It remains to be seen if there will be any accountability for these abuses.
Under a white flag, darkly
By Amira Hass
At 1 P.M. on Monday, January 5, 2009, near Rajib Mughrabi’s garage on Saladin Street, in the Zeitoun neighborhood of Gaza City, a man of about 60 was pushing an elderly woman in a wheelbarrow. A 15-year-old boy walked at their side, waving a white cloth. Behind them, some 80 people were walking northward, their hands in the air. The day before, during Israel Defense Forces advances under cover of heavy fire, Palestinian inhabitants began their great flight westward, inward, into the Strip’s urban centers. If they thought they were in the soldiers’ line of sight, they waved white flags and raised their hands aloft.
The man pushing the wheelbarrow was Mouin Joha, his mother was sitting inside and his son Ibrahim accompanied them bearing the flag.
“On the night between Saturday and Sunday, between January 3rd and 4th,” Joha recalled a few weeks later, “there was shelling just all around us. They were firing from all directions, and inside the house we were dying of fear. With every shell we thought it was the end. We heard the stones quaking. We ran from room to room. We lay the children down on the floor in the innermost room, like fish, one next to the other.”
Joha is an agricultural engineer who studied in Egypt; for the past 15 years, he has worked for the Palestinian ministry of agriculture, supervising strawberry growers. He lived in his unwhitewashed concrete home with two wives and 10 children. In the now half-destroyed house, he recounted the events of the morning of January 4: “They started shooting from the northwest, firing on our home as though we were a military outpost. The girls were crying in fear. Down below, the ground was covered with soldiers. They were shouting, ‘Open the door.’”
The houses along this part of the main thoroughfare of Gaza – Saladin Road – are some 80 to 100 meters from one another. To the east of the houses is an open area of fields and orchards. To the west, the edge of the Zeitoun neighborhood. Now it is strewn with heaps of concrete and other rubble, the walls of its houses gaping open, revealing evidence of fires that have broken out inside. There are also the ruins of the Swafiri family’s chicken coops. As the army advanced, the bulldozers or tanks ran over them. At the end of January, there was still a heavy stench of dead chickens in the air. Municipal sanitation department workers, wearing white clothes and white masks on their faces, were engaged in gathering the dead birds.
The Joha family sent one of the girls down to open the door for the soldiers. The rest of the family came down the stairs “with hands up in the air.” A soldier started smashing the floor in one of the rooms. In a number of the houses that became temporary outposts, the soldiers filled up sacks for their firing positions with the sand found under the flooring. Mouin Joha went up to the top floor with the soldiers “and I discovered that everything was destroyed”: The shelling had brought down walls, bent columns, opened holes. One of the soldiers “photographed us and the destruction,” he recalled, “and then we were ordered to go downstairs. There were maybe 12 of them, maybe 20. I was so scared I couldn’t count.”
Downstairs, said Joha, an officer shouted: “‘Yallah – everyone to Rafah. I want to blow up this house.’ I couldn’t believe my ears. I’ve been building this house all of my life. I said to him, ‘Ya hawaja [an honorific for a non-Muslim], where will I go? The children are so small.’ But he aimed his weapon at me and said: ‘Go, yallah.’ They suggested we go to the mosque, as a place of refuge. I said that the mosque had also become a target for the shelling.”
Joha’s family went to the home of the neighbor, Abu Zur. There they found other escapees, members of the Swafari family. But early Sunday morning, the same story repeated itself, related Mohammed, Joha’s son: “Firing on the house, the girls screaming in fear. We ran from room to room and overhead there was shooting. We started to crawl along the floor.”
The firing came from the northwest (where the army had already taken up positions the previous day). The soldiers heard the screaming and allowed the people to come out of the house. They ordered them to march – men in front and women in back. When they were out in the street, related Mohammed’s mother, Madlala, “they threw stun grenades near us. One of the soldiers took pictures of us, afraid and with the girls screaming. They told us all to go to Rafah. How am I going to walk to Rafah when I have heart problems?”
Houses as IDF positions
The group started walking southward toward the former Netzarim junction, but then its members were fired on from that direction. Panicking, they fled to Mughrabi’s garage – about 60 people, more than half of them children, Mouin Joha estimated.
After resting awhile, they decided to walk to the center of town. The soldiers already knew them, they thought; they had checked and seen that all of them were civilians. Now the same soldiers were sitting in their houses, including that of Joha, all of them transformed into IDF positions.
“We thought the army would let us keep going because we raised a white flag. I got my elderly mother, whom I couldn’t carry, to sit in a wheelbarrow for transporting cola crates, which we padded with some rags,” said Moha. Madlala reminded him that their son Ibrahim was waving a mandil (headscarf).
“We walked for about 150 or 180 meters,” she continued. “There were many of us, and we all had our hands up in the air. And then a shot was fired in front of the wheelbarrow. It was a sharpshooter from Abu Zur’s house. And then another shot – at Ibrahim. He cried out and everyone ran.”
Mohammed carried his wounded brother back to the garage. Somebody called the Red Crescent to send in an ambulance, and then the teenager began to complain of pains in every apart of his body, the mother related. The IDF did not permit an ambulance to enter the area under its control. That night Ibrahim began to spit up blood. At about 2 A.M., some 13 hours after he had been shot, he died.
It was only a few days later, on Thursday, January 8, when the IDF declared a three-hour break in the firing, that the group – now some 80 people, at least half of them children – were able to remove Ibrahim’s body, as well as three others lying in the road; two of them were the bodies of Palestinian fighters (which Mohammed said he had already seen on Monday). They walked about two kilometers northward .
According to Mouin Joha, from one of the houses that now served as military positions, sacks that the soldiers used to hold bodily waste were thrown down at them. Full ones.
When the Joha family returned home, they found many of these bags, some of them leaking, lying about in rooms with walls that were full of holes or totally destroyed. They also discovered plastic bottles full of urine, parts from smashed computers, a refrigerator and washing machine perforated with bullet holes, books stinking of urine and heaps of rubble. The soldiers had also left behind some graffiti, declaring: “The Zionist occupier was here,” and “We came to slaughter you.”
The office of the IDF Spokesman has responded that the events described by Mouin Joha are under investigation, and that the army “allowed the movement of ambulances insofar as it was possible, within the constraints of fighting in an area inhabited by civilians.”
Army sources have told Haaretz that forces “are instructed to respect anyone who waves a white flag as a sign of surrender or non-involvement in the fighting and to refrain from hurting them.”
Also, according to these sources: “Enemy forces make cynical use of this requirement of the IDF, and wave a ‘white flag’ as a cover when carrying out acts of warfare, and in order to avoid attack.”
The sources added that, “in cases when a suspicion arises that a person waving a white flag is acting in a way that endangers our forces, the latter are entitled to take the necessary steps to investigate the suspicion and remove the threat, in accordance with the relevant orders regarding opening fire.”
A tank driver from an Armored Corps battalion was quoted in the January 9 issue of Bamahaneh: “We stayed inside for four days, during the course of which we fired a lot. We suspect everyone. A lot of people pass by in the street waving white rags at us. We don’t hit women and children, but they taught us to suspect men because there are alerts about suicide terrorists disguised as civilians.”
During and after the operation in Gaza, there were a number of reports about people (including women and children) who were shot at by soldiers while trying to escape and waving white flags. These testimonies come from different places, including Ararah (Beit Lahia), Azbat Abed Rabo (east of Jabalya), Huzaa (to the east of Khan Yunis), this last an incident already reported on in Haaretz). Local and international organizations are investigating them in the context of preparing complaints and lawsuits against the IDF.