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Lebanon / Israel

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Israel mission: update 4

Monday morning, 7th August


We had scheduled meetings all morning with Haifa municipal and police officials and NGOs from the Haifa area. We were not sure if after the incidents of the evening before whether they would be able to meet with us or not. Although some of the meetings started late, we were able to keep all our meetings. We also learned that two of the dead, Arab Christians in their 60s, were killed by the ball bearings packed into the rockets. The third person who died was an Israeli Jew killed in the port area while running for shelter.

Haifa is the third largest city in Israel, and with 270,000 residents it is the largest in the north. The municipal officials we met with told us that counting the rockets that hit the evening before, there had been 29 direct hits in Haifa to date and 45 total in the city. Thirteen people in the city had killed and 251 injured. The municipality estimated that before last night's incident that 30% of Haifa's inhabitants had fled the city, of which an approximately 15,000 are children.

During the early days of the conflict, Haifa had been hit by a number of rockets, including one that hit the railway station and killed eight employees. According to the Haifa police department the rocket that hit the Haifa train station on 16th July was the first one that they are aware of that contained the ball bearings. They estimate that the 220mm rocket was carrying around 40 kg of the ball bearings, or around 40,000 of them. Everyone nearby was either killed or badly wounded. Even though the ball bearings are everywhere, when we ask if they could give us some, they had to call to check. In the end they got permission to give us five of their closely held bearings.

Ironically, since Haifa had not been hit for a week and a half, people had just started to return to the city and businesses had started to reopen after being closed for about two weeks. The more we talked to people the more we learned about the ways the rockets had affected civilian life in ways we hadn't anticipated. For example, about 10% of the population is over 75 and many of those had home care workers, at least part time, to assist them. But most of the home health care workers had fled the city, leaving the municipality with the task of trying to provide aid to hundreds of elderly who remained.

Another problem the municipality faced, was that around 18% of the population lived under the poverty line. Most of the people who had fled the north, had done so with their own resources. Some had gone to live with relatives, some with more resources had gone to hotels, and some with even more resources had gone abroad. But in Haifa and elsewhere, many low-income residents had little option but to remain. Still, after the rocket strikes of the evening before, municipal officials believed that even more people would leave town and head south.

Haifa police

"The problem we have is when the sirens go off and nothing happens, people become complacent and don't seek shelter," the chief of the Haifa police department told us. "People's minds work on probability. When you hear many sirens and nothing happens to you, you think you are always going to be OK."

"The time is so short that we are trying to educate the public not to run to public shelters, but to go to the nearest safe place, or even just to lie on the ground," he said.

While we continue to try to track down detailed statistics on the exact causes of the deaths and injuries, it is clear again from our meeting with the Haifa police that the rockets packed with ball bearings are extremely deadly. We are told that in addition to the 220mm rockets, many of smaller 122mm rockets have also been modified to carry around 4 kg or 4,000 ball bearings. One person, the police told us, was killed while driving down a hill at the entrance to the town when his car was sprayed after a rocket impacted nearby.

With so many of the city's residents gone, the police have had to mobilize a large force to prevent looting. Police have also been involved in the relief effort for those residents who remained. Even as we moved around the city with the police, it was clear that more residents had left the city than were there the day before.

"I am starting to miss traffic jams," he concluded "It is hard to see a city like Haifa with no life in it."

The police chief then took us the 'bomb squad' unit in Haifa which analyses the debris of the rockets collected. We were shown fragments of the both the 122mm and 240mm Katushyas, which were laid out on the floor.. They gave each of us a bag of the ball bearings to bring back.

Meeting with Women's NGOs

In the afternoon we met with representatives of two women's organizations in the city. They told us that like in armed conflicts everywhere, women were suffering disproportionately from dealing with the effects of the conflict. One of the groups, that helps women find work, told us that since many women low-income women work cleaning and other jobs where they are paid by the day, they are running out of money, or have already run out. Day care centres, nursery schools and other facilities have been closed down, so with no where to put their children it would be hard for them to get to work in any case. About half of women living under the poverty line are single mothers.

"One of the problems these women face is that many of them are so low income they can't even afford a phone that makes out going calls, only incoming," we were told. "So we started calling all the women on our lists to see how they were doing. Many of them didn't know what services were available or where they needed to go to get help. Some went to the govt. offices to get aid and found that they were closed or were told they couldn't help them."

"We have also found that in some cases the stress of the rockets and being forced to remain indoors in the home or in and out of shelters has even had an impact on women who were victims of domestic violence," they told us. "We would call women who had succeeded with much difficulty to leave their batterers. When we would call their homes to see if they were alright and if they need anything, their batters would answer the phone."

Leaving Haifa

That evening the mission joined with members of the Israeli section, who were participating in a vigil calling for an immediate ceasefire. Amnesty activists in cities all over the world held similar vigils that same evening. The Israeli section’s vigil was held in front of one of the houses in that had been hit by a rocket. Twice while we were setting up for the vigil, the air raid sirens went off and we had to run to the shelter in the nearby building.

After dark, we headed to Tel Aviv. The city was way more deserted than it had been since we arrived. We saw almost no one on the streets or driving around. Although it was about an hour or so by car, Tel Aviv felt like a different city when we drove in. All the stores and restaurants were open. People were sitting outside in cafes. Traffic was heavy. We even drove by an amusement park that had a small fireworks display. Definitely not something you would do in the north without scaring people to death.

It didn't take long though to see the effects of the war even here. The lobby of our hotel was full of people who were obviously evacuees from the north. They were clearly not on holiday. We had heard reports from people we spoke to and also in the media that many Israelis who had been staying in hotels had run out of money and had been asked to leave. In Eilat, people who were asked to leave refused and the police needed to be brought in. The media reported while that the government had brought in buses to bring people back up north, although later they began an organized evacuation of cities at the most risk like Kiryat Shmona.

Other people we spoke to told us that people who had taken in friends or relatives from the north, were also feeling the strain. Public health officials we talked to said many host families were now "crashing" under the burden of housing, feeding, and taking care of their guests with no clear end in site. Some people we spoke to had moved five or six times as a result.

Tuesday 8th August

Tuesday morning we had more meetings with government officials in the foreign ministry in Jerusalem. Mostly we talked about the IDF actions in southern Lebanon.

In the early afternoon one of our delegates was interviewed on Israeli television. The interviewer was surprised that Amnesty International was on mission to investigate human rights violations against Israelis when usually we were reporting violations committed by them. That, we replied, was exactly the point. Amnesty International judges all parties, whether governments or armed groups, by the common yardstick of international humanitarian law. Deliberately targeting civilians or firing rockets in an indiscriminate manner is a war crime, regardless of who is doing it.

Later that afternoon we went to what is probably the world's fanciest camp for internally displaced people. In the early days of the conflict, a wealthy business man who saw that the government was not taking action fast enough to set up housing for those who had been displaced decided to act on his own. On the beach near Ashkelon, he built a tent city for 6,200 people, with a paid staff of 800 employees. Evacuees lucky enough to get in before the camp reached its capacity, get a place to sleep, all meals provided, and a very nice view of the ocean.

One camp resident we spoke to told us that if they were on vacation, they would even be glad to pay to stay there, but they still wanted to go home. There is little privacy, they worry about family and friends still in the north, and they don't know when they will be able to leave. They were, however, prepared. We saw their suitcases with neatly folded children's clothes. They said that they had the hope of returning to their homes soon so they have to be ready. The family also worries about the future. They owned a small furniture workshop, but most of their orders have been cancelled. Their clients have had to spend all their money on hotels and other living expenses. They had gone first to a hotel, and then to a relatives house. When they heard about the camp they came here, where they had been for three weeks and two days.

Even in this seeming paradise the conflict is not far away. Two of the camp's residents had to be told by the camp's administration that they had lost close family members to the rockets. One woman, with 12 children lost her husband who had stayed behind in the north. The other was the mother of one of the people killed in Acre the day before we arrived.

Wednesday 9th August

In the morning the delegation splits up to try to get the maximum amount of information on our last day. Half the group went to meet with the "Homefront Command". We get more detailed statistics than we have had before. Authorities from the Home Guard tell us that to date 39 Israeli civilians had been killed, and 1,300 wounded. Twenty-nine of the injuries were severe, 57 moderate and the rest less serious. We are also told that over 50% of the population in the north, had fled. It is a figure that is hard to verify because it constantly changes, although it matches what we are hearing from other sources.

We are also told that the north has been divided into three zones for purposes of the instructions that are given to civilians on how best to protect themselves. In the cities, towns and villages furthest in north, including Nahariya and Kiryat Shmona, were told to stay in shelters all day. In that zone residents do not have enough time to reach a shelter once the rockets are spotted. In the second zone, which includes Haifa and Tiberias, residents had been told to remain in the protected spaces or in interior rooms with as few openings, windows and exterior walls as possible. The alert time in Haifa is very short. From the time the rockets are spotted and an alarm can be sounded., people have between 25-30 seconds before impact. In the third zone, residents were told to stay in their homes so they would be close to their safe rooms and the shelters in their buildings.

The other half of the group met with a former IDF official who provided more information about the rockets that had been fired into Israel. He said that according to his information, 3,343 rockets had been fired into Israel to date, with a combined payload of 72,379 kilograms. He added that 352 of these were packed with the ball bearings.

On the way to the airport we stopped at a display the IDF was putting on of the weapons they claimed they had confiscated from Hizbullah in arms caches and houses. It seemed mostly to be for the Israeli press as few of the signs were in English. Most of the weapons on display were AK47s.

We left later that evening to return to London. When we arrive the first thing we do is check the news on the internet. A five-year old boy and his 26 year old mother were killed by a rocket in the Arab village of Deir al-Assad. The boy's three year old brother and 10 other people were injured.
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