Israel shoots fleeing civilians

RUTH POLLARD
Last updated 18:59 07/08/2014
Palestinian civilians, Gaza
RUTH POLLARD/ Fairfax NZ

At least 14 members of Tamer Abu Rujalia's family were killed in the fighting over the past month.

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Some men held a child in each arm, those who could raised their hands in the air in surrender. Others had white flags, while four of the strongest carried elderly relatives on their shoulders.

But as the extended Abu Rujaila family - a terrified group of 30 children, 30 women and 25 men - made their hesitant way towards the Israeli tanks stationed at the entrance to their village, they say the soldiers opened fire.

The group had already counted 17 bodies on the street and it was when they met a larger gathering of around 3000 residents also trying to flee that at least 35 people were shot and many seriously injured.

The decision to flee their homes in the centre of the southern Gazan village of Khuza'a on July 25 was an agonising one, says 38-year-old Tamer Abu Rujaila.

They had endured three days of furious bombardment from Israel's military in which many of the houses around them had been systematically destroyed.

From July 22 to July 25, their lives had been, quite literally, torn to shreds as they remained trapped in the firestorm of air strikes, tank and artillery shelling.

At least 14 members of the family were killed, Tamer says.

An Israeli F-16 had dropped a bomb on the house next door to Tamer's, killing his uncle Helmi, his son Abbas, 21 and daughter Nahad, 22.

Local residents and rescue workers are still searching for Helmi's body, while another cousin, 25-year-old Mahmoud, was only just pulled from the rubble hours before Fairfax Media arrived. His brother, 21-year-old Mohamed, had been found five days earlier.

But no matter how bad the bombardment, Tamer, his wife Maysaa Sulaiman Abu Rujaila, 27, and their four children were convinced they would be killed if they tried to escape.

Then Israel fired a large mine-clearing charge into the cluster of houses in Tamer's street and the force of the blast convinced him that they must take the chance and evacuate.

"I felt it would be certain death if we stayed," he says. "We tried to contact the Red Cross but they did not respond, so we decided to hold white flags and walk out."

Major Arye Shalicar from the Israel Defence Forces said: "At this point it is very hard to check each single allegation but we have a major-general who is about to look into each single incident during the operation and is going to put together a report.

"We have time and again proven that we do everything in our power to not hurt civilians even though they were deliberately put into the front lines by Hamas. We have called, we have warned through the radio, SMS, flyers, leaflets and even knocking on the roof [firing a small warning missile which hits the building's roof] to make sure that no civilian is going to be hurt."

The children did not want to leave, Tamer says, especially his eight-year-old son Ahmad, who had already sustained shrapnel injuries and was terrified.

What did he say to Ahmad to make him evacuate?

Tamer's eyes fill with tears: "Nothing I said would change his mind, so I took him in my arms and carried him out."

The injured fell around them, those who were still standing were separated into small groups and searched by the IDF soldiers.

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Eventually they made it to the relative safety of Abassan village, but that too was short-lived - Tamer's uncle Ismail Abu Rujaila, 52, was killed in an air strike soon after - and they moved on to a UN school in Khan Younis.

Others were not so lucky.

Khuza'a, with a population of around 10,000, was the scene of some of the fiercest fighting between Israeli forces and Palestinian armed groups during the IDF's ground invasion of Gaza. A quiet, farming community lying on the eastern edge of the city of Khan Younis, it is in sight of the Israeli border.

And while Israeli forces issued general warnings to Khuza'a residents to leave the area before July 21, many were too scared, or infirm, to flee.

"The failure of civilians to abide by warnings does not make them lawful targets of attack," says Human Rights Watch Middle East director Sarah Leah Whitson, "and deliberately attacking them is a war crime."

Human Rights Watch, along with local groups such as al-Mezan Centre for Human Rights and the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, are investigating several incidents between July 23 and 25 when, local residents said, Israeli forces opened fire on civilians trying to flee Khuza'a. There were no Palestinian fighters present at the time and no firefights were taking place, the witnesses said.

Another family - the Najjar family - has reported that the first man to leave the house on the orders of Israeli soldiers, Shadid al-Najjar, was shot in the jaw, Human Rights Watch said.

In yet another incident, also on July 23, Israeli soldiers fired on a group of civilians who had been told to leave their home in Khuza'a, killing Mohammed al-Najjar, a witness said.

Like most residents, the Abu Rujaila family only returned to Khuza'a on Tuesday, as the latest 72-hour humanitarian ceasefire began. In some streets it seems there is not a house left standing, with many four-storey apartment blocks almost blown underground with the force of the blasts.

They found their houses ransacked by Israeli soldiers who appeared to have occupied them for days after their evacuation. A local clinic that provided psychosocial support for Palestinian children was also torn apart, with Hebrew graffiti visible on several walls throughout the centre.

As Fairfax Media left the village, hundreds of residents were searching through the rubble of their houses, some were sitting in shock outside, while a bulldozer was kicking up sand and dust, still searching for the body of Helmi Abu Rujaila - another civilian casualty in a war in which at least 1886 Palestinians have died, including 432 children.

- Sydney Morning Herald

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