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Thursday, 22 February, 2001, 15:01 GMT
Gaza: Living in a war zone
Houses on the outskirts of Khan Younis are riddles with bullet holes
Houses around Khan Younis are riddled with bullet holes
By Hilary Andersson in Gaza

The sabbath sirens are going off, and it's the end of another long fortnight in Israel.

A fortnight of funerals, ruined lives, bullets, guns, the black smoke of burning tyres, families crying in hopitals, more deaths, bleeding wounds, tension in the air, on the streets, in homes, businesses and buses.

It is just a fortnight since the right-winger Ariel Sharon was elected Israel's prime minister. He hasn't even started his new job yet and it's all going wrong, not least in Gaza.

I arrived at the crack of dawn - the smell of sewage wafting over the high barbed wire fence that closes Gaza off from the outside world.

Shelling and shooting

The entrance from Israel is usually bustling with thousands of Palestinian workers at this time of day. Now it was silent. A few old cigarette stubs and empty coke cans the only evidence they had been there.

Good. The Israeli soldiers at the entrance weren't wearing flakjackets.


A soldier in a tank fired a bullet in the air - that meant stop

It's a sign that maybe today the trouble would be light. The stamp of a passport, the lugging of my bullet-proof gear down a 300-metre road - and I was on the Palestinian side.

A few Palestinain taxi drivers standing around launched straight into a tirade. Visitors nowadays are infrequent and I suppose they needed to talk. "The Israelis are shelling us, shooting at us," one shouted.

It's a terrible situation all around I said.

He looked at me, creased up his face and moved it close to me. "No," he said. "No, It's a good situation. I've got nine children, and if all of them die as martyrs in the fight against Israel, I'll be happy. I'll just have more children. We have to fight."

Dirty alleyways

There was a pit in my stomach from the start of that day. We wanted to go to Khan Younis refugee camp, where more than 100 Palestinians had been injured in two nights of fighting. And nothing you do in Gaza is very safe.

A Palestinian grips the flag at another Gaza funeral
A Palestinian grips the flag at another Gaza funeral
Khan Younis today is like the Wild West - it's a nasty, dirty series of concrete alleyways, where the sickening pitter patter of Kalashnikov fire and the occassional snaps of M16s break the air around you all day, and all night.

And getting there means running the gauntlet of Israeli soldiers, as those who live in Gaza do every day.

Israeli soldiers are in parts of Gaza to protect the Jewish settlements. A few months ago their checkpoints were what you'd expect - a barrier, some soldiers, an ID check and a wave on. But not any more.

Our driver stopped without apparent reason near where a checkpoint used to be.

He was used to Gaza's new traffic regulations. There was an Israeli tank nearby on the side of the road - that's Gaza's equivalent of an amber at the traffic lights.

Barriers

A soldier in a tank fired a bullet in the air - that meant stop.

The Israeli only lifted the top of his helmet out of the tank - not even his hand. Another gunshot went off. That meant go.

We drove on. Past the notorious junction where the little boy Mohammed Duri was shot in his father's arms in September. And down a stretch of road where huge concrete barriers divide the two lanes. The Israelis cars use one side, the Palestinian cars the other.

In Khan Younis we went to the house of Fayes Abu Shamaleh - a middle-aged resident who lived there with his two wives.

Confrontation in Gaza
Palestinian youths taunt the Israeli army
When we sat down for coffee in his kitchen, I noticed about seven bullet holes - big ones - in the glass right behind my head.

I slunk down in my chair a little trying not to be rude by implying their house was a war zone, which is what it was.

An Israeli military post was about 200 metres away. Because Palestinian gunmen use buildings in the area to shoot from, many houses like Fayes's are subject to Israeli fire.

There were bullet holes in his bathroom, on his bedroom mirror, on his doors, and when we walked upstairs to see his living room he started crouched down before entering - a rocket had smashed through the window the night before.

Through the hole I could the Israeli position - and they could probably see us.

Flimsy sandbags

Fayes had sandbags inside his house. He had piled them up behind his bedroom wall. When the shooting starts, as it does most nights, he told me he and his wife would just lie on the matress behind the sandbags and wait for it to end.

To me, the sandbags looked a little flimsy.

When we left his house it was still early in the morning. The radio was reporting a horrific attack near Tel Aviv for which Hamas was claiming responsibility.

Eight Israelis, seven of them young soldiers, had been waiting for a bus, when another bus came and deliberately mowed them down, leaving them slaughtered on the road before eight o'clock in the morning.

It was the worst Palestinian attack on Israelis in years. And a deeply shocking one.

We tore through Gaza, back through the checkpoints to find the family of the bus driver - and to ask why he had done it.

The house was poor, the street full of graffiti. The killer had been out of work for months, unable to get out of Gaza, and one of his relatives had been killed by the Israelis.

The family told us us the 35-year-old father of five had never been involved in politics. In the house was a mixture of tears - and excitement.

His little son said he was proud of him. His wife told me it must have been an accident, because if he'd done it on purpose, she said, he would have killed more.

The bus driver's children hold a picture of their father
The bus driver's children hold a picture of their father

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22 Feb 01 | Middle East
22 Feb 01 | Middle East
09 Jan 01 | Middle East
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