The rust-colored al-Deera Hotel sits proudly on El Rashid Road near the heart of Gaza City. It is perhaps the only building in town that isn’t white. Inside, the décor is Moroccan-inspired, with tall archways and breezy rooms that overlook the Mediterranean. As I write this dispatch from my room, which looks out onto Gaza’s bay, I can hear Israeli artillery pounding the beach a few miles away. My windows shake when the shells land, but it’s not exactly frightening. The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) hit roughly the same spot every night. Today, you can even predict when the next shell will hit -- they are falling at 20-second intervals.
In the last few weeks, the IDF has stepped up their shelling of the strawberry fields in northern Gaza. It’s in response to Palestinian militant groups -- like the Islamic jihad, al-Aqsa and the Popular Resistance Brigades -- who fire crude rockets from the fields near the northern Gaza town of Beit Hanun. On the one hand, the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’s militant wing, say they’ve stopped firing the rockets at Israel. They insist they are committed to a cease-fire. On the other hand, Hamas either can’t or won’t stop rival militant groups from firing rockets into nearby Israeli towns. Since coming to power, Hamas has not publicly denounced any group for continuing its attacks.
These Palestinian rockets -- known as Qassams -- are extremely inaccurate. Most crash harmlessly on the sandy buffer zone near the Israeli wall. Every so often, a Qassam makes its way across the security perimeter, killing or wounding Israeli civilians. According to B’Tselm, an Israeli human rights organization, since the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in September 2005, 34 Israelis have been killed by Palestinian rockets. Casualties may increase in the next few months; I’ve heard that Hezbollah explosives experts have arrived in Gaza from Lebanon to help these groups improve the range of their rockets.
Fatalities on the Palestinian side are definitely on the rise. In just one recent three-day period, 15 civilians were killed by Israeli artillery fire. The Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group says 170 Palestinians have died since September 2005.
The Israelis keep a close watch on Gaza. Several drones hover above, monitoring everything that goes on. You can barely make out the gray-colored zeppelins in the distance, but you can hear the hum of their propellers. Azmi Keshawi, our local producer, jokingly tells us, “I bet they can see everything we are doing. I’m sure they are even looking through Tim’s [our cameraman] viewfinder and can see every shot.”
Despite Israel’s technical superiority and military might, nothing Israel has done -- not the economic sanctions, not the incursions, not the targeted assassinations -- has broken the will of the Palestinian resistance fighters. Hamas for one continues to stick to its hard-line charter, which calls for the expulsion of the “Zionist invaders” from all land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. The group remains determined to raise the banner of Allah over the Holy Land. Under its plan, Jews and Christians would live under Islamic rule.
Hamas has abided by its self-imposed cease-fire, but is reluctant to disarm its armed militia. Hamas relies on the threat of violence and has even said it may lift the moratorium on suicide bombings if the Israelis continue their attacks on Gaza.
The group has long been known for its use of suicide bombers. Since the second intifada began in 2000, Israel says that Hamas has been responsible for 400 attacks that have taken the lives of 2,000 people. Far more Palestinians have been lost. According to the Red Crescent Society, the Middle East version of the Red Cross, 5,000 Palestinians have been killed by the Israelis since the first intifada.
In Gaza, death is a daily occurrence. During our 10 days of filming there, we went to four funerals. The first one was for Zayed Dukhan, the eldest son of Abdel Fatah Dukhan, one of Hamas’s original founders and a recently elected member of parliament. Zayed was killed by the Israeli army while trying to plant a bomb near Eretz Crossing. We met with his father in a parking garage in the middle of Gaza, where he was receiving condolences. Posters of his son holding an M-16 decorated the walls. Over Turkish coffee, tea and dates, we chatted about Hamas’s victory at the polls. Dukhan talked with pride about serving Hamas for more than 20 years. We did not ask about his son; Azmi wanted us to stick to pleasantries in case this meeting led to access to other Hamas leaders.
The second death happened the next day. We were at Islamic University interviewing a pro-Hamas youth leader when we heard a loud explosion. A few blocks away, we found a car in flames and the charred body of a man being loaded onto a Red Crescent ambulance. The man was Khaled Dahdouh, a high-ranking member of the militant Islamic jihad. A large crowd gathered around the car. A member of the Palestinian bomb squad was trying to figure out if the car had been hit by a hellfire missile or if it had been a car bomb. Later that night, Israel denied any responsibility. “The Israelis generally don’t have a problem taking credit for these acts,” Kate Seelye, the journalist I was working with, tells me. “It was probably an internal job.”
Dahdouh’s funeral turned into a well-orchestrated rally promoting jihad against Israel. Several thousand men, most of them armed with Kalashnikovs and M-16s, came out on the streets to mourn the latest shahid. Dahdouh’s body, wrapped in the black flag of Islamic jihad, was carried on a stretcher by men in black masks. You could make out his face, his beard gone from the heat of the flames.
Pickup trucks blaring nasheens, songs praising Allah, followed a long crowd of men waving flags. Every few yards, men would fire their Kalashnikovs into the sky. A man on a truck held a cell phone to a speaker -- apparently an exiled leader of the Islamic jihad was phoning in his condolences from Syria or Jordan. I was sitting in the car with my driver, Raed, and didn’t understand a word of what was being said, but I heard “Allah-u Akbar” (“God is great”) a few times. The crowd chanted “Allah-u Akbar” in response. Raed tells me in broken English that accompanying the body during a funeral procession earns a Muslim points in heaven. There is only one good way to guarantee your place in heaven, he says. You must be killed by your enemy. “Great way, you know, to go, what do you call? To sky? If you are shahid, you go to sky. If you martyred by Israeli, you go sky fast.”
I’ve seen pictures and footage of these funeral marches in the past and always assumed they were political rallies organized by the militants in order to recruit new men. But up close and personal, these funerals seem to these Western eyes to be more of a march of solidarity. A sign of defiance and pride.
Two days later, we are driving toward Gaza’s gorgeous beaches to get some shots of the fishermen at sunset when Azmi gets a call on his cell phone. Agitated, he turns on the radio and suddenly takes off at high speed. “An Israeli aircraft fired a missile on a car in Shehaya,” he says as he honks his horn to get other cars out of his way. “There are wounded children. We can make it to the hospital in time.”
We arrive at Shifa Hospital just as a Red Crescent ambulance speeds past the front gate. I don’t see the victim in the ambulance, but I do see jumping out of a taxi a man carrying a little girl in a pink jumpsuit; she looks like she is missing half of her skull. A large crowd gathers at the entrance as ambulance after ambulance rolls in carrying several wounded and some bodies. A mob races toward every ambulance and encircles the medics, who have an impossible time getting the victims onto stretchers. Kids climb onto a nearby wall and start shouting, “Allah-u Akbar.” We push past the crowd and get to the entrance of the emergency room. A dead child on a stretcher is wheeled past the crowd. The men pushing the stretcher shout, “Allah-u Akbar.”
We follow the body to the morgue a few yards away. Swarms of bystanders are pounding the door of the morgue. Tim and Kate manage to get inside and are shown the body; they leave before the stampede. The body was that of Raed al-Batch. He was 8 years old. His brother, Mahmoud, 15, died an hour later. They were both standing next to their father’s welding shop when the drone hit.
The IDF killed five people that day, including Munir Suqar, local commander of the jihad’s armed wing, Saraya al-Quds, and jihad militant Ashraf Shaluf. Attacks on the Islamic jihad have increased in recent months. Israel won’t tolerate the group’s insistence on firing rockets into Ashkelon, which borders Gaza.
At a funeral for Suqar and Shaluf, hundreds of men from the Islamic jihad pay respects to the militants’ families. A loudspeaker plays the jihad’s funeral song. The words are distorted, but it fires up the crowd. Thousands of neighborhood residents gather under the mourning tent to listen to speeches.
In my hotel room later that night, I logged on to the Web site of the Islamic jihad movement and found their latest statement: “Palestinian blood is very precious and dear, and the criminal Zionist enemy will pay for its crimes. Blood is for blood. There will be no talk of a truce; on the contrary, the war must escalate and we must continue our holy battle.”