Jamal Dayem Sehwail (55) in a Civil Defense room with fire fighting equipment, Gaza.
“Ever since I was a child I loved the work of the Civil Defense. I would follow the fire trucks through the streets on my bicycle”, says Jamal Sehwail (55), who is now the Director of Evacuation and Development in Gaza’s Civil Defense.
“I am in charge of complex incidents, for example where cooperation between fire fighters, paramedics and rescue workers is necessary”, explains Jamal. “I am also responsible for the maintenance and development of our equipment and facilities. Due to the closure we are lacking resources and supplies but we manage to deal with the situation creatively. For example, we are now able to produce our own fire extinguishing foam and face screens for the fire fighters.”
During Israel’s most recent military offensive on the Gaza Strip, which lasted from 14 to 21 November 2012, Jamal coordinated several rescue and recovery operations. According to PCHR investigations 171 civilians were killed and more than 1,250 were injured, of whom 650 sustained moderate to severe injuries. Jamal speaks about the conditions under which he and his colleagues had to work: “The last war was very difficult; the bombing went on continuously and was very intense. Journalists were targeted. It was a war to instill fear into the people. We remember what happened in the 2008-2009 war.” Jamal refers to incidents over the past years, especially during ‘Operation Cast Lead’, Israel’s 27 December 2008 – 18 January 2009 offensive on the Gaza Strip in which 1,419 Palestinians were killed. “Paramedics, journalists, and us, civil defense staff, are supposed to be protected under the Fourth Geneva Convention. But we are attacked by the army nonetheless. In reality the Geneva Conventions do not exist. Israel has conveyed that message very clearly to us by targeting our staff and buildings; there is no safety from the Israeli army attacks. Whenever tensions rise we have to evacuate our offices because we know they might be targeted. We live in constant worry and never take a break from our work. We are always on call which means we might have to leave our home in the middle of the night if anything happens.”
During the last offensive Jamal and his colleagues worked around the clock to save lives. Some memories of those days will stay with them forever. Jamal remembers one incident most vividly; the attack on the Dalou family: “I was working in an apartment tower in Gaza that had just been bombed when I saw a rocket come from the sky a few hundred meters away. I heard a huge explosion and immediately rushed to the home that was hit by the bomb. My colleagues and I spent three days there trying to recover people from under the remains of the house. The children we found dead were in the same age as my children. After the war we found two remaining bodies, including one of a girl. The most difficult thing I have to do during my work is pulling children from under the rubble. The view of these children will never leave my mind, it is just too horrible.”
There is no psycho-social support for Jamal and his colleagues in order to deal with their trauma. “After a war we speak about our experiences”, says Jamal. “We talk to each other; that is the only way we can psychologically deal with it. We also thank all members of our team and visit the families of our colleagues who were injured or killed.”
Since 2007 Jamal has participated in around 1,500 rescue operations. He says “The rescuing of people and recovering of bodies remains in my memory like a film, even though I often don’t know the names of the victims.”
The targeting and severe injuring or killing of civilians, a protected person, is a war crime, as codified in Article 147 of the Fourth Geneva Convention and Articles 8(2)(a)(i) and (iii) Article 8 (2)(b)(i) of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.