'My cousin and his son died in front of me'
In the houses at the edge of Zeitoun, a rundown neighbourhood on the outskirts of Gaza City, dozens of Palestinian families woke to discover that Israel’s invasion had brought troops and tanks to their doorstep.
In the darkness the military had set up a position in the rubble of a former Jewish settlement. The soldiers ordered out residents from higher buildings and those closest to the former Netzarim settlement. The soldiers then took up positions on the upper floors.
In one case about 110 Palestinians were moved into a single-residence house.
Half were children; all were told to stay indoors. On Friday the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs described what happened next: “Twenty-four hours later, Israeli forces shelled the home repeatedly, killing approximately 30.” Many more bodies may still be hidden in the rubble of that building.
The killings at Zeitoun happened on Monday but it was only on Friday that the full horror became clear.
According to accounts the strongest among the survivors carried injured children for more than a kilometre until they found drivers willing to take them to the Shifa hospital in Gaza City. By the time they arrived, three of the children were dead.
Israel’s ground invasion has been littered with many deadly incidents but the UN described Zeitoun as “one of the gravest” and one which the UN’s top human rights official said appears to have “all the elements of war crimes”.
There has been a rapid increase in the number of children killed, which as of late Thursday stood at 257—but could be many more. Already the death toll on the Palestinian side stands at 760, nearly half women and children—a far higher rate of death even than Israel’s devastating war in southern Lebanon two years ago. On the Israeli side 13 have died, three of them civilians.
One of most compelling accounts of the Zeitoun killings comes from Meysa Samouni (19). She told the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem that she and 13 others from her family were ordered at gunpoint out of their home at 9am on Sunday morning by Israeli soldiers who eventually took them to join others in a concrete warehouse. About 70 neighbours and relatives were in the building, without food or drink.
At around 6am on Monday, she said, four of the men left to bring other relatives to the shelter. “The moment they left the house, a missile or shell hit them,” she said. One was killed instantly, the others were injured.
“My husband went over to them to help and then a shell or missile was fired on to the roof of the warehouse,” she said. She believed from the size of the strike that it was a bomb dropped by a fighter jet.
“When the missile struck, I lay down with my daughter under me. Everything filled up with smoke and dust and I heard screams and crying.” She said 20 to 30 people were killed—among them her husband Tawfiq (21) and both her husband’s parents, Rashed (41) and Rabab (38). Another 20 were injured, some severely. A piece of shrapnel had sliced off the thumb and two fingers from the left hand of her nine-month-old daughter, Jumana.
Eventually, after two of the men with her were detained and blindfolded by soldiers, she and her daughter made it to hospital. “As far as I know, the dead and wounded who were under the ruins are still there,” she said.
Nafaz Samouni (42) estimated there were about 50 people in the house. “When the shelling started more than half of the people in the house were killed,” he said from al-Ahli hospital in Gaza City, where he was recovering from leg wounds. “Some were decapitated. My cousin and his son died in front of me.”
His son Ahmad (12) was shot in the arm and the chest—doctors said the bullet hit his heart. The boy was due to be transferred to hospital in Egypt.
But Nafaz Samouni could not leave the house until medics from the International Committee of the Red Cross arrived on Wednesday afternoon, when Israel for the first time paused its fighting for three hours to allow in desperately needed aid. “We spent four days without food. We had just a kerosene lamp and very little water,” he said. “As we left we saw dead bodies around us. Dogs were eating them.”
The Red Cross described the Zeitoun killings as “a shocking incident” and recounted how its staff found children too weak to stand and sitting by the dead bodies of their mothers. It was “unacceptable,” it said, that the military prevented earlier access by ambulances.
The Israeli military said it would investigate “once such a complaint is received formally, within the constraints of the current military operation”.
The military did not address the details of the killings, but said: “The Israel Defence Forces is engaged in a battle with the Hamas terrorist organisation that has deliberately used Palestinian civilians as human shields ... The IDF in no way intentionally targets civilians and has demonstrated its willingness to abort operations to save civilian lives and to risk injury in order to assist innocent civilians.”
However there is little doubt Israeli forces are using intense fire power. Even the soldiers admit this. “We do not baulk at any means to protect the lives of our soldiers,” one unnamed unit commander told the Ha’aretz newspaper.
About 20 000 Gazans in the north have fled their homes and several thousand more have fled in Rafah on the Egyptian border. But even they are not safe. In the second major incident of the week, at least 43 Palestinians were killed in a UN school in Jabalia on Tuesday.
At least three mortar rounds landed in the compound, even though the UN had given Israel the co-ordinates of all its installations in Gaza to prevent any such attack. It was one of several times UN staff or buildings were hit this week, forcing the UN Relief and Works Agency to suspend all movement of its staff.
The Israeli military said an initial inquiry had shown that several mortar shells were fired at Israeli forces from within the school. It released a video on YouTube of a mortar being fired from a UN school to support its case—but the footage dated back to October 2007.
However, the UN insisted the Israeli account was wrong. “I am very confident now that there was no militant activity. If anybody has evidence to the contrary, then let’s bring it forward,” said John Ging, director of Gaza operations for UNRWA. - guardian.co.uk