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The shooting of Amal, Souad, Samar and Hajja

Jan. 7, 2010 9:36 A.M. (Updated: Jan. 10, 2010 9:17 P.M.)
Part 12 of a series recounting the findings of South African jurist Richard Goldstone's UN Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict.

Bethlehem - Ma'an - In the late morning of 7 January 2009, Israeli tanks moved onto a small piece of agricultural land in front of the of the house of Khalid Abd Rabbo and his wife Kawthar, on the ground floor of a four-story building in the eastern part of Izbat Abd Rabbo, a neighborhood east of Jabaliya inhabited primarily by members of their extended family.

In testimony to Richard Goldstone's UN inquiry, Khalid recounted: "On January 7 at 12:50pm the Israeli army bulldozed our garden and the Israeli tanks were positioned in front of our house. They started yelling at us through the speakers and asked us to leave the house."

Moments earlier, at 12:30pm, megaphone messages telling all residents to leave were heard across the neighborhood. According to one witness’s recollection, a radio message was also broadcast by Israeli forces around 12:30pm announcing that there would be a temporary cessation of shooting between 1 and 4pm that day, during which time residents of the area were asked to walk to central Jabaliya.

"Of course this happened when Israel had declared [a] ceasefire for four hours, January 7 from 1:00-4:00pm, and that was a truce back then and that’s when wounded civilians could be rescued, and in spite of all of that, in spite of all of this declaration, the Israeli army was there right in front of our house not attempting to move," Khalid said.

Responding to the messages, Khalid, his wife Kawthar, their three daughters, nine-year-old Souad, five-year-old Samar, and three-year-old Amal, and his mother Hajja Souad stepped out of the house, all of them carrying white flags. Less than 10 meters from the door was a tank, turned toward their house. Two soldiers were sitting on top of it having a snack. It was 12:50pm.

"So we stood by our entrance and holding flags, white flags. The tanks were seven meters away from our house," Khalid said.

The family stood still, waiting for orders from the soldiers, but none was given. "[W]e were by the entrance holding white flags and waiting for them to tell us what we should do, whether to go back inside the house or move to somewhere else. They did not say anything to us. There were two soldiers sitting on top of the tank. One of them was eating chips. The other one was eating chocolate. We were looking at them like what are we supposed to do, where should we go, but no reaction from them whatsoever."

Without warning, a third soldier emerged from inside the tank and started shooting at the three girls and then also at their grandmother, Khalid maintains. Several bullets hit Souad in the chest, Amal in the stomach and Samar in the back. Hajja Souad was hit in the lower back and in the left arm.

"They [started] shooting at the children with no reason, with no explanation, no pretext," Khalid said. "My daughter, three years old, [her] stomach was hit and her intestines were coming out. So really I was amazed at how could a soldier be firing at my daughter? So I carried my daughter, three years old. She could hardly breathe. Like I said, her stomach was wounded.

"My other daughter was also wounded in her chest. So I took both of them, Samar and Amal, inside the house. My wife and my mother and my other daughter Suad were still outside. All of a sudden my wife joined me carrying Suad. She was wounded also. Her chest was wounded by many bullets. My mother, 60 years old, she was carrying the white flag and she was wounded on her forearm and also in her stomach."

Khalid's account differs from the one produced at the time by Ma'an, which reported that three of the Abd Rabbo sisters were killed by "Israeli warplanes" rather than individual soldiers. It quotes medics confirming ambiguously that the girls were killed "by Israeli fire."

Khalid and Kawthar carried their three daughters and mother back inside the house. There, they and the family members who had stayed inside tried to call for help by mobile phone. They also shouted for help and a neighbor, Sameeh Al-Sheikh, an ambulance driver who had his ambulance parked next to his house.

Sameeh put on his ambulance uniform and asked his son to put on a fluorescent jacket. They got in the ambulance, had driven a few meters from their house, when Israeli soldiers ordered them to halt and get out of the vehicle. Sameeh protested, saying he had heard cries for help from the family and intended to bring the wounded to hospital. The soldiers ordered him and his son to undress and then redress. They then ordered them to abandon the ambulance and to walk toward Jabaliya.

"So we were all inside the house and we started calling the ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross], the ambulances, anybody to come and rescue us but nobody came and all of a sudden we heard an ambulance but all of a sudden nothing, silence. But later, we saw that the Israeli soldiers asked the ambulance drivers to come out of the car, to undress, and they bulldozed the ambulance with the tank."

Not like before, when civilians were safe

Khalid's family decided to stay inside the house, all gathered on the ground floor, as they had done safely during previous Israeli incursions into the neighborhood.

According to Khalid: "Our house, or our area rather, was subjected to many incursions and each and every time the army would invade the area, would come into our houses, but no harm was done to civilians or to children. Last time, that is before the last war on Gaza, that was on January 3, 2008, the Israeli army came in our house and stayed three days and destroyed many things inside the house but left without harming the civilians or the children. Now during the last [incursion] that is on January 7, 2009, actually the ground war had already started and we heard that Israel had declared war on Hamas.

"We are civilians. We have nothing to do with Hamas and we were used to have the Israeli army come into our area," Khalid recalled. "So I thought this time we could stay in our houses. We had nothing to do with Hamas. We did not pose any danger to Hamas. The war, the ground war, started on Gaza and as of the first half hour approximately on January 4, the Israeli army controlled the whole area. There was no resistance in the area. It’s an area nearby the Israeli border. Of course we were inside the houses. We were surprised because the war went on for four days while we were still inside our houses."

On 7 January 2009, however, when Amal and Souad died of their wounds, the family decided that they had to make an attempt to walk to Jabaliya. They would take Samar, the dead bodies of Amal and Souad, and their grandmother to hospital.

"My mother, 60 years old, was also dying. I was helpless. I didn’t know what to do for my children. There was my daughter dying in front of me. So I carried her and left the house even if I had to die myself because I couldn’t take it anymore. So I carried my daughter and left the house again so that the soldier, he might as just well kill my daughter and kill myself because I couldn’t take it anymore. I couldn’t let my children die in front of me."

Khalid explained: "From 12:50 until 2:50 we were stuck inside the house. Once again, like I said, I went out to the soldier. They were there, three of them, and there was a Merkava tank positioned in front of the house. I was carrying Samar, even if I had to die, and I was surprised because the third soldier looked at me and two minutes later he went inside the tank and then he came out and he moved his hand just, you know, telling me you can go ahead. So I immediately went back home inside the house and told them we’re going to die anyway. So we don’t want to die inside the house. Let’s die outside the house. Let’s move.

"Although inside the house there [were] more than 25 children, my brothers, my sisters, my dad, my mom. So we had to bring children’s mattress to put my mom on top of the mattress because she was very tired. I carried my daughter Suad, three years old. She was dead… While we were moving, every ten meters they were shooting, once above our heads and the other time by our feet. "

Khaled and Kawthar, as well as other family members and neighbors, carried the girls on their shoulders. Hajja Souad was carried by family and neighbors on a bed. Samar was transferred to Ash-Shifa Hospital and then, through Egypt, to Belgium, where she was still is in hospital at the time of writing.

"So we were trying to move and every now and then we would fall down. We walked for almost a kilometer and a half until we reached the edge of Jabaliya downtown. Of course, we reached the Kamal Idwan Hospital and they confirmed that the three of them were martyred…surprisingly enough they told me that Samar, no, she had survived and she was moved to Ash-Shiffa Hospital. I took the bodies of my two daughters in order to bury them. We didn’t have any time. This was an outrageous war and the Israeli army was moving around. So we had to bury them, Amal and Suad, and wait until they would bring Samar because we thought and we knew that Samar was going to die. "

According to her parents, Samar suffered a spinal injury and will remain paraplegic for the rest of her life. "Samar, of course, and with God’s will, Samar survived, survived so that she would be the witness before the world for the atrocities," Khalid said. "Samar survived, paralyzed. She can move only her arms. She can speak but the rest is paralyzed. She can speak for herself and she can tell her tragedy."

According to Khalid, "I haven’t seen [Samar] since the events. My tragedy is still going on. It’s not over. So what crime did I commit? I have always been a peace-loving person. I’m for peace. I’ve always supported peace and despite [all that] happened to me I’m asking the world please, please help us live in peace. The Israeli army knows that, that I’ve never been a terrorist.

"... why did it happen to me, why did they come to my house, kill my children without having committed any crime. What did I do?

"There was no war. It was cold-blooded murder of children. That was not just accidental. No, the soldier even chuckled, like I said. I know that Israel has a very sophisticated technology and that every operation it carries out is actually filmed and I’m asking Israel please broadcast the film of the killing of my children. Did you see my children carrying any rockets?"

'This was execution'

When Khalid returned to his home on 18 January 2009, his house, as most houses in that part of Izbat Abd Rabbo, had been demolished. He drew the UN fact-finding mission's attention to an anti-tank mine under the rubble of a neighbor's house.

He added: "I call upon the international community and ask the international community why my children were cold-bloodedly killed? Why were they fired on? My mother, 60, she was hit in her chest; my daughter Suad, eight years, in her chest; Samar, four years, in the chest; Amal, three years, in the chest, and this is despite the fact that they are all different sizes, all the targeting was at the chest.

"This was execution. This was utter execution and I’m asking the world what crime did my children commit? What danger did they pose for the Israeli army? I myself was there. Why didn’t they fire at me? Why didn’t they kill me and not let me see my children die in front of my eyes. My children, until now, I cannot get myself to realize there I was looking at them while they were dying."

Goldstone's team found Khalid and Kawthar Abd Rabbo to be credible and reliable witnesses. "It has no reason to doubt the veracity of the main elements of their testimony." The mission also reviewed several sworn statements they and other eyewitnesses gave to NGOs about the incident and found them to be consistent with the account it received, according to the report.

Goldstone's report notes that, in general, Izbat Abd Rabbo and the nearby areas of Jabal Al-Kashef and Jabal Al-Rayes saw some of the most intense combat during the military operations.

The testimony of Khalid and Kawthar Abd Rabbo, however, shows that Israeli forces were not engaged in combat or fearing an attack at the time of the incident, the report states. Two soldiers were sitting on the tank in front of the family house and having a snack. "They clearly did not perceive any danger from the house, its occupants or the surroundings.

"Moreover, when the family, consisting of a man, a young and an elderly woman, and three small girls, some of them waving white flags, stepped out of the house, they stood still for several minutes waiting for instructions from the soldiers."

"The Israeli soldiers could, therefore, not reasonably have perceived any threat from the group. Indeed, the fact that the gunfire was directed at the three girls and, subsequently, at the elderly woman, and not at the young adult couple, can be seen as further corroborating the finding that there was no reasonable ground for the soldier shooting to assume that any of the members of the group were directly participating in the hostilities," Goldstone's report states, finding "that the soldier deliberately directed lethal fire at Souad, Samar and Amal Abd Rabbo and at their grandmother, Hajja Souad Abd Rabbo."

Goldstone's report further states, that by preventing Sameeh Al-Sheikh from taking the wounded to the nearest hospital in his ambulance, Israeli forces deliberately aggravated the consequences of the shooting.

"The Mission recalls that the soldiers had forced Sameeh Al-Sheikh and his son to get out of the ambulance, undress and then redress. They therefore knew that they did not constitute a threat. Instead of allowing them to take the gravely wounded Samar Abd Rabbo to hospital, the soldiers forced Sameeh al-Sheikh and his son to abandon the ambulance and to walk towards Jabaliya.

Instructions given to Israeli forces: Low threshold for lethal force

The team found in the above incidents that "Israeli forces repeatedly opened fire on civilians who were not taking part in the hostilities and who posed no threat to them." From that finding, the report extrapolated that the "incidents indicate that the instructions given to the Israeli armed forces moving into Gaza provided for a low threshold for the use of lethal fire against the civilian population."

Goldstone found strong corroboration of this trend in the testimonies of Israeli soldiers collected by the Israeli NGO Breaking the Silence, and in the Protocol of the Rabin Academy’s "Fighters’ Talk." These testimonies suggest in particular that the instructions given to the soldiers conveyed two "policies." Both are an expression of the aim to eliminate as far as possible any risk to the lives of Israeli soldiers.

The first policy could be summarized, in the words of one of the soldiers: “if we see something suspect and shoot, better hit an innocent than hesitate to target an enemy.”

Another soldier attributed the following instructions to his battalion commander: “If you are not sure – shoot. If there is doubt then there is no doubt.” The first soldier summarized the briefing from the battalion commander as follows “the enemy was hiding behind civilian population. […] if we suspect someone, we should not give him the benefit of the doubt. Eventually, this could be an enemy, even if it’s some old woman approaching the house. It could be an old woman carrying an explosive charge.”

A third soldier explained “you don’t only shoot when threatened. The assumption is that you constantly feel threatened, so anything there threatens you, and you shoot. No one actually said ‘shoot regardless’ or ‘shoot anything that moves.’ But we were not ordered

to open fire only if there was a real threat.”

The report notes that some soldiers stated that they agreed with the instructions to “shoot in case of doubt.” One of them explained his profound discomfort with the policy and of how he and his comrades had attempted to question their commander after a clearly harmless man was shot. While they disagreed about the legitimacy and morality of the policy, they had little doubt about the terms of the instructions: each soldier and commander on the ground had to exercise judgment, but the policy was to shoot in case of doubt.

The second policy clearly emerging from the soldiers’ testimonies is explained by one of the soldiers as follows: “One of the things in this procedure [the outpost procedure, which is being applied in areas held by the Israeli armed forces after the Gaza ground invasion] is setting red lines. It means that whoever crosses this limit is shot, no questions asked. […] Shoot to kill.”

A soldier recounted one incident of the red-line policy: A family is ordered to leave their house. For reasons that remain unclear, probably a misunderstanding, the mother and two children turn left instead of right after having walked between 100 and 200 meters from their house. They thereby cross a “red line” established by the Israeli unit (of whose existence the mother and children could have no knowledge). An Israeli marksman on the roof of the house they had just left opened fire on the woman and her two children, killing them. As the soldier speaking at the Rabin Academy’s “Fighters’ Talk” a month later observes, “from our perspective, he [the marksman] did his job according to the orders he was given.”

Investigators also read testimony from soldiers who recounted cases in which, although a civilian had come within a distance from them which would have required opening fire under the rules imparted to them, they decided not to shoot because they did not consider the civilian a threat to them.

Legal findings: Direct assaults on civilians

According to Goldstone, the fundamental principles applicable to these incidents - 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”452 and that “the civilian population as such, as well as individual civilians, shall not be the object of attack.”

Israel refers to the principle of distinction as “the first core principle of the Law of Armed Conflict.” It further states that “the IDF’s [Israeli army’s] emphasis on compliance with the Law of Armed Conflict was also directly incorporated into the rules of engagement for the Gaza Operation.” The principle of distinction was reportedly incorporated 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).”

In reviewing the above incidents the mission found in every case that the Israeli armed forces carried out direct intentional strikes against civilians. In 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.

The team therefore finds that Israeli forces violated the prohibition under customary international law and reflected in article 51 (2) of Additional Protocol, that the civilian population as such will not be the object of attacks. This finding applies to the attacks on Amal, Souad, Samar, and Hajja Souad Abd Rabbo.

Not only are civilians not to be the object of attacks, they are also “entitled in all circumstances, to respect for their persons … protected especially against all acts of violence or threats thereof” (Fourth Geneva Convention, art. 27). Fundamental guarantees set out in article 75 of Additional Protocol I include the absolute prohibition “at any time and in any place” of “violence to the life, health, or physical or mental well-being of persons”. According to the facts presented to the mission, these provisions have been violated.

"The State of Israel would be responsible under international law for these internationally wrongful actions carried out by its agents," the report states. "From the facts ascertained, the Mission finds that the conduct of the Israeli armed 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 persons456 and as such give rise to individual criminal responsibility.

"The Mission also finds that the direct targeting and arbitrary killing of Palestinian civilians is a violation by the Israeli armed forces of the right to life as provided in article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

"In most of the cases examined above, the Mission finds that the Israeli armed forces denied the medical emergency services access to the wounded civilians. ...

"The Mission recalls that article 10 (2) of Additional Protocol I provides that 'In all circumstances [the wounded] shall be treated humanely and shall receive, to the fullest extent practicable and with the least possible delay, the medical care and attention required by their condition. …' This provision enjoys customary international law status. The Mission is mindful that 'the obligation to protect and care for the wounded … is an obligation of means.'

"It applies whenever circumstances permit. However, "each party to the conflict must use its best efforts to provide protection and care for the wounded, the report states, including permitting humanitarian organizations to provide for their protection and care.

"The facts ascertained by the Mission establish that in the incidents investigated the Israeli armed forces did not use their best efforts to provide humanitarian organizations access to the wounded. On the contrary, the facts indicate that, while the circumstances permitted giving access, the Israeli armed forces arbitrarily withheld it," according to Goldstone's final report.

"On this basis, the Mission finds a violation of the obligation under customary international law to treat the wounded humanely," the report states. The conduct of the Israeli armed forces amounted to violations of the right to life where it resulted in death, and to a violation of the right to physical integrity, and to cruel and inhuman treatment in other cases, which constitutes a violation of articles 6 and 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.”

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