December 27th, 2008: Israel launches a 22-day military assault on the Gaza Strip. Codenamed ‘Operation Cast Lead’, the campaign begins with intense bombardment from the air followed by a deep ground invasion which slices the blockaded Strip in two. The rapid development of a full-blown humanitarian crisis fails to bring about a ceasefire; with its borders sealed and a siege on its economy ruthlessly maintained whilst fighting continues, Gaza buckles under the weight of its attackers. By the end of the war over 1,200 of its citizens lie dead.
International journalists were initially forbidden access to the conflict; when they finally entered Gaza in the closing days of Operation Cast Lead, they were confronted with scenes of remarkable devastation. The majority of photography to emerge from this period focused on personal human tragedies, but there was relatively little debate over the targeted dismantling of Gaza’s institutions – the factories, pipes and grids that glue society together and form the foundations upon which any country is based. From flour mills to power plants, sewage pipes to schools, gaining entry into these vital organs of the state exposed the coldly efficient intentions of the invading forces – and the resilience of a people struggling to rebuild their land as the world’s media loses interest.
Police station, Junaina, Rafah
Israel’s air assault on Gaza began with attacks on the Strip’s main police stations, including one in Rafah’s densely populated Junaina neighborhood which left twenty-five officers dead. Over the course of the war, approximately two hundred and fifty civilian policemen would be killed and every major police office damaged or destroyed, according to figures provided by the Ministry of the Interior.
When it became clear that policemen were being targeted, officers were ordered to don plain clothes uniforms and continue their patrols carrying sticks rather than guns to avoid detection. Trestle-table desks were set up amidst the rubble of bombed police stations to maintain the administrative network of law enforcement in the Strip, and the thirteen thousand-strong police force continued to function. “We would not allow the Israeli aggression to bring chaos to our streets,” says Ihab Al-Ghusain, a spokesperson for the Ministry. “We simply made the best of what we had.”
The Geneva Convention stipulates that to be considered a legitimate military target, objects must contribute to military action. “Police were not combatants and could not represent legitimate targets unless actively engaged in hostilities,” claims Sarah Leah Witson, the Executive Director of Human Rights Watch.
There was no significant increase in theft or looting during the war, although several calls were made to an emergency police hotline reporting incidents of over-pricing by merchants. “We have a bad history of safety in Gaza,” says Mr. Al-Ghusain, “and as a result people here have suffered. In times of crisis, people need the reassurance of a working police force more than ever; we could have everything else, but without security we have nothing. That’s why it was so important to keep going.”
In the nineteen eighties, fishermen based at Gaza City’s sole seaport would collectively bring around twenty thousand shekels worth of fish each day. “We were allowed to sail over thirty miles from the shore back then,” remembers Sheikh Ijnana, a fifty-eight year old boat-owner. The 1994 Oslo Accords stipulated that Palestinian fishermen should be permitted twenty nautical miles out to sea, enabling access to the larger shoals of fish that swim in deeper water. In recent years, though, Israel has restricted them to around six nautical miles and periodically shoots at any ships deemed to have broken the fluctuating limit. Three fishermen have died in the past twelve months from such attacks, and twenty-one have been wounded.
Fishing in the shallow waters by the shore is far less lucrative. Each shipping trip costs between $125 and $625, many of the port's two hundred vessels—each employing between ten and twenty people—have been forced to remain in the harbor.
During the war the port shut down completely, depriving the fishermen of even the much smaller catches they have come to rely on. “Now on a good day we can hope to get maybe five thousand shekels worth of fish,” says the Sheikh, who owns four boats. “But none of us could go out during the attacks, so that means one hundred thousand shekels were denied to us.” The closure of the port left the Strip’s supplies of fresh fish quickly exhausted; only old stocks of frozen seafood remained.
“This sea is so rich, so full of fish and tourism potential,” argues the Sheikh, gesturing out towards the Mediterranean. “I tell you if the sea was open to the people of Gaza, we would live like kings. But it’s closed and so we live in poverty.” Sheikh Ijnana’s son is following his father into the fishing trade. “We risk our lives every time we take the boat out,” he says. “What kind of future is that for him?”
Al-Badr Flour factory, Sudaniya, North Gaza
Three key Gazan industries were targeted during the Israeli operation: construction materials, metal works, and food-processing plants. “They picked the industrial subsectors that were most crucial to the economy and most necessary for reconstruction,” says Amr Hamad, Vice Secretary General of the Palestinian Federation of Industries. “The infrastructure upon which economic independence rests has been crippled, and instead we now have complete dependence on Israel.”
In the twenty-two day assault, two hundred and twenty industrial establishments were damaged or destroyed, including seventy small engineering workshops. The Al-Badr factory was the main supplier of wheat to Gaza, responsible for covering 70 percent of the Strip’s flour needs, before it was hit by an F16 airstrike on January 10th. The ensuing fire that spread through the compound gutted $2.7 million worth of machinery and reduced to ashes up to one thousand tonnes of flour stored in the warehouse. “I think one of the pilots had worked in a flour factory, because they knew exactly where to attack to achieve the most irreversible wreckage,” claims Mahmoud Hamada, the factory’s chief engineer. Beyond humanitarian aid supplies, the Strip is now relying on imported wheat from Israel costing 150 percent more than the flour milled in Al-Badr.
Rebuilding Gaza’s industrial complex is near impossible under present conditions, as the basic raw materials needed for reconstruction are absent. “There is currently absolutely no way of making cement in the Strip,” observes Mr. Hamad. “We’re in desperate need of three hundred thousand square meters of glass and two thousand tons of aluminum, but where can we get it? The siege prevents supplies coming in.”
Despite having the advantage of a strong natural resource base and a highly skilled and productive workforce, industrial leaders are pessimistic about the chances of creating a stable business environment in Gaza. According to Mr. Hamad, even if money was available and the borders weren’t sealed, it would still take at least five years to rebuild investor confidence and recover from the industrial damage of the war. “Gaza’s business community was the last layer of society to believe that economic prosperity integration could provide a path to peace with Israel,” he comments. “Now even we are losing hope.”
Al-Qerem Street power lines, North Gaza
Gaza’s electricity network was highly unstable both during the war and in its aftermath following a series of air, sea, and ground attacks on electrical feeding lines into the Strip and on internal distribution lines and transformers. By the time the war ended, 40 percent of the population was completely without power, whilst the remaining 60 percent was receiving only intermittent electricity supplies. “People here depend on electricity to pump water up to their water towers,” says Suheil Skeik, General Manager of the Gaza Electricity Distribution Corporation. “Imagine what it’s like to be trapped in your home in a war zone with no electricity and no water.”
Gaza’s electrical infrastructure was already in a critical state before the conflict owing to the closure of the Strip’s only power plant in November, which had run out of fuel supplies as a result of the siege. That left Gaza completely reliant on two feeding lines from Egypt and ten from Israel, four of which were cut by the Israelis during the war. As a consequence, for ten days at the height of hostilities, Gaza City was left completely without power.
In addition, tanks and bulldozers dismantled miles of pylons and wiring in residential neighborhoods. A lack of supplies means that reconstruction efforts are inherently makeshift. “We should replace the severed wires from scratch to ensure reliable service, but instead we are simply patching up the damage with old materials,” explains Mr. Skeik.
The total physical damage to the network stands at $10.5 million; even if all the necessary rebuilding takes place, as long as the power plant is deprived of fuel Gaza will still be 41 percent short of the electricity supply it needs to meet demand. The European Union has pledged 2.9 million liters of fuel supplies per week for six weeks to help plug the gap.
Gaza Zoo opened in 2005 and used to attract up to a thousand visitors daily before the war. “It’s school groups mainly,” says assistant zookeeper Saleem Bedowi. “The children need this sort of leisure activity to distract them from the troubles they face in their daily lives.” Populated largely with birds, monkeys, reptiles, and farm animals smuggled through Egyptian border tunnels, the zoo was occupied by Israeli forces following the start of the ground invasion. Nearly all of its occupants now lie dead.
Many of the creatures on display were hit by missile attacks during the opening days of the war, including the zoo’s pregnant camel. Others succumbed to starvation as the war dragged on; the presence of Israeli troops on the premises prevented the zookeepers from reaching the animals and feeding them. A few, including one horse, appear to have been shot dead by soldiers at point-blank range. Those that survived the conflict did so by eating the corpses of their brothers and sisters. “When the Israelis withdrew and I finally made it back inside, the only animals left alive were crazed with hunger and traumatized by all the death around them,” says Mr. Bedowi. “They are all terrified now, even the lions.”
Saher, a five-year-old male lion, and Sabreen, his pregnant companion, apparently endured the chaos by feeding on the zoo’s small ostrich population. When Mr. Bedowi returned to the zoo, the lions’ enclosure was empty; he eventually found the pair cowering in the toilets of the zoo’s administrative building. Graffiti now adorns the walls of the block, including the message “You lost” scrawled in Hebrew.
In all, 90 percent of the animals died in the conflict, $200,000 of physical damage was done to the zoo, and the ten families who rely on the institution for employment are facing an uncertain future. “What crime did these animals commit?” asks Mr. Bedowi. Israeli sources claim that the zoo had been booby-trapped by Hamas fighters, making it a legitimate military target.
Ijdeedeh olive groves, Gaza City
Gaza’s water and sanitation facilities took a severe hit during the offensive, leaving over a third of the Strip’s population without access to clean water and overall water production levels down by 50 percent. “We were lucky that only nine of our one hundred and sixty wells were destroyed,” says Monther Shoblak, the Director of Gaza’s Coastal Municipalities Water Utility (CMWU). “The real problem was the attacks on water and sewage pipes, which left waste running through the streets in some residential neighborhoods.”
Pipes leading to the waste water treatment plant near the former Israeli settlement of Netsarim were bombed in the early days of the war, allowing twenty liters of raw sewage a day to flood into nearby farmland. “With electricity and fuel supplies intermittent, the whole system was already highly unstable before the war,” observes Mr. Shoblak. “After the hits on the pipelines, we asked for Israeli permission to venture out and undertake recovery work but were turned down.”
The result was that olive, citrus, and fig groves owned by the Qandi and Arafat families were swamped by a deluge of waste up to two meters deep, which left all but the tallest tree-tops buried underground. They estimate the damage at $25,000. “It will take at least a month for the sewage to fully dry out,” says landowner Mohammed Qandi, “then between two and ten years to re-cultivate the land, if it hasn’t been contaminated permanently.”
“The Ijdeedeh neighborhood was the fruit-basket of the whole region, which is why the Israelis built Netsarim settlement there in the first place,” explains Mr. Shoblak. Crippling the treatment plant resulted not only in the flooding of agricultural plots, but also had a knock on the fishing industry, as 100 percent of waste water is now being diverted directly into the sea.
Khalil Al-Nubani school, Gaza City
Palestinian students have posted better high school enrolment rates than Lebanon in recent decades, and Gaza’s literacy level is higher than both Egypt’s and Yemen’s. But the education system is facing a wide range of operational difficulties following the end of the conflict, including bombed-out school buildings, restricted supplies, and the clean-up of classrooms used during the war as refugee shelters.
Of the six hundred schools in the Strip, two hundred and twenty-one are operated by UNRWA, which is responsible for educating some two hundred thousand Palestinians. Spokesperson Christopher Gunness believes the damage inflicted by the war on the education system goes well beyond physical destruction, and that returning schoolchildren will be psychologically traumatized by what they have witnessed. “Imagine what the conversations are going to be like,” he says.
More than half of Gaza’s population is under eighteen years of age, and despite most schools reopening on January 24th, there are fears that personal tragedies and the economic pressure created by the siege will prevent many children from returning to education. Most institutions devoted the first few days of teaching following the conflict to counseling before deciding whether or not to reschedule exams which were disrupted by the Israeli military operation.
The Khalil Al-Nubani school was attacked from the air on December 27th, the first day of hostilities, and subsequently gutted by fire. The entire student body has been transferred elsewhere while reconstruction efforts are launched.
Sawafiri chicken farm, Samouni neighborhood, Zeitoun
Before the war, Sameh al Sawafiri’s farm produced twelve hundred cartons of thirty eggs each per day. The family enterprise has been Gaza’s largest provider of eggs since 1982, and was one of the most modern poultry production facilities in the Strip. On January 4th, the farm was invaded from two sides as the Israeli ground operation got underway. “Everyone here was rounded up and forced into one building, where we were held for five days,” says Mr. Al-Sawafiri. One young male, Ibrahim Jo’haa, was killed when Israeli tanks opened fire on the trapped family.
Israeli bulldozers then proceeded to flatten the farm, systematically killing every single one of the family’s thirty-seven thousand chickens in the process. Thirteen neighboring chicken farms were given the same treatment, resulting in the deaths of sixty-five thousand chickens in total. “It took them several hours to finish the job, but they were determined,” recalls Mr. Al-Sawafiri, age fifty-eight.
The farm’s destruction has led to a severe shortage of eggs in the Strip, pushing the price of a carton up from ten shekels to twenty-two shekels. “It was economic oppression, pure and simple,” says Mr. Al-Sawafiri, who is currently digging a mass grave for the chicken corpses. It will take three months to clear the debris, and a further year to rebuild the farm’s crushed machinery. “Everything’s hard with the siege, but we’ll manage. We have to. I’m buying new eggs for the incubator tomorrow, and we will start again.”
Jawwal mobile network macro-site, University of Palestine, Zahra City
Jawwal is Palestine’s only home-grown mobile provider, serving 550,000 customers in the Gaza Strip and covering 99.8 percent of the territory with its one hundred and forty-two masts. The absence of any new supplies since 2006 means that broken cables and faulty cabinets cannot be repaired, and staff are unable to train on new technology. Sixty percent of calls now have to be routed via switchboards in London, decreasing call quality and network reliability further.
At the outset of war, twenty-two of Jawwal’s seventy-four macro sites were totally or partially destroyed, and all others were restricted by dwindling electricity supplies. Fiber optic cables near the Gazan border were also cut. “By the second week of the conflict, we were down to about 20 percent of normal operational capacity,” says Bassam Al-Adini, Jawwal’s technical manager. With land lines out of action as well, the Strip faced a severe communications crisis.
The macro-site in Zahra City was especially constructed for the fourteen hundred students and one hundred staff at the University of Palestine. Worth $120,000, it was hit by tank fire on the first day of the Israeli ground operation and currently remains disabled. Seventy-five percent of the network is now up and running again though, and Mr. Al-Adini believes the rapid recovery rate sends an important message to the people of Gaza. In the middle of the assault, Jawwal surprised customers by adding 15 percent of each customer’s total credit onto their account for free. “In times of emergencies, a mobile phone can save a life, so we think of ourselves in these periods as an extension of humanitarian aid,” he remarks. “It’s important to keep up people’s confidence levels in the infrastructure around them.”
Al-Quds Hospital, Tel al Hawa, Gaza City
Opened in 2001, Al-Quds hospital boasts one hundred beds spread over six floors as well as an Intensive Care Unit and a pre-natal ICU. Run by the Palestinian Red Crescent Society, Al-Quds was hit by three Israeli shells on January 15th, sparking a fire which devastated the upper floors. The administrative building was the first block to go up in flames, quickly followed by the physiotherapy gym and in-house pharmacy.
Eighty medical staff and four hundred patierents and relatives were evacuated as the fire spread, including three from the ICU. They were moved seven hundred meters down the street, before eventually being transferred to the nearby Al-Shifa hospital. Al-Quds has now re-opened and is running at 50 percent of its normal operational capacity. “Hospitals are supposed to be the last bastions of safety; instead, our staff were subjected to attacks whilst in their place of work, and this has had a profound impact on them,” says Dr. Waleed Abu Ramadan, the hospital’s medical director. “That is what terror is.”
The damage inflicted on Al Quds was “completely and utterly unacceptable based on every known standard of international humanitarian law,” the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said in a statement issued from Geneva.
48% of Gaza’s 122 medical facilities were damaged by Israeli assaults during “Operation Cast Lead”, including 15 hospitals, stretching Gaza’s already under-resourced medical network to the breaking point. One of the legacies of the conflict is a large number of amputation and head injury patients, yet there are now fewer staff and resources than ever to treat these long-term cases.