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'I can't imagine anyone who considers himself a human being can do this'

The Guardian
Chris McGreal
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 Abu Selmi.

"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 gun.

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" took place.

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 wrong here."