At about 10 A.M. on Tuesday, a missile hit the fifth floor of the Al-Harara office building in Gaza City, which is across from the Palestinian Legislative Council building. It’s a missile that went astray on its launchers, almost certainly members of Islamic Jihad.
Ironically, it scored a direct hit on the office of Palestinian Independent Commission for Human Rights, which scrutinizes the Palestinian authorities and reports on their violations of human rights, civil rights and the rule of law in the enclaves of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Israeli sources told Haaretz that the missile wasn’t Israeli. But one could have concluded that it was a local missile just from the silence that Palestinian media outlets imposed on themselves regarding the hit and the destruction it caused to the lowest of the three floors that the commission occupies in this elegant building.
In Gaza, one cannot keep it a secret when a local rocket or missile falls inside the territory and even causes casualties among Palestinian civilians. But what is shared by word of mouth isn’t reported by the Palestinian media, and certainly not in real time. Even without orders from above, self-censorship is at work.
Some websites, however, did publish the commission’s press statement, which asked the international community to investigate and condemned the escalation Israel sparked by its assassination of Baha Abu al-Ata (which also killed his wife, Asma, and wounded eight other people).
By great good fortune, two commission employees who were working on the fifth floor had gone up to the seventh floor for a smoke a few minutes earlier. Eight other employees who had come to work that morning were in their offices on the sixth floor.
They didn’t understand what had happened when the explosion went off beneath them, with its terrible noise. In the following seconds, they found themselves in a cloud of dust and fragments of the ceiling. At first, they were astonished to find themselves alive; then, each of them checked to see that his colleagues were okay. One had been lightly wounded and suffered from shock.
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Members of Hamas’ internal security service and the civil defense unit (the firefighters) arrived and collected the missile fragments. It’s hard to know if and when information about what happened after that will eventually leak. Will there be an investigation into why the errant missile fell where it did? Will anyone be reprimanded or punished?
When the missile hit the commission’s office, Gazans already knew that half of Israel was shut down due to Islamic Jihad’s rockets. They could listen to Israeli interviewees talking openly about their fears.
These Israeli fears, like reports that residents of communities near Gaza had left their homes, were in the past considered achievements of Palestinian militant organizations, especially Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Their ability to “repay” Israel for all its terrifying, lethal and humiliating military assaults – to make Israelis, too, feel fear, while temporarily paralyzing their normal lives – raised the prestige of both organizations, especially in the eyes of Palestinians outside Gaza.
But countless similar rounds of mutual but asymmetric intimidation have already proven that the number of casualties on the Palestinian side, as well as the damage done to Gaza’s economy, property and infrastructure, is many times greater.
When Hamas, as the ruling party that even won an election once, uses the tactic of counter intimidation, one can ascribe some sort of political purpose and logic to it and assume that the organization will know how to limit the scope of the escalation, since it bears governmental responsibility and must therefore pay attention to the public’s feelings. But for Islamic Jihad, which has no aspirations to lead the Palestinians, or even participate in elections, intimidation and revenge (“the right to respond”) have become an end in themselves. It’s hard to set limits on them when there are no defined political goals (aside from liberating all of Palestine).
Tuesday afternoon, Islamic Jihad’s spokesmen announced that the group hadn’t yet responded to the assassination itself. Whether this was braggadocio or a promise, Gazans aren’t censoring themselves in private conversations: This frightens them, a lot.
The commission employees who came to work at the organization’s headquarters on Tuesday were among the few Gazans who left their homes that morning. Just like in Israel between the Gazan border and Tel Aviv, in Gaza, too, schools and universities were closed. Some teachers and principals were already on their way to school when this was announced, so they had to retrace their footsteps.
The streets were empty. People stayed home. Markets didn’t open. The only businesses that did open were neighborhood grocery stores, for the sake of people who emerged for a few minutes to buy something.
A mother of five said she didn’t know whether Gazans were happy over the Israeli panic, “because we’re all shut in our homes.” A young woman said, “We’re afraid of all three types of explosions: when an Israeli missile lands, when a local missile is launched and when Iron Dome intercepts a missile.”
Nevertheless, the Palestinian public, including representatives of the PLO and its dominant Fatah faction, are united in viewing the assassination of Abu al-Ata as an Israeli crime. Consequently, all the combative reports on Islamic Jihad’s news site, Filistin Al Youm (Palestine Today), also included a personal touch.
On the night before Abu al-Ata died, he promised his daughter Layan that he’d buy a cake for her birthday, which fell on Tuesday. According to his brother Ihab, he also promised to avenge Omar Haitham al-Badawi, the young man killed by Israeli soldiers in the West Bank’s Al-Aroub refugee camp on Monday.
Like all Gazans, employees of the Independent Commission for Human Rights have all experienced three major Israeli military assaults and dozens of other military strikes. All have often experienced the fear of death, and all have relatives or friends, including children, women and the elderly, who were killed or wounded in those attacks. But the missile that struck the bottom floor of their office proved that no one ever gets used to fear.
The rules of self-censorship, however, apply not only to Palestinian journalists, but also to senior Palestinian Authority officials. They oppose Islamic Jihad’s tactics. Yet they can’t say openly and directly that an organization which represents only a tiny fraction of Palestinian society has no right to decide – together with Israeli Defense Minister Naftali Bennett and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – that Gaza will once again descend into the hell of war.