A Chronicle of War in Gaza The Mourning that Follows the Hate

With the withdrawal of Israeli troops from the Gaza Strip, the scope of the destruction and human tragedy has become clear. Both sides are trying to come to terms with a war that has ended without any real hope for lasting peace. SPIEGEL reporters in Gaza and Israel have reconstructed the tragic events of the war.

By SPIEGEL Staff


It's Wednesday, Jan. 21, the day the last Israeli soldier is withdrawing from the Gaza Strip, that hapless strip of land along the Mediterranean, only 360 square kilometers (139 square miles) in area and yet a constantly recurring focal point of global politics. By now, many Gaza residents have returned to the wreckage of their homes, their lives and their politics.

Ghazi Hamad, a pragmatic but now largely powerless Hamas official, is sitting in a garden in Rafah and talking about peace.

Mohammed Abu Ahmed, a smuggler, is back to shoveling the sand out of his four tunnels that connect the Gaza Strip with Egypt.

John Ging, the United Nations representative in Gaza, is inspecting his bombed-out schools, his infirmaries and community centers as he tries to get his organization up and running again.

The Samunis, from Saitun, are sitting amid the stench of death in the wreckage that was once their homes, mourning the 48 members of their family killed in the war.

Abu Hamza, an unsuccessful Hamas fighter, is putting away his uniform. He never even fought against the enemy.

Dr. Ezzeldeen Abu al-Aish, a Palestinian doctor who works in Israel, is driving into Gaza through the Erez border crossing -- the only person to cross into Gaza that day -- to pick up his four surviving children.

The war is over -- for now -- 22 days, 13 dead Israelis and about 1,300 dead Palestinians later. The Arab world is in an uproar, and the international community is criticizing Israel for its disproportionate use of violence. In the United States, newly inaugurated President Barack Obama is admonishing the parties to respect the cease-fire.

Politicians and military officials in Israel are satisfied with the war. The deterrent potential of the Israeli military has been reestablished, a senior government official says off the record -- probably the country's most important war objective after the failed Lebanon campaign two-and-a-half years ago. The damage to Israel's image abroad is relatively minor, says the official. The Europeans and Americans have been more or less sympathetic, and the Arab rulers will eventually calm down again.

Does this mean that it was a successful war?

A Chronology of War

On Dec. 27, at about 11:30 a.m., as Israeli F-16 fighter jets and Apache and Cobra helicopters take off for the first time, Hamas leader Ghazi Hamad is sitting in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, reading a book about Arabs in Israel. Children are playing in the garden, and the sun is shining on the surrounding olive groves and roads lined with sycamore trees.

Hamad is turning the page when he is startled by a buzzing sound in the air and, seconds later, a muffled explosion. A cloud of dust quickly rises into the sky above the city's main police headquarters a few hundred meters away.

The Israelis have bombed the police station, as they have done in places across the Gaza Strip, marking the beginning of Operation Cast Lead. The first phase, the aerial bombardment, has begun. It is an Israeli attack that Hamad had foreseen. Until recently, he had been sending memos to Gaza City and Damascus to warn the Hamas politburo -- and to prevent Qassam rockets from being fired at Israel once again, after a six-month cease-fire. But they had stopped listening to him quite some time ago.

Hamad was Hamas' government spokesman three years ago, immediately after the group won the election in the Gaza Strip. He represented the new, pragmatic Hamas. But his career quickly ended when he wrote a newspaper article critical of the military leadership for firing rockets at Israel once again.

When he sees the bombs falling on Rafah on this day, it seems emblematic of his failure. His only remaining option is to employ what remaining influence he has. Using his mobile phone, he dispatches ambulances, speaks with doctors and distributes his eight children among the homes of his relatives.

The Hamas Fighter

Now it's Palestinian Abu Hamza al-Muhadjir's turn to fight. The 26-year-old Hamas fighter's soft, bearded face is hidden behind a black mask. He's a member of the Qassam Brigades, which fire rockets at Israel. It's Dec. 27, and Abu Hamza is stationed at Gaza City's Saraya Prison.

Graphic: The Gaza Strip
DER SPIEGEL

Graphic: The Gaza Strip

He has only fired the Chinese Kalashnikov he wears over his shoulder in training exercises, and he doesn't know how he will handle it when fighting against the Israeli special forces. Abu Hamza has only been with Hamas for two years. Before that, he was with Fatah. His grudge against Israel isn't any greater than that of the average Palestinian, but he is grateful for the pay.

The Israeli bombs begin falling on Gaza City shortly before noon, but his unit flees immediately.

On this day, the Israel military drops 100 tons of bombs onto 50 targets, killing 225 Palestinians, including the Hamas chief of police.

The nighttime images of fireballs over Gaza are broadcast on television screens worldwide, angry Palestinians are heard criticizing Israel in the best broken English they can muster, and a man appears who will have the task in the coming days and weeks of explaining Israel to the world.

Mark Regev is the Israeli government's spokesman. He constantly repeats its position -- eloquently and completely devoid of emotion. On this day, he tells reporters, "No society would continue to see its civilian population targeted this way."

The Tunnel Digger

On the second day, the Israelis bomb the smuggling tunnels at Rafah, leaving deep craters along the border with Egypt.

The tunnels are one of Israel's main targets in this war, because they serve as a conduit into the Gaza Strip -- not only for olive oil, gasoline and cigarettes, but also for Kalashnikovs, explosives and rockets.

Mohammed Abu Ahmed, 28, manages four tunnels. The six months leading up to the war, he says, were the most profitable ever. Indeed, these tunnels have made him an affluent man.

He's on his way to one of his tunnels, carrying six warm chicken sandwiches for the men working the early shift, when he hears the first explosion.

He throws aside the plastic bag of sandwiches, runs into a small hut that conceals the shaft and presses the button on the intercom three times. "Come up immediately," he shouts. "I'll disassemble the machine and the compressor."

Abu Ahmed, younger than some of his workers, calmly directs the operation. He has been in the business since it began to take off 15 years ago. He has seen tunnels collapse, and he has re-excavated them.

In the next few hours, his men, in front of their respective huts, load dozens of electric motors, cable winches, hammer drills and air compressors onto trucks and take them to hiding places, so that they can be used again after the war.

Meanwhile, doctors at the Shifa Hospital in Gaza City express their astonishment over the large numbers of people coming to them with unusual burns of a scope they have never seen before: large, deep wounds emitting smoke and a chemical oder -- the skin, fat and flesh have been scorched to the bones. The doctors later conclude that the wounds must have been caused by phosphorus grenades.

On the Dec. 29, the third day of the war, Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev says: "Our enemy is not the people of Gaza. On the contrary, we are seeking peace and reconciliation with the Palestinians."

The Israelis continue their aerial bombardment, striking the office of Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniya and, for the first time, a mosque and the Islamic University of Gaza. Israel claims that weapons were hidden and rockets being assembled there.

A Fighter Who Hasn't Fired a Shot

Abu Hamza, the Hamas fighter, still hasn't managed to fire a single shot. There is a rumor circulating in his unit that Israel is familiar with Hamas' defense plans, which is why it has limited its attack to an aerial bombardment. The unit's commanders modify their strategy, keeping their men hidden and awaiting the enemy in the streets of Gaza.

In those streets, Abu Hamza finds himself standing alone, carrying his Chinese Kalashnikov, a radio, a Nikon and a brand-new video camera.

Abu Hamza reasons that it would already constitute a victory if Hamas managed to destroy a single tank or kill a single Israeli soldier, and if he could place a video of the incident on the Internet. "The enemy will see it," Hamza tells himself, "and they will be afraid."

In the following days, the world gradually recovers from its initial paralysis, as international calls for a cease-fire become louder. By now more than 400 Palestinians have been killed.

Israeli government spokesman Regev says that Israel hasn't yet achieved its war objectives. "The Hamas military machine is still there," he tells reporters. "It's still formidable. This is not a time for any kind of euphoria ... this could get worse before it gets better."

  • Part 1: The Mourning that Follows the Hate
  • Part 2
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