Indelible image of Palestinian fireman killed by shrapnel

Justin Huggler,Gaza Strip
Friday 07 March 2003 01:00
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The image was indelible. The Palestinian fireman who a moment before had stood fearlessly in the open as the gunfire echoed, aiming a hose at a building in flames, crumpling to the ground as shrapnel burst all around him. That was the unforgettable scene of yesterday's Israeli incursion into the Gaza Strip, the death of Naji Abu Jalili as he tried to douse a burning building.

Eleven Palestinians died in the incursion yesterday morning, eight when the shrapnel flew across Jerusalem Street in Jabalya and in the moments after, as repeated bursts of machine-gun fire were fired at the crowds. Among them was at least one child, Thaer Rihan, 14. More than 100 people were wounded, doctors said.

Most witnesses told the same story: that the first burst of shrapnel that cut down the fireman, Mr Abu Jalili, came from an Israeli tank. They said it fired a shell packed with flechettes, arrow-shaped pieces of metal designed to inflict mass casualties, straight at the fireman, and that the flechettes and shrapnel ripped through a crowd watching from an alley opposite. And that the tank fired its machine-gun on crowds of people trying to rescue the wounded.

That was what Kemal al-Madhun, the fireman who was standing behind Mr Abu Jalili as he fell, described. "They targeted us," he said, his voice straining under the pain from his back, which was hit by shrapnel in several places. "We were about to put the fire out when they shot at us."

The Israeli army said the tank had fired at a Palestinian militant aiming a rocket-propelled grenade at it, and that the resulting explosion had killed Mr Abu Jalili and others.

There were also Israeli claims that the Palestinian casualties were caused by a booby trap in the furniture store intended to kill Israeli soldiers. The Israelis said every care had been taken to avoid civilian casualties.

However, from the television footage it was clear that the shrapnel which killed the fireman did not come from the furniture store, but from an entirely different direction. Nor was there evidence of a large blast at the furniture store: the large iron doors were still intact and hanging from the hinges.

What the television footage appeared to show was that the tank had fired in the direction of the fireman and the civilians near him. Slowed down, you could see how the shrapnel flew in one direction, over, around, through the fireman, bursting as it hit the road.

Then the machine-gun fire began. All the fire came from the same end of the street as the first burst of shrapnel, and Palestinians fled from it – which meant it was almost certainly Israeli fire. The gun opened up again and again. When it had been silent for a while and the civilians crept towards the fire, it opened up again, sending them running in panic.

The Israeli government said the incursion was part of a continuing operation against militants in the Gaza Strip – an operation in which many unarmed people have been killed.

Mark Sofer, an Israeli Foreign Ministry official, said Israel "believed" all the dead were militants. That was clearly not the case: the fireman's death was on film and the recording also showed a crowd of civilians under fire, many of them badly injured. Hamad Jadallah, a wounded Reuters cameraman, was seen being carried from the scene he had been trying to film, screaming in agony, his trouser legs wet with blood.

"The raid in Jabalya was carried out well after midnight when the only people roaming the streets are Palestinian killers," Mr Sofer claimed. But the fireman and seven others were killed at about 6.30am, when many Palestinian children were on the streets.

But Palestinian claims that there were no militants at the scene were untrue. Several were clearly visible in the film, their faces masked, weapons in hand. But none of those on the film were firing their weapons, or even aiming them.

Three Palestinians were killed in the middle of the night, when Israeli tanks swept into the Jabalya refugee camp at the beginning of the incursion. The army insisted the operation was part of a continuing crackdown against militants.

By dawn, most of the tanks had withdrawn. But helicopters remained overhead. A fire broke out at a furniture store on the street. The exact circumstances under which it started are not clear. The owner of the building, Faiz Saleh, said he heard an explosion. Mr Madhun, the fireman who survived, said he saw a helicopter fire in the vicinity of the store.

A short while later, the firemen were called. Mr Madhun sketched out the scene on a piece of paper. When they arrived, there was an Israeli tank standing at one end of the street – in the exact spot the fire that killed Mr Abu Jalili came from. A crowd of Palestinian children had gathered and were throwing stones at it.

The firemen parked their fire engine in a side street where they thought it was safe, then took out the hose. Mr Abu Jalili went first, then Mr Madhun, then the driver. "Naji told me to let go of the hose and let him take it," said Mr Madhun. "I turned my back and then the tank fired. If he had not said that I would have gone forward, it would have been me who died."

All the above description matched the film. The fireman also said he saw two dead children near the fire engine. We were able to find the family of one dead 14-year-old. Doctors said there were two others. Late last night, witnesses said that Israeli tanks, accompanied by attack helicopters, had approached the refugee camp again for the second time in as many days. The Israeli military would say only that an operation was in progress.

¿ Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, has asked Mahmoud Abbas, a senior Palestine Liberation Organisation official, to be the Palestinian Authority's Prime Minister. Ahmed Korei, the Palestinian Legislative Council speaker, said that the nomination would be approved in deliberations starting on Sunday.

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