The Ambulances just kept coming. Inside Gaza City’s Shifa Hospital, a blue-suited policeman with a banged and bandaged head leaned against the wall. A young woman was carried in on a stretcher, her veil pushed away from her face, and the smell of tear gas hovering in the air.
“You take her and get out of here,” the hospital spokesperson screamed at a staff person when he showed up with reporter in tow. Upstairs, a visiting surgeon from the United States suspended the heart operation scheduled that afternoon in order to operate on a young man with a bullet lodged in his skull.
The casualties were the result of October 8 clashes between demonstrators and police near the Islamic University. As anger mounted over rumored deaths, the demonstrations spiraled into riots in the streets of Gaza City, Khan Younis and Rafah.
“Arafat has done here what Sharon never did,” said an angry man in his early twenties standing with tens of others outside the hospital doors. He described how several thousand demonstrators, most of them college students, were intercepted 500 meters from the university by Palestinian police. The police used tear gas, clubs and live bullets to disperse the march against American air strikes on Afghanistan.
“[Police chief Ghazi] Jabali was standing there watching the entire thing,” he claimed.
While police said that demonstrators attacked them with weapons, police injuries seen at the hospital were largely bruises and limps. None of the demonstrators seen at the hospital, nor in later riots, were carrying guns. Students said that they threw stones at the police.
Palestinian Authority newspapers the next day put the death toll at two. An unconfirmed medical source said that three were killed and one left brain-dead, with nearly sixty others wounded. A political source in Rafah said that officials were suppressing information in an attempt to restore calm.
When word spread of the first casualties, those standing outside the hospital began chanting “Allahu Akbar,” moving out into the city streets and trying to block passing cars. An hour later, the demonstrators had attacked the Civil Aviation Building.
Plain-clothed preventative security men lofted guns in an attempt to hold off a growing crowd of young people heading for a building where police had sought shelter. “What do you want from us?” a preventative security man screamed at the crowd. Behind him, a gate creaked open and an unmarked police car sped away.
The next day, a statement from the Palestinian Authority read, “masked men opened fire at the police and the students, which caused the police to fire back.” The statement reported “several injuries among students and citizens and the injury of 142 members of the police” and warned against “suspicious elements.”
“The leadership appeals and urges all citizens to stand firm against those who instigate for a split in the society and to strike with an iron first against all those who want to strike at national unity and want to violate the sanctity of Palestinian blood,” said the statement.
Police officials also announced that they had warned students against demonstrating outside the university. The university student council said that no arms were used on the campus grounds.
The following day, as the dead were buried, riots again took hold. In Nuseirat Camp, demonstrators burned the police station to the ground, as well as the cars inside it, said a Fateh source. Foreign press and aid workers had been banned from entering the Gaza Strip on October 9 in anticipation of further unrest.
On the day of the original violence, there were also signs of disbelief and unease among members of the Palestinian security branches.
“People abroad do not know that most members of the Palestinian police are young people who participated in the first Intifada,” said Palestinian Minister of Jerusalem Affairs Ziad Abu Ziad, when asked if the incident could expose rifts in Palestinian society. “They are trustworthy people who will not accept that their patriotism be brought into question.”
“It’s terrible what has happened. I do not agree,” said one member of national security as the reports of Palestinians killing Palestinians continued to roll in.
Charmaine Seitz is Managing Editor of The Palestine Report.