Al Jazeera – 2009-02-24 22:45:05
• Watch a harrowing 23-minute film on the history of Gaza and life under the Occupation.
(February 20, 2009) — To launch Al Jazeera’s new weekly show, Focus On Gaza, correspondent Ayman Mohyeldin visited the village of Khuza’a where residents and human rights experts believe a possible war crime took place during Israel’s offensive on the Gaza Strip.
A photograph of her recent pilgrimage to Mecca is now all that remains of Rawhiyya al Najar. The mother was a Gaza native who had lived her entire life through conflict before it was to end on January 13, aged 37, by what was estimated to be a single shot to the head.
Testimony from eyewitnesses, friends, neighbours and human rights experts about the incident tell the story of how a woman carrying a baby and white flag was shot in broad daylight by an Israeli soldier.
Nasser al Najar, Rawhiyya’s husband, still has the bloodstained white flag he says his wife was carrying when she was killed.
In 1949, the newly formed state of Israel, many of whose citizens had been victims of Nazi war crimes, signed the Geneva Convention on the protection of civilians in time of war. Among the conditions of the convention Article three states: “Persons taking no active part in the hostilities … shall in all circumstances be treated humanely.”
Article 32 states: “Civilian hospitals organised to give care to the wounded and sick … may in no circumstances be the object of attack.” But during Israel’s recent war on Gaza there is evidence to suggest that these conditions were frequently ignored and that the Israeli military disregarded the laws of war.
Villagers in Khuza’a are accustomed to living under the guns that man the nearby Israeli watchtowers, but Nasser says there are normally no Palestinian resistance fighters in the area and consequently he felt the village would be spared an Israeli raid. However, on January 12, the Israelis began an intense shelling of the area and deployed white phosphorous, a move that was considered a precursor to a ground-based attack.
White Flag Hope
Bombs were falling and a number of houses in the area were on fire. Nasser, along with many others, decided to leave the area, fearing the men in the village would be taken prisoner by the Israelis. He could not persuade his wife to join him.
“She said … If they were going to kill her, then she would rather die in her own house,” he says. “She thought that maybe if we lifted white flags they might have some mercy on us and not kill us. She said the white flag represents peace so they won’t harm us … But they didn’t respect the white flag.”
Rawhiyya’s daughter, Hiba, stayed with her mother but the white phosphorous caused them to have coughing fits and hampered their efforts to put out the fires. By 11pm that night, Khuza’a was shut off from the outside world by Israeli tanks, with bulldozers to the east and special forces to the west.
The villagers, now mostly old men, women and children, sheltered together in the larger houses but neither the size of the buildings nor the white flags were to offer any protection. By 0730am, tanks and bulldozers were busy demolishing houses. Increasingly hemmed in, the women and children decided they had no choice but to try and leave.
“Rawhiya was leading them. She said if all the women and children start moving out then everyone else could follow afterward. So she distributed white flags and led them out,” Iman says. “She walked at the front carrying a white flag, followed by other women carrying white flags or holding out their children.”
Yasmine al Najar, another of the women, was at the front of the group with Rawhiyya when they spotted Israeli special forces positioned in a house opposite them. Despite the presence of children and white flags allegedly on display the soldiers began to open fire.
“I was right next to her, a centimetre away,” Hiba recalls. “Our neighbour was also walking next to her … she was holding up her child as though a flag … Then he shot her.”
Yasmine tried to help her neighbour. “A bullet hit Rawhiya in the head… it entered through one side and went out through the other… I took a bullet in the foot,” she says.
In the nearby town of Khan Yunis, Marwan Abu Raida, a paramedic at the Nasser hospital, was finishing his first call out of the day when he received the call sending him to Khuza’a. It was 0745am
“I drove straight there… I was still 60 to 70 metres away from the body when what I think were Israeli special forces started shooting at me,” he says. “I felt powerless… there was nothing I could do for her. My understanding was that medical teams were protected under international ethics and law and that medical teams should be protected and they should have freedom of movement.”
With the emergency services unable to help them and the bulldozers closing in, the women made frantic appeals for help, some of which aired live on the midday news. “No one answered our calls for help,” Iman, another of the stranded residents, says. “At the end we decided to go out together and face the bombardment. The way we saw it was: it’s better to walk in to the fire than stay and die under the rubble.”
Crawling on their hands and knees and still under fire, the villagers tried to reach the relative safety beyond the cordon of special forces but were shot at once more.
“Everyone went into one of the houses on the street and they were stuck there,” Yasmine says. “But I kept running for about 300 metres until I reached the ambulance and paramedics waiting for us.
It was six hours later that the Israeli army began to withdraw, leaving Iman’s 16-year-old brother who had been captured tied up in a house and Rawhiyya’s body in the street.
Calm and everyday life as much as it can exist, has now returned to what is left of Khuza’a but the scars of the war remain.
Fred Abrahams, an analyst for Human Rights Watch, has been researching white flag killings in Gaza during the course of the recent conflict. “Our job is to look at how the parties to the conflict, Hamas and Israel, respected or disrespected international law and there’s such a long list of issues but this case seems to be quite clear cut and that’s why we focused on it,” he says.
“It seems to us to be a targeted killing, and all the evidence so far suggests that she [Rawhiyya] was shot in plain sight, it was daylight, they saw the flag. If proven, that would be a war crime.”
It is not easy for investigators to build a picture of exactly what happened. The recollections of people under artillery and sniper fire are often contradictory but in the case of Rawhiyya’s killing there is a remarkable consistency.
“In this case I don’t see why they [the Israeli military] would have thought that these women were a risk or a threat to them and therefore that could potentially make this a war crime,” Abrahams says.
Nasser has obtained a death certificate from the examining doctor, confirming the paramedic’s earlier diagnosis that his wife’s death was caused by a single shot to the head. A GPS calculation of the distance confirms that she was shot at 120 metres.
This, together with Abrahams’ findings in other parts of Gaza, have led him to a conclusion which, if correct, would point to a war crime implicating not only the soldier responsible but the entire Israeli military chain of command.
But there is little Human Rights Watch can do other than publish the findings of the report and Abrahams says the Israeli army, like many militaries, does not outline official rules of engagement.
For Rawhiyya’s friends and relatives there is also little comfort. Nasser is doing what he can to look after his daughter but he says there is still so much that reminds them of Rawhiyya and their house overlooks the spot where she was killed.
Hiba has built a small memorial where her mother died. “I thought about what she used to say about staying strong and steadfast,” she says. “When people called us and told us to leave we used to tell them that we will stay here, and we will stay strong.”
Israel ‘Evicts Jerusalem Families’
(February 23, 2009) — More than 1,500 Palestinians living in East Jerusalem could be made homeless after Israel told them their homes are illegal and are to be demolished.
“The owners of 80 houses in the al-Bustan neighbourhood have received eviction notices saying that the structures will be destroyed because they are illegal,” Hatem Abdel Kader, an official responsible for Jerusalem affairs in the Palestinian government, said.
Kader said that several of the houses served with demolition orders had been built before the 1967 war, when Israel captured east Jerusalem from Jordan, but that numerous extensions have been built since.
“The [Jerusalem] municipality used this as a pretext to issue the demolition orders despite appeals by the residents,” he said. No comment was immediately available from the city authorities.
Israel claims all of Jerusalem as its capital and has annexed the Arab east of the city, but under international law east Jerusalem is considered to be occupied and has not been recognised by world powers as the Israeli capital. According to B’Tselem, the Israeli human rights organisation, Israeli authorities have demolished about 350 houses in east Jerusalem since 2004, saying that they were built without permits.
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies
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