Palestinian farmer Rafiq Samouni, 39, sat on the rubble of his house Monday, eating a sour orange. "We don't have any homes, we don't have any food--except these," he said, gesturing at the remains of an orange tree sticking up through chunks of concrete and piles of earth churned up by Israeli tanks. "And we don't have any relations." Twenty-nine members of the extended Samouni family, who lived in neighboring homes in the Zeitoun area of Gaza, were killed on the first morning of Israeli ground operations, Jan. 4, and nearly all of their homes were blown up by Israeli demolition teams, most of them completely flattened. Another 19 Zeitoun residents from other families perished as well; the last of those 48 corpses was recovered Monday, after lying there for two weeks until Israeli army units finally withdrew on Sunday. The smell of death was everywhere.
The surviving family members tell horrific stories of what happened to them at the hands of what several said was the Givati Brigade, one of the elite Israeli Defense Forces units spearheading the Gaza operation. More than 100 residents, they say, were ordered to gather in a single house, which the next day was shelled by tanks and bombed by aircraft; most of the Samouni family victims were found there.
A few doors away, a man who was huddled inside with his two wives and many of his 20 children, was shot by soldiers, who also killed his 4-year-old son, residents claimed. And in the street outside, witnesses said, another Samouni lay wounded and plasticuffed until he bled to death hours later, with no one allowed to help him. The International Committee of the Red Cross had been notified after the Jan. 4 incidents that there were wounded in Zeitoun, and on Jan. 8 took the unusual step of complaining publicly that the IDF delayed access to them. Red Cross officials described finding children clinging to dead or wounded parents in Zeitoun, two full days after the incidents took place.
Israeli Defense Force spokesperson Avital Leibovich said she had no knowledge of these specific incidents, but would look into them. "We had no intention whatsoever of targeting Palestinian civilians, so these stories about soldiers approaching a father and child and then shooting them seem to be incorrect, to put it diplomatically," she said. "Do you think we tell people to go into a house and then kill them deliberately?"
The churned-up landscape of the Samounis' corner of Zeitoun is unrecognizable as a community any longer. The mosque lies in ruins; long sheds for battery hens are a mass of twisted aluminum, and dead chickens lie everywhere. Orchards have been upended by tanks and bulldozers. There are only two houses standing intact, isolated amid the wreckage; both were apparently used as outposts for Israeli soldiers. The graffiti they left on the walls inside said much about their state of mind. One large peace symbol had three slogans written in Hebrew in its three compartments: "Death to Arabs," "War on Arabs--Sounds Good to Me", and "The Only Good Arab is a Dead Arab." On several bedroom walls, amid remains of soldiers' rations and discarded bedding, a large numeral 5 was drawn with wings--possibly a unit designation of some sort--and nearby, also in Hebrew, "I hate Arabs." Another soldier declared, "I'm a Russian", and, in bad English, "1 is down, 999,999 to go." There are a million Palestinian refugees in Gaza. Other Hebrew inscriptions invoked the names of former Jewish settlements in Gaza, which were closed by the Israeli government in 2005. There are many new immigrants in the Givati Brigade, who are mostly Russian-speaking, as well as religious Jews, known for their strong patriotism, and unlikely to question army policies.
The survivors of Zeitoun all insisted repeatedly that they were farmers with no connection to Hamas, and that their area had never been used to fire rockets. Nonetheless, for some reason the IDF on the first morning of the invasion surrounded the Samouni neighborhood at daybreak, with tanks and ground units, and according to survivors began firing into many of the buildings randomly. At the home of Attila Samouni, he had gathered his wives and children in the safest room. This account comes from his first wife, Zahwa, and his son Faraj, 22, who were interviewed separately--he at the scene, and she at a tenement she shares with 72 other refugees in Gaza City. About 6:30 a.m. on Jan. 4, Israeli soldiers kicked in the door and demanded in Hebrew that the owner come out of the room. Attila, 45, who spoke Hebrew, identified himself and emerged with his hands raised above his head. "He said, 'I am the owner, I have children, please don't shoot me,'" Faraj said. "They shot him again and again, 20 or 30 times, I don't know how many," said Zahwa. Then the soldiers began firing into the room as the others threw themselves to the floor, and tossed what Zahwa described as a "ball of fire" into the room, which then emitted large amounts of smoke--possibly a smoke grenade. Zahwa was wounded in the back, but suffered only graze wounds, as she huddled on top of her 15-month-old son Mohanad and her 4-year-old stepson Ahmed.
The soldiers told them to come out but forced them to crawl, she said, poking their rifles with flashlights attached in the faces of the children, laughing and spitting on them. "I said, 'There are no Hamas here,'" Zahwa said. "We beg you, in the name of the Bible, the Koran, the Torah, there are children here, please pity them, we love you, please." Finally the soldiers ordered them to leave the house, and she carried the wounded Ahmed in her arms--he had been hit in the head and chest by bullets; they took refuge at a cousin's house not far away, but were unable to leave or reach medical help, despite repeatedly calling Red Cross and Red Crescent ambulances. "Ahmed died on the second day," she said. "When we finally got out, we found that there were no more Samounis." She had her sleeping toddler Mohanad in her arms as she spoke. "What am I to tell this child? He is asking all day for his father, Dada, Dada. How will I bring his father to him?"
Around the same time, Rafiq Samouni said, the soldiers were going from house to house, searching for weapons. "They didn't find any weapons, we swear, there were no rockets fired from here. Then they packed us all in this one house and said we'd be safe there." That was the home of Wael Samouni, 39, which is now so flattened that its concrete slab roof is pancaked on the ground. Within hours, he said, they opened fire on the house with tanks and air strikes, completely destroying it and killing many of those inside. Others apparently remained in the rubble, gravely wounded. The Red Cross was given limited access and took nine badly wounded out shortly after the incident, but many others remained. On Sunday, after the Israelis pulled their tanks back from Zeitoun, Red Crescent crews began sifting through the rubble, uncovering 47 partially decomposed bodies Sunday, and a final body today, 17-year-old Wahid Samouni. "We are all farmers," said Rafiq Samouni. "We have nothing to do with Hamas. Until this day we have no idea why they targeted us."
Later that morning on Jan. 4, as people were being herded from their houses, some of them passed Imad Iyat Samouni, 35, lying in the earthen street, his hands tied with a plastic band, bleeding from several bullet wounds. No eyewitnesses emerged who knew what had happened. One of the passersby was neighbor Zuhair Arafat, 40. "He was crying to us for help and we tried to pick him up and [the Israelis] fired at us, [saying] 'Don't touch him, leave him,'" he said. "Can you imagine how we felt, leaving him like that? It still haunts me. They were just monsters in human clothing." By the time it was all over, Samounis from 2-year-old Azar Salar to 82-year-old Hamdi Mohammed lay dead. "My brother Ahmed was four; they shot him and they knew he was a child," said Faraj. "Was he Hamas? Hamdi Mohammed, was he firing rockets? Azar Salar, was she firing rockets?"
The Israeli Defense Force spokesperson said they had abundant evidence that Hamas hid its fighters in civilian areas, near schools and hospitals, forcing Israeli troops to open fire to protect themselves and sometimes killing civilians as a result. "We tend to forget that in 2000 we had suicide bombers in Israel, on the street and in cafes and on buses and 50 percent of these bombers were Hamas," Leibovich said.
She was more forthright on the issue of anti-Arab graffiti. "This is against any code of behavior of the IDF or moral values. We'll investigate this matter and, if it's true, the soldiers will be punished."
With Joanna Chen in Jerusalem