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What Do Gazans Endure? A Palestinian Student Who Lost Two Brothers, Four Cousins Tells His Story

Five years ago Palestinian student Amer Shurrab lost his two brothers in Israel’s Operation Cast Lead.

Five years ago Palestinian student Amer Shurrab lost his two brothers in Israel’s Operation Cast Lead. Last week, Shurrab learned four of his cousins in Gaza had been killed in Israel’s latest offensive. In January 2009, Amer’s father and brothers were fleeing their village when the vehicle they were driving in came under Israeli fire. Twenty-eight-year-old Kassab died in a hail of bullets trying to flee the vehicle. Amer’s other brother, 18-year-old Ibrahim, survived the initial attack, but Israeli troops refused to allow an ambulance to reach him until 20 hours later. By then, it was too late. Ibrahim had bled to death in front of his father. A graduate student at Monterey Institute of International Studies in California, Amer Shurrab has been recounting the story of his brothers and other Palestinians at college campuses and community gatherings across the United States. “Israel is deliberately targeting civilians from the day one of this attack,” he says. “They have been bombing houses, wiping entire families to try to scare people into submission.”


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined right now by Amer Shurrab, a Palestinian graduate student from Khan Younis in the Gaza Strip. He’s studying at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California. He has just learned that four of his cousins have died in Khan Younis. We last spoke to him five years ago. It was shortly after he lost his two brothers during Israel’s assault on Gaza known as Operation Cast Lead. In 2009, January, his dad and two brothers were fleeing their village when their vehicle came under Israeli fire. His brother, 28-year-old Kassab, died in a hail of bullets trying to flee the vehicle. His other brother, Ibrahim, 18 years old, survived the initial attack, but Israeli troops refused to allow an ambulance to reach him and his father until 20 hours later. By then, it was too late. Ibrahim had bled to death in front of his father. Amer Shurrab has been recounting the story of his brothers and other Palestinians at college campuses and community gatherings across the United States. And it was just recently that he learned about his cousins in Khan Younis.

We welcome you back to Democracy Now!, I’m sorry under such sad circumstances. My condolences to you and your family, Amer. Can you talk about what you’ve just learned?

AMER SHURRAB: Thank you, Amy, for having me again, and I wish next time we meet will be under better circumstances. So, last week, actually, last Tuesday, I got news from Gaza via a friend that my cousin, Mohammed Tayseer, was killed. He was targeted by one of those drones that Sharif was talking about. He was visiting some friends. He left their house at 1:00 a.m., started walking home, and on the walk home he was directly targeted by a drone. A couple hours later, actually, the house of the friends that he was visiting was bombed by the Israeli Air Force, and it killed two and injured several other people. His dad—because those friends are their neighbors, his dad went to visit—ran to the house of the neighbors, the friends, to help evacuate the wounded, in fear of the house being bombed again. And the dad was looking for Mohammed, his eldest son, his 22-year-old eldest son, and was looking for him to help. A couple hours later, once light started coming out, people saw a body on the street that they realized was Mohammed’s.

AMY GOODMAN: How old was Mohammed?

AMER SHURRAB: Twenty-two.

AMY GOODMAN: How old was Tayseer?

AMER SHURRAB: Tayseer is in his fifties, 55 now.

AMY GOODMAN: And you had two other cousins.

AMER SHURRAB: Three cousins, three brothers, three second cousins, they—was Wednesday—their house in the Sheikh Nasser region in Khan Younis was bombed by the Israeli Air Forces. A four-story house was flattened to the ground. Initial news that there were three people killed and several wounded. Then we got news later that no one was hurt. And then, the next morning, Thursday morning, they extracted the body of Iyad. And then, the next morning, during the 12-hour ceasefire, they had more time to dig through the rubble and found two more bodies of his brothers, two of his brothers. And they were all recently married. They, all three of them, got married either last year or the year before.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, we last talked in 2009. You had just graduated from Middlebury College in Vermont.


AMY GOODMAN: This was the period of Operation Cast Lead, as the Israeli military called, when more than 1,400 Palestinians were killed. Describe what happened to your brothers and your dad.

AMER SHURRAB: Well, Amy, my dad and brothers were in our farm in the Fukhari region, and they were driving home during the ceasefire, the humanitarian lull that Israel announced, and they waited ’til the middle of that ceasefire. They were driving home. They drove for about half a kilometer or kilometer. They faced a tank on the side of the road. They were waved through by the tank. And then, once they drove a couple hundred meters past it, Israeli soldiers stationed in a civilian house—they occupied a civilian house and took at least 11 residents as hostages in that house—they opened fire on them indisriminately.

AMY GOODMAN: On your father and two brothers, the car.

AMER SHURRAB: On the—yes. My dad was hit while driving. They hit a wall. The car came to a halt. They ordered them to get out of the car. Kassab was in the passenger seat, got out. He was shot. Later, we realized he had 18 bullets across his chest, his stomach and his arms. My dad got out, and he ducked by the car. My brother Ibrahim, who was in the back seat, got out, and he was also shot in his left leg. And then he—initially, they wouldn’t allow my dad or Ibrahim to call an ambulance or even to check on Kassab’s body. They had no idea what happened to him. That was around 1:00 p.m.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, it was just feet away.

AMER SHURRAB: Yeah, few feet away. Yeah, few feet, like on the other side of the car, basically. And they wouldn’t let him check on them. My dad only confirmed Kassab’s death about five hours later, after sunset, when he saw cats nibbling on his body. He challenged the soldiers’ orders not to move, challenged the rounds they fired around him, checked on Kassab, realized he was dead and covered his face with his jacket and crawled back next to Ibrahim. They were pinned next to the car for over—about 24 hours. Ibrahim passed away. Shooting happened around 1:00 p.m. Ibrahim passed away around midnight. Ambulances were not allowed through, until—

AMY GOODMAN: How do you know this?

AMER SHURRAB: My dad wrote an account of that ordeal, of that whole story, from his hospital bed. He wrote it the day after, and over two days, because he wanted to remember it, he wanted it memorized. When I first reached him over his cellphone, once he got to the hospital, he told me, “Tell people what happened to us. Tell them what happened to us. Your brothers don’t deserve this. Everyone needs to know about this.”

AMY GOODMAN: Your uncle had tried to get an ambulance?


AMY GOODMAN: How did he know anything was going on?

AMER SHURRAB: Later, they allowed my dad to use his cellphone, and he called my uncle. And my uncle reached the area with an ambulance. They would not allow them through. And it’s not only my uncle. My dad was on phone calls throughout the night to local press, to international media, to local, international human rights organizations, to Israeli human rights organizations. He was talking with everyone—and in vain. Throughout that night, once I got the news, we were talking everyone. We reached members of the Israeli Knesset. We tried to contact the Obama transition team. We contacted everyone. People in all five continents were making calls trying to reach people to get them help. But it was in vain. It wasn’t until 7:00 a.m. the next day, the 17th—they were shot on the 16th. On 7:00 a.m.—

AMY GOODMAN: This was January.

AMER SHURRAB: Yes, 2009—7:00 a.m., we got a word through a member of the Knesset, a Palestinian member of the Knesset that we reached, that the Israeli army would allow an ambulance to go in, but only at noon, when the humanitarian ceasefire would start for the next day. And the soldiers were watching them all that time. They refused to give them a band-aid. They refused to give them anything to stop the bleeding. They refused to give them a sip of water, a blanket. Nothing. My brother Ibrahim was shivering next to my dad, and they wouldn’t do anything other than curse at them, laugh at them and watch them suffer. Later on, we found that they left graffiti on the wall of the house that said, “Kahane was right.”

AMY GOODMAN: Referring to?

AMER SHURRAB: Meir Kahane, the extremist Israeli rabbi who called for the killing or transfer of all Arabs and Palestinians from Palestine and Israel to other nations, to make Israel a purely Jewish state.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to get your response to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was speaking to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer last week, saying that Hamas is intentionally endangering Palestinian civilians in hopes that the gruesome images will turn the international community against Israel.

PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: All civilian casualties are unintended by us, but actually intended by Hamas. They want to pile up as many civilian dead as they can, because somebody said they use—I mean, it’s gruesome. They use telegenically dead Palestinians for their cause. They want—the more dead, the better.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Your response to this, Amer?

AMER SHURRAB: Well, first of all, I want to jump on that phrase “telegenically dead.” I hear that phrase, and I really want to throw up. This is just despicable description of dead children, women. That’s what you call them? Instead of saying “condolences,” instead of saying “we are sorry,” you say “telegenically dead”? This is extremely offensive, to start with.

And then, to Prime Minister Netanyahu—Prime Minister Netanyahu and all the Israeli spokespersons, in Arabic, in English, in Hebrew, in every language, they say they use precision bombs. They say they use smart weapons, and they pinpoint their attacks. And several Israeli spokespeople said every attack has hit its intended target. And now we know what are the intended targets. It’s children. It’s families. It’s women. An Israeli reserve general said, “We are going to kill their families so they learn not to come back again.” An Israeli professor at Bar-Ilan University said, “Kill them, kill their kids, rape their women, kill their children, so that they learn.” An Israeli member of the Knesset, who is a member of the ruling coalition, has wrote a posting on Facebook, that received several thousand likes, calling for the extermination of Palestinians, killing all their kids, killing the mothers who give birth to those “snakes.”

So, what Israel says—we know that Israel uses—repeatedly has used the claim that Palestinians use human shields. That claim has been discredited over and over and over again, by the Goldstone Report, by the U.N., by all respectable human rights organizations. On the contrary, there is plenty of proof, plenty of evidence, that Israel uses Palestinians as human shields, as I know it personally in the case of my family and my brothers, where they were occupying a house, holding the local residents as human shields. UNICEF, about three months ago, issued a report documenting Israel’s use of children as human shields. That was corroborated recently by a report for, I believe, the U.N. initiative for children, that also documented Israel’s use of human shields. So, Israel is deliberately targeting civilians. It’s from the day one of this attack. They have been bombing houses, wiping entire families, to try to scare people into submission.

AMY GOODMAN: The Knesset member that you referred to, Ayelet Shaked—


AMY GOODMAN: —with the Jewish Home party, who wrote that on her Facebook page, saying that the killings should include the mothers of the martyrs, saying that they should go, as should the physical homes in which they raise the snakes, saying because they give birth to the little snakes. Here you are in the United States. How are you dealing with all of what has happened in not only the last few weeks, but, of course, because your two brothers were killed in 2009? You went to Middlebury College. We saw you just after that, at Operation Cast Lead. Now you’re in California at Monterey, a graduate student.

AMER SHURRAB: Well, there are two facets to it. On one side, the U.S. government is a full partner in the murder of Palestinians, including my brothers. The United States provides over $3 billion of direct military aid to Israel annually. The Congress has just approved or in the process of approving an additional $600 million in military aid to Israel. They tagged onto the bill, the immigration bill for dealing with undocumented children—they tagged on about $225 million in additional aid for the Iron Dome in Israel. And the U.S. provides blank backing to Israel in the U.N., in the Security Council, everywhere, although we know sometimes it goes against the U.S.’s stances. Israel, just today, rejected the American initiative for ceasefire, and Secretary Kerry retracted and said, “Oh, we never offered them an initiative.” Secretary Kerry, have some courage. Have some integrity. You had a hot-mic moment that showed what you really felt about it. How about you show it and say it in a scheduled meeting as opposed to a hot-mic moment?

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what you mean, for those who aren’t familiar with that moment in the Fox studio.

AMER SHURRAB: Secretary Kerry, when he was appearing—I believe last Sunday, when he was appearing on the different Sunday shows, he was on Fox preparing to appear their Sunday morning show—

AMY GOODMAN: Actually, we have a clip of that, so this was one of the comments he made on this round of the network talk shows to publicly defend Israel’s assault on Gaza, but in a private phone call that was caught on camera in between commercial breaks, Kerry appeared to speak sarcastically about the massive civilian toll in the attacks. He was speaking to an aide on his speaker phone on his cellphone.

SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: It’s a hell of a pinpoint operation. It’s a hell of a pinpoint operation.

AIDE: Right, it’s escalating significantly, and it just underscores the need for a ceasefire.

SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: We’ve got to get over there.

AIDE: Yup, yup.

SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: Thank you, John. I think, John, we ought to go tonight. I think it’s crazy to be sitting around.

AMY GOODMAN: That was John Kerry in Fox’s studio. That’s not on the air, although they recorded it and then played it for him on Fox to respond to.

AMER SHURRAB: And then he tried to backtrack the comment, and then he went to Israel and repeated the same talking points about Israel having the right to defend itself. Yes, Israel does have the right to defend itself, as does every nation and every people, including the Palestinian people, who have been under occupation since 1967. And we, in Gaza, have been living under a terrible siege since 2007, but we don’t hear Secretary Kerry talk about this, at least not in public.

AMY GOODMAN: What does that siege mean to you in daily life?

AMER SHURRAB: That siege and blockade of Gaza that has been implemented by Israel against Gaza Strip since 2007, that has been at its strictest form, but Gaza has been suffering from one degree or another of siege since the occupation in 1967. But that siege, what it means, it shuts down all of Gaza’s borders and crossings, most of them with Israel, with only one with Egypt that’s also shut down by the Egyptian authorities; Israeli warships and boats in the sea, and airplanes and drones in the sky. That means they ration everything that comes in and out, from food to medicine, to pens and papers and pencils, construction material, gas, natural gas, potato chips, cardamom, chocolate. And it’s all for security concerns. I know people who have died because the chemotherapy they required for their cancer treatment was not allowed in, people who have died because spare parts for a dialysis machine they required for their kidney condition were not allowed in. I know people who have lost very lucrative and full scholarships in some top universities because they were not allowed out. I know people—ambulances that couldn’t come to retrieve victims because they didn’t have gas.

AMY GOODMAN: How do you respond to the Israeli military saying they’re moving into Gaza to destroy the maze of tunnels because they’re used to smuggle in weapons?

AMER SHURRAB: The tunnels have been used, until recently, until they have been practically fully destroyed by the Egyptian authorities—they have been used primarily as a commercial avenue. It has been used as a venue for trade, getting goods in and out of Gaza, or primarily into Gaza, and allowing people to get in and out of Gaza. My brother—for instance, my brother’s in-laws managed—two years ago, they managed to go to Gaza for the first time in over 30 years through one of the tunnels. That’s the only way, if all the official crossings are closed, if the Israeli government wants to put the Palestinians on a diet. An Israeli government official said, “We are going to put the Palestinians on a diet.” They were allowing—Gisha, an Israeli human rights organization, revealed that. And they were calculating, cynically calculating, 2,000 calories per day per person of food to be allowed in, so people do not starve but just barely survive. The tunnels came and helped change some of that. The tunnels were primarily used, as I said, to let people in and out and to get everything in, from cars to gas, to construction materials. After the so-called Operation Cast Lead, tens of thousands of houses were destroyed.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think—do you believe that the Israeli military is bombing Gaza because of Hamas and the other groups firing thousands of rockets into Israel?

AMER SHURRAB: Well, Amy, over the past two years, there have been virtually no rockets coming out of Gaza, and Israel continued to siege Gaza and blockade Gaza. And that siege is a form of slow death. People are saying we can either die quickly now, or we die slowly through the siege and the blockade. If I’m a father and I cannot get a life-saving medicine for my kid because of that siege, how am I going to feel? What am I going to do? There were no rockets before 2001; Israel continued to occupy Gaza. There were no rockets in the ’90s and the ’80s; Israel continued to occupy Gaza and kill Palestinians.

AMY GOODMAN: Amer, we’re going to have to leave it there. We are going to turn in a moment to the Israeli historian Ilan Pappé, speaking to us from Haifa. My condolences again to you and your family. And I want to thank you very much for being with us, I’m so sorry under these circumstances.

AMER SHURRAB: Thank you so much, Amy, for the wonderful work you do every day.

AMY GOODMAN: Amer Shurrab is a graduate student at the Monterey Institute for International Studies in California. He graduated from Middlebury College. He is from Khan Younis in Gaza. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a moment.

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