On the phone: Menassat reporter Ola Mahdoun live from the heart of Gaza



 
"Pray for us," MENASSAT's Gaza correspondent Ola Mahdoun told our editors on Thursday, as Israeli tank units were closing in on her neighborhood in Gaza City. MENASSAT's Arabic editor Rita Barotta interviewed Mahdoun over the phone today.
 
By RITA BAROTTA
 
OLA EMAIL
MENASSAT'S Gaza correspondent Ola Mahdoun's email to MENASSAT editors.

GAZA, January 16, 2009 (MENASSAT) – MENASSAT has relied heavily on the reporting of Ola Mahdoun and our other Gaza correspondents, Olfat Haddad and Eman Mohammed, since Israel launched its devastating assault on the Gaza Strip more than three weeks ago.

Based in Gaza City, Ola Madhoun, a mother of two, has braved a nearly two-year-long Israeli siege in order to tell stories of ordinary life in the Gaza Strip.

And this was all before the carnage that began on December 27.

MENASSAT was predictably worried after receiving an email from Mahdoun on Thursday night, January 15, saying that Israeli ground forces had entered her southern neighborhood of Gaza City, firing white phosphorous and shelling a nearby cemetery.

"Pray for us," she said.

MENASSAT's Rita Barotta conducted an interview via telephone today with Mahdoun to assess the situation and find out what Gazans were experiencing in Gaza City on Day 21 of Operation Cast Lead.

In the past 24 hours, Israeli shells have smashed into a United Nations compound, setting fire to warehouses holding hundreds of tons of badly needed aid. Hamas' Interior Minister, Said Siam, was killed in an Israeli air strike, becoming the most senior of the group's leaders known to have been killed in the war so far.

Gaza medics say some 1,130 Palestinians have been killed and another 5,130 wounded. At least 600 of the victims have been civilians, including 355 children, they say.

MENASSAT: You sent us an email yesterday asking for our prayers, because you were afraid, especially of the white phosphorus being dropped in your neighborhood. Tell us about that.


OLA MAHDOUN:
"As a matter of fact, the war against Gaza has occurred on three stages as I've observed. First, it came from the air with the Israeli warplanes. Because the Strip is merely 340 sq.km, all the population has felt the hits.

"The second stage was the ground offensive on the borders. I live in the heart of Gaza. At one point, I thought I was safer than for those living in the North or South. But the battles started getting closer to civilian homes near me, and eventually right by my own house.

"The third and most difficult stage has come with the white phosphorous attacks. Everyday, after the sunset prayer, Israel starts using white phosphorous.

"So I face two problems: I'm forced to close my windows to stop breathing this poisonous smell, which makes me nauseous. And the second problem is that if I close the windows and a bomb falls nearby, glass shards will explode in my home, which leaves me without protection. As I speak, there is white phosphorous in the air and the smell grows stronger. 

"Yesterday, I called the Red Cross and the spokesman told me that the Hawa district was completely annihilated by Israeli artillery. Some people were calling for help from their homes. I asked if the Red Cross could do anything to help and he replied without missing a beat: 'We are targeted ourselves.'

"What I've been told by medical workers in several parts of Gaza City and the Jabaliya area is that the white phosphorous has killed women and their unborn babies because the WP burns right through to the bone.

"Meanwhile, fires are raging throughout Gaza City, and there is no water for the firemen to put out the fires. 

"I thought I was safe in my house, but today I feel nauseous, and have difficulty breathing. I fear for my children.

"Be sure that 1.5 million Palestinians are all facing death or in the least contamination from white phosphorous and other chemical agents being used in Gaza. I fear it will only get worse as it appears that the Israelis are in their last phase or final days of their attack.

"What also pains me about this conflict is that even holy sites and medical facilities have been targeted in this conflict. The Israeli army has bombed hospitals crowded with children, doctors and patients. They have bombed the mosques as well as cemeteries.

"There is a cemetery next to my house. I woke up at seven in the morning yesterday because my house shook like an earthquake. I ran to the window and I saw the cemetery smoldering and a huge crater in the center. The Palestinians will have to bury their dead once again because the dead bodies and limbs were scattered all over the place."

MENASSAT: You are in the heart of Gaza, have you seen any Israeli soldiers?

OLA MAHDOUN:
"We haven't actually seen any soldiers. But we can hear clearly the sound of tanks nearby, and the air strikes are shaking our houses. But our neighbors have seen the soldiers, and we know they are very close to us. The Hawa district is close to Gaza City and the Israelis are encamped there.

"We could find the Israeli tanks in front of our homes at any minute. My children refuse to sleep alone. They sleep next to me, because they are terrified."

MENASSAT: Are you getting electricity?

OLA MAHDOUN:
"At the beginning of the war, the electricity was completely cut for 12 days straight. The generator supplying the place where I live was bombed, and the only power plant in Gaza doesn't have enough fuel because of the blockade. Israel can cut the electricity whenever it pleases.

"About three days ago, the power came back, even if not permanently, which means 6 hours daily. We have private generators. We have a small one supplying our whole building for a few hours a day, but we still have a problem with the fuel. We have fuel in Gaza but the prices are inflated by 400 percent. Sometimes, we can get some, which we try to store, but the situation remains difficult."

MENASSAT: How do you communicate with the outside world?

OLA MAHDOUN:
"It is not easy to communicate with the outside world. We can send emails when we have electricity, but phone communication is nearly impossible these days. Sometimes, it takes me three hours to call one number, to talk to those I work with. These are local calls, mind you. The communications network is almost completely destroyed.

"As a journalist, how can I do my job in these circumstances? We can work with some attempt at normalcy. But we have the challenge of sending our message, to report everything that is happening, when not even the minimal conditions for reporting are available to us.

"Still, I insist on working, and sometimes put myself in danger by going on the streets to talk to people. The work is very difficult, but the challenge helps me cope."

MENASSAT: Do people still have hope there with all of the suffering that is taking place there?

OLA MAHDOUN:
"Yes, of course. I'm sure this situation will end. Some definitely feel frustration and ask what will happen next? Israel bombed everything. But if we stop having hope in Gaza, it would be our end. Without hope, we can't continue."

MENASSAT: What do you want to tell the world?

OLA MAHDOUN:
"I'm surprised at the Arab silence. At some point, I was happy with the popular protests and the demonstrations in all the Arab countries. But it took them 21 days to have an Arab summit, and some countries didn't even attend. I wonder what the use of this summit is, and the question remains: Where is the Arab world?"

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