Friday, September 25, 2009

Death in the Samouni compound

By Amira Hass


The Samouni family of Gaza has, to its great misfortune, become one of the best-known families in the world, one that is identified more than any other with the January 2009 onslaught on Gaza. Twenty-nine members of the family were killed on January 4 and 5, the first two days of the ground assault. Two of them, about which this reporter wrote two weeks ago - Atiyeh and his 4-year-old son Ahmed - were killed in their home; 21 were killed in a single building at the same time, and another six were killed separately, in different circumstances.

From eyewitness accounts submitted to human rights researchers and journalists, some in real time and others immediately after the forces left Gaza, suspicions arose that the IDF killed people in or near their homes even after it became fully aware that they were civilians; prevented the rescue of the wounded and the arrival of ambulances for several days; used civilians as human shields in a building seized for military purposes; and fired at a convoy of people escaping (and forbade evacuation of a wounded and handcuffed person, who bled to death).

According to the IDF Spokesman's Office, operational echelons within the IDF have been examining "for several months" allegations regarding the killing of the 29 members of the Samouni family. "It should be stressed that the event is divided into a long series of specific claims that relate to different times and places," the IDF spokesman stated. "When the examination is completed, the findings will be presented to the Military Advocate General, who will decide on the need to take additional steps."

An anonymous military source told Haaretz that "whereas the early reports lacked many substantive details essential for a serious clarification of the allegations ... subsequent petitions that were received were much more detailed."

The Samouni compound covers a predominantly agricultural area of 69 dunams (17 acres) in the Zeitoun neighborhood of southeastern Gaza City. About 34 of the buildings and huts there (most of which belong to the extended Samouni family, some to other families) were scattered between hothouses, orchards, chicken coops and a few workshops. Upon its departure, the IDF destroyed 24 buildings in the neighborhood, uprooted orchards and destroyed chicken coops and hothouses.

The IDF had deployed on foot in the compound early in the morning on Sunday, January 4, after firing for several hours at the neighborhood's buildings from all directions. Residents living on Salah a-Din Road testified that they noticed soldiers that night lowering themselves out of a helicopter onto the roof of a neighborhood building. Tanks did not enter the Samouni compound.

The following is part of a reconstruction of events that Haaretz has passed on to the IDF Spokesman's Office for its response. It is based on eyewitness accounts taken by Haaretz from survivors and on findings of the Palestinian Center for Human Rights and of B'Tselem.

1. January 4, 2009, 5:30 A.M.: Nidal Samouni, 33, tries to offer aid and to rescue two injured persons in the field near his home on the eastern edge of the neighborhood. He is shot and killed. (Apparently the two were Palestinian fighters.)

2. As a result of the gunfire, a fire breaks out on the upper story of the tallest building in the neighborhood - the home of Talal Samouni (51) and his children and grandchildren. The fire is extinguished. Relatives who live in asbestos buildings nearby flee to Talal's home.

3. 6 A.M.: Soldiers break into the home of Talal's brother Atiyeh, 46. (This reporter wrote two weeks ago how he was killed with his young son.)

4. January 4, 6:30 A.M.: An IDF force takes control of the home of the Asa'ad Samouni family (a few hundred meters east of Atiyeh's house) and turns it into an army position (one of six in the neighborhood). A few dozen civilians remain in the house.

5. The family of the slain Atiyeh Samouni flees to a nearby house.

6. January 4, 8 A.M.: Salah Samouni departs the home of his father Talal and brings his infant son to the home of Wael Samouni, which seems safer because it is not being fired upon. As he leaves, he discerns three soldiers about 40 meters from Wael's house. They are wearing broad-brimmed hats with nets on them. At first, he thinks they are Palestinian fighters, as he did not expect to see Israeli soldiers walking in the neighborhood. He concludes that they feel safe because there are no armed Palestinians nearby.

7. The soldiers inspect him (pull up his shirt, pull down his pants). He speaks with an officer and tells him the shooting frightens the children. When one of the soldiers starts to act rudely, the officer hushes him. The officer assures Salah that there will be no gunfire. For an hour and a half, there is no gunfire at the house. Everyone is pleased that it is possible to speak with the soldiers and that they listen to civilians.

8. Approximately 10 A.M.: Soldiers lead the neighboring Rashad Samouni family to Talal's house.

9. Walid, 17, the son of Rashad, descends to the ground floor, where the animal feed is kept. Upon seeing the soldiers, he panics and begins to flee. He is shot and killed.

10. 11 A.M. to noon: Soldiers demand that all the people gathered in Talal Samouni's home evacuate it. The building becomes an outpost and firing position. The family is transferred a few dozen meters east, to the home of Wael Samouni - a one-story concrete building with one large room, still under construction. All told, there are 97 people.

11. January 4, 5:30 P.M.: At Wael's house, some women want to bake bread; there is flour but not enough food for everyone and the children are crying from hunger. Several men leave the house, going two meters to collect wood and start a bonfire outside. Soldiers positioned in the high surrounding buildings look on as a young girl, Rizqa Samouni, 14, bakes pita.

12. January 5, approximately 6 A.M.: The children wake up crying, hungry and thirsty. All the water tanks have been punctured by bullets, nothing is left. A woman and child go to a nearby well and filled two jerricans with water as the soldiers watch.

13. January 5, 6:30 A.M.: The women and four or five of the men again leave the building to prepare a fire and bake pita. These persons shout in the direction of the home of Jalal - 100 meters away - where members of the family have been staying. Salah Samouni wanted them to join his group, as he feels that Wael's house is safe because it was the soldiers who transferred them there.

14. Simultaneously, about four or five men begin collecting wood. They want to break apart a plywood board to burn. Everything is in plain view of the soldiers. All of a sudden something is fired at them - Salah Samouni guesses it's a mortar shell or a missile from a helicopter or drone - and it kills Mohammed Ibrahim and wounds Salah (in his head), as well as Wael and Iyad.

15. The wounded men immediately reenter the building; the women begin dressing their wounds. A short time later, another shell or missile lands on the room - with its 96 inhabitants - and explodes. Twenty are killed, about 30 are injured.

16. Amid the confusion, smoke and dust, those who are able leave the building, after trying to determine who is alive.

17. A convoy of several dozen people leave Wael's house, moving east toward Salah a-Din Road. They see a soldier in a position the IDF established in the Sawafiri home. The injured Salah shouts for an ambulance. He claims the soldier yells back in literary Arabic: "Go back to death."

18. They nevertheless continue toward Salah a-Din Road; a helicopter hovers above them. The soldiers shout "Go back, go back," and fire above their heads, but not at them.

Shifa Ali Samouni, a 71-year-old widow who uses a walker, wandered from the home of one of her sons to Talal's and then Wael's house. "In the morning (on Monday)," she recalls, "I went to the bathroom and suddenly felt something falling, which pressed on my ear, and I am falling together with the house. When I came to, I realized blood was dripping from my hand and blood was flowing from my leg. I couldn't see anything, my eye didn't see a thing. After I saw my blood, I saw my son Talal, may God have mercy on him, on the chair. I called him and he did not say anything. Three of my sons were gone (Talal, Atiyeh and Rashad), and my sons' wives, and our grandchildren. And we saw all of them dying, I couldn't see who was who, my children, my grandchildren, I could not tell one from the other. My head is battered, my ears sealed."

The following are the names of the members of the Samouni family who were killed within minutes by an IDF shelling of the house in which soldiers had gathered them the previous day: Rizqa Mohammed, 55; Talal Hilmi, 51; Rahma Mohammed, 46; Layla Nabiyeh, 41; Rashad Hilmi, 41; Rabab Azzat, 37: Hannan Khamis, 35; Mohammad Ibrahim, 25; Hamdi Maher, 23; Safaa Subhi, 22; Tawfiq Rashad, 21; Maha Mohammed, 20; Huda Nael, 16; Isma'il Ibrahim, 15; Rizqa Wael, 14; Is'haq Ibrahim, 13; Fares Wael, 12; Nasser Ibrahim, 5; A'zza Salah, 2; Mu'atassem Mohammed, 1; Mohammad Hilmi, six months.

Among the dead: a mother and her four sons (her husband and daughter survived); two parents and their two sons (their daughter is alive) and another couple and their two daughters.

The soldiers left behind graffiti in the home of Rashad Samouni, which Haaretz saw and photographed: "1 down, 999,999 to go," "The People of Israel lives," "God is the king, there is nothing besides him," "Almighty God, we love you," "We have no one to rely on but our father in heaven," "Arabs need to die," "Less than 300 days left 'til I'm released," "We haven't drank our fill of blood."