When prisoners vanish

My column in Mada Masr on the forced disappearance of four young men inside Egypt’s prison system:

Omar Abdel Maqsoud and his brothers have been locked up for five months. They were arrested in April and imprisoned in the Meit Ghamr police station before a court ordered their release more than ten days ago. Bail was paid and the required paperwork was completed. Yet instead of being set free, they disappeared.

The police claimed they had let them go but instead kept them shackled and hidden inside Egypt’s detention labyrinth without even the pretense of legal justification. They finally turned up over a week later in a police station in another town, facing new charges for acts they supposedly committed during their fictitious few days of freedom.

Even by the ruthless standards of Egypt’s penal system, the Abdel Maqsoud case stands out.

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Thousands of Displaced Gazans Flee to UN Shelters, Only to Face Deadly Assaults

Latest for The Nation:
Jabaliya, Gaza - The bombardment of Gaza is almost always worse at night. The missiles and shells rain down in greater number after dark. The sky is lit up by flares that illuminate the onslaught. With hardly any electricity, the Strip is turned into a vast silhouette. There is little sleep.

For more than three weeks, Israel’s unrelenting air and artillery assault on the Strip has targeted homes, schools, hospitals, ambulances, beaches, marketplaces, media outlets, mosques and cemeteries.

At dawn on Wednesday, the Israeli military shelled a United Nations school in the Jabaliya refugee camp in northern Gaza. Up to twenty people were killed, including four children, and more than 100 wounded. The school was sheltering more than 3,300 displaced Palestinians, many of them women and children. They had gone there to seek refuge from the falling bombs.

“Children were killed as they slept next to their parents on the floor of a classroom in a UN designated shelter in Gaza,” said Pierre Krähenbühl, the Commissioner-General of UNRWA, the Palestinian refugee agency, in a statement. “Children killed in their sleep; this is an affront to all of us, a source of universal shame. Today the world stands disgraced.”

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Missile Strike at Al-Shati Refugee Camp Kills 10, Including 8 Children

Latest for The Nation:
Gaza City, Gaza Strip—Shifa Hospital is again a scene of chaos. Wails of grief and shouts of anger fill the halls. People crouch on the floor staring out with bloodshot eyes; others rush by with bloodied clothes. Stretchers are wheeled back and forth, nearly all of them with bandaged children lying on top, eyes wide with fright or shock. Men and women weep, their hands on their mouths as they try to hold back the grief pouring out.

Nearly all the eyewitnesses say the same thing: children were playing on the street in the Al-Shati (Beach) refugee camp north of Gaza City. They scurried between a swing set on the sidewalk and a small grocery shop selling sweets and chips. At around 4:30 pm there was a loud explosion. Then many of the children lay still, some of them in pieces.

“I saw a massacre,” says Khaled al-Sirhi. The 22-year-old was sitting in the street with friends when the attack happened. “There were heads off bodies, shoulders half torn, hands gone, chests opened.” There is blood on al-Sirhi’s shirt and hands. Al-Sirhi carried two of the wounded to ambulances, his niece and a boy who died by the time he arrived at hospital. “There were no militants, no resistance members, just children,” he says.

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The Eye of the Storm

Latest for Foreign Policy:
Beit Hanoun, Gaza - The destruction is total. No building has been left untouched by Israel’s bombardment in the Masryeen neighborhood in this northeast Gaza town. Mounds of rubble line the streets where buildings once stood. Dead horses and donkeys lie in the road, stiff with rigor mortis. Even colors have been erased. The entire area is covered in gray cement dust, a monochromatic wasteland. The smell of death lingers in the air as the bodies yet to be retrieved from the debris decompose in the summer heat. The sounds of shelling and airstrikes have stopped but the buzzing of the drones remains.

A 12-hour humanitarian truce agreed to by Israel and Hamas took hold on Saturday morning, allowing residents displaced from the areas hardest hit by Israel’s assault to return to their neighborhoods for the first time in days. Gaza health officials said more than 100 bodies were recovered during the lull, bringing the Palestinian death toll above 1,000, the vast majority of them civilians, including more than 200 children. Forty-three Israeli soldiers and three civilians in Israel have also been killed. On Sunday, as the conflict entered its 2oth day, Israel announced that it would extend the quiet for 24 hours, but a more lasting cease-fire remains elusive. (And by Sunday’s end in Gaza, the fighting had resumed.)

“We don’t just want a humanitarian truce; we want a total cease-fire that will end the siege. Truce after truce is not what we’re looking for,” Ihab al-Hussein, Hamas’s deputy information minister, told me in an interview on Saturday in Gaza City. “This is not a real truce because that would mean Israel pulling out its tanks from Gaza,” he said. “We didn’t start this war; we don’t want it. If you ask Palestinian people they say they want a cease-fire but with an agreement to end the siege.”

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‘The Tank Shells Fell Like Rain’

Latest for The Nation:
Khan Younis and Beit Lahia, Gaza - Hussein Shinbari is the only member of his family that survived the attack on a United Nations school in Beit Hanoun on Thursday. He is covered in blood. His undershirt, his pants and his hands are all stained a deep red.

After Israel launched its ground invasion into Gaza last week, the Shinbari family left their home in the northeastern town close to the Israeli border and sought shelter at the nearby school. “They told us it was safe,” Hussein says, sitting on the ground by the morgue of the Kamal Adwan Hospital in Beit Lahia.

More than 1,500 displaced Palestinians were staying at the school. The conflict has caused unprecedented massive displacement in Gaza, forcing over 140,000 people to seek shelter in more than eighty UN shelters.

On Thursday afternoon, the people in the Beit Hanoun school were told they were being transferred to another area, away from the shelling and clashes on the streets outside. According to multiple survivors, they were instructed to gather their scant belongings and assemble in the schoolyard to await buses that would take them to another shelter.

At around 2:30 pm a barrage of artillery shells crashed into the school, according to witnesses. At least sixteen people were killed and more than 200 wounded, many of them women and children. Hussein lost his mother; his stepmother; his 16-year-old brother, Abel Rabo; his 12-year-old sister, Maria; and his 9-year-old brother, Ali.

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Newborn Infants Die Without Necessary Medical Care in Gaza’s Overwhelmed Shifa Hospital

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Rami Nabaheen approached us because he was looking for help. He was at a loss.

Four days earlier his wife, Najwa, had given birth to conjoined twins. They are attached at the chest and abdomen and share a heart and a liver. The one heart cannot beat for two and they must undergo separation surgery so that one of them may survive. The procedure is complex and beyond the capabilities of Gaza’s Shifa hospital, they need to be transferred to a medical facility abroad.

We are standing in the open courtyard of Shifa when he and his 60-year-old mother, Amna, walk up to us to tell us their story.

The twins were born on July 20, the bloodiest day of Israel’s assault on Gaza that has left nearly 700 Palestinians dead, the vast majority of them civilians, including over 160 children.

Rami, a 36-year-old resident of al-Nusairat refugee camp in central Gaza, has spent the past three days trying to finish the required paperwork to get his newborn twins across the border into Israel. Every day counts. With only one heart between them, they are struggling for oxygen.

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'They Killed 25 to Get One'

Latest for Foreign Policy:
Khan Younis, Gaza - The Abu Jamaa family was digging into its food when the Israeli missile hit the family’s home in Khan Younis, Gaza’s second-largest city. It was iftar, the sunset meal that marks the breaking of the fast during Ramadan, a time of day relatives gather together to eat and relax.

The F-16 airstrike came just as the call to prayer began, signaling that it was time to eat. There was no warning. Twenty-five members of the family were killed, including 17 children, three pregnant women, and a grandmother, according to relatives. The four-story building was reduced to rubble. It took the family 12 hours, with two diggers and a bulldozer, to dig out the bodies. A deep crater of sand and broken concrete is all that’s left of the house.

“It wasn’t an F-16; it was a nuclear bomb,” says Hussein Abu Jamaa, who lost his mother, brother, three sisters-in-law, and too many nieces and nephews for him to recount.

Hussein was heading to the mosque to pray and had just stepped out the door when the missile hit. He has a broken leg, a broken finger, and shrapnel in his chest and back. “They were all sitting together around the table when I left them,” he says. He weeps between every sentence.

Ten of the bodies are taken to the European Hospital in Khan Younis, the rest to nearby Nasser Hospital. Medical staff at the European Hospital unwrap the white shrouds one at a time to do autopsies and finalize death certificates. The examinations are brief: a quick lifting and turning of each corpse. The cause of death is not in question.

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Massacre in Shejaiya

Latest in The Nation:

Gaza City - Two small bodies lie on the metal table inside the morgue at Gaza’s Shifa hospital. Omama is 9 years old. Her right forearm is mangled and charred and the top half of her skull has been smashed in. Beside her lies her 7-year-old brother. His name is not certain. It might be Hamza or it might be Khalil. Relatives are having trouble identifying him because his head has been shorn off. Their parents will not mourn them—because they are dead too.

All of them were killed in Shejaiya, one of Gaza’s poorest and most crowded neighborhoods, which came under a brutal and sustained assault by the Israeli military today.

“They dropped shells on our heads,” says Lotfy al-Banna, a resident from the neighborhood who fled early Sunday morning. “Everything is burnt down.”

It marked the bloodiest day in a blood-soaked conflict. Nearly ninety people were killed, sixty of them in Shejaiya alone, bringing the death toll in Gaza since the assault began to 425, 112 of them children, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry. More than 3,000 people have been injured.

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Eight Members of One Family Killed in Their Home as Israel’s Attack on Gaza Continues

Latest for The Nation:
Ezbet Beit Hanoun, Gaza - The Abu Jarads died together. Eight of them. They were nestled into the second-floor bedroom of their family home in northeastern Gaza when the Israeli artillery shell came crashing through the wall.

It was Friday evening. After Iftar—the sunset meal that marks the breaking of the fast in Ramadan—some family members headed to the local mosque, some were in the kitchen, some milled downstairs.

The eight that were about to die had gathered in the bedroom to watch the popular television series Bab al-Hara (The Neighborhood’s Gate) that airs at 9 pm. They sat close to one another. Abdel Rahman and his wife, Raja, along with their two children, 6-month-old Moussa and two year-old Haneya. Abdel Rahman’s brother, Naim, and his 1-year-old son, Sameeh. And Abdel Rahman’s two other siblings, Ahlam, 15, and Summer, 13. Five of the eight are children.

The bombardment came without warning. Three artillery shells in quick succession. The first struck the living room on the first floor. The second hit the bedroom. The third an adjoining family building.

Moussa, the family elder, was napping in an adjacent room when the attack happened. He awoke to find his family massacred. He helped carry out his two sons, two daughters, daughter-in-law and three grandchildren downstairs. None of them made it to hospital alive.

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Nowhere to Run

Piece for Foreign Policy:
Gaza City - Gamal Magdi Mushtaha had been up all night, unable to sleep, when his cellphone rang at 7:30 a.m. on Friday. The man on the other end of the line identified himself as an Israeli military officer. “Gamal,” he said, addressing the father of three by his first name, “you have to leave your house.”

To anyone other than a resident of Gaza, the call would be baffling. But Mushtaha, a 39-year-old contractor from Shejaiya, a town east of Gaza City, knew what this was about. The Israeli military was going to bomb his home.

He argued with the officer, explaining to him that five families live in the three-story house, including 15 children. “I told him I’m not wanted, that I’m a civilian,” Mushtaha says. “He just said my house was a target and I had five minutes to get out.”

Mushtaha woke up his family and rushed them out the door and down the street. A few minutes later he watched as his home was reduced to rubble in a double airstrike — one missile falling after the other. “I don’t know where to go or what to do. I have no home now,” he says.

Israel has lauded its warnings to Palestinians ahead of bombing their homes as a humanitarian act, a magnanimous gesture towards its enemy and a tactic designed to minimize civilian casualties. But in Gaza, it is a cruel reminder of how powerless residents are in the face of Israel’s military machine and of their inability to prevent the wanton destruction of their lives.

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