Tuesday, June 10, 2008
Wilful Killing of Baby by Israeli Army in Gaza House Raid
In Defence for Children International, Palestine Section
Name of victim: Amira A. Date of incident: 4 March 2008 Age of victim: 20 days Location: Abu al-Ageen, southern Gaza
On 4 March 2008, Israeli tanks under aerial helicopter coverage besieged the home of Youssef S., a wanted Palestinian combatant, near Khan Younis in southern Gaza1. For several hours, Israeli soldiers directed gunfire towards the house and its occupants, including 15 children, and subjected them to cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment. During the raid, Israeli soldiers fired upon unarmed civilians, including children, as they followed orders to exit the house. This unlawful act claimed the life of 20-day-old Amira, who was shot in the head while in her mother’s arms. DCI/PS strongly condemns the wilful killing of civilians, which constitutes a war crime under international humanitarian law.
Description of incident
In the early evening hours of 4 March 2008, Khaled A. and his wife Nadia arrived at the home of their friend, Youssef S., in Abu al-Ageen near Khan Younis in southern Gaza. They had come to visit Youssef’s mother, Alia’, who was suffering from renal failure and had recently been hospitalised. With them, were their two daughters Nadine (2), and Amira, just 20 days old.
Several members of Youssef’s family were also in his house that evening: his mother Alia’ (76), his wife Aziza (43), and their children, Mu’ath (17), Alia’ (16), Omar (15), Iman (13), Shayma’ (12), Mohammed (11), Neveen (7), and twins Hassan and Hussein (5). Youssef’s brother, Mahmoud, was also there with his children Bilal (15), Faten (14), Tariq (13), and Iyad (11). Altogether, there were 15 children inside the house that evening.
When Khaled and his family first arrived at Youssef’s house, the men, women and children sat together in the living room for approximately half an hour. It was past 6:00 pm when Khaled, Youssef, Mahmoud, and their sons moved to the diwan, a sitting area for men, for dinner. The diwan was located outdoors, approximately eight metres away from the house.
The sun had set shortly before 6:00 pm and it was dark outside. When the siege began, the men and boys were eating dinner in the diwan while the women and girls were in the living room inside the house. As they ate dinner inside, the women heard the sound of gunfire and an approaching helicopter. The sound was coming towards the western side of the house where the women and children were seated. The women immediately gathered the children and ran into the kitchen on the north side of the house for cover. Nadia was carrying baby Amira in her arms. Youssef’s mother remained alone in the living room because she could not walk or easily move due to her failing health.
At about the same time, the men heard a strange sound and Youssef asked his 11-year-old nephew Iyad to see what was happening. Iyad looked out the door of the diwan and yelled out that he saw tanks. Khaled ran to the door where he too saw tanks approaching the western side of the house. He quickly exited the diwan and with Iyad ran towards the house. Youssef fled in the opposite direction, away from the house. Khaled reports he had run a distance of about eight metres when heavy gunfire began. He dropped to the ground to avoid being hit by live fire and crawled the remaining distance to the house. When he entered the house, Khaled saw a tank through one of the windows; it was stopped at the western side of the house. Afraid that the soldiers might see him, he ran into the kitchen on the north side of the house where he found the women and children crouching on the floor in fear. When Khaled reached the kitchen, he noticed Iyad had been shot in the arm and was bleeding heavily. Khaled gripped Iyad’s arm to stop the bleeding and with his other hand held his daughter Nadine on his left.
Sustained and heavy gunfire from Israeli forces continued from all directions and bullets were flying both outside and inside the house. According to eyewitness statements gathered by DCI/PS, the soldiers neither ordered the occupants to exit the house and surrender nor gave prior warning before the gunfire began. Eyewitnesses provided further testimony asserting that occupants inside the house were unarmed and did not exchange fire with Israeli forces. They were unaware of any clashes taking place in the area at that time. To the best of DCI/PS’ knowledge based on the evidence gathered, there was no exchange of fire between Palestinian combatants and Israeli forces prior to or during the raid.
After several more minutes of heavy gunfire, a voice called through a megaphone in broken Arabic, “Everyone leave the house, young and old, leave the house.” The soldier repeated his order three times. From inside the kitchen, Nadia could see the front door of the house, which was open, and the soldiers standing outside. Youssef’s wife, Aziza, told Nadia, “You are carrying a baby so leave first as they may take sympathy on us.” Nadia stepped out of the kitchen first with baby Amira in her arms. Amira was wrapped in a white sheet, her head clearly visible. Directly behind Nadia was Aziza, who was carrying her daughter Neveen, and then Youssef’s 14-year-old niece Faten. Khaled and the rest of the children stood just behind them inside the kitchen. Before stepping out of the kitchen, the women called out together, “We are coming out. We are coming out” and the soldier answered through the megaphone, “Leave one by one.”
As Nadia stepped out of the kitchen and into the living room she saw the soldiers just beyond the entrance of the house. Some were lying on the ground on their stomachs while others were kneeling on one knee, all with their weapons directed at her. They were wearing helmets equipped with night vision binoculars. One of the soldiers pointed the red laser emanating from his weapon at baby Amira and slowly moved it along her body. The soldier with the megaphone asked, “What are you holding in your hands?” Faten, Youssef’s niece answered, “katen” meaning baby in Hebrew, repeating the word several times. Another soldier directed a bright spotlight at Nadia and her baby, switching it on and off several times. At the same time, Nadia cautiously proceeded to exit the kitchen into the living room. She was just one metre beyond the kitchen door when the soldiers, who were approximately eight metres away, opened fire without warning or provocation.
In the barrage of gunfire, Nadia was struck in her right upper arm. She immediately secured Amira in her left arm and scrambled back into the kitchen following the others. Khaled took Amira from his wife’s arms.
He reports seeing at that moment that Amira’s head was covered in blood and that she appeared to be dead. He passed baby Amira to Faten so he could tie his wife’s arm to stem the bleeding from her wound. Fearful for her baby, Nadia asked about Amira but Faten told her not to worry, her daughter was fine. The scene in the kitchen was one of chaos and commotion. Women and children screaming in panic, crying in fear while gunfire continued to ring out both inside and outside of the house. Several minutes later, the gunfire ceased and the soldier once again commanded through the megaphone in broken Arabic, “Leave the house or we will bomb it.” Left with no other choice, the group made their way out of the kitchen with Nadia out in front once again. Faten followed directly behind her with Amira still in her arms. After they exited the house, the soldiers ordered the women and children to sit on the ground. They handcuffed Khaled, Mu’ath (17), Bilal (15), and Omar (15), and sat them down on the ground with their backs facing the women and children.
The soldiers then started to beat them, hitting them with their guns and kicking them, as the women and children looked on. Testimonies from two eyewitnesses indicate the soldiers beat the two younger boys, Bilal and Omar, more than the others. Khaled tried to reason with the soldiers in Hebrew, telling them that his wife had been injured and needed medical attention. They replied by insulting him and his wife. One soldier, who was kneeling on the ground next to Nadia, laughed and verbally insulted her honour as she cried in pain and fear. Nadia reported that every few minutes a soldier would walk by and shoot the ground around where the women and children were sitting then laugh and walk away.
While Khaled and the three boys were beaten, one soldier ordered them to remove their clothing. They removed their shirts and trousers as they continued to be beaten. Another soldier then ordered them to remove their undergarments but Khaled refused because they were in the presence of women. The soldier once again ordered them to remove their undergarments, threatening to kill them if they did not comply. When they refused again, the soldier proceeded to fire gunshots on the ground all around their legs to further threaten and intimidate them. Khaled and the boys endured more beatings for at least another half hour and Khaled recalled hearing one of the soldiers say to another in Hebrew, “Let’s kill them all and be done with it.”
At the same time, other soldiers continued to shoot in and around Youssef’s home. Nadia and Youssef’s wife, Aziza, called out to them repeatedly, telling them there was an elderly woman who cannot walk still inside the house. One soldier answered, “Tell her to come out”. Nadia repeated, “She cannot walk.” The gunfire ceased for a moment and Nadia and Aziza called out to Alia’, telling her to come out of the house. After several minutes, Alia’ appeared at the door, dragging herself along the ground. The soldiers sat her on the ground with the women and children. Nadia reported that Alia’ was panicked and terrified.
Mu’ath’s statement reveals that the soldiers subjected him to particularly harsh treatment when they learned he was Youssef’s son after he was asked to identify himself. The soldiers blindfolded Mu’ath, still stripped of his shirt and trousers, and forced him to go back inside the house as they searched its interior. One soldier grabbed him by the hair and pushed him forward into the house. Once inside, Mu’ath could hear the sound of several soldiers searching through the house. A soldier asked him, “Where are the weapons?” and pressed the barrel of his rifle against his neck. When Mu’ath replied that there were no weapons in the house, the soldiers beat him, kicking him in the abdomen. After their search, the soldiers brought him back outside to where Omar, Bilal, and Khaled were being held.
The siege lasted for at least another half hour before Israeli military jeeps arrived at the scene. The soldiers ordered Khaled and Mu’ath to put their clothes back on, blindfolded them, and put them each in a separate jeep. The jeeps left first, taking Mu’ath and Khaled, then the helicopter, tanks and remaining soldiers began to withdraw. While inside the military jeep, Mu’ath recounts that the soldiers held him at gunpoint and tormented him. One soldier said to him while laughing, “Your father is dead. We killed him. He is over there (pointing) on the ground.”
After waiting several more minutes to make sure the soldiers did not return, Nadia gathered the children then began walking to find help. Youssef’s wife remained behind with his mother Alia’. Faten walked beside Nadia, with Amira still in her arms. In her statement to DCI/PS, Faten says she realised Amira was dead as she held her during the siege. She reported that Amira’s body was lifeless and she could feel the blood from the baby’s gunshot wound seeping onto her shirt. Faten however chose not to tell Nadia that her daughter had died.
Nadia and the children walked for approximately 15 minutes before they arrived at a house where they could summon medical help. An ambulance arrived shortly after and immediately transferred the injured to Shuhuda al-Aqsa Hospital where Amira was pronounced dead on arrival. This is when Nadia learned her baby had been killed. That same night, Nadia underwent surgery on her right arm and was released from the hospital after several days.
According to the medical report obtained by DCI/PS, Nadia was still undergoing medical treatment several weeks following the incident. At the time eyewitness statements were first taken just days after the attack, 11-year-old Iyad, still recovering in the hospital from the gunshot wound to his arm, was suffering from severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and was unable to recall events or even speak about them. His 14-year-old sister Faten was also showing clear symptoms of PTSD after carrying Amira’s lifeless body for most of the siege. The DCI/PS fieldworker who investigated this case was only able to collect statements from Iyad and Faten on his third visit to the area in early June. DCI/PS also learned that Youssef’s 76-year-old mother, Alia’, died several days after the siege. The emotional and physical stress of the ordeal undoubtedly impacted her already failing health. Following the raid, the surviving members of Youssef’s family moved into the nearby home of a relative since their house suffered damage from the heavy gunfire. DCI/PS later learned that several days after the raid, Israeli forces demolished the nearby home of another one of Youssef’s relatives. Youssef’s family has since returned to their home although exterior damage remains.
According to a statement published by the Gaza-based Al-Mezan Centre for Human Rights, there is sufficient evidence to suggest that Youssef was the victim of an extra-judicial execution after he fled his house that evening. Al-Mezan reports that neighbours discovered Youssef’s body in an open area, about 150 metres from his house at approximately 10:00 am on the morning after the siege (5 March). He had sustained a bullet wound to the chest and his skull was crushed. An initial post-mortem examination indicated that he was killed when his skull was crushed as a vehicle ran over him after he had already been injured by a live bullet and was lying on the ground. Al-Mezan condemns the assassination of Youssef and draws a parallel with a 2001 case in which two Palestinian naval force staff who were injured and posed no immediate threat were deliberately struck and killed by Israeli military vehicles.
DCI/PS strongly condemns the excessive use of force against unarmed Palestinian civilians posing no threat to Israeli soldiers. In a non-combat situation, the soldiers should have employed law enforcement means to bring a wanted suspect to justice. If Israeli forces raided Youssef’s home on 4 March because he was in fact wanted by Israel at the time, the military operation should have entailed his arrest and prosecution; not the shooting of unarmed civilians and arbitrary brutalisation of at least 20 people among his family and friends, including 15 children.
Wilful killing of civilians
The soldiers acted recklessly in the way they dealt with Youssef’s family and friends, using lethal force unjustified by military necessity according to the circumstances. They showed no intention of taking precautions to avoid or minimise harm to civilians, especially children. Eyewitness testimonies obtained by DCI/PS fieldworkers reveal that the Israeli soldiers intentionally fired on civilians, including children, even as they obeyed orders to exit the house without resistance. DCI/PS field investigations also indicate that despite her being wrapped in a sheet, Amira’s head was clearly visible for the soldiers to see. The soldiers were standing approximately eight metres away from Nadia and her child, and equipped with night vision binoculars and spotlights to enhance their vision capabilities. When Nadia was asked what she was carrying in her arms, one of the children explicitly and repeatedly responded “baby” (katen) in Hebrew. Despite this, the soldiers opened fire on the woman and child.
As a High Contracting Party to the Fourth Geneva Convention, Israel has a legal duty to protect civilians who are not actively taking part in hostilities, particularly if they are wounded or infirm. Of the family members and guests in Youssef’s home on the evening of the raid, 15 were children, who are granted special protection under international law. As a State Party to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), Israel is legally obligated to recognise every child’s “inherent right to life” and “ensure the survival and development of the child to the maximum extent possible.” However, no consideration was given by the soldiers to the status of the occupants of the house, and no precautionary measures were taken before the start of the shooting to spare civilians, and particularly children, who might be inside.
In international humanitarian law, civilian deaths that are intentional and not justified by military necessity amount to war crimes. “Wilful killings” of protected persons, or “wilfully causing serious injury to body and health” of protected persons, also constitute a grave breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention (Article 147), for which individuals can be held criminally responsible. All High Contracting Parties to the Fourth Geneva Convention are under a legal obligation to search for persons alleged to have committed, or ordered to be committed, such grave breaches, and to bring them in front of their domestic courts or to exercise universal jurisdiction and hand them over for trial to another High Contracting Party (Article 146).
Torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment
Once they were outside of the house, the soldiers deliberately terrorised and threatened the women and children by shooting the ground around them and laughing at their fear. Moreover, the soldiers subjected Khaled, Youssef’s 17 and 15-year-old sons, and his 15-year-old nephew to humiliating and degrading treatment, forcing them to strip their clothes and endure beatings in front of the women and children. Mu’ath was particularly exposed to cruel physical and psychological abuse for being related to a wanted combatant. When the soldiers identified Mu’ath as Youssef’s eldest son, they forced him back inside the house and threatened and physically abused him to gain information on weapons they alleged were inside. Mu’ath was later detained at gunpoint in a military jeep where soldiers further carried out acts of psychological abuse.
3 of the Fourth Geneva Convention protects persons taking no active part in hostilities from “violence to life and person and outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment.”
Further protection is afforded by Article 27 of the Convention that states, “protected persons shall at all times be humanely treated, and shall be protected especially against all acts of violence or threats thereof.” The UN Convention Against Torture (UNCAT), to which Israel is a signatory, defines torture as acts perpetrated by persons acting in an official capacity which intentionally inflict pain or suffering “for the purpose of punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind” (Article 1). As a State Party to the UNCRC, Israel also has a legal obligation to protect children from “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.” House demolitions Israeli forces frequently carry out house demolitions as part of its military operations, including search and arrest operations. Article 53 of the Fourth Geneva Convention strictly prohibits the destruction of personal property except in circumstances justified by military necessity. In order to establish military necessity, several conditions must be met: the house demolition must meet the principle of proportionality, meaning the military advantage gained must outweigh the damage caused to civilians and their property; the house must be deemed essential to combat operations posing a specific threat to occupation forces; and all other less harmful options must be exhausted. House demolitions are also routinely employed as a punitive measure against Palestinians, who have carried out or are suspected of having carried out violent acts against Israelis, or their extended family. Punitive house demolitions do not meet the requirements of military necessity and amounts to collective punishment, which is prohibited by the Fourth Geneva Convention (Article 33).
House demolitions have devastating impacts on Palestinian families, with children suffering disproportionately from its effects. Children often experience psychological trauma and an acute sense of insecurity after losing their homes and their belongings. As families struggle to survive without access to basic necessities and social services, the children often face gaps in their education. According to a recent survey conducted by the Palestinian Counselling Centre with support from Save the Children UK and the Welfare Association, the emotional and behavioural impacts persist well beyond the first six months following a demolition and include increased aggression, depression, bedwetting, and poor academic performance 2.
On 4 March, an otherwise normal evening among family and friends in the comfort and safety of their home was shattered by the brutal violence of a military raid. The 14 children who survived this ordeal have been psychologically scarred for life, but the full impact of this incident, especially on its youngest victims, is impossible to measure.
DCI/PS strongly condemns the excessive and unnecessary use of force against unarmed Palestinian civilians who posed no threat to Israel soldiers at the time of the incident. In light of the documented facts surrounding the killing of Amira, DCI/PS calls on the High Contracting Parties to the Fourth Geneva Convention to call on Israel to prosecute those responsible for committing these grave breaches, failing which, the High Contracting Parties should themselves identify, search for and prosecute those responsible, in accordance with their legal obligations under international humanitarian law. DCI/PS again calls on Israel to compel its army to respect its legal obligations under international humanitarian law and respect the lives of Palestinian children.
1. DCI/PS investigated this incident over a period of three months, during which the Gaza fieldworker collected five statements from victims and eyewitnesses in three separate visits and several follow up phone calls with those directly involved in and affected by the attack. The case study is built on information gathered from four of the victims.
2. Long Term Implications of Israel’s House Demolition Policy and Practice on Palestinian Children and Their Families, forthcoming.