By Ann Harrison, Deputy Director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Programme
It was dawn when we arrived in Israel to begin our investigation into rocket attacks from Gaza which by the end of the latest flare in violence had left six Israelis, including four civilians, dead, at least 40 injured and 300 more treated for shock.
Up in the sky oddly shaped vapour trails made us wonder if these were the remnants of the “Iron Dome” missiles – used to intercept the rockets fired by Palestinian armed groups which this time reached as far north as Tel Aviv.
One of the rooms in our apartment was the obligatory mamad – a bomb shelter which all new builds in Israel must have. Windowless, with reinforced walls, it’s there to protect residents during rocket attacks.
Sleeping in its claustrophobic confines brought home to me the constant fear of rocket attack Israelis have lived with since Iraqi scud missiles were launched at Israel in 1991 during the first Gulf War.
The mamads’ effectiveness was demonstrated to us when we viewed the ruins of the top floors of an apartment block in Rishon LeZion hit by a rocket from Gaza the night we arrived.
Had its inhabitants not been in the mamad, they would surely have been killed. Though of course residents of Gaza, and many people living in older housing in Israel, have no access to such a refuge.
Kfir Rosen – one of those injured in the attack, who had decided with his brother not to enter the mamad when the siren souned at 6pm on 20 November – told us: “The alarm ended and there was nothing, not even Iron Dome.
“Suddenly there was a huge explosion, a misty curtain of ashes and gunpowder – everything went into my throat. Blocks from above flew from the explosion: one hit my right shoulder and one the right side of my waist.
“A piece ricocheted onto my arm and a piece of shrapnel burned my neck. I went down the stairs and saw the massive destruction – the car park was full of ruined cars… My brother was hit too, less seriously than me; his head was bleeding.”
In Soroka Hospital in the southern town of Be’er Sheva we interviewed several people caught in various indiscriminate rocket attacks since 14 November. Over 1,500 rockets were fired at Israel over the eight days.
A policeman who did not wish to be be identified told us: “My 16-year-old son was playing football with his brother and friends at 8pm on 20 November when the siren sounded.
“They all ran for shelter to a concrete wall, but when the rocket landed, a small piece of shrapnel had pierced my son’s leg, going deep into the tissue. We hope he will be OK and will be able to play football again, but there is still the risk of infection. It’s very hard, when you are used to helping other people, to hear over the radio of such an attack and to go to the site, only to find it is your own son that has been injured.”
Nayyaf al-Ginawi, a Palestinian citizen of Israel from the Bedouin town of Lakiya, told us: “I was driving my car when a rocket landed nearby, shattering its windows and sending shrapnel into my right hand. I’m waiting for an operation right now.”
We drove on to another medical centre where 75-year-old Sima Deutsch had been transferred earlier in the day. She told us how she and her husband, a Holocaust survivor, had used a walker to leave their apartment to reach the building’s safe area, as there was no mamad.
She became entangled in the walker’s wheel and fell, breaking her thigh, for which she had needed surgery. “What I’m going through is hell. It’s hard to stand on the leg. I really hope I’ll be able to walk. I’m not a sitting type… it is hard not to be able to do anything. Because of the terror of the rockets we were afraid to go out to the streets.”
While the scale of the injuries and damage is far less than that suffered in Gaza, such indiscriminate rocket attacks always put civilian lives at risk.
Then there was the bus bomb in Tel Aviv on 21 November – which no one has claimed responsibility for – which was clearly aimed at civilians and – like the indiscriminate rocket attacks – was a clear violation of international law. Amnesty International has repeatedly condemned such attacks.
All sides to the conflict in Israel/Gaza must put the protection of civilians at the very top of their priorities if hostilities should break out in the future. International monitors on both sides could go a long way to deterring future violations and help provide accountability for any which do occur.
I left Israel with the words of Yonatan Gher, AI Israel’s Director, lodged in my mind: “The first question my small son asked me was how the rockets were being fired towards Tel Aviv where we live. That was the easy part. The second was why. Why should any child anywhere in the world have to ask that question?”