Part 1 – The roots of purpose and reason.
note: This talk took place in January of 2010, a long time ago. I thought it would be good to publish it again here for people to read. Operation Cast Lead may be over, but people over there are still suffering.
“The wounds of Gaza” is a talk prepared by Dr Ang Swee Chai and about her experiences as a hospital worker during the 2008/2009 Israeli offensive on Gaza, formally known as “Operation Cast Lead”.
The first thing that may really stand out to someone is the passion, respect and sophistication with which she speaks, not just about the recent war on Gaza, but of the whole history of the Palestinians.
I suspected that these passions over a wide ranging issue must have had a root cause, and indeed there was and she confirmed it with her own words.
Born in Singapore in the 1950s and of a Chinese origin, Dr Ang Swee Chai was a practicing Christian and her interpretation of the Bible led her to believe that Israel and Palestine rightfully belonged to the Jews and that Israel was a blessed nation. After the 6 day war of 1967 in which Israel occupied what remained of Palestine, the West Bank and Gaza strip, she recalled seeing the event as “David against Goliath” as Israel had after all defeated three Arab nations (Syria, Jordan and Egypt). This strong Christian Zionism that she had remained with her until it was struck down by experience and then broken by shock.
The moral turning point that caused this began when she volunteered, as a Christian of good works, to work with the Red Cross as a doctor. She ended up in Gaza hospital, which is not in the Gaza strip, but in Lebanon. To be more precise it directly over looked Sabra and Shatila refugee camps which the Palestinians inhabit (By the capital city Beirut). Her perception of the Israeli-Palestinian situation was totally changed when she became involved with Palestinian culture and more importantly with refugees as individuals. As she said in her own words
“I fell in love with the Palestinian culture and the Palestinian people”
However, as she worked in the 1980s in the area, she was to witness an event that would shock her and bring home the reality and urgency of the situation and lead her to support a peaceful pro-Palestinian cause as opposed to the previous pure pro-Israeli views.
On the 15th of September 1982, a massacre of the Palestinians of Sabra and Shatila by the so called “Christian” Phalangists proceeded for three days and cost over three thousand lives. Numbers are still disputed as this event does not have an “official” historical record.
What was more shocking to Dr Chai was that the Israeli army, which helped pave the way for the Phalangists, stood by and watched the whole thing unfold. All it took for this to stop on the 19th of September was the simple order of “Stop, everyone go back to your homes” by an Israeli commanding officer and surely enough, the Phalangist death squads listened.
When Dr Chai herself saw the aftermath of the massacre she said that she had felt angry at first, but then broken. That is what I see as a major moral turning point in her life. What inspired her to work even harder was as she said the “perseverance” of the Palestinians. One example being a picture she took of some children of Sabra and Shatila who survived that massacre, smiling and making the victory sign, which many in the West mistake for a peace sign.
By 1987 she was working at a hospital in Khan Younis in the North of the Gaza Strip itself. The significance of this date is that it marked the first intifada, a popular uprising of the Palestinians against the Israeli military occupation which has been going on since 1967.
The first thing she mentioned about the Intifada was the event of Tiananmen Square and how the Palestinians have been similarly facing up to tanks on foot before and after this famous iconic event.
As the injured and the dead began to roll into the hospitals, her personal experience destroyed the myth that Gaza is simply a block of Islamic extremists as she worked with doctors of Christian and even secular orientations.
In 1989 the Intifada was carrying on, and even though it consisted of mostly boys throwing rocks Israel was taking action in trying to keep it down. The whole of Gaza had spent the Islamic holy month of Ramadan under curfew. The conditions in the talk were not made clear but from my understanding a typical curfew was that no one was allowed out after dark and that there were continuous military patrols throughout the designated area. As Ramadan ended the curfew was lifted and the people of Gaza spilled out on to the streets to celebrate the ensuing “Eid-al Fitr”. Rockets which were reported to be fired from helicopters exploded into the crowds leaving 68 dead and 343 injured. Dr Chai was one of many doctors who worked in treating the casualties and the repetitive exposure to the direct result of war had emphasised the degree of brutalisation in this conflict.
Part 2 – Operation Cast Lead and the weapons of war.
Following a second Intifada in the year 2000 and the election of Hamas in Gaza in 2006 was the blockade of Gaza in 2007. One of the most densely populated areas on earth, the size of the isle of Wight was locked up with all eight crossings closed and the sea was made a “no access” zone for up to three nautical miles. As supplies dwindled, 80% of Gaza’s population was reduced to relying on U.N rations.
Hamas, as a former resistance movement and now a political body, mounted it’s own attacks using “homemade rockets” from materials smuggled in underground tunnels going to Egypt. The rocket attacks stopped and started over various failed cease fires.
On the 27th of December 2009, Israel launched operation “Cast Lead” as a response to Hamas and an attempt to weaken them. Dr Chai was also present in this particular war where more than 1300 died including 400 children. The Israelis themselves suffered 13 deaths. The operation itself included bombing and ground incursions with troops and tanks.
During the talk, Dr Chai mentioned various weapons that the IDF (Israeli Defence Forces/ Israeli army) had used. Some of which I will describe and explain.
• D.I.M.E (Dense Inert Metal Explosives).
These are still believed to be in their experimental stages. Unlike traditional explosives, they do not rely on their explosion of the metal cases for shrapnel damage, instead the metal casing disintegrates and unleashes “micro shrapnel”; pieces of metal approximately 2mm big in a 4 meter radius killing anyone within that range almost instantly. Anyone close to that lethal zone is likely to have their flesh and bone torn apart by these metallic pieces; they also embed themselves in wounds causing infection. This is considered untreatable as the pieces are too small to be taken out individually meaning that doctors have to resort to amputations. Some forms of the bomb have been reported to have metal powders instead of pellets for shrapnel.
The shrapnel itself is made from a tungsten alloy, HMTA, mainly consisting of the metal tungsten with small amounts of nickel and cobalt. Studies by the U.S department of health shows that these elements may have carcinogenic (cancer causing) effects, although these findings should be treated with caution.
• White Phosphorous – Incendiary (fire based) tactical weapon.
Stored within metal casing and exploded in the form of clustered solid lumps spreading over a wide area and igniting upon contact with almost anything.
Under international law, it is illegal to use directly against humans but legal to use as a smoke screen for strategic reasons. Dr Chai has shown images of phosphorous bombs exploding over Gaza City and Khan Younis and also the aftermath such as burnt out buildings which seemed to have been directly targeted.
Burns on the flesh have left open wounds where excess white phosphorous is absorbed in to the tissues and the blood stream of victims sometimes causing multiple organ failures.
Gases given off from the bombs such as phosphorous pent-oxide can cause phosphoric acid rain causing damage to plants and aquatic life. This is particularly destructive to the outskirts of Gaza, which as a community is heavily dependent on agriculture especially during a blockade which is on going.
• Fuel Air Bomb – Less formally known as a “Vacuum” bomb.
A bomb that was used by Israeli forces in the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. The “fuel” inside quickly consumes the Oxygen of the environment and reacts violently causing an explosion, this means it can burn for a long time in places of limited air flow as the fuel “searches” for Oxygen so that it can react. This means survivors of a blast in a closed space such as a tunnel or bunker may die from asphyxiation (No oxygen to breathe means death). If that is not enough the rapid cooling after the reaction creates a sudden drop in pressure and so a vacuum suction effect is created (hence the name “Vacuum Bomb”). In other words, if dropped in a building, the building could implode in on itself burying the inhabitants alive.
The precision of these weapons are not the greatest in terms of their area of effect with the exception of the experimental D.I.M.E. However, the reader should consider their potency within densely populated cities as well as the part they played in reducing the northern Gaza strip to a tent city.
I must be fair in saying that Hamas has also acted rashly with the use of imprecise rockets. Although most don’t seem to even have explosive warheads they have still caused damage. One case was when a rocket crashed through the roof of an Israeli primary school which was fortunately empty at the time.
This ultimately gives an idea and shows the hatred and loathing Israel has created and aimed at itself over the years. More importantly, as human beings, the victims of ignorance have been our children