ensuing clashes. The express purpose of the operation was to punish Hamas, in addition to finding the teens, who were abducted while hitchhiking near a settlement in the West Bank.
Six more Palestinians were killed by Israeli air strikes on Gaza in the week after the teens went missing.
“We’re turning Hamas membership into a one-way ticket to hell,” Israeli Economic Minister Naftali Bennett told Israeli Army Radio in the first week of the crackdown.
The teens had gone missing near a settlement outside of the Palestinian city Hebron, in the south of the occupied West Bank. Brother’s Keeper began with the shutting down of entry and exit to Hebron and heavy raids of the city. Raiding spread to Nablus, Ramallah and other cities in the West Bank, and even as far north as Jenin, 65 miles away.
“What happened, and it’s still ongoing in Halil [Hebron] specifically, I can highly define it as a collective punishment on the whole city there,” said Amany Khalifa of Grass Roots Jerusalem. “People were not able to leave Hebron, people could not come in, clashes took place. ... We know Hamas by now. If they’re going to do anything, they would declare a statement and announce it clearly and they would not hide. So all of this accusing Hamas and punishing all of the people and arrests and closing different organizations that they claim belong to Hamas, it does not make sense.”
The boy’s bodies were eventually found in Haloul, a village just south of Hebron on June 30. All three had apparently been murdered shortly after they were abducted.
After arresting 628 people in the weeks prior, Israeli officials finally identified two suspected kidnappers, Marwan Kawasmeh and Amar Abu-Eisha, and demolished their homes. The two still have not been apprehended.
“Hamas will pay,” vowed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in his statement concerning the murder of the boys.
That night, racial tensions in Jerusalem skyrocketed. Israeli extremists marched through the streets chanting “death to Arabs.” An oncoming wave of Jewish extremist violence gathered momentum.
Two days later, 16 year-old Palistinian Muhammad Abu Khdeir was abducted in the Shu’fat neighborhood of East Jerusalem. He was burned alive by adolescent Israeli extremists. An autopsy carried out by Israeli officials and confirmed by Palestinian personnel found gasoline had been poured down his throat. His charred body was found in a nearby forest.
Jewish extremists made several other attempts at abducting children in the occupied West Bank, according to local media. Attackers attempted to drag 9-year-old Mousa Zalooma into a car in Shu’fat, but were stopped by the child’s family members. In the Beit Hanina neighborhood of East Jerusalem 7-year-old Muhammad Ali al- Kiswani was nearly abducted, again saved by intervening family members.
In Osarin, a small Palestinian village near Nablus, 22-yearold Tariq Ziad Zuhdi Adeli was taken by settlers from the side of a road, attacked with a hatchet and left to bleed to death in a nearby field. Adeli survived the attack and was able to call his father who found him and rushed him to hospital.
“People were very afraid,” said East Jerusalem local Ratibeh Alladin. “You could not see any children walking around in the streets because their parents are really afraid.”
Amidst the outpouring of grief in Israel for Fraenkel, Shaer and Yifrah, Palestinians were mourning Abu Khdeir and the 11 others killed during the last week’s raids of the occupied West Bank and air strikes on Gaza. All feared further hate crimes.
Palestinian protests against the occupation increased in the West Bank and “the Triangle,” an area within Israel that is home to predominantly Palestinian citizens. Shu’fat became a battleground for Palestinian youths armed with stones and Israeli forces with tear gas and rubber bullets.
Rocket fire into Israel from Palestinian militants in Gaza increased concurrently in a display of belligerent defiance. The indiscriminately aimed rockets were fired into Israel by a mixture of groups, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
A new ‘war’ blossoms
On July 7 Palestinians and Israelis woke up to headlines warning of impending warfare. Six Hamas members had been killed in a collapsed tunnel at the Gaza-Egypt border town Rafah, which the Israeli military claimed as a successful attack on Hamas on their blog. An additional three Palestinians were killed by air strikes on the Gaza Strip the previous night.
Hamas politician Moshir Almasry wrote on his Facebook page that the nine deaths would “fuel the intifada and resistance.” Rocket fire by Palestinian militants into southern Israel increased, though it did not cause any serious injuries or fatalities at that time. The most destructive attack set fire to a factory in Sderot, an Israeli town nestled against the Gaza border. Three civilians were slightly injured.
Following that attack, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman called for a large-scale operation in the Strip, saying “We should not bury our heads in the sand, and should realize that there is a connection between the murder of the youths and the increasing rocket attacks on the South.”
Lieberman asserted the recent unity deal between the Palestinian Authority, the Palestinian government in the West Bank, indicates an intention on the part of Hamas to “take over” Judea and Sumaria (the occupied West Bank).
“He’s one of the extreme voices, refusing peace between Palestinians and Israelis based on a two state solution,” said Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, a prominent Palestinian doctor and politician.
“This is not a war with Hamas, it’s an attack on Palestinians,” Barghouti insisted to Boulder Weekly.
Israeli forces called 1,500 reservist troops to the Gaza border that day and dubbed their offensive “Operation Protective Edge,” confirming a ground invasion may be on the horizon amidst continued air strikes.
Netanyahu asserted Israel’s right to wage war on the besieged strip. “In recent days, Hamas terrorists have fired hundreds of rockets at Israel’s civilians. No other country lives under such a threat, and no country would accept such a threat,” he said in a statement released July 8.
Reservist numbers swelled to 40,000 the following day. The death toll hit 100, an estimated 60 of whom were civilians, and hundreds more were injured. On July 10, forces struck “Fun Time Cafe,” a beach-front coffee shop in Khan Younis, a populous Gazan town, where locals were gathered to watch the Germany-Argentina World Cup match. The airstrike killed nine and injured at least 28 others, according to local reports.
The air-raids continued and death toll grew. Early Sunday morning the Israeli military dropped leaflets over Beit Lahia, a town in the north of the Strip, urging residents to evacuate the area immediately. Despite some calls from Hamas and other locals to ignore the warning, dismissing it as “psychological warfare,” the move created an exodus to the already cramped south. According to Israeli military Lieutenant Libby Weiss, the Beit Lahia area is used by Hamas to launch rockets into Israel, some making it as far as Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
“It’s like a ghost city, you can’t see anything,” said Rajab, who went to inspect what came of the warning. “We drove back to Gaza City and the streets were filled with cars, donkeys, horses, everybody with everything they could take with them.”
Casualties continue to grow as the bombing campaign, mostly carried out late at night, progresses. An estimated 80 percent of casualties in Gaza are civilians, according to a United Nations report. Mosques, hospitals and parks have reportedly been targeted.
Israeli officials claim the reason for this is Hamas’ use of these facilities for weapons storage or other operational purposes.
“They have rocket storage facilities in homes, training grounds next to mosques, infrastructure near hospitals,” Weiss told Boulder Weekly, noting the Israeli military has an obligation to minimize civilian casualties as much as possible.
At press time on Wednesday, a proposed Egyptian-brokered ceasefire had been agreed to by Israel and rejected by Hamas, who claimed they were not consulted in the process. Hamas has continued to fire rockets into Israel, which has returned fire with numerous air strikes on the Gaza Strip.
The Israeli military reportedly contacted residents in East Gaza City via telephone Monday night, instructing them to leave.
“It was like a voice recording [telling people to leave], ‘for your safety, for your home, for your family, don’t support Hamas,’” said Rajab.
That night Israeli forces struck 12 homes of Hamas members in East Gaza city and targeted the previously evacuated Beit Lahiya. No injuries or fatalities have been reported from these attacks.
While it remains unclear how much longer the military offensive will continue, the end will not likely be anytime soon.
“We will continue with [Operation Protective Edge] as long as we feel like we are carrying out the mission and acheiving the goals that we have set,” Weiss told Boulder Weekly. Weiss noted that a ground invasion of the impoverished coastal strip is still “on the table,” though the decision is ultimately up to the Israeli cabinet.
Hamas has shown no intention to stop their nearly futile rocket fire at Israel.
“Our battle with the enemy continues and will increase in ferocity and intensity,” said a statement from leaders of the Al-Qassem Brigades, the Hamas military wing.
Unlike in 2009 and 2012, when the bloodshed in Gaza failed to inspire significant protests in the West Bank and Israel, Palestinians are acting out in solidarity this time around. There are protests around the West Bank and the Triangle every night.
“People were killed in 2012 and 2008 in Gaza but we really did not have a powerful resistance movement reacting in different ways. Now people are going out to the streets, people are demanding an end to this whole thing, an end to the occupation,” said Khalifa.
After weeks of clashing with Israeli forces in protest of the crackdown on the West Bank and surging anti-Arab racism in Israel, emotions are running high.
“I can link it to the rage we saw in Jerusalem streets, I can link it to the rage we saw in occupied areas in 48 [the Triangle] and the West Bank,” said Khalifa.
The fire is being further stoked by the speedy access to news of the carnage in Gaza. Social media-based news agencies like Shehab News and Al-Quds Network are providing up-tothe-second news on the latest strikes, casualties and fatalities.
“In 2012 we had to really dig hard in order to know how many people fell in Gaza. Now the moment a raid strikes we know how many people died,” said youth activist Mohammad Abu Toameh.
Abu Toameh says he believes the shocking gruesomeness of the news, in particular, is galvanizing the protests. Images and videos of strikes, gutted buildings and bloody bodies are updated an average of every two minutes.
Enormous protests broke out throughout Hebron and surrounding villages and Bethlehem Sunday night. Munir Ahmad Badarain, 22, died after bring shot by live fire by Israeli soldiers in clashes south of Hebron. Two more protesters sustained bullet wounds.
The protests, and ensuing clashes with Israeli soldiers, are continuing nightly throughout the West Bank.
News of the failure to reach a ceasefire has had virutally no effect on the solidarity demonstartions, according to local activist Issa Amro of Youth Against Settlements.
“The ceasefire was not discussed by the Palestinian people because it’s not official, it was just a media initiative,” said Amro.
Widespread solidarity demonstrations have been called for Friday afternoon, after the mid-day call to prayer, according to Amro.
“We are not watching Israel killing us, we have a resistance movement reacting to all of the Israeli violations and oppression over Palestinian residents in all occupied Palestine,” said Khalifa.
Update: As Boulder Weekly went to press on July 17, news of yet another tragedy in the Gaza Strip was breaking.
According to Gray and other media sources, it appears that an Israeli Naval ship shelled a beach near the port area of Gaza City. Four Palestinian boys from a single family who were playing football at the time were killed. At least three other chil dren were injured, with one of those being in critical condition.
Following the beach shelling which was witnessed by several foreign journalists who attempted to save some of the injured children by administering CPR, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman renewed his call for a ground offensive against Gaza.