PALESTINIAN civilians living in Gaza during the three-week war with Israel have spoken of the challenge of being caught between Hamas and Israeli soldiers as the radical Islamic movement that controls the Gaza strip attempted to hijack ambulances.
Mohammed Shriteh, 30, is an ambulance driver registered with and trained by the Palestinian Red Crescent Society.
His first day of work in the al-Quds neighbourhood was January 1, the sixth day of the war. “Mostly the war was not as fast or as chaotic as I expected,” Mr Shriteh told the Herald. “We would co-ordinate with the Israelis before we pick up patients, because they have all our names, and our IDs, so they would not shoot at us.”
Mr Shriteh said the more immediate threat was from Hamas, who would lure the ambulances into the heart of a battle to transport fighters to safety.
“After the first week, at night time, there was a call for a house in Jabaliya. I got to the house and there was lots of shooting and explosions all around,” he said. Because of the urgency of the call, Mr Shriteh said there was no time to arrange his movements with the IDF.
“I knew the Israelis were watching me because I could see the red laser beam in the ambulance and on me, on my body,” he said.
Getting out of the ambulance and entering the house, he saw there were three Hamas fighters taking cover inside. One half of the building had already been destroyed.
“They were very scared, and very nervous. They dropped their weapons and ordered me to get them out, to put them in the ambulance and take them away. I refused, because if the IDF sees me doing this I am finished, I cannot pick up any more wounded people.
“And then one of the fighters picked up a gun and held it to my head, to force me. I still refused, and then they allowed me to leave.”
Mr Shriteh says Hamas made several attempts to hijack the al-Quds Hospital’s fleet of ambulances during the war.
“You hear when they are coming. People ring to tell you. So we had to get in all the ambulances and make the illusion of an emergency and only come back when they had gone.”
Eyad al-Bayary, 32, lost his job as a senior nurse at the Shifa Hospital, the largest in Gaza City, about six months ago because he is closely identified with Fatah, the rival political movement of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Twice last year Mr Bayary was arrested by Hamas, and once he was jailed for six days for flying the Fatah flag above his house in Jabaliya. He now works part-time as an English teacher at al-Azhar University.
“After the first day of the war, I go to the hospital to work, to help, but I was told to go away. They tell me ‘you are not needed here’ and they push me away,” Mr Bayary said.
Since the ceasefire was declared on January 17, Hamas has begun to systematically take revenge on anyone believed to have collaborated with Israel before the war.
Israel makes no secret of the fact that it has a network of informants inside Gaza who regularly provide information on where Hamas leaders live, where weapons are being stored and other details that formed an important part of Israel’s battle plan.
According to rumour, a number of alleged collaborators have already been executed. Taher al-Nono, the Hamas government’s spokesman in Gaza, told the Herald that 175 people had been arrested so far on suspicion of collaborating.
“They will be dealt with by the court and the judge and we will respect the judge’s decision,” Mr Nono said.
And if the sentence is death?
“We will respect the decision.”
But the breakdown between Hamas and Fatah over the last 18 months did not prevent some co-operation between the two sides during the war.
The commander of one al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade unit – the brigades are a coalition of secular militia groups which operate under the loose umbrella of Fatah – said the real enemy remains Israel.
The unit commander, who used the name Abu Ibrahim, invited the Herald into his home.
On the wall of his lounge room hung the portraits of George Habash, who founded the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a communist paramilitary organisation, and Abu Ali Mustafa, the man who succeeded Habash as leader of the PFLP and who was killed by Israeli forces in 2001.
“Of course we fought together with Hamas because we all have the same aim: to liberate our homeland,” he said.
With his two-year old daughter on his knee, Mr Ibrahim, 30, said he would never accept peace or negotiation, even if it might lead to the creation of a Palestinian state.
“I believe in the existence of Israel because it exists on my land – but the war with Israel will only end when I liberate all of my land. This last war with Israel was not the first war, and it will not be the last.”
The Sydney Morning Herald January 26, 2009: