can't imagine anyone who considers himself a human being can
28 June 2003
On Friday a four-year-old Palestinian boy was
shot dead by a soldier - the most recent child victim of the Israeli
army. Chris McGreal investigates a shocking series of deaths
Nine-year-old Abdul Rahman Jadallah's promise to
the corpse of the shy little girl who lived up the street was,
in all probability, kept for him by an Israeli bullet. The boy
- Rahman to his family - barely knew Haneen Suliaman in life.
But whenever there was a killing in the dense Palestinian towns
of southern Gaza he would race to the morgue to join the throng
around the mutilated victim. Then he would tag along with the
surging, angry funerals of those felled by rarely seen soldiers
hovering far above in helicopters or cocooned behind the thick
concrete of their pillboxes. Haneen, who was eight years old,
had been shot twice in the head by an Israeli soldier as she walked
down the street in Khan Yunis refugee camp with her mother, Lila
"Almost every day here the Israelis shoot at
random, so when you hear it you get inside as quickly as possible,"
says Mrs Selmi. "Haneen went to the grocery store to buy
some crisps. When the shooting started, I came out to find her.
She was coming down the street and ran to me and hugged me, crying,
'Mother, mother'. Two bullets hit her in the head, one straight
after the other. She was still in my arms and she died."
Later that day, the crowds pushed into the morgue
at the local hospital to see the young girl on the slab, partly
in homage, partly to vent their anger. Rahman pressed his way
to the front so he could touch Haneen. Then he went home and told
his mother, Haniya Abed Atallah, that he too wanted to die. "Rahman
went to the morgue and kissed Haneen. He came home and told us
he had promised the dead girl he would die too. I made him apologise
to his father," Mrs Atallah says.
Weeks passed and another Israeli bullet shattered
the life of another young Palestinian girl. Huda Darwish was sitting
at her school desk when a cluster of shots ripped through the
top of a tree outside her classroom and buried themselves in the
wall. But one ricocheted off the window frame, smashed through
the glass and lodged in the 12-year-old girl's brain. Huda's teacher,
Said Sinwar, was standing in front of the blackboard. "It
was a normal lesson when suddenly there was this shooting without
any warning. The children were terrified and trying to run. I
was shouting at them to get under their desks. Suddenly the bullet
hit the little girl and she slumped to the floor with a sigh,
not even screaming," he says.
Sinwar dragged Huda from under her desk and ran
with her across the road to the hospital, itself scarred by Israeli
bullets. After weeks in hospital, she has started breathing for
herself again, through a windpipe cut into her throat. She has
regained use of her arms and legs, but will be blind for the rest
of her life.
Rahman was in another class at the same school.
The next day, lessons were cancelled and the boy defied his mother
to tag along at the funeral of a slain Palestinian fighter. The
burial evolved into the ritual protest of children marching to
the security fence that separates Gaza's dense and beggared Khan
Yunis refugee camp from the spacious religious exclusivity of
the neighbouring Jewish settlement. As Rahman hung a Palestinian
flag on the fence, a bullet caught him under his left eye. He
died on the spot. "It looks as if the soldiers saw him put
the flag on the fence and they shot him," says Rahman's brother,
19-year-old Ijaram. "There were many kids next to him, next
to the fence. But he was the only one carrying the flag. Why else
would they have shot him?"
Britain's chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, recently
praised the Israeli military as the most humanitarian in the world
because it claims to risk its soldiers' lives to avoid killing
innocent Palestinians. It is a belief echoed by most Israelis,
who revere the army as an institution of national salvation. Yet
among the most shocking aspects of the past three years of intifada
that has no shortage of horrors - not least the teenage suicide
bombers revelling in mass murder - has been the killing of children
by the Israeli army.
The numbers are staggering; one in five Palestinian
dead is a child. The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR)
says at least 408 Palestinian children have been killed since
the beginning of the intifada in September 2000. Nearly half were
killed in the Gaza strip, and most of those died in two refugee
camps in the south, Khan Yunis and Rafah. The PCHR says they were
victims of "indiscriminate shooting, excessive force, a shoot-to-kill
policy and the deliberate targeting of children".
And children continue to die, even after the ceasefire
declared by Hamas and other groups at the end of June. On Friday,
a soldier at a West Bank checkpoint shot dead a four-year-old
boy, Ghassan Kabaha, and wounded his two young sisters after "accidentally"
letting loose at a car with a burst of machinegun fire from his
armoured vehicle. The rate of killing since the beginning of the
ceasefire has dropped sharply, but almost every day the army has
continued to fire heavy machineguns into Khan Yunis or Rafah.
Among the latest victims of apparently indiscriminate shooting
were three teenagers and an eight-year-old, Yousef Abu Jaza, hit
in the knee when soldiers shot at a group of children playing
football in Khan Yunis.
The military says it is difficult to distinguish
between youths and men who might be Palestinian fighters, but
the statistics show that nearly a quarter of the children killed
were under 12. Last year alone, 50 children under the age of eight
were shot dead or blown up by the Israeli army in Gaza: eight,
one of whom was two months old, were slaughtered when a one-tonne
bomb was dropped on a block of flats to kill a lone Hamas leader,
Sheikh Salah Mustafa Shehada. But Rahman, Huda and Haneen were
not "collateral damage" in the assassination of Hamas
"terrorists", or caught in crossfire. There was no combat
when they were shot. There was nothing more than a single burst
of fire, sometimes a single bullet, from an Israeli soldier's
It was the same when seven-year-old Ali Ghureiz
was shot in the head on the street outside his house in Rafah.
And when Haneen Abu Sitta, 12, was killed while walking home after
school near the fence with a Jewish settlement in southern Gaza.
And when Nada Madhi, also 12, was shot in the stomach and died
as she leaned out of her bedroom window in Rafah to watch the
funeral procession for another child killed earlier.
The army offered a senior officer of its southern
command to discuss the shooting of these six children over a period
of just 10 weeks earlier this year. The military told me I could
not name him, even though his identity is no secret to the Israeli
public or his enemies; it was this officer who explained to the
nation how an army bulldozer came to crush to death the young
American peace activist, Rachel Corrie.
"I want you to know we are not a bunch of crazies
down here," he says. At his headquarters in the Gush Khatif
Jewish settlement in Gaza, the commander rattles through the army's
version of the shootings: either the military knew nothing of
them, or the children had been caught in crossfire - a justification
used so frequently, and so often disproved, that it is rarely
believed. But three hours later, after poring over maps and military
logs, timings and regulations, he concedes that his soldiers were
responsible - even culpable - in several of the killings.
The Israeli army's instinctive response is to muddy
the waters when confronted with a controversial killing. At first,
it questioned whether Huda was even shot. I described for the
soldiers the scene in the classroom with blood rippling up the
wall behind the child's desk.
"I don't know how this happened," says
the commander. "I take responsibility for this. It could
have been one of ours. I think it probably was."
The killing of Haneen is clearer in the commander's
mind. "We checked it and we know that on the same day there
was shooting of a mortar," he says. "The troops from
the post shot back at the area where the mortar was launched,
the area where the girl was killed. We didn't see if we hit someone.
I assume that a stray bullet hit Haneen. Unfortunately."
Doesn't he think that simply shooting back in the general direction
of a mortar attack is irresponsible at best? He says not. "You
cannot have soldiers sitting and doing nothing when they are shot
at," he says.
Haneen's mother, Mrs Selmi, believes her daughter
was shot from "the container". The metal box dangling
from a crane evokes more constant fear in Khan Yunis than the
helicopter rocket attacks and tank incursions. Nestled inside
is an Israeli sniper shielded by camouflage netting and hoisted
high enough to see deep into the refugee camp. From inside, it
is striking how much the box moves around in the wind, leaving
little hope of an accurate shot. Peering from behind the camouflage,
the view is mostly of Palestinian houses riddled with bullet holes,
a testament to the scale of incoming Israeli fire. Haneen's home
sits a few metres from the security fence separating Khan Yunis
from the Jewish settlement. But, because the house is inhabited,
the damage is mostly limited to the upper floor, with 27 bulletholes
around the windows. "In this area, we shoot at the houses,"
says the Israeli commander. "We don't want people on the
second floor. I gave the order: shoot at the windows."
He may concede his soldiers are responsible for
shooting Huda and Haneen, but he denies their responsibility for
the slaying of Rahman, the nine-year-old shot while hanging the
flag at the security fence. "We saw the children, we saw
them for sure. They always demonstrate in this area after funerals.
But I don't have any report from the troops on our shooting on
this occasion," he says. "We have rules of engagement
that we don't shoot children."
Seven-year-old Ali Ghureiz's father scoffs at the
claim. "They meant to kill him, for sure," says Talab
Ghureiz. "I can't imagine anyone who considers himself a
human being can do this."
The killing of Ali and wounding of his five-year-old
brother is particularly disturbing because the commander admits
there was no combat and the boys were the focus of the soldier's
attention. The Ghureiz house lies on the very edge of Rafah. At
the bottom of the street, an Israeli armoured vehicle and guard
posts sit in the midst of a "no-go" area of tangled
wire, broken buildings and mud. On the other side is the Egyptian
border. "There were three kids. They were playing 50m from
the house," says Ghureiz. "The Israelis fired two or
three bullets, maybe more. No one could have made a mistake. They
were only 100m from the children. I don't know why they did it.
Ali was shot in the face immediately below his left eye. It was
a big bullet. It did a lot of damage," he whispers.
"This is the first I've heard of this,"
says the commander. "According to the log, in the afternoon
there were children trying to cross the border. The tower fired
five bullets and didn't report any children hurt. Usually with
children this age, we don't shoot. There is a very strict rule
of engagement about shooting at children. You don't do it."
But Ali is dead. "They [Palestinian fighters] send children
to the fence. An older guy, usually 25 or so, gives them the order
to go to the fence, or dig next to it. They know we don't shoot
at children. If one of my soldiers goes out to chase them away,
a sniper will be waiting for him."
Fences usually mark defined limits but, as with
so much in the occupied territories, the rules are deliberately
vague. There is an ill-defined ban on "approaching"
the security fences separating Gaza from Israel or the Jewish
settlements. "We have a danger zone 100 to 200m from the
fence around Gush Katif [settlement]. They [the Palestinians]
know where the danger zone is," the commander says. But many
houses in Rafah and Khan Yunis are within the "danger zone".
Children play in its shadow, and many adults fear walking to their
own front doors.
"We have in our rules of engagement how to
handle this," the commander says. "During the day, if
someone is inside the zone without a weapon and not attempting
to harm or with hostile intent, then we do not shoot. If he has
a weapon or hostile intent, you can shoot to kill. If he doesn't
have a weapon, you shoot 50m from him into something solid that
will stop the bullet, like a wall. You shoot twice in the air,
and if he continues to move then you are allowed to shoot him
in the leg."
The regulations are drummed into every soldier,
but there is ample evidence that the army barely enforces them.
The military's critics say the vast majority of soldiers do not
commit such crimes but those that do are rarely called to account.
The result is an atmosphere of impunity. Israel's army chief-of-staff,
Lieutenant General Moshe Yaalon, claims that every shooting of
a civilian is investigated. "Harming innocent civilians is
firstly a matter of morals and values, and we cannot permit ourselves
to let this happen. I deal with it personally," he told the
Israeli press. But Yaalon has not dealt personally with any of
the killings of the six children reported on here.
The army's indifferent handling of the shootings
of civilians has even drawn stinging criticism from a member of
Ariel Sharon's Likud party in the Israeli parliament, Michael
Eitan. "I am not certain that the responsible officials are
aware of the fact that there are gross violations of human rights
in the field, despite army regulations," he said.
The case of Khalil al-Mughrabi is telling. The 11-year-old
was shot dead in Rafah by the Israeli army two years ago as he
played football with a group of friends near the security fence.
One of Israel's most respected human rights organisations, B'Tselem,
wrote to the judge advocate general's office, responsible for
prosecuting soldiers, demanding an inquiry. Months later, the
office wrote back saying that Khalil was shot by soldiers who
acted with "restraint and control" to disperse a riot
in the area. However, the judge advocate general's office made
the mistake of attaching a copy of its own, supposedly secret,
investigation which came to a quite different conclusion - that
the riot had been much earlier in the day and the soldiers who
shot the child should not have opened fire. The report says a
"serious deviation from obligatory norms of behaviour"
In the report, the chief military prosecutor, Colonel
Einat Ron, then spelled out alternative false scenarios that should
be offered to B'Tselem. B'Tselem said the internal report confirmed
that the army has a policy of covering up its crimes. "The
message that the judge advocate general's office transmits to
soldiers is clear: soldiers who violate the 'Open Fire Regulations',
even if their breach results in death, will not be investigated
and will not be prosecuted."
Towards the end of the interview, the commander
in Gaza finally concedes that his soldiers were at fault to some
degree or other in the killing of most - but not all - of the
children we discussed. They include a 12-year-old girl, Haneen
Abu Sitta, shot dead in Rafah as she walked home from school near
a security fence around one of the fortified Jewish settlements.
The army moved swiftly to cover it up. It leaked a false story
to more compliant parts of the Israeli media, claiming Haneen
was shot during a gun battle between troops and "terrorists"
in an area known for weapons smuggling across the border from
Egypt. But the army commander concedes that there was no battle.
"Every name of a child here, it makes me feel bad because
it's the fault of my soldiers. I need to learn and see the mistakes
of my troops," he says. But by the end of the interview,
he is combative again. "I remember the Holocaust. We have
a choice, to fight the terrorists or to face being consumed by
the flames again," he says.
The Israeli army insists that interviews with its
commanders about controversial issues are off the record. Depending
on what the officer says, that bar is sometimes lifted. I ask
to be able to name the commander in Gaza. The army refuses. "He
has admitted his soldiers were responsible for at least some of
those killings," says an army spokesman who sat in on the
interview. "In this day and age that raises the prospect
of war crimes, not here but if he travels abroad he could be arrested
some time in the future. Some people might think there is something