By Fida Qishta in Khoza’a, Gaza
THE FIRST THING you notice as you enter Khoza’a village is the smell of rotting flesh. Mutilated and bloody chicken corpses, headless with smashed wings, litter the ground as though you are entering the bizarre aftermath of some black voodoo mass. On closer inspection, you notice that each bird was actually shot – sniped by the Israeli soldiers who took over Khoza’a in the early hours of last Tuesday morning. Hundreds of spent rounds lie around the streets, around the chicken’s bodies.
The carnage extends to the buildings and farmland. Olive and lemon trees lie scattered and broken around the houses, ripped from the ground by militarised D9 bulldozers. The smell of mangled lemons mixes with smell of the decomposing chickens. Fields of wheat and vegetable plots have been razed by tank treads. Buildings are still smouldering. Entire gables of family homes have been ripped out by bulldozers – the contents of various home lives spill out onto the rubble, lace curtains, tablecloths, beds and toys. Through the gaping holes there are Marie-Celeste like scenes of tables set for dinner.
The massacre didn’t stop with the chickens. Fourteen villagers were killed when the Israeli army stormed and attacked the village for twelve hours last week. One of the youngest victims was sixteen-year-old schoolgirl, Ala’a Khalid. The girl was taken to hospital with shrapnel wounds to the face, apparently one of the injured who’d got off lightly.
As she lay in her hospital bed, Ala’a cried when she heard her grandfather, Khalel Al- Najar, 75, had been killed when an Apache helicopter dropped a bomb on their home. She asked her family: ‘Why did they kill him? Why are they killing us and nobody moves? If we were cats in Europe and America they would have cared for us.’ As the ER struggled to cope with Khoza’a’s wounded, Ala’a died from undetected internal injuries.
UNLIKE THE JABALIA refugee camp in Gaza ’s north, a Hamas stronghold, Khoza’a is not a village with a history of militancy. In fact, the townspeople of this agricultural area say if they were harbouring resistance, the Israeli military would have attacked with F16 jets, afraid of exposing their men to Hamas fighters . Instead, the army staged a ground incursion.
The Israeli tanks entered the village in the middle of the night. Twelve hours of unusual cruelty were to come.
Iman al-Najar, 29, jumped out of bed when she heard the tanks outside at 3am. She and the ten members of her family looked out the windows as bulldozers started to destroy her neighbour’s homes in the Azata area. She saw terrified villagers flee from their houses as masonry collapsed around them. Villagers ran from house to house; as each house was bulldozed, the people would run for cover in the next, blinded by the haze of exploding shells.
‘By 6am the tanks and bulldozers had reached our house,’ Iman recalls.
‘We went on the roofs and tried to show them that we are civilians with white flags, children, women, men. Every one was carrying a white flag. We told them we are civilians don’t have any weapons, we are not fighters.’ It was a waste of time. ‘The soldiers started to destroy the houses even if the people were in them’.
Iman and her family ran from their house as it the bulldozers ripped it apart. She encouraged the neighbours, mostly women and children, women at the head of the group, to flee with her. They all carried white flags. They were ordered by Israeli soldiers to move to the centre of the town. They were told to leave by a particular street. As they turned into the next road, Israeli special forces who had occupied a building, opened fire.
At the front of the group was fifty-year-old housewife, Rowhiya Al-Najar. She approached the Israeli military, waving her white flag, shouting, begging for safe passage for the group. She was shot by a sniper. As the other women ran to help her, the soldiers fired again, injuring 24-year-old Yessmin al-Najar in the hand and leg. Rowhiya Al-Najar lay wailing and bleeding in the street. The women cried but they could not help her as the soldiers kept firing. Nor were paramedics allowed near the injured woman. .
According to Marwan Abu Raeda, 40, a paramedic working in Nasser Hospital in Khan Younis: ‘At 8am we received a phone call from the people in Khoza`a, they told us about the injured woman in Azata street . I went to Khoza`a immediately in my ambulance. I was 60 or 70 metres away from the injured woman when the Israeli special forces started to shoot at me’. As he drove into another street, he came under fire again. ‘It was like my ambulance was a tank,’ he said.
It was twelve hours before paramedics were allowed to reach Al Najar. By then she was dead. ‘She was still clutching the white flag’, says Abu Raeda, who took her body to the morgue.
Before the woman had reached Azata Street , Iman’s brother, fourteen- year-old Mohammed had disappeared in the chaos. ‘We didn’t know if he was dead or alive,’ says Iman. He’d been taken captive in the street by a group of Israeli soldiers who put guns to his face and forced him to accompany him to their building. He was tied. Mohammed says he was with the Israeli soldiers as they fired at his family, killing Rowhiya Al-Najar. On his release, thirteen-hours later, a traumatised Mohammed told Iman: ‘When they were shooting at you, the soldiers were dancing and singing. They asked me to sing and dance with them. I refused. They said, “Then we will kill you”. So I sang with them as they shot at you’.
After Rowhiya’s shooting, Iman and her group fled to her uncle’s house, one of the few buildings still standing. There, they took shelter from the hail of gunfire. They were joined by other villagers, mostly farmers, who’d lost their homes, all running for the safety of the last house. By now there were around two hundred unarmed civilians in the group, most carrying white flags.
Before long, the tanks and bulldozers caught up with them and began to destroy that house too. The terrified crowd scattered. A blind boy, Sameer, 16 got separated from his mother. He stood in the street calling, ‘Where should I go? Where are you? What direction should I take?’ as bullets flew around him.
The last house crumbled under the bulldozers’ blades and there was nowhere left to shelter – every other house had been destroyed. The villagers ran for cover amid the mountains of rubble.
Around a hundred metres from Iman’s uncle’s house, the people cowered in a deep hole in the debris of demolished houses, a sort of passage that had been formed from the broken concrete of the surrounding houses. 200 people, men, women and children, crawled inside for protection from the shooting.
Inside the claustrophobic tunnel, the children cried, the adults prayed. Some of the villagers used their mobiles to make desperate rescue calls to the Red Crescent, the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, local radio stations. ‘Please co-ordinate with the Israelis,’ they begged, ‘so they will let us leave in safety’. The Israeli army refused – the village, it declared, was a closed military zone. Anyone coming close risked being shot.
Inside the cave-like passage, the villagers heard the rumble of military machinery approaching. Eight bulldozers and four tanks surrounded the villagers, on either side of the narrow, unstable passage. As they closed in, the bulldozer drivers began to push the rubble from each side, squeezing the people, throwing rocks and bricks on their heads. ‘They wanted to bury us alive,’ says Iman. ‘I will never forget it, it was the hardest day in our lives. When the bulldozers got closer they started to move the wreckage of the demolished houses on top of us, we felt that we are in a tiny cave, and they started to make it smaller and smaller until the children started to fall down because the wreckage was pushing their legs.’
Four-year-old Nessma became hysterical, shouting at her dad: ‘I don’t want to die’. Another girl, Shymaa, 12, kept repeating: ‘This is the last day of our lives.’
The villagers began to shout at the soldiers, begging them to stop. Yessmin, the woman who’d been injured while trying to rescue her friend, Rowhia, was bleeding profusely from her hand and foot. Her friends had bound her wounds with some of the white flags. She stayed calm, trying to comfort her mother, Faeza, 52, who kept screaming: ‘They’re coming closer, we’re going to die’.
As the rubble came closer to suffocating them, the villagers made a desperate dash for safety. On their hands and knees, they crawled some 150m out of the tunnel and ran to the town centre, seeking refuge in the UN school. One of the men lost his mind. Yussef, 52, ran in front of the tanks shouting: ‘Kill me now’. He was pulled away by friends. It was particularly hard for the young and the elderly. Abu Fadi, 50, a paralysed man, was carried by neighbours who’d wrenched him from his wheelchair as bulldozers started to demolish his house around him.
‘By some miracle, we made it,’ says Iman. They were not safe for long.
‘After an hour they started to fire around the school,’ said Iman. 'The children were scared and the people decide to take their children and leave the school before there is another massacre in a UN school.’
Hungry, thirsty, tired and dazed, at around two thirty, the group left the school and walked for more than two and a half kilometres. By four o’clock they’d reached an area outside the fighting. ‘We phoned our relatives to come and take us. In any vehicle – cars, motorbikes, trucks. Just get us away from this hell’.
There are grim testimonies of attacks from all over Khoza’a. ‘At nine o’clock, the tanks came to our area in Abu Raeda’, said Mohammed al Najar, 20. (No relation to Iman Al-Najar or her brother). The Israelis started to fire gas missiles. The chicken farm next door was burnt to the ground. The gas shells fell all around. Our house was full of smoke and gas. My mothers and sisters couldn’t breath, they started to vomit. We fled to another house.’
Mohammed and his family survived. His uncle, Mahmoud al-Najar, 55 wasn’t so lucky. ‘He got a call from his neighbours asking for help to move their children to a safe place. He was shot in the side by an Israeli sniper and died immediately.’
Nabel al-Najar, 40, and his family were lucky to escape with their lives. They spent the night in the basement, afraid to come out. They could hear the upper stories of their house being destroyed. Suddenly they realised the basement itself was being destroyed. They narrowly missed being crushed to death by escaping through a small hole in the debris.
Elsewhere, a group of men and youths was killed by a single strike. According to their relatives, Gassan Abu Zaer 22, Nedal Abu Raeda, 25 and Mamdoh Qdah, 19 and Alaa Al- Najar 16 years old, all neighbours from the Azata area, took advantage of a lull in the fighting after 3pm to go to the local shop to buy food for their families. They went in a group as it made them feel safer. The men were killed by a missile fired from an Israeli drone plane.
A fourteen-year-old boy, Mohammed Qdah, was hit in the head by shrapnel as he ran from the street into his home. He died later on the operating table of the Al Nasser hospital, his brain torn and destroyed. A twenty-five year-old man, Ahmeed Al- Najar, ran to his fiancée’s house to see if she was safe – he was killed and the fiancée injured when the house came under missile and shell attack.
Fifty wounded villagers were taken to the Al Nasser Hospital in Khan Younis. Four would die there.
‘There was one twenty-year-old girl,’ says Dr Ahmed Almi. ‘A third of her face had been blown away. The teeth, jawbone, cheekbone, all missing on one side.’ Her abdomen had been ripped open by shrapnel – her pelvic bones were visible. ‘We couldn’t save her,’ says Almi.
Doctors described serious chemical burns and victims being covered in a white powder that continued to burn them. Many people were also suffering from serious breathing difficulties. ‘There are two types of injuries,’ said Dr Almi, ‘injuries from weapons and injuries from chemical burns from white phosphorous. Some patients had white powder on their skin – the exposed areas are burnt first, then an hour later the powder penetrates the clothing burning the skin. Some patients were burnt from head to toe.’
The shrapnel injuries are particularly horrific. ‘I don’t know the nature of these weapons causing these wounds,’ said Almi. ‘The entry wounds are tiny, the exit wounds huge. One man came in with a 2cm entry wound in his abdomen and an enormous 40cm exit wound at the back. His intestines had fallen out. He died.’
Villagers from Khouza’a are still dying in the Intensive Care Unit. The latest victim was Madhad Abu Rock, 20. He died Friday (today) from shrapnel injuries to his chest. Other patients are still fighting for their lives.
Khoza’a’s ordeal may not be over yet. On Friday, Iman al Najar told the Observer the F16s and the drones are flying over the village again.
White flags ignored and houses bulldozed with families inside, claim residents
Israel stands accused of perpetrating a series of war crimes during a sustained 12-hour assault on a village in southern Gaza last week in which 14 people died.
In testimony collected from residents of the village of Khuza'a by the Observer, it is claimed that Israeli soldiers entering the village:
• attempted to bulldoze houses with civilians inside;
• killed civilians trying to escape under the protection of white flags;
• opened fire on an ambulance attempting to reach the wounded;
• used indiscriminate force in a civilian area and fired white phosphorus shells.
If the allegations are upheld, all the incidents would constitute breaches of the Geneva conventions.
The denunciations over what happened in Khuza'a follow repeated claims of possible human rights violations from the Red Cross, the UN and human rights organisations.
The Israeli army announced yesterday that it was investigating "at the highest level" five other attacks against civilians in Gaza, involving two UN facilities and a hospital. It added that in all cases initial investigations suggested soldiers were responding to fire. "These claims of war crimes are not supported by the slightest piece of evidence," said Yigal Palmor, an Israeli foreign ministry spokesman.
Concern over what occurred in the village of Khuza'a in the early hours of Tuesday was first raised by the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem. Although an Israeli military spokesman said he had "no information that this alleged incident took place", witness statements collected by the Observer are consistent and match testimony gathered by B'Tselem.
There is also strong visible evidence that Khuza'a came under a sustained attack from tanks and bulldozers that smashed some buildings to pieces.
Pictures taken by photographer Bruno Stevens in the aftermath show heavy damage - and still burning phosphorus. "What I can tell you is that many, many houses were shelled and that they used white phosphorus," said Stevens yesterday, one of the first western journalists to get into Gaza. "It appears to have been indiscriminate." Stevens added that homes near the village that had not been hit by shell fire had been set on fire.
The village of Khuza'a is around 500 metres from the border with Israel. According to B'Tselem, its field researcher in Gaza was contacted last Tuesday by resident Munir Shafik al-Najar, who said that Israeli bulldozers had begun destroying homes at 2.30am.
When Rawhiya al-Najar, aged 50, stepped out of her house waving a white flag, so that the rest of the family could leave the house, she was allegedly shot by Israeli soldiers nearby.
The second alleged incident was on Tuesday afternoon, when Israeli troops ordered 30 residents to leave their homes and walk to a school in the village centre. After travelling 20 metres, troops fired on the group, allegedly killing three.
Further detailed accounts of what occurred were supplied in interviews given to a Palestinian researcher who has been working for the Observer, following the decision by Israel to ban foreign media from the Gaza Strip. Iman al-Najar, 29, said she watched as bulldozers started to destroy neighbours' homes and saw terrified villagers flee from their houses as masonry collapsed.
"By 6am the tanks and bulldozers had reached our house," Iman recalled. "We went on the roofs and tried to show we were civilians with white flags. Everyone was carrying a white flag. We told them we are civilians. We don't have any weapons. The soldiers started to destroy the houses even if the people were in them." Describing the death of Rawhiya, Iman says they were ordered by Israeli soldiers to move to the centre of the town. As they did, Israeli troops opened fire. Rawhiya was at the front of the group, says Iman.
Marwan Abu Raeda, 40, a paramedic working for the Nasser hospital in Khan Younis, said: "At 8am we received a phone call from Khuza'a. They told us about the injured woman. I went immediately. I was 60 or 70 metres away from the injured woman when the Israeli forces started to shoot at me." As he drove into another street, he came under fire again. Twelve hours later, when Rawhiya was finally reached, she was dead.
Iman said she ended up in an area of rubble where a large group of people had sought cover in a deep hole among the debris of demolished houses. It is then, she says, that bulldozers began to push the rubble from each side. "They wanted to bury us alive," she said.