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'When I left the house there were 22 people dead'

Jan. 5, 2010 8:41 A.M. (Updated: Jan. 10, 2010 9:16 P.M.)
Part 10 of a series recounting the findings of South African jurist Richard Goldstone's UN Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict.

Bethlehem - Ma'an - According to Israel, its army's rules of engagement for the Gaza assault emphasized distinction as one of four "guiding principles that applied in an integrated and cumulative manner: military necessity, distinction, proportionality and humanity." 

It defines the principle of distinction in the following terms: "Strikes shall be directed against military objectives and combatants only. It is absolutely prohibited to intentionally strike civilians or civilian objects (in contrast to incidental proportional harm)."

Richard Goldstone's UN fact-finding mission investigated 11 incidents in which serious allegations of direct attacks with lethal outcome were made against civilians. 

"In these incidents, 34 Palestinian civilians lost their lives owing to Israeli fire intentionally directed at them. Numerous others were injured, some very severely and with permanent consequences," his report states. "There appears to have been no justifiable military objective pursued in any of them."

The first two incidents concern alleged attacks by Israeli forces against houses in the As-Samouni neighborhood of Gaza during the initial phase of the ground invasion. 

Attacks on the houses of Ateya and Wa'el Samouni

Attacks on the houses of Ateya and Wa'el Samouni killed 23 members of his extended family. The Goldstone mission visited the site of these incidents and interviewed five members of the family and several of their neighbors. Two relatives, who were eyewitnesses to the bloodshed, Wa'el and Salah Samouni, testified at a public hearing in Gaza on 28 June 2009. 

"I lost my mother. I lost my son. I lost my daughter. I lost my sister-in-law, my nephews, my cousins. I lost so many people," Wa'el told the commission. "I'm not talking about one or two. Twenty-nine members of my family were killed. It was an appalling massacre. No one had expected that thing to happen." 

The As-Samouni area is part of Zeytoun, south of Gaza City. It is inhabited by members of the As-Samouni family, which gives its name to the area, as well as by others. The area is more rural than urban; houses used to stand next to small olive and fig groves, chicken coops and other small plots of agricultural land. A small mosque stood in the center of the neighborhood. These no longer existed at the time of the team's visit in June 2009. In fact, the mission reported seeing very few buildings left and a few tents standing amidst the rubble of collapsed houses and bulldozed land.

"The Samouni land that was destroyed was about 80 dunums, which is about 80 acres, which were destroyed and that land was our source of living," Wa'el explained. "The land was completely turned over, has nothing left of it. The only thing you can see is just earth." 

The Israeli ground offensive from the east reached the neighborhood around 4am on 4 January 2009. In addition to these forces, there were, in all likelihood, heliborne troops that landed on the roofs of several houses, the mission notes. Residents told investigators that there was shooting during the night of 3 to 4 January and again the following night, but denied having seen any Palestinian fighters.

Wa'el recounted: "When I ran outside the house I heard shootings. I saw my cousin Salah. He was [carrying] his six-month[-old] baby. He said that it was probably the resistance that targeted my house. I didn't know. So he said to me, 'Bring your ID and come with me.' So I went with my cousin. I carried my [other] cousin, who was six months old. I took my cousin inside the house. So [Salah] said, "Well, those who were shooting were Israelis.' So I went back to my mother, I said goodbye to her, and I said, 'I may not come back again.'" 

According to Salah: "I left my house on the 5th; some people were calling me out of my house. I thought they were the resistance people but they were the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] people." 

The killing of Ateya Samouni and his son Ahmad

During the morning of 4 January 2009, Israeli soldiers entered many houses in the area. One of the first, around 5am, was the house of Ateya Samouni, 45. Faraj, his 22-year-old son, had already met soldiers some minutes earlier as he stepped outside to warn neighbors that their roof was on fire. Soldiers entered Ateya's house by force, throwing an explosive device, possibly a grenade. In the midst of the smoke, fire and loud noise, Ateya stepped forward, his arms raised, and declared that he was the owner of the house. The soldiers shot him while he was still holding his ID and an Israeli driving license in his hands. 

Soldiers then opened gunfire inside the room in which approximately 20 relatives were gathered. Several were injured, Ahmad, a boy of four, particularly seriously. Soldiers with night-vision equipment entered and closely inspected each of those present. They then moved to the next room and set fire to it. The smoke soon started to suffocate the family. A witness speaking to the Goldstone team recalled seeing "white stuff" coming out of the mouth of his 17-month-old nephew and helping him to breathe.

At about 6:30am, the soldiers ordered the family to leave. They had to leave Ateya's body behind but were carrying Ahmad, who was still breathing. The family tried to enter the house of an uncle next door, but were not allowed to do so by the soldiers. The soldiers told them to take the road and leave, but a few meters further different soldiers stopped them and ordered the men to undress completely. Faraj, who was carrying the severely injured Ahmad, pleaded with them to be allowed to evacuate the injured. The soldiers allegedly replied using abusive language. They also said: "You are bad Arabs." "You go to Nitzarim."

Nitzarim is an evacuated Israeli settlement in northern Gaza.

Faraj, his mother and others entered the house of an uncle. From there, they called the Palestinian Red Crescent Society (PRCS). At around 4pm that day an ambulance managed to come in the vicinity of the house where Ahmad was lying wounded, but was prevented by Israeli forces from rescuing him. Ahmad died at around 2am during the night of 4 to 5 January.

Faraj told the UN team that, at the time of Ahmad's death, another relative gave birth to a baby in the same house. She was in a wheelchair, having earlier broker her leg doing household chores.

The following morning those present in the house, about 45 persons, decided to leave. They made themselves white flags and walked in the direction of Salah Ad-Din Street. A group of soldiers told them to go back, but witnesses said that they walked on in the direction of Gaza. The soldiers shot at their feet, without injuring anyone. Two kilometers further north on Salah Ad-Din, they found ambulances which took the injured, including the mother and her new-born child, to the Ash-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City.

The attack on the house of Wa'el Samouni

In other cases, the entry of soldiers was less violent than in Ateya's home. In one instance, soldiers landed on the roof and descended the stairs to the ground floor, separated men from women, searched and handcuffed the men. In another case they broke into a house by knocking a hole in the wall with a sledgehammer.

At Salah's house, Israeli soldiers knocked on the door and ordered those inside to open it. All the persons inside the house stepped out one by one and Salah's father identified each of the family members in Hebrew. According to Salah, they asked to be allowed to go to Gaza City, but the soldiers refused and instead ordered them to go to Wa'el's house across the street.

The Israeli soldiers also ordered those in other houses to move to Wa'el's house. As a result, around 100 members of his extended family, the majority women and children, were assembled in that house by noon on 4 January.

"Concerning the incident itself, we were gathered generally in my house," Wa'el recalled. "I was there with my children, my wife, altogether we were 12 persons. My relatives were gathered in my house at about 5:00 in the morning."

There was hardly any water and no milk for the small children. Around 5pm, one of the women went outside to gather firewood. There was some flour in the house and she made bread, one piece for each.

The family was still in the home with little food the next morning. "So my mother said, 'How about if we prepare some breakfast for the children? At least they will not die hungry.' So I, my cousin, a number of my cousins, we went to find some firewood [for a second time] to prepare the breakfast," Wa'el said. Wa'el, Salah, Hamdi, Muhammad, and Iyad, stepped outside the house to collect firewood sometime between 6:30 and 7am. Rashad remained standing next to the door. Later, Salah would point out to the UN mission that from where the Israeli soldiers were positioned on the roofs of the houses they could see the men clearly. 

Suddenly, a projectile struck next to the five men, close to the door of Wa'el's house, killing Muhammad and, most likely, Hamdi. 

According to Salah: "... we were trying to collect some sticks for feeding the fire to bake loaves, and then we exchanged greetings with some of our neighbors and before we did anything, we saw missiles falling down in that space of two meters where we were collecting sticks."

Wa'el described the same series of events: "As we were leaving the house, we were targeted by an Apache missile. Two of my cousins died immediately. I was wounded. I was brought into the house. Someone was trying to [care for] my wounds but the house was targeted by another Apache missile right inside the house. Ten persons were killed immediately," Wa'el recalled.

The other men managed to retreat to the house. Within about five minutes, two or three more projectiles struck the house directly. Salah and Wa'el testified that the missiles were launched from Apache helicopters. Goldstone's investigation was not able to determine the type of munition used.

"So we didn't understand why we were targeted. We tried to talk to the Israelis. We told them, 'You gathered us all inside that house, all the children, women, and elderly. Why did you target us?' The Apache targeted us again with another missile. Fifteen other people were killed. We couldn't do anything. We were helpless. All the survivors were shouting and screaming..." 

According to Salah, 21 family members were killed and 19 injured in the attack on Wa'el's house. After the shelling, most of those inside decided to leave immediately and walk to Gaza City, leaving behind the dead and some of the wounded.

As they began to walk, women waved their scarves to indicate they were unarmed civilians. Soldiers, however, ordered them to return to the house. When family members replied that there were many injured among them, the soldiers' reaction was, according to Salah, "go back to death." They decided not to follow this injunction and walked in the direction of Gaza City.

"Everybody was saying, 'Let's leave the house. It's better to die outside than inside.' We couldn't do anything. We were helpless," Wa'el said. "I was the last to leave the house. I had in my arms a five-year-old baby. His elbow was crushed and I was barely able to stand on my feet. But with God's help I was able to stand up again. I ran across to my mother-in-law. She was wounded. I told her, 'Listen, I mean if you still have some time to live, God will give you the force to stand up again and leave.'

"So I walked for about three meters. I was carrying my kid. I ran across another child who was dead. There was a hole in his leg; his left leg was torn to pieces. So I dropped my five-year-old kid and tried to carry the other child who was lying on the floor. But he was dying. Then he became pale. So I considered that he died and I said goodbye to him. I left the house. When I left the house there were 22 people dead."

According to Salah: "We left the house at our own insistence, but the rest of us were afraid that we would be killed outside. I said to be killed outside the house is much better and we took the Salah Ad-Din Road toward the hospital, but the IDF were overlooking everything."

Once there, they went to the Palestinian Red Crescent Socuety and told them about the injured who were left behind.

The attempts of PRCS and ICRC to rescue the civilians

PRCS made its first attempt to evacuate the injured on 4 January 2009 after receiving a call from Ateya's family.

PRCS called the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), asking it to coordinate its entry into the area with Israeli forces. A PRCS ambulance from Al-Quds Hospital managed to reach the area. At one of the first houses in the area, Israeli soldiers on the ground and on the roof of one of the houses directed their guns at it and ordered it to stop. The driver and the nurse were ordered to get out of the vehicle, raise their hands, take off their clothes and lie on the ground. Israeli soldiers then searched them and the vehicle for between 5 and 10 minutes. Having found nothing, the soldiers ordered the ambulance team to return to Gaza City, in spite of their pleas to be allowed to pick up some wounded.

In his statement to the Goldstone mission, the ambulance driver recalled seeing women and children huddling under the staircase in a house, but not being allowed to take them with him.

As soon as the first evacuees from the Samouni family arrived in Gaza City on 5 January, PRCS and ICRC requested permission from the Israeli armed forces to go into the neighborhood to evacuate the wounded. The requests were denied.

On 6 January around 6:45pm, one ICRC car and four PRCS ambulances drove toward the area without coordination with Israeli forces, they were once again not allowed to enter the area and evacuate the wounded.

"Everywhere we were requesting, we were calling for rest, we were calling for help, and everybody said, including those of the Red Crescent and the Red Cross, 'We are not able to come to [you].' They were not able to come to our rescue," Salah said. 

On 7 January 2009, Israeli forces finally authorized ICRC and PRCS to go to the As-Samouni area during the "temporary ceasefire" declared from 1 to 4pm on that day. Three ambulances, an ICRC car and another car used to transport bodies drove down from Gaza City until, 1.5 km north of the area, they found it closed by sand mounds. ICRC tried to coordinate with Israeli forces to have the road opened, but they refused and asked the ambulance staff to walk the remaining 1.5 km.

Once in the neighborhood, PRCS looked for survivors in the houses. An ambulance driver who was part of the team told the Goldstone mission that in Wa'el's house they found 15 dead bodies and two seriously injured children. One had a deep wound in the shoulder, which was infected and giving off a foul odor. The children were dehydrated and scared of the medic. In a house close by, they found 11 persons in one room, including a dead woman.

The rescue teams had only three hours for the entire operation and the evacuees were physically weak and emotionally very unstable. The road had been damaged by the impact of shells and the movement of Israeli forces, including tanks and bulldozers. The rescuers put all the elderly on a cart and pulled it themselves for 1.5 kilometers to the place where they had been forced to leave the ambulances. The bodies lying in the street or under the rubble, among them women and children, as well as the dead they had found in the houses had to be left behind.

On the way back, PRCS staff entered one house where they found a man with two broken legs. While they were carrying him out, Israeli forces started firing at the house, likely to warn that the three-hour "temporary ceasefire" was about to expire. PRCS was not able to return to the area until 18 January.

On 18 January 2009, members of the Samouni family were finally able to return to their neighborhood. They found Wa'el's house, as most other houses in the neighborhood and the small mosque, demolished. Israeli forces had destroyed the building on top of the bodies of those who died in the attack. Pictures taken on 18 January show feet and legs sticking out from under the rubble and sand, and rescuers pulling out the bodies of women, men and children. A witness described to the UN team family members taking away the corpses on horse carts, a young man sitting in shock beside the ruins of his house and, above all, the extremely strong smell of death.

"I found Azza, my daughter," Salah said. "The age is two and a half years, only. I carried her. I found her already dead and when we took her after 13 days, the bodies had started to [de]compose ... I searched for my mother. When I got to her, [I] saw her head outside [of the rubble], I found that half of her head was gone. When I looked at my father, I found him still breathing his last and to my wife, she had shrapnel in her head. Other wives of my cousins, the guts of my cousins and nephews, [were] out. ..." 

Factual findings

With regard to the context in which the attacks on the houses took place, Goldstone notes that there is some indication that there might have been a presence of combatants in the neighborhood during the first hours of the ground attack. The mission considered, however, that the testimonies of the witnesses strongly suggested that already before daybreak on 4 January 2009 Israeli forces were in full control.

According to several witnesses, soldiers on the street spoke to residents who had ventured outside. In some cases, they entered houses non-violently after knocking. According to Salah, the prolonged identification of all the persons present in his house (his father identifying each family member in Hebrew) took place outside. Soldiers appear to have been confident that they were not at immediate risk.

The UN report said that considering the generally calm circumstances that appear to have prevailed in the neighborhood at the time, and the fact that the soldiers had already spoken to Faraj, one of the persons in Ateya's house, the mission could not see any circumstance justifying the violent entry into the house.

With regard to the attack on the five men who stepped out of Wa'el's house to fetch firewood and to the subsequent shelling of the house, the mission notes that the members of other families who had been moved by Israeli forces into Wa'el's house had been searched, as recounted by Saleh.

"Everything indicates that the Israeli forces knew that there were about 100 civilians in the house. Indeed, the families had asked to be allowed to leave the area towards a safer place, but had been ordered to stay in Wa’el al-Samouni’s house. The house must have been under constant observation by the Israeli soldiers, who had complete control over the area at the time." 

Wa'el addressed the UN mission: "The entire Samouni family was destroyed. Their land was churned. We have no trees left. What we are asking for is one thing, one question. Please answer this question. Why did the Israelis do this to us? They killed our children, our women, and once you have lost your loved ones, what can you do in life. Why did you do this? Why did the Israelis do this?"

Four days after the massacre, Israeli forces denied that the attack on Wa'el's house even took place. On 9 January 2009, an Israeli army spokesman, Jacob Dallal, told Reuters that “the IDF did not mass people into any specific building. […] Furthermore, we checked with regard to IDF fire on the 5th. The IDF did not target any building in or near Zeitun [sic] on the 5th."

According to the Goldstone report, published some nine months later, the mission was not aware of any subsequent statement from Israel which would contradict this blanket denial or suggest that the allegations have been the subject of further investigation. Last month, however, Israel's army informed Ma'an that it was investigating the allegations.

With regard to the obstruction of emergency medical access to the wounded, the report notes that four-year-old Ahmad was still alive at 4pm on 4 January 2009, when the ambulance called by his relatives managed to arrive within 100 to 200 meters from the house where he was. He died about 10 hours later, which suggests that he might have had a good chance of survival. Soldiers stopped the ambulance and thoroughly searched the driver, nurse and vehicle. Although they did not find anything indicating that the medics were not on a genuine emergency mission to evacuate a wounded civilian, they forced the ambulance to return to Gaza City without the injured toddler.

The information before it "leads the Mission to believe that the Israeli armed forces arbitrarily prevented the evacuation of the wounded from the al-Samouni area, thereby causing at least one additional death, worsening of the injuries in others, and severe psychological trauma in at least some of the victims, particularly children."

These findings are corroborated by a statement ICRC issued on 8 January 2008: "The ICRC had requested safe passage for ambulances to access this neighborhood since 3 January but it only received permission to do so from the Israel Defense Forces during the afternoon of 7 January.

"The ICRC/PRCS team found four small children next to their dead mothers in one of the houses. They were too weak to stand up on their own. One man was also found alive, too weak to stand up. In all there were at least 12 corpses lying on mattresses. In another house, the ICRC/PRCS rescue team found 15 other survivors of this attack including several wounded. In yet another house, they found an additional three corpses. Israeli soldiers posted at a military position some 80 meters away from this house ordered the rescue team to leave the area which they refused to do. There were several other positions of the Israel Defense Forces nearby as well as two tanks."

Legal findings

"The fundamental principles applicable to these incidents, which are cornerstones of both treaty-based and customary international humanitarian law, are that 'the parties to the conflict shall at all times distinguish between the civilian population and combatants' and that 'the civilian population as such, as well as individual civilians, shall not be the object of attack,'" the Goldstone report states. 

In every case mentioned here, Israeli forces carried out direct intentional strikes against civilians, it adds. "[I]n none of the cases reviewed were there any grounds which could have reasonably induced the Israeli armed forces to assume that the civilians attacked were in fact taking a direct part in the hostilities and had thus lost their immunity against direct attacks."

Goldstone's team therefore determined that Israel "would be responsible under international law for these internationally wrongful actions carried out by its agents." 

The UN mission found that the conduct of Israeli forces in these cases would constitute "grave breaches of the Fourth Geneva Convention in respect of willful killings and willfully causing great suffering to protected persons and as such give rise to individual criminal responsibility."
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