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The use of Palestinian civilians as human shields

Jan. 10, 2010 6:09 P.M. (Updated: Jan. 19, 2010 1:02 A.M.)
Part 15 of a series recounting the findings of South African jurist Richard Goldstone's UN Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict.

Bethlehem - Ma'an - At midnight on 10 January 2009, Israeli soldiers violently entered the home of Mahmoud Al-Ajrami, where he and his wife were sheltering underneath the stairs.

Soldiers threw a grenade and entered the house shooting. What Al-Ajrami says transpired over the next 48 hours left him with two fractured vertebrae as a result of beatings, and was one of four cases in which civilians were used as human shields that Richard Goldstone's UN inquiry investigated.

These civilians were allegedly forced to enter houses at gunpoint in front of or, in one case, instead of soldiers. Two incidents took place east of Jabaliya.

The case of Mahmoud Al-Ajrami

Al-Ajrami, a former foreign minister, testified in Gaza City last June. He resigned when Hamas took over and has not worked since. He, his wife and 15-year-old daughter lived in a house west of Beit Lahiya. His home was directly hit for the first time on 2 or 3 January 2009, according to him by tank shells and by missiles fired by Apache helicopters, which seriously damaged external and internal walls.

"I don't know why the Israeli army did what it did, especially since I was in a civilian house. There wasn't one bullet fired from my house or from the neighboring houses," he recounted. "And I asked this question to one of the officers later ... this question still challenges me."

Tanks that came into the area were initially positioned around 500 meters north of his house. As he told Goldstone, Al-Ajrami had decided not to leave because of his father's experience of leaving his home in Israel and not being able to return. But he decided that this was proving too difficult for his daughter. He called a taxi and his daughter moved to the house of an uncle in a safer area.

"The soldiers came in while firing and guns shooting. ... At one point we were facing them, so I started talking to them in a loud voice, telling them, 'we are here, we are the owners of this house, we are civilians,' and my wife was saying more or less the same. ..."

An officer ordered Al-Ajrami to lift his robe (he was in nightclothes) and turn around. "I was there with my wife, wearing pajamas and bathrobes, because this was January and you know it's very cold, and these are the coldest days of the year in Palestine," he said.

"One of them – actually there were about 20 to 25 soldiers inside the house, and like I said, we were in the corner, although we tried to get closer to them – and one of them yelled at us in broken Arabic and I couldn't understand him ... So when I got closer to him, he pointed his gun at me with the laser beam, of course, pointing at me, so I moved my hands and said, 'please, just stop, stop, don't shoot. I don't understand what you need, what you want.' ...

"His first question was 'what are you doing here,' and I said, 'this is my house, this is my home and it's quite natural to be at home, and I don't know, frankly speaking, what are you doing here, because my presence here is natural, your presence is not natural.' So he insulted me, using extremely crude words and he said, 'you have to remove your shirt, turn around.' I did, and he – maybe he expected me to be carrying a bomb ... Then he asked me to move ahead. ...

They were then taken to a neighboring house where soldiers took his ID card and checked it on a laptop.

"And then he said, 'well, you're going to stay with us' and he started then asking the questions, 'I'm gonna give you five minutes and then you will have to tell us in detail where is [captured Israeli soldier] Gilad Shalit. Where are the Hamas tunnels located and where are the Hamas militants, where are the rockets' and so on."

Al-Ajrami responded that he could not provide that information because he did not know, that he was previously a member of the Fatah administration. "So he said, 'well, I'll come back to you.' ... He told me, 'if you don't speak we will take you and we will kill you,' and I remember exactly what he said, 'if you don't talk we will take you and shoot you,' and he repeated the same sentence over and over again. So I said, 'I don't have any information. I don't know what I can tell you.'"

According to Goldstone, the soldier responded: "You are Hamas; Hamas killed all Fatah and others in Gaza, so you must be Hamas." Al-Ajrami insisted that he was a civilian. The officer told him again that he had five minutes in which to give him information or he would be shot. Five minutes later, Al-Ajrami again responded that he did not know anything about the questions asked.

"So he said, 'what do you do.' I said, 'I work as the assistant of the minister.' He said 'which minister,' I said 'the foreign minister.' So he said, 'then you're the assistant of Dr Mahmoud Al-Zahar, the [de facto government] foreign affairs minister.' I said, 'well, I worked with all of the ministers of foreign affairs.' We stopped there and then he said 'you're a Hamas member' and I said, 'no, this is my job as a diplomat at the foreign affairs minister. I don't belong to any party.'

"Then he said, well, 'you don't want to speak,' and I said, 'no,' so he yelled at me and he was extremely angry. He started insulting me, he insulted my mother, using words, extremely offensive words that nobody can imagine. So I said, 'look, you can take me wherever you want, I can't do anything about it. You're an army, you have your forces, your tanks are stationed here ...'

Al-Ajlami was handcuffed and blindfolded. Two or three soldiers took him by the shoulders and forced him to walk in front of them. His wife tried to go with him but they pushed her back into the room. It was by now around 2am. "My wife had her hands tied, was hanging to my robe, and she said 'please take me with him' and she was screaming and she said, 'I'm not going to leave him, take me with him.' One of the soldiers pushed her back, so she fell on the ground and he said, 'no, you are not to move.' So I left.

'I thought they were going to shoot me'

The soldiers took Al-Ajlami up to the second floor of the building and threw him off. He landed on rubble and fainted. When he came to, he had severe pain in his right side and had difficulty breathing. He found out later that he had broken four ribs and he had severe bruising down his right leg.

"I didn't expect that I was going to be thrown off the second floor, and of course, it goes without saying, I couldn't do anything about it. ...

It was raining and still dark. Four soldiers forced him to stand. He was moaning with the pain but did not want them to hear. "I didn't want to scream. I tried to hold myself, I tried to restrain myself. They put me up and I had to walk but I was in extreme pain. I realized that I could not walk; that the right side, there were a lot of bruises and I saw them later when I reached the hospital."

The soldiers pushed him against a wall and walked away. He thought they were going to shoot him. He was still blindfolded. "I tried to look from underneath the blindfold, I saw the soldier's feet, and I heard [from a witness] later on that when they brought him to join me, he saw them holding their guns and pointing their guns at me and he thought that they were going to shoot me and shoot him also."

Early the next morning, the soldiers took him and another man (whom he subsequently found out to be his neighbor Abbas Halawa) and forced them to walk in front of them. Al-Ajrami was blindfolded and a gun was held to the back of his head. He thinks that there were around 25 soldiers behind him and the other Palestinian man. Having walked in this way for a while, both he and the other man were forced to enter several houses with the soldiers taking cover behind them. They did not find anyone in any of the houses.

"I had a lot of difficulty walking and it was rough road. It was difficult to walk on that road and my movements were extremely difficult and we were blindfolded, our hands were tied. This is in addition to the acute pain I was feeling. I spoke to one of the Israeli soldiers who was behind me, and of course, we could feel the guns on our heads, also on the broken ribs on my back, and I told him I'm in extreme pain and he insulted me and he said 'just walk, go, go,' he said.

"Now, there were both of us, Abbas Halawa and myself and we kept walking, and when we got closer to a house, and because we could still see that, they would just push us ahead, meaning that they were hiding behind us. And on more than six or seven occasions they started shooting. So whenever they heard a strange noise and it was windy, because it was wintertime, they would start shooting. And we went on like this until we reached a a military location where there were a lot of tanks, also machine guns, soldiers."

After searching several houses, the soldiers, Al-Ajrami, and Halawa walked north toward Dogit, a former settlement. He could hear the movement of tanks and see tank positions. Both men were forced to sit on the ground. They were left there without food, water or blankets. "They threw us on the floor next to each other with Mr Abbas Halawa and we stayed like this until the morning."

At around 10am, soldiers took Halawa for interrogation. "I kept just writhing and writing because of the pain, it was extremely cold. I was trembling and shivering. ... It was around 11:00am and the soldiers came and took me. I told them don't touch my right arm because I'm in extreme pain and I could not stand up, so they carried me."

During that and the following day, Al-Ajrami was interrogated, once by a senior officer. "I realized that I was face to face with an Israeli officer, blond guy, blue eyes, in his 50s. I think he's a general, I didn't pay attention to his rank. And I felt, somehow, questioning myself why I was put that way, as if I were a terrorist. ... And he said 'look me in the eyes, I'm an intelligence officer, and I can understand whether you lie or not because we study psychology.' I said, 'I also have a PhD in mental health,' and he just nodded and I think he didn't feel happy about it, because he replied in a very, very harsh manner.

"And he repeated the same questions, again, and when I gave him the same reply again, he said that Hamas killed everybody and I laughed and he asked me about the whereabouts of Gilad Shalit and the rockets and what have you. ... I said, 'why are you treating me that way.' He asked me to approach. I said, 'I can't.' He said, 'why.' I said, 'because one of your soldiers [threw] me off the second floor.' He asked the soldiers to drive me forward where there was a boulder of debris and all soldiers there and tanks were coming and going and rockets were falling from the aircraft and the atmosphere was quite tense.

"And he said, 'this is your house' and I looked at the sea, to see that my house was there because it was on a hill. 'Yes,' I told him ... he said that it was a beautiful house. I said, 'your soldiers destroyed it,' and he said, 'we explicitly did that so as to give you a lesson because you elected the number one enemy of Israel, and I said, what's my fault, what's my guilt.' He said, 'as long as you are alive, you should know that the IDF is there and it is coming.'

"Then there was another officer who intervened and said 'take him away' and they brought me back to the ground, and that interrogation was repeated four or five times through the day and night and I was just in the open without any food or water and without any medication, whatsoever. And the next day the interrogation was repeated with me."

On the second day, Al-Ajlami was taken to the edge of the camp and told to walk back south into Gaza City. "I walked southward toward my house and it was about 1pm and about 100 meters from that point, one of the soldiers took scissors and he cut the plastic handcuffs and they took away the blindfold and they put it in his pocket and then he asked me to go south, not to my house, and to head toward Jabaliya. I said, well, and at that moment I [thought] I was breathing my last because of thirst. I asked for some water. One of the soldiers gave me a small bottle of water and it had a black thread around it, and he said 'take it' and I had some water.

Then I said, 'where should I go, should I go alone.' He said, yes, 'but I'm among your soldiers and this is just like an execution process.' The other insulted me at least 'go to hell and get lost;' this is the least I can say."

Al-Ajlami was able to reach the outskirts of the city and was helped by a stranger to reach a relative's home, from where he was taken to Ash-Shifa Hospital. On returning to his house, he found it ransacked and vandalized. Many items of value had been stolen, including jewelry and electronic equipment.

The case of Majdi Abd Rabbo

Majdi Abd Rabbo, a man aged 39 at the time of the incident, is married and the father of five children. He is PA intelligence officer.

Abd Rabbo recounted that, at around 9:30am on 5 January 2009, he heard loud banging on the outer door of the house. He asked who was at the door and someone responded in Arabic, ordering him to open the door. He opened the door and saw in front of him a handcuffed Palestinian man, who was intentionally not identified by name in Goldstone's report.

A group of around 15 soldiers stood behind the Palestinian man. One of the soldiers was holding a weapon to the man's head. The soldiers pushed the man to one side and four soldiers pointed their weapons at Abd Rabbo. They ordered him to undress down to his underwear. He was then told to dress again and they pushed him into the house.

The soldiers ordered him to call his children one by one. He started with his eldest son, aged 16, who was ordered by the soldiers to strip naked. The same process was followed with the two other sons, aged nine and eight. He then called his daughter, aged 14, who was told to press her clothes to her body and turn around. His wife, who was holding their baby daughter, was also told to press her clothes to her body, and then to take the baby's trousers off.

Abd Rabbo stated that the soldiers then forced him to walk in front of them as they searched the house, room by room, holding a firearm to his head. They questioned him about the house behind his. He told them that the house was empty and the owner had been absent for four years working in the Sudan. There was a small gap between the two houses, but they were joined at the roof. The soldiers gave him a sledgehammer, the kind used to break stones, and told him to break a hole through the dividing wall. This took around 15 minutes.

From the roof, the soldiers entered the house, pushing Abd Rabbo ahead of them down the stairs while they watched over his shoulders. They had descended only a few steps, however, when the soldiers apparently detected some movement, started shouting, pulled Abd Rabbo back and rushed back into his house over the roof. He heard some gun shots.

The soldiers ran out into the street, forcing Abd Rabbo and the other man with them while they were shooting. Both were taken into an adjacent mosque, where there were a large number of soldiers with military equipment. They were forced to sit down and then handcuffed.

The soldiers used the raised area of the mosque, from where the imam leads prayers, to fire at Abd Rabbo's house and the houses next to it. He shouted at the soldiers to stop, as his family was still in the house. A soldier told him to shut up or they would shoot him. The shooting continued for around 30 minutes. After a lull, the soldiers warned that there would be a huge explosion and, indeed, about three minutes later there was a huge explosion. The explosion was followed by intensive gunfire and artillery shells.

In the meantime, he had been forced to break a hole in the wall of the mosque and into the neighboring house. He had then been interrogated about his knowledge of Hamas and the location of tunnels. Subsequently, he was taken and detained together with neighbors, men and women, in another house.

When the shooting stopped, soldiers came to fetch him. He was taken to the road near his house. There were numerous soldiers standing next to it, including some officers. He saw a senior officer talking to the soldiers who raided his house, and the officer then came to speak to him, through an interpreter.

'This is not my job, I don't want to die'

The soldier said that they had killed the fighters in the house and told him to go inside and come back with their clothes and weapons. Abd Rabbo protested, saying that he just wanted to find out if his family was safe. The officer told him to obey their orders if he wanted to see his family again. He refused to go, and was kicked and beaten by soldiers with their weapons until he gave in.

He approached the house from the street. The entrance was destroyed and blocked by rubble. He went back to the officer and told him that he could not get in. The officer told him to go through the roof instead. He went into his own house, which he found empty, except for a soldier. This reinforced his anxiety about the fate of his family. At this point, there was no major damage to his house. He crossed the roof and went down the stairs into the other house. He was scared that the fighters would shoot at him and shouted, "I am a Palestinian, a neighbor. I am being forced to come into this house."

In a room at the bottom of the stairs he found three armed young men wearing military camouflage and headbands of the Al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas. They pointed their weapons at him. He told them that the soldiers thought they had been killed and had sent him to check. He said he was helpless as they had taken his wife and children. The men told him they had seen everything, and asked him to go back and tell the soldiers what he had seen.

He went back outside, again crossing over the roof of his house. As he approached the soldiers, they pointed their weapons at him and ordered him to stop, strip naked and turn around. After he dressed again, he told them what he had seen. Initially, the soldiers did not believe him. They asked how he knew that they were Hamas militants and he explained about their headbands. The soldiers asked about their weapons. He replied that they were carrying Kalashnikovs. The officer told him that, if he was lying, he would be shot dead.

He was handcuffed and taken back to the family house for detention. At around 3pm, he heard gunfire for around 30 minutes. The soldiers came back for him and took him to the same officer. This time he noticed different soldiers present with different military equipment. Through the translator, the officer told him that they had killed the militants, and told him to go in and bring back their bodies. Again he refused, saying "this is not my job, I don't want to die."

He lied to them, saying that the three militants had told him that if he came back, they would kill him. The officer told him that, as they had already killed the militants, he should not worry. He added that they had fired two missiles into the house, which must have killed the militants. When he still resisted, he was beaten and kicked again, until he went into the house via the roof again.

He found the house very badly damaged. The bottom part of the stairs was missing. He again went in shouting, to alert the militants if they were still alive. He found them in the same room as before. Two were unharmed. The third was badly injured, covered in blood, with wounds to his shoulder and abdomen. They asked him what was going on outside and he told them that the area was fully occupied and the soldiers had taken numerous hostages, including his family.

The wounded man gave him his name and asked him to tell his family what had happened. Abd Rabbo promised to do so if he survived and later did so. Another told him to tell the Israeli officer that, if he was a real man, he would come to them himself.

Abd Rabbo returned to the soldiers, who again forced him to strip naked before they approached him. He told the officer that two of the militants were unharmed. The officer swore at him and accused him of lying. Abd Rabbo then repeated the message from the militant, at which the officer and four other soldiers assaulted him with their weapons and insulted him.

The officer asked for his ID card. He replied that it was in his house but gave him the number. The officer checked it via an electronic device. Three minutes later the officer asked him if it was true that he worked with the head of the PA's intelligence services, which he confirmed. The officer asked him if he was a supporter of Mahmoud Abbas and a Fatah affiliate. He said he was.

The soldiers brought Abd Rabbo a megaphone and told him to use it to call the fighters. He initially refused but did so under threat. As instructed, he told them to surrender, that the Red Cross was present and they could hand themselves over. There was no response.

By then, night had fallen. Abd Rabbo was again handcuffed and taken back to the house. Thirty to forty minutes later, he heard shooting and a huge explosion. Soldiers came to tell him that they had bombed the house and ordered him to go in again and check on the fighters.

Israeli forces had floodlit the area. Abd Rabbo found both his and the neighbor's house very badly damaged. He could not use the roof of his house to enter the neighbor's house, as it had collapsed. He went back to the soldiers, who again made him strip, this time to his underwear. He asked where his family was and said that he could not reach the fighters because of the damage to the houses. He accused the soldiers of destroying his house. The officer said that they had only hit the neighbor's house. He was then handcuffed.

Until this time, Abd Rabbo had been given no food or water, and it was very cold. After a while, his handcuffs were removed, he was told to dress and taken back to the family house, to the room where he found that other people were being held. All the men and boys in this room were handcuffed and their ankles were tied. A soldier came with some drinking glasses and smashed them at the entrance to the room where they were being held. After smashing the glasses, the soldier left again.

Abd Rabbo had developed a severe headache. Another detainee, who spoke Hebrew, called a soldier to say that he was sick and needed medicine. The soldier told him to keep quiet or he would be shot. A woman tied a scarf around his head to ease the pain.

At around 7am, he was taken back to the soldiers outside. He was questioned about the number of fighters in the house. He confirmed that he had seen three.

Two young Palestinian men from the neighborhood were brought over. A soldier gave them a camera and told them to go into the house and take photos of the fighters. The two tried to refuse, and were beaten and kicked. About 10 minutes later, they came back with photos of the three fighters. Two appeared to be dead, under rubble. The third was also trapped by rubble but appeared to be alive and was still holding his firearm. A soldier showed Abd Rabbo the photos and asked if these were the same people. He confirmed they were.

A soldier took the megaphone and told the fighters that they had 15 minutes to surrender, that the neighborhood was under the control of Israeli forces and that, if they did not surrender, they would hit the house with an airstrike.

Fifteen minutes later, a soldier came with a dog, which had electronic gear attached to its body and what looked like a camera on its head. Another soldier had a small laptop. The handler sent the dog into the house. A few minutes later, shots were heard and the dog came running out. It had been shot and subsequently died.

At around 10:30am on 6 January 2009, a bulldozer arrived and started to level the house, demolishing everything in its way. Abd Rabbo watched it demolish his own house and the neighbor's house. He and the two young men were told to go back to the family house. They heard shooting.

At around 3pm, Abd Rabbo was taken back close to the site of his and his neighbor's house. He told the Goldstone mission that he saw the bodies of the three fighters lying on the ground in the rubble of the house.

The soldiers then forced him to enter other houses on the street as they searched them. All were empty. The soldiers forced him to go into a house alone initially and, when he came out, sent in a dog. During the house searches he managed to find some water to drink, the first drink he had had for two days. At midnight, the soldiers took him back to the family house.

On 7 January, all the men and boys were taken from the family house and transferred to the house of a cousin of Abd Rabbo's in the same neighborhood. There were more than 100 men and boys, including members of his extended family, aged between 15 and 70. The women were being held elsewhere. Abd Rabbo's immediate family members were not there, and he learnt that no one had seen them. He remained extremely anxious about their safety.

At around 11pm, the men and boys in that house were told that they were going to be released, and that they should all walk west toward Jabaliya, without turning left or right, on threat of being shot. They found Izbat Abd Rabbo Street severely damaged. Abd Rabbo went to his sister's house in Jabaliya, where he was reunited with his wife and children.

Abd Rabbo told the Goldstone mission that he and his family were traumatized by what had happened to them and did not know what to do now, having lost their home and all their possessions. His children were all suffering psychologically and performing poorly at school. Five months later, Majdi Abd Rabbo was still having nightmares.
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