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How Gaza families were given just ten minutes’ warning of Israeli attacks

by Patrick O. Strickland           10 December 2014         The Electronic Intifada

The remains of Gaza City’s Zafir Tower in September, weeks after it was bombed by Israel. (Mohammed AsadAPA images)

Jehad Saftawi says he is lucky to still be living in the home that he moved into less than a year before Israel’s summertime attack on Gaza.

Saftawi, a 23-year-old journalist, was waiting for a taxi to come back to his home at the Zafir One tower in the Tal al-Hawa neighborhood of Gaza City on 23 August. As Israel’s bombs were striking areas across Gaza, he received a frantic call from a neighbor.

“He told me don’t return to the tower because [Israel] called residents of Zafir Four, the building next to ours, and said they were going to strike the tower with a missile,” he told The Electronic Intifada. “Then they said they’d also hit Zafir One.”

Saftawi explained that all of his belongings, including his passports and personal files, were still in his home. “I was very worried because we just moved into the home eight months earlier, after I got married,” he recalled. “Everything I owned was in the house.”

In the end, the Israeli military struck the twelve-story Zafir Four, but not Zafir One. He waited outside the home for two days before returning because he “was scared that they would strike the building at any moment,” Saftawi said.

After two days, Saftawi returned to his home to find the front door and all of the windows busted. Only four of the more than forty families that live in the building had returned.

“The Zafir Four building across the street remained smoking for more than six days,” he recalled.

Dubbed Operation Protective Edge by Israel, the military assault left 2,257 Palestinians dead, the vast majority of them civilians, according to the United Nations monitoring group OCHA.

Seventy-one Israelis, mostly soldiers, were also killed.

During the 51-day assault, Israel targeted hospitals, homes, mosques, universities and other institutions crucial to the local economy, as it has done during previous attacks. Unprecedented, however, were its bombings of high-rise residential towers across Gaza.

Factories razed

Zoheir M. Dolah, news director of Wataniya, a local television station that reports on business and economic news in Gaza, explained that the business class and industrial areas were damaged far worse in the latest war than in Israel’s previous attacks against Gaza in late 2008 and early 2009 and in November 2012.

“Though everyone was hit hard and suffered from this war, we saw that business sectors and industrial areas were decimated,” Dolah told The Electronic Intifada. “That is what will take the most lasting toll on Gaza as rebuilding starts. Dozens of factories, buildings and towers were completely razed, and others were severely damaged.”

Tens of thousands of Palestinians across Gaza were not as lucky as Saftawi. More than 100,000 people were still displaced as a result of the war as of October 2014,according to Shelter Palestine, a United Nations group that monitors displacement.

Hazem Zarquot, 49, lived with his family in the primarily residential Italian Tower in center of Gaza City. On 25 August, in the final days of Israel’s assault on Gaza, the tower was razed in an Israeli airstrike.

Ten minutes “to get out”

Though Israel has contends that it gives advance warning to residents in buildings it targets, Zarquot said it is “nonsense” and that calling ahead of time “doesn’t give [Israel] the right to destroy” residential homes and other buildings.

“A man from the occupation’s military called me at 11:10am exactly that morning,” Zarquot told The Electronic Intifada. “He told me in Arabic that he’s sorry, but that we have ten minutes to get out of the building before they fire rockets [at it].”

“We even argued,” he recalled. “I told him that it’s not enough time, but he said he couldn’t do anything about it. He said they’d hit the building with a small rocket first, and then they’d fire more.”

“I told him that I needed at least a half an hour to gather my family,” Zarquot said, adding that more than twenty relatives were in the house at time. “He didn’t care.”

Gaza City’s Italian Tower shortly after it was bombed in late August. (Mohammed Asad / APA images)

Shortly after his family fled the building, Israeli rockets tore through the tower and brought it down.

Just days earlier, his brother Ahed, a sports journalist “with no political ties whatsoever,” was killed when an Israeli missile tore through his apartment.

Zarquot is renting a room on the other side of town as the Italian Tower remains an enormous pile of rubble. Israel’s targeting of the Italian Tower and three similar towers in Gaza City, as well as a shopping mall in the southern Gaza town of Rafah, “amounted to the deliberate targeting of civilian objects,” according to a new report by Amnesty International.

“Making civilian objects the object of the attack is a serious violation of international humanitarian law and is a war crime,” the Amnesty report states.

The United Nations plan to rebuild the Gaza Strip has been widely criticized. Asreported by The Electronic Intifada, nearly half of the $5.4 billion pledged to Gaza reconstruction by international donors will be diverted to fill gaps in the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority budget.

The Palestinian Boycott National Committee (BNC) has also denounced the recovery plan for “exploiting Gaza’s captive market.”

“About 45 percent of the aid pledged by international donors will benefit the Israeli economy,” says the BNC statement. “Some studies calculate this figure to be as high as 71 percent.”

“Corporate criminals”

Israeli “companies that are set to rake in profits providing materials for the reconstruction of Gaza are corporate criminals” that also “pillage Palestinian natural resources and participate in the construction of illegal settlements” in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, the BNC adds.

UN bodies and organizations affiliated with it have repeatedly ignored “demands from Palestinian civil society to stop rewarding corporations for their war crimes against Palestinians,” says the BNC.

During and after the military offensive, Israel and Egypt also denied human rights groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, as well as UN investigators, access to Gaza.

“The victims’ and the public’s right to know about what happened during the recent hostilities requires the Israeli authorities to ensure full transparency about their actions and to refrain from hindering independent and impartial research into all alleged violations,” Anne FitzGerald, an Amnesty spokesperson, said in August.

Israeli authorities also blocked Makarim Wibisono, a newly-appointed UN special rapporteur on Palestine, from entering the West Bank and Gaza.

More than three months after Israel’s attack ended, Jehad Saftawi says he is not optimistic about the future. “The normal thing for every regular Palestinian in Gaza or other parts of Palestine is to want to build a life,” he said.

“But we know that at any minute Israel could take that from us with its missiles. We know that there is no limit to Israel’s [human rights] violations.”

Patrick O. Strickland is an independent journalist and regular contributor to The Electronic Intifada. Find his reportage at Follow him on Twitter:@P_Strickland_.


Gaza Siege 2.0: Under guise of reconstruction, UN will help Israel gain even more intrusive control over Palestinian lives.

 (Mohammed Asad / APA images)

Details given in a confidential briefing this week confirm that the UN has agreed to become the chief enforcer of Israel’s ongoing siege of Gaza.

Under the guise of reconstruction, the UN will be monitoring and gathering private information about Palestinian households to be passed onto Israel, which will have a veto over which families get aid to rebuild their homes.

This was presented as part of an effort to try to entrench and legitimize the Israeli-backed Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas in Gaza.

Under the arrangements, Israel will be given even more intrusive control over the lives of Palestinians in Gaza, who will be subjected to onerous ongoing monitoring as they try to rebuild their houses, communities and lives following Israel’s summer massacre.

UN agencies estimate that almost 90,000 homes must be rebuilt, in addition to hundreds of schools and other major infrastructure systematically destroyed in Israel’s attack, or degraded by years of blockade.

At a recent donor conference, $5.4 billion was pledged to help rebuild Gaza, but as The Electronic Intifada reported, half of the money will be diverted to fill holes in the PA budget.

This week UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who has faced forceful Palestinian criticism for his own inaction and complicity in the face of the Israeli attack, visited the devastated Gaza Strip.

There, he said the destruction caused by Israel was “beyond description.”

The next stage of Israel’s blockade

The high-level briefing was given by Nicholas O’Regan, country director of the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS) and a colleague, in Jerusalem on Tuesday.

It was attended by more than a dozen heads and senior officials from international nongovernmental organizations and joined by colleagues in Gaza by telephone.

An attendee gave The Electronic Intifada a detailed account of the briefing because they were alarmed at its contents and felt Palestinians had a right to know what was being kept from them.

But the attendee asked to remain anonymous because they were not authorized by their agency to speak publicly about the matter.

The UN factsheet below on the so-called “Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism” provides an overview, but not all the details of what was revealed in the briefing.

The attendee said that at the outset O’Regan warned participants, “Be careful what you put out from this meeting. Don’t undermine this. Think about all the people who want to have their houses rebuilt.”

But the attendee concluded that O’Regan was using the plight of Palestinians to cover up the controversial political aspects of the deal which was brokered between Israel and the PA last month by Robert Serry, United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process (UNSCO) – although its details have been kept under wraps.

“This is the next stage of Israel’s blockade of Gaza,” the attendee said. “It started with a very crude blanket blockade, where pencils and coriander were not allowed in, but now it is becoming much more sophisticated, like the occupation of the West Bank. And now, the international actors are being embedded and made complicit in the siege.”

Sullen resignation

The secretive nature of the negotiations and now the details of the agreement have antagonized international aid groups working in Gaza.

The mood at other key UN agencies appears to be one of sullen resignation rather than enthusiasm.

“We welcome the new mechanism and hope it becomes functional as soon as possible to ensure that Gaza’s reconstruction needs are fully met,” Chris Gunness, spokesperson for UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestine refugees, told The Electronic Intifada.

But he added, “While the mechanism must facilitate full reconstruction it cannot be a substitute for the complete lifting of the blockade including for exports, a position which UNRWA and the international community strenuously demands.”

“Gaza has moved beyond the realm of humanitarian action alone. We also need political action to resolve the underlying causes of the conflict. Without this and accountability for violations of international law by all parties to the conflict we fear a return to the unsustainable pattern of blockade, rockets and destruction,” Gunness said.

“Legitimate government”

According to the attendee, O’Regan said repeatedly that the UNSCO deal is all about the “legitimate Government of Palestine rebuilding Gaza.”

O’Regan claimed that the UN had only gotten involved at the request of the “Government of Palestine” and that the “process is owned and led by the Government of Palestine, under the Ministry of Civil Affairs.”

But despite the PA – the so-called “Government of Palestine” – serving as the public front, the details revealed in the meeting indicate that the UN is now colluding to entrench, not lift, Israel’s siege.

This could be seen, the attendee said, in the four-stage mechanism for individuals to rebuild their homes in Gaza.

Before reconstruction gets underway, vendors – authorized businesses that will procure building materials and distribute them to end-users in Gaza – must be approved. UN officials have already paid visits to six out of an expected twelve vendors.

Vendors are nominated first by the PA and then the UN inspects them. Selection criteria include such things as having secure facilities, CCTV cameras and an inventory system to account for every bag of cement.

The restrictions are motivated by Israel’s demand that Palestinians be unable to use so-called “dual-use” items to exercise their right of resistance and self-defense against Israeli occupation and repeated attacks.

No such international controls have been placed on Israel, the occupying power that is in violation of dozens of UN resolutions, to prevent it from obtaining weapons or other supplies it uses to occupy and colonize Palestinians or to attack Gaza.

Information passed to Israel

Then comes the four-stage process Palestinian households must go through. It begins with a needs assessment for families whose homes were destroyed. Data for each household including confidential information like family ID card numbers, GPS coordinates of the family’s home and other personal information is then put into a database ostensibly under the control of the PA.

Once the information is in the database, Israel will be given forty-eight hours to object to any name on the list.

According to the attendee, O’Regan said that the UN itself was not sharing information with Israel, but that this sharing would be done by the PA and it would be up to the PA to decide what information to share.

But, according to the attendee, “this is nonsense. If the UN is doing the needs assessments along with the PA, then it is a joint information-gathering and information-sharing effort.”

The attendee said that giving Israel an effective veto over who gets aid violates a fundamental principle of humanitarian aid agencies against beneficiary vetting based on such criteria as religion or political affiliation. “But that’s what the database allows, with the support and complicity of the UN,” the attendee said.

“Throughout this whole talk [O’Regan] tried as much as he could to make the UN seem a very naive player who is just doing this to support the PA,” he observed.

Profiting Israel

Once the needs assessments are done, the approved vendors will order supplies through Israel and vendors will have to be able to track every item down to the last bag of cement.

Orders will be done in bulk through the PA, which will work with the vendors. This raises concerns not only about the high potential for corruption and profiteering by PA-linked middlemen, but the likelihood that Israel will be the main beneficiary.

With Israel severely restricting their access to world markets, Palestinians must buy the bulk of their cement from an Israeli near-monopoly called Nesher Israel Cement Enterprises, a company deeply involved in exploiting the occupied West Bank, including the construction of illegal colonies.

In the third stage, after vendors have received the supplies, families will be able to pick up their building materials on presentation of their IDs. They will receive only the exact amount of supplies called for in the needs assessment.

And then many families will be subject to strict monitoring. UN monitors will perform a “desk review” of ten percent of cases and then up to a fifth of those will have on-site spot checks by some one hundred monitors.

Job notices for “supply chain specialists” to monitor the building materials coming into Gaza have been posted by a United Arab Emirates-based multinational contractor called CTG Global, which works for governments and militaries around the world and which has apparently been contracted by the UN to enforce the new regime.

O’Regan presented this inspection regime – reminiscent of the controls Iraq was placed under during the decade before the 2003 US-led invasion – as being about “reconstruction with integrity, to make sure the most needy receive their aid.”

The process for large-scale projects – schools, roads, the power plant and sewage facilities – will be similar to the one for individual households. The PA will submit each project proposal to Israel and Israel will approve the projects on a case-by-case basis, leaving it in overall control.

The timeframe for such approval has not even been agreed. O’Regan told the briefing that the mechanism is already up and running and the first bags of cement have already entered Gaza.

And while O’Regan described the arrangements as “temporary,” they have no end-date – giving a high likelihood that like so many other “temporary” arrangements governing the lives of Palestinians, this one too will become permanent.

Gaza as SuperMax Prison

The details of the UNSCO arrangements come just days after revelations in the Israeli media about Israel’s new approach to the besieged Gaza Strip.

As Israeli journalist Dimi Reider reports for Middle East Eye, the new Israeli strategy “represents a decisive shift away from the idea of negotiating an independent state for the Palestinians and toward a tightly monitored ‘conflict management’ approach. Under this approach, Palestinians will be allowed greater freedom of movement and greater autonomy, but under close Israeli and international surveillance.”

What this means for Gaza is alarming, as Reider reports:

True, the influx of construction material and other goods into the Strip will doubtless be a great relief to the artificially starved Gazan economy. But the tight, almost dystopian new controls envisioned in the plan underline Israel’s approach to the Strip as being first and foremost a gigantic prison – only it is being upgraded from a third-world prison camp to an American cutting-edge SuperMax facility. Much of the more tantalizing promises should be taken with a heap of salt: complete freedom of movement except where security concerns are raised is pretty much what Gazans enjoy today; it just so happens that all of them, together and apart, are seen as security concerns.

He adds: “The reconstruction sites will then be monitored by Israeli drones, to make sure no materials are used for any other purpose and that each bit of materiel is accounted for.”

And matching the attendee’s account of the briefing, “Private homes will be rebuilt by private but also Israeli-vetted Gaza contractors, who will manage the construction materials through special software accessible also to Israel, and whose works will also be monitored by drones.”

The attendee’s account of O’Regan’s briefing given to The Electronic Intifada also accords with an account of the arrangements leaked to The Guardian earlier this month.

“Critics argue that plans for monitoring the import, storage and sales of building materials – including installing video cameras, setting up a team of international inspectors and the creation of a database of suppliers and consumers – are more appropriate for a suspect nuclear program than a postwar reconstruction effort,” The Guardian observed.

Dr. Ramy Abdu, chair of Euro-Mid Observer For Human Rights, also discussed some leaked information about the plan in an article in Arabic at Alaraby Aljadid earlier this month.

Gaza is to become ground zero for disaster capitalism, profiting from the suffering and incarceration of an entire population.

This is the Gaza Siege 2.0. And it is brought to the Palestinian people with the full complicity of the UN, the Palestinian Authority and the so-called “international community.”