1.'I can't imagine anyone who considers himself a human being can do this'
On Friday a four-year-old Palestinian boy was shot dead by a soldier - the most recent child victim of the Israeli army. Chris McGreal investigates a shocking series of deaths
Monday July 28, 2003
"Almost every day here the Israelis shoot at random, so when you hear it you get inside as quickly as possible," says Mrs Selmi. "Haneen went to the grocery store to buy some crisps. When the shooting started, I came out to find her. She was coming down the street and ran to me and hugged me, crying, 'Mother, mother'. Two bullets hit her in the head, one straight after the other. She was still in my arms and she died."
Later that day, the crowds pushed into the morgue at the local hospital to see the young girl on the slab, partly in homage, partly to vent their anger. Rahman pressed his way to the front so he could touch Haneen. Then he went home and told his mother, Haniya Abed Atallah, that he too wanted to die. "Rahman went to the morgue and kissed Haneen. He came home and told us he had promised the dead girl he would die too. I made him apologise to his father," Mrs Atallah says.
Weeks passed and another Israeli bullet shattered the life of another young Palestinian girl. Huda Darwish was sitting at her school desk when a cluster of shots ripped through the top of a tree outside her classroom and buried themselves in the wall. But one ricocheted off the window frame, smashed through the glass and lodged in the 12-year-old girl's brain. Huda's teacher, Said Sinwar, was standing in front of the blackboard. "It was a normal lesson when suddenly there was this shooting without any warning. The children were terrified and trying to run. I was shouting at them to get under their desks. Suddenly the bullet hit the little girl and she slumped to the floor with a sigh, not even screaming," he says.
Sinwar dragged Huda from under her desk and ran with her across the road to the hospital, itself scarred by Israeli bullets. After weeks in hospital, she has started breathing for herself again, through a windpipe cut into her throat. She has regained use of her arms and legs, but will be blind for the rest of her life.
Rahman was in another class at the same school. The next day, lessons were cancelled and the boy defied his mother to tag along at the funeral of a slain Palestinian fighter. The burial evolved into the ritual protest of children marching to the security fence that separates Gaza's dense and beggared Khan Yunis refugee camp from the spacious religious exclusivity of the neighbouring Jewish settlement. As Rahman hung a Palestinian flag on the fence, a bullet caught him under his left eye. He died on the spot. "It looks as if the soldiers saw him put the flag on the fence and they shot him," says Rahman's brother, 19-year-old Ijaram. "There were many kids next to him, next to the fence. But he was the only one carrying the flag. Why else would they have shot him?"
Britain's chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, recently praised the Israeli military as the most humanitarian in the world because it claims to risk its soldiers' lives to avoid killing innocent Palestinians. It is a belief echoed by most Israelis, who revere the army as an institution of national salvation. Yet among the most shocking aspects of the past three years of intifada that has no shortage of horrors - not least the teenage suicide bombers revelling in mass murder - has been the killing of children by the Israeli army.
The numbers are staggering; one in five Palestinian dead is a child. The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR) says at least 408 Palestinian children have been killed since the beginning of the intifada in September 2000. Nearly half were killed in the Gaza strip, and most of those died in two refugee camps in the south, Khan Yunis and Rafah. The PCHR says they were victims of "indiscriminate shooting, excessive force, a shoot-to-kill policy and the deliberate targeting of children".
And children continue to die, even after the ceasefire declared by Hamas and other groups at the end of June. On Friday, a soldier at a West Bank checkpoint shot dead a four-year-old boy, Ghassan Kabaha, and wounded his two young sisters after "accidentally" letting loose at a car with a burst of machinegun fire from his armoured vehicle. The rate of killing since the beginning of the ceasefire has dropped sharply, but almost every day the army has continued to fire heavy machineguns into Khan Yunis or Rafah. Among the latest victims of apparently indiscriminate shooting were three teenagers and an eight-year-old, Yousef Abu Jaza, hit in the knee when soldiers shot at a group of children playing football in Khan Yunis.
The military says it is difficult to distinguish between youths and men who might be Palestinian fighters, but the statistics show that nearly a quarter of the children killed were under 12. Last year alone, 50 children under the age of eight were shot dead or blown up by the Israeli army in Gaza: eight, one of whom was two months old, were slaughtered when a one-tonne bomb was dropped on a block of flats to kill a lone Hamas leader, Sheikh Salah Mustafa Shehada. But Rahman, Huda and Haneen were not "collateral damage" in the assassination of Hamas "terrorists", or caught in crossfire. There was no combat when they were shot. There was nothing more than a single burst of fire, sometimes a single bullet, from an Israeli soldier's gun.
It was the same when seven-year-old Ali Ghureiz was shot in the head on the street outside his house in Rafah.
And when Haneen Abu Sitta, 12, was killed while walking home after school near the fence with a Jewish settlement in southern Gaza.
And when Nada Madhi, also 12, was shot in the stomach and died as she leaned out of her bedroom window in Rafah to watch the funeral procession for another child killed earlier.
The army offered a senior officer of its southern command to discuss the shooting of these six children over a period of just 10 weeks earlier this year. The military told me I could not name him, even though his identity is no secret to the Israeli public or his enemies; it was this officer who explained to the nation how an army bulldozer came to crush to death the young American peace activist, Rachel Corrie.
"I want you to know we are not a bunch of crazies down here," he says. At his headquarters in the Gush Khatif Jewish settlement in Gaza, the commander rattles through the army's version of the shootings: either the military knew nothing of them, or the children had been caught in crossfire - a justification used so frequently, and so often disproved, that it is rarely believed. But three hours later, after poring over maps and military logs, timings and regulations, he concedes that his soldiers were responsible - even culpable - in several of the killings.
The Israeli army's instinctive response is to muddy the waters when confronted with a controversial killing. At first, it questioned whether Huda was even shot. I described for the soldiers the scene in the classroom with blood rippling up the wall behind the child's desk.
"I don't know how this happened," says the commander. "I take responsibility for this. It could have been one of ours. I think it probably was."
The killing of Haneen is clearer in the commander's mind. "We checked it and we know that on the same day there was shooting of a mortar," he says. "The troops from the post shot back at the area where the mortar was launched, the area where the girl was killed. We didn't see if we hit someone. I assume that a stray bullet hit Haneen. Unfortunately." Doesn't he think that simply shooting back in the general direction of a mortar attack is irresponsible at best? He says not. "You cannot have soldiers sitting and doing nothing when they are shot at," he says.
Haneen's mother, Mrs Selmi, believes her daughter was shot from "the container". The metal box dangling from a crane evokes more constant fear in Khan Yunis than the helicopter rocket attacks and tank incursions. Nestled inside is an Israeli sniper shielded by camouflage netting and hoisted high enough to see deep into the refugee camp. From inside, it is striking how much the box moves around in the wind, leaving little hope of an accurate shot. Peering from behind the camouflage, the view is mostly of Palestinian houses riddled with bullet holes, a testament to the scale of incoming Israeli fire. Haneen's home sits a few metres from the security fence separating Khan Yunis from the Jewish settlement. But, because the house is inhabited, the damage is mostly limited to the upper floor, with 27 bulletholes around the windows. "In this area, we shoot at the houses," says the Israeli commander. "We don't want people on the second floor. I gave the order: shoot at the windows."
He may concede his soldiers are responsible for shooting Huda and Haneen, but he denies their responsibility for the slaying of Rahman, the nine-year-old shot while hanging the flag at the security fence. "We saw the children, we saw them for sure. They always demonstrate in this area after funerals. But I don't have any report from the troops on our shooting on this occasion," he says. "We have rules of engagement that we don't shoot children."
Seven-year-old Ali Ghureiz's father scoffs at the claim. "They meant to kill him, for sure," says Talab Ghureiz. "I can't imagine anyone who considers himself a human being can do this."
The killing of Ali and wounding of his five-year-old brother is particularly disturbing because the commander admits there was no combat and the boys were the focus of the soldier's attention. The Ghureiz house lies on the very edge of Rafah. At the bottom of the street, an Israeli armoured vehicle and guard posts sit in the midst of a "no-go" area of tangled wire, broken buildings and mud. On the other side is the Egyptian border. "There were three kids. They were playing 50m from the house," says Ghureiz. "The Israelis fired two or three bullets, maybe more. No one could have made a mistake. They were only 100m from the children. I don't know why they did it. Ali was shot in the face immediately below his left eye. It was a big bullet. It did a lot of damage," he whispers.
"This is the first I've heard of this," says the commander. "According to the log, in the afternoon there were children trying to cross the border. The tower fired five bullets and didn't report any children hurt. Usually with children this age, we don't shoot. There is a very strict rule of engagement about shooting at children. You don't do it." But Ali is dead. "They [Palestinian fighters] send children to the fence. An older guy, usually 25 or so, gives them the order to go to the fence, or dig next to it. They know we don't shoot at children. If one of my soldiers goes out to chase them away, a sniper will be waiting for him."
Fences usually mark defined limits but, as with so much in the occupied territories, the rules are deliberately vague. There is an ill-defined ban on "approaching" the security fences separating Gaza from Israel or the Jewish settlements. "We have a danger zone 100 to 200m from the fence around Gush Katif [settlement]. They [the Palestinians] know where the danger zone is," the commander says. But many houses in Rafah and Khan Yunis are within the "danger zone". Children play in its shadow, and many adults fear walking to their own front doors.
"We have in our rules of engagement how to handle this," the commander says. "During the day, if someone is inside the zone without a weapon and not attempting to harm or with hostile intent, then we do not shoot. If he has a weapon or hostile intent, you can shoot to kill. If he doesn't have a weapon, you shoot 50m from him into something solid that will stop the bullet, like a wall. You shoot twice in the air, and if he continues to move then you are allowed to shoot him in the leg."
The regulations are drummed into every soldier, but there is ample evidence that the army barely enforces them. The military's critics say the vast majority of soldiers do not commit such crimes but those that do are rarely called to account. The result is an atmosphere of impunity. Israel's army chief-of-staff, Lieutenant General Moshe Yaalon, claims that every shooting of a civilian is investigated. "Harming innocent civilians is firstly a matter of morals and values, and we cannot permit ourselves to let this happen. I deal with it personally," he told the Israeli press. But Yaalon has not dealt personally with any of the killings of the six children reported on here.
The army's indifferent handling of the shootings of civilians has even drawn stinging criticism from a member of Ariel Sharon's Likud party in the Israeli parliament, Michael Eitan. "I am not certain that the responsible officials are aware of the fact that there are gross violations of human rights in the field, despite army regulations," he said.
The case of Khalil al-Mughrabi is telling. The 11-year-old was shot dead in Rafah by the Israeli army two years ago as he played football with a group of friends near the security fence. One of Israel's most respected human rights organisations, B'Tselem, wrote to the judge advocate general's office, responsible for prosecuting soldiers, demanding an inquiry. Months later, the office wrote back saying that Khalil was shot by soldiers who acted with "restraint and control" to disperse a riot in the area. However, the judge advocate general's office made the mistake of attaching a copy of its own, supposedly secret, investigation which came to a quite different conclusion - that the riot had been much earlier in the day and the soldiers who shot the child should not have opened fire. The report says a "serious deviation from obligatory norms of behaviour" took place.
In the report, the chief military prosecutor, Colonel Einat Ron, then spelled out alternative false scenarios that should be offered to B'Tselem. B'Tselem said the internal report confirmed that the army has a policy of covering up its crimes. "The message that the judge advocate general's office transmits to soldiers is clear: soldiers who violate the 'Open Fire Regulations', even if their breach results in death, will not be investigated and will not be prosecuted."
Towards the end of the interview, the commander in Gaza finally concedes that his soldiers were at fault to some degree or other in the killing of most - but not all - of the children we discussed. They include a 12-year-old girl, Haneen Abu Sitta, shot dead in Rafah as she walked home from school near a security fence around one of the fortified Jewish settlements. The army moved swiftly to cover it up. It leaked a false story to more compliant parts of the Israeli media, claiming Haneen was shot during a gun battle between troops and "terrorists" in an area known for weapons smuggling across the border from Egypt. But the army commander concedes that there was no battle. "Every name of a child here, it makes me feel bad because it's the fault of my soldiers. I need to learn and see the mistakes of my troops," he says. But by the end of the interview, he is combative again. "I remember the Holocaust. We have a choice, to fight the terrorists or to face being consumed by the flames again," he says.
The Israeli army insists that interviews with its commanders about controversial issues are off the record. Depending on what the officer says, that bar is sometimes lifted. I ask to be able to name the commander in Gaza. The army refuses. "He has admitted his soldiers were responsible for at least some of those killings," says an army spokesman who sat in on the interview. "In this day and age that raises the prospect of war crimes, not here but if he travels abroad he could be arrested some time in the future. Some people might think there is something wrong here."
2. The death and disorientation of the children of Gaza
In their homes, in the street, in UN-run schools, Palestinian youth are not safe from Israeli bullets
Chris McGreal in Khan Yunis
Friday September 17, 2004
At that point Raghda was still crying for help. By the time she was hauled into the trauma room of a neighbouring hospital she was silent.
For five crucial days the army blocked Raghda's transfer to an Israeli hospital with the facilities to offer a glimmer of hope. An infection set in.
On Tuesday doctors told her father, Adnad, that she was brain dead.
"The bullet entered under her eye and went out the back of her head," Mr Alassar said.
"It took them a long time to stop the bleeding, and her heart stopped and they gave her shocks. From that moment she was like a dead body, although she wasn't dead."
"I find it so difficult to believe what happened to my daughter. She was at school, just carrying her notebook, not a gun. What is my daughter - nine years old - guilty of that she has to be shot? It's state terror against the whole population."
In recent weeks the Israelis have again been preoccupied with terrorism, from the murder of 16 people in the Beersheba bus bombings to the slaughter of Russian schoolchildren in Beslan, which received blanket coverage.
During the six months of relative peace for Israelis, until the Beersheba bombings, the army killed more than 400 Palestinians. Most were fighters, but they also included about 40 children under 15. Palestinians say this also is a form of terror.
"We're always listening for the helicopters, listening for the tanks, listening for the bombs," said Khitam abu Shawarib, the only social worker in Rafah refugee camp, on the southern tip of the Gaza Strip.
"I am very sorry when I hear of a Jewish woman or children killed. I think it is wrong and many people here think it is wrong. But what the Jews suffer is nothing to the terror we live with from them.
"It takes such a toll on our health, on society, most of all on the children."
Israelis live in fear of random attacks, principally the suicide bombing of buses and cafes, and shootings in the occupied territories. But they are generally safe in their homes and are more likely to be killed in a road accident than by a bomb.
In southern Gaza and parts of the West Bank there is often no sanctuary from the seemingly relentless, indiscriminate Israeli shooting.
Israel classifies Gaza Strip towns such as Rafah and Khan Yunis, and Nablus and Jenin in the West Bank, as war zones.
That, the army says, justifies the firing of powerful sophisticated weapons into residential areas or the bulldozing of scores of homes each month, ostensibly in search of rarely discovered tunnels for smuggling in weapons.
Barely a night passes in Rafah or Khan Yunis without the machine-gun fire that has shredded hundreds of homes, forcing families to sleep in a single inner room behind bricked up windows or a second wall.
Others live in the rubble of their bulldozed houses, perpetually in the firing line from the rarely seen soldiers high in the gun towers.
A fortnight ago 15-year-old Mazen al-Ara was trying to lead his siblings away from tanks and heavy shooting around their house on the edge of the "Philadelphi Road", the highly militarised border at Rafah.
The army had partially destroyed the family home months before, but the Aras went on living there because they had no money to move.
Usually they sheltered in an inner room when the shooting began, but that night it was so intense that Mazen said they would all be killed if they stayed.
As he led the terrified group into the street, Mazen was caught by a burst of fire. The boy died; doctors took 18 bullets from his body.
A few days earlier 10-year-old Munir al-Daqas left his home in Jabalya refugee camp to visit his grandparents' house five minutes' walk away. Israeli tanks were on the far side of the camp, but no one saw any danger in the heart of Jabalya, around its bustling market, in daylight.
"It must have been a sniper," his mother, Kifah, said. "People told me as I was shopping in the market. I couldn't believe it. Munir was just there with me and now they were saying he was dead."
Mrs Daqas unfolded a picture of the semi-naked body of her son in his grave. There is a bullet wound in the chest and another in the groin.
In four years of intifada, the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights says, the army has killed 136 children in Rafah and Khan Yunis, a quarter of all the Palestinian children who have died during the uprising, because of its "indiscriminate shooting, excessive force, a shoot-to-kill policy and the deliberate targeting of children".
The dead in Khan Yunis and Rafah in recent weeks also include two 12-year-old boys, a 15-year-old girl and a 75-year-old man in a wheelchair, Ibrahim Halfalla, who was crushed under the rubble of his own home by an army bulldozer as his wife begged the soldiers not to advance.
The army has not offered an explanation for the killing of Raghda Alassar, but it frequently says that child victims are caught in crossfire during Palestinian attacks on the army or Jewish settlers.
There were no such battles when Raghda Alassar and Munir Daqas were hit. Or when a bullet pierced the blind of Sara Zorob's living room and struck the 10-year-old in the chest, killing her instantly.
Commanders in Gaza have admitted in the past that when their soldiers are attacked they are allowed to fire back randomly, risking civilian lives.
There are other young victims, as well.
"The children who are physically injured are not the only ones harmed," said Usama Freona, a psychologist at the UN clinic in Rafah.
"The levels of violence children are exposed to is horrific.
"We work in a lot of schools to treat the children. In the one next to Kfar Darom [a Jewish settlement in Gaza], all the children are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Most of them were crying and shaking when they were speaking about their experiences. There is a lot of bedwetting."
Mohammed abu Yusuf is the counsellor at Raghda Alassar's school.
"After Raghda was shot," he said, "the children were crying and screaming. Five girls in her class still won't come back to school. We took Raghda's desk away and brought another but none of the students will sit at it."
Raghda Alassar is not the first child shot at the cluster of UN schools in Khan Yunis. Last year an Israeli bullet blinded Huda Darwish, 12, as she sat at her desk.
Mrs Daqas said her other children could not comprehend Munir's death.
"Munir's younger brother doesn't understand he is dead. He thought he would come back after the funeral and kept asking why Munir has come when we've had 'the party' for him. His four-year-old sister asks every day if we can search the market because Munir must be lost," she said.
Mr Freona said the constant violence begets violence.
"Look at the games children play. Most of the boys play Arabs and Jews. Many want to play the role of the Jews. They see that the Israeli soldiers are the ones with the guns and they are strong and they see that is the most important thing," he said.
"They see guns as the source of power, the solution to dealing with any problem, the way to get what they want."
With that has come a collapse in respect for authority.
The image of Mohammed al-Dura, the 12-year-old Gaza boy shot as his father vainly tried to protect him from Israeli gunfire in the first days of the latest intifada, is seared on the Palestinian consciousness.
It has come to symbolise what they see as the callous indifference of Israeli forces to the lives of their children. But Mrs Abu Shawarib said it had a further impact on many children, who saw that a father was unable to protect his son.
"The respect for authority is shattered because children see their fathers beaten in front of them," she said. "The authority of the father, who used to just have to utter one word for the child to obey, is shattered. The father looks helpless to protect the child and the child thinks they are alone."
Another result of the perpetual killing was that many children came to expect an early death and to welcome the prospect of becoming a "martyr".
"The martyr is in paradise, he has glory here and in the afterlife where it is so much better than life in Rafah," she said. "The children see many people killed, so they come to expect to be killed. This is horrible, that children should accept the possibility of death."
3. Snipers with children in their sights
Palestinian civilians have been killed by the army with impunity
Tuesday June 28, 2005
It was the shooting of Asma Mughayar that swept away any lingering doubts I had about how it is the Israeli army kills so many Palestinian children and civilians.
Asma, 16, and her younger brother, Ahmad, were collecting laundry from the roof of their home in the south of the Gaza Strip in May last year when they were felled by an Israeli army sniper. Neither child was armed or threatening the soldier, who fired unseen through a hole punched in the wall of a neighbouring block of flats.
The army said the two were blown up by a Palestinian bomb planted to kill soldiers. The corpses offered a different account. In Rafah's morgue, Asma lay with a single bullet hole through her temple; her 13-year-old brother had a lone shot to his forehead. There were no other injuries, certainly none consistent with a blast.
Confronted with this, the army changed its account and claimed the pair were killed by a Palestinian, though there was persuasive evidence pointing to the Israeli sniper's nest. What the military did not do was ask its soldiers why they gave a false account of the deaths or speak to the children's parents or any other witnesses.
When reporters pressed the issue, the army promised a full investigation, but a few weeks later it was quietly dropped. This has become the norm in a military that appears to value protecting itself from accountability more than living up to its claim to be the "most moral army in the world".
As Tom Hurndall's parents noted yesterday after the conviction of an Israeli sergeant for the manslaughter of their son, the soldier was put on trial only because the British family had the resources to bring pressure to bear. But there has been no justice for the parents of hundreds of Palestinian children killed by Israeli soldiers.
According to the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem, the army has killed 1,722 Palestinian civilians - more than one-third of them minors - as well as 1,519 combatants, since the intifada began nearly five years ago; the comparable Israeli figures are 658 civilians killed - 17% minors - along with 309 military. The army has investigated just 90 Palestinian deaths, usually under outside pressure. Seven soldiers have been convicted: three for manslaughter, none for murder.
Last month, a military court sentenced a soldier to 20 months in prison for shooting dead a Palestinian man as he adjusted his TV aerial, the longest sentence yet for killing a civilian, and less than Israeli conscientious objectors have got for refusing to serve in the army.
B'Tselem argues that a lack of accountability and rules of engagement that "encourage a trigger-happy attitude among soldiers" have created a "culture of impunity" - a view backed by the New York-based Human Rights Watch, which last week described many army investigations of civilian killings as a "sham ... that encourages soldiers to think they can literally get away with murder".
In southern Gaza, the killings take place in a climate that amounts to a form of terror against the population. Random fire into Rafah and Khan Yunis has claimed hundreds of lives, including five children shot as they sat at their school desks. Many others have died when the snipers must have known who was in their sights - children playing football, sitting outside home, walking back from school. Almost always "investigations" amount to asking the soldier who pulled the trigger what happened - often they claim there was a gun battle when there was none - and presenting it as fact.
The military police launched an investigation into the death of Iman al-Hams last October only after soldiers went public about the circumstances in which their commander emptied his gun into the 12-year-old. He was recorded telling his men that the girl should be killed even if she were three.
Colonel Pinhas Zuaretz was commander in southern Gaza two years ago when I asked him about the scale of the killing. The colonel, who rewrote the rules of engagement to permit soldiers to shoot children as young as 14, acknowledged that official versions of several killings were wrong, but justified the tactics as the price of the struggle for survival against a second Holocaust.
Perhaps that view was shared by the soldier who shot dead three 15-year-old boys, Hassan Abu Zeid, Ashraf Mousa and Khaled Ghanem, as they approached the fortified border between Gaza and Egypt in April. The military said the teenagers were weapons smugglers and therefore "terrorists", and that the soldier shot them in the legs and only killed them when they failed to stop.
The account was a fabrication. The teenagers were in a "forbidden zone" but kicking a ball. Their corpses showed no evidence of wounds to disable them, only single high-calibre shots to the head or back. The army quietly admitted as much - but there would be no investigation.
Photo: T-shirt printed for members of an IDF
elite unit who had completed sniper training, reads "The smaller they
are - The harder it is!".
Source: Dead Palestinian babies and bombed mosques - IDF fashion 2009 (Ha'aretz); via Mondoweiss.