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How does one prepare for a war crime?

Maha Mehanna writing from the occupied Gaza Strip, Live from Palestine, 13 January 2009

Destruction wrought by Israeli air strikes in Gaza City, 13 January 2009. (Wissam Nassar/MaanImages)

As the war in Gaza, where I live, enters its third week, the death toll of civilians continues to rise. There is nowhere safe in Gaza. The Israeli warplanes have bombed -- and continue to do so -- homes, ministerial buildings, municipal buildings, mosques, schools, universities and charities throughout the densely-populated Gaza Strip. Every day in Gaza is more painful and heartbreaking than the past. Everyone here is terrorized and traumatized from the never-ending bombardments. What is happening in Gaza is catastrophic beyond words and it is very hard to make sense of the current situation or make future predictions. The Israeli attacks on Gaza are escalating, and the Israeli military navy is shelling from the sea, the F-16 warplanes and Apache helicopters from the sky, and the tanks from the ground ... where to hide?!

Since the start of the Israeli offensive on Gaza, Israeli warplanes have been bombing and shelling several locations in the area near our house, very near our house. With each bombardment, we feel our house shake like an earthquake and windows break, not to mention our utter fear and horror. We have not had any electricity for 17 days now, but this was something we got used to, since, before the Israeli aggression, for nearly 18 months, we lived with only four to six hours of electricity a day, many times only having it after 3:00am.

Our house comprises of three stories. I live with my parents and aunt downstairs, and my two married brothers live with their families in apartments upstairs. We have to leave windows open all day and night to prevent them from shattering from the bombardments, even though we are in our winter season and this year is extremely cold. We have 13 young children at home, and all of my family, including my brothers and their families, are staying with us in one crowded room at our home downstairs, in the dark and the cold, to seek shelter. We prefer to die all together if a missile would strike. My younger nephews and nieces are very scared all of the time and don't sleep well. They refuse to go to the toilet on their own, we take turns accompanying them. The bombings continue, day and night, and we don't stop feeling scared. We hardly get any sleep.

We are also subject to psychological pressures as we keep hearing that a friend, a relative or a neighbor has been killed or injured. There is nowhere to hide from the bombings in the whole of Gaza because the Israeli warplanes are targeting all areas.

As if the bombings were not enough, we also receive daily recorded phone calls from the Israeli army to intimidate and terrorize us. In these recorded calls, the army asks us to follow their instructions and obey their orders for our own safety. They also say that they don't target us, but that they target Hamas militants only. The army also asks us to stay away from Hamas elements and to avoid dealing with them or helping them and the caller warns us not to allow them use our homes or residential areas. The army also said in one of the recorded calls that "this is not a nightmare, this is the hell the Hamas leadership brought to you," which made us not know if we are being targeted or not. In their latest recorded call this evening, the caller said that they will escalate their military operations in Gaza and that we should prepare ourselves and keep following their instructions and obeying their orders. How does one prepare to be a victim of a war crime?

We also receive calls from the Israeli intelligence, in good Arabic, pretending to be sympathetic Egyptians, Saudis, Jordanians, Algerians, Sudanese or Libyans. After expressing horror at the Israeli war and asking about the safety of our family, the callers ask us about local conditions, whether the family supports Hamas and if there are fighters in the building or the neighborhood.

To add insult to injury, the warplanes also drop leaflets in Arabic all over the Gaza Strip to intimidate and terrorize Gazans even more. In one of the leaflets, the army orders people to leave their areas immediately because they claim they have been forced to respond immediately and operate in their residential area due to the terrorist activity that terrorist elements are carrying out from those areas. The irony is that the warplanes are dropping such leaflets everywhere in Gaza, and anyone who reads them thinks that their areas are targeted. This has created mass hysteria. And even if they felt terrorized and intimidated and decided to follow the Israeli army orders and evacuate their areas, where can they go? NOWHERE IS SAFE IN GAZA!

We are very concerned and afraid. No one has any idea what is going to happen in the coming days. We live on the southwest side of the Jabaliya refugee camp which makes us next in line if the Israeli ground forces decide to advance, as they said they would yesterday. My sisters live in the refugee camps around Gaza City and I'm sick worrying about them too. Like all families in Gaza, we also lack many basic necessities, such as food, running water, electricity, warmth and cooking gas. These basic necessities have become a luxury for us, if available, not to mention the prices of commodities are rapidly inflating. When grocery shops can open, some insignificant items are available, but many necessary items are not. Much of what was available most likely has spoiled by now, given the total electricity cuts in our area since the start of the bombardment 17 days ago.

No one here leaves home unless there is something extremely urgent. The only time I left home since this all started was yesterday to take my nephew Mohammed to al-Shifa Hospital, which is a 15-minute walk from our home. We left hoping to find out if some of his recently prescribed post-bone marrow transplantation medicine was available. We only found three of the needed nine medicines and only enough for one week. On our way to the hospital, we witnessed scenes of destruction and many damaged buildings everywhere. Some buildings are totally damaged and cannot be repaired.

When we got to the hospital, we saw a lot of women and children being carried and wheeled into the emergency room, if that's what it can be called anymore. Many of the wounded were missing limbs and a lot of the dead were in pieces, body parts literally in boxes. I became sicker than I already was. We also saw women and men, parents, slapping their faces in grief, screaming and wailing. Some of them collapsed to the floor because they learned their children were dead. What I heard is that most of the killed are children and there wasn't enough space for the wounded. Terrifying scenes! My life stopped at this point.

What's happening in Gaza is a real crime against humanity. If any Israeli spokesperson does not believe it, I ask them to visit for him or herself. Despite this extremely difficult situation, we are still holding on, waiting for the siege to end and hoping with it the 41 years of occupation will also leave our lives once and for all.

Maha Mehanna is based in al-Rimal, Gaza, and is a freelance Arabic-English translator. She can be reached at maha_2711 A T yahoo D O T com.

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