January 4, 2009 will go down in the history books (if there is justice and a few brave souls willing to write the truth) as the day Israel began its descent into hell. There will be no peace in the Middle East until there is justice and accountability for the crimes Israel has committed and continues to commit with impunity. Kerry, Netanyahu and Abbas can talk until they’re blue in the face. Real peace requires more than talk.
On the ninth day of Operation Cast Lead, Israeli soldiers killed 21 members of the al-Samouni family. The Goldstone Commission heard testimony from surviving family members and rescue workers who were prevented from reaching the victims and concluded that the Israeli soldiers intentionally fired at the family in breach of the Geneva Conventions. However, Israel conducted its own investigation and found no wrong-doing.
The following account is taken verbatim from the Goldstone Report.
During the morning of 4 January 2009, Israeli soldiers entered many of the houses in al-Samouni area. One of the first, around 5 a.m., was the house of Ateya Helmi al-Samouni, a 45-year-old man. Faraj, his 22-year-old son, had already met Israeli soldiers some minutes earlier as he stepped outside the house to warn his neighbours that their roof was burning. The soldiers entered Ateya al-Samouni’s house by force, throwing some explosive device, possibly a grenade. In the midst of the smoke, fire and loud noise, Ateya al-Samouni 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 licence in his hands. The soldiers then opened gunfire inside the room in which all the approximately 20 family members were gathered. Several were injured, Ahmad, a boy of four, particularly seriously. Soldiers with night vision equipment entered the room and closely inspected each of those present. The soldiers then moved to the next room and set fire to it. The smoke from that room soon started to suffocate the family. A witness speaking to the Mission recalled seeing “white stuff” coming out of the mouth of his 17-month-old nephew and helping him to breathe.
At about 6.30 a.m. the soldiers ordered the family to leave the house. 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 the area, but a few metres further a different group of soldiers stopped them and ordered the men to undress completely. Faraj al-Samouni, who was carrying the severely injured Ahmad, pleaded with them to be allowed to take the injured to Gaza. The soldiers allegedly replied using abusive language. They also said “You are bad Arabs”. “You go to Nitzarim.”
Faraj al-Samouni, his mother and others entered the house of an uncle in the neighbourhood. From there, they called PRCS. As described below, at around 4 p.m. that day a PRCS ambulance managed to come in the vicinity of the house where Ahmad was lying wounded, but was prevented by the Israeli armed forces from rescuing him. Ahmad died at around 2 a.m. during the night of 4 to 5 January. 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 on the street told them to go back to the house, but the witness said that they walked on in the direction of Gaza. The soldiers shot at their feet, without injuring anyone, however. Two kilometres further north on Salah ad-Din Street, they found ambulances which took the injured to al-Shifa hospital in Gaza.
In other cases, the entry of soldiers was less violent than in Ateya al-Samouni’s home. In one instance, the 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 the house of Saleh al-Samouni, the 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 Saleh’s father identified each of the family members in Hebrew for the soldiers. According to Saleh al-Samouni, they asked to be allowed to go to Gaza City, but the soldiers refused and instead ordered them to go to Wa’el al-Samouni’s house across the street.
The Israeli soldiers also ordered those in other houses to move to Wa’el al-Samouni’s house. As a result, around 100 members of the extended al-Samouni family, the majority women and children, were assembled in that house by noon on 4 January. There was hardly any water and no milk for the babies. Around 5 p.m. on 4 January, one of the women went outside to fetch firewood. There was some flour in the house and she made bread, one piece for each of those present.
In the morning of 5 January 2009, around 6:30 – 7 a.m., Wa’el al-Samouni, Saleh al-Samouni, Hamdi Maher al-Samouni, Muhammad Ibrahim al-Samouni and Iyad al-Samouni, stepped outside the house to collect firewood. Rashad Helmi al-Samouni remained standing next to the door of the house. Saleh al-Samouni has pointed out to the 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 and killed Muhammad Ibrahim al-Samouni and, probably, Hamdi Maher al-Samouni. The other men managed to retreat to the house. Within about five minutes, two or three more projectiles had struck the house directly. Saleh and Wa’el al-Samouni stated at the public hearing that these were missiles launched from Apache helicopters. The Mission has not been able to determine the type of munition used.
Saleh al-Samouni stated that overall 21 family members were killed and 19 injured in the attack on Wa’el al-Samouni’s house. The dead include Saleh al-Samouni’s father, Talal Helmi al-Samouni, his mother, Rahma Muhammad al-Samouni, and his two-year-old daughter Azza. Three of his sons, aged five, three and less than one year (Mahmoud, Omar and Ahmad), were injured, but survived. Of Wa’el’s immediate family, a daughter and a son (Rezqa, 14, and Fares, 12) were killed, while two smaller children (Abdullah and Muhammad) were injured. The photographs of all the dead victims were shown to the Mission at the home of the al-Samouni family and displayed at the public hearing in Gaza.
After the shelling of Wa’el al-Samouni’s house, most of those inside decided to leave immediately and walk to Gaza City, leaving behind the dead and some of the wounded. The women waved their scarves. Soldiers, however, ordered the al-Samounis to return to the house. When family members replied that there were many injured among them, the soldiers’ reaction was, according to Saleh al-Samouni, “go back to death”. They decided not to follow this injunction and walked in the direction of Gaza City. Once in Gaza, they went to PRCS and told them about the injured that had remained behind.
PRCS had made its first attempt to evacuate the injured from the al-Samouni area on 4 January 2009 around 4 p.m. after receiving a call from the family of Ateya al-Samouni. PRCS had called ICRC, asking it to coordinate its entry into the area with the Israeli armed forces. A PRCS ambulance from al-Quds hospital managed to reach the al-Samouni area. The ambulance had turned west off Salah ad-Din Street when, 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 5 to 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 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 al-Samouni family arrived in Gaza City on 5 January, PRCS and ICRC requested permission from the Israeli armed forces to go into the al Samouni neighbourhood to evacuate the wounded. These requests were denied. On 6 January around 6.45 p.m., one ICRC car and four PRCS ambulances drove towards the al-Samouni area in spite of the lack of coordination with the Israeli armed forces, but were not allowed to enter the area and evacuate the wounded.
On 7 January 2009, the Israeli armed forces finally authorized ICRC and PRCS to go to the al-Samouni area during the “temporary ceasefire” declared from 1 to 4 p.m. on that day. Three PRCS ambulances, an ICRC car and another car used to transport bodies drove down Salah ad-Din Street from Gaza City until, 1.5 km north of the al-Samouni area, they found it closed by sand mounds. ICRC tried to coordinate with the Israeli armed forces to have the road opened, but they refused and asked the ambulance staff to walk the remaining 1.5 km.
Once in the al-Samouni neighbourhood, PRCS looked for survivors in the houses. An ambulance driver who was part of the team told the Mission that in Wa’el al-Samouni’s house they found 15 dead bodies and two seriously injured children. One of the children had a deep wound in the shoulder, which was infected and giving off a foul odour. The children were dehydrated and scared of the PRCS staff member. 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 armed forces, including tanks and bulldozers. The rescuers put all the elderly on a cart and pulled it themselves for 1.5 kilometres to the place where they had been forced to leave the ambulances. The dead 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 to the cars, PRCS staff entered one house where they found a man with two broken legs. While they were carrying the man out of the house, the Israeli armed forces started firing at the house, probably to warn that the three-hour “temporary ceasefire” were about to expire. PRCS was not able to return to the area until 18 January.
On 18 January 2009, members of the al-Samouni family were finally able to return to their neighbourhood. They found that Wa’el al-Samouni’s house, as most other houses in the neighbourhood and the small mosque, had been demolished. The Israeli armed 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 Mission 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.