IDF soldiers during Cast Lead (Matan Hakimi, IDF Spokesman's Office)
IDF soldiers on the lookout during Operation Cast Lead, in the winter of 2009-2010. Photo by Matan Hakimi, IDF Spokesman's Office
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Amira Hass
Maysa Samouni with her daughter. Photo by Amira Hass

My meeting with Uri (not his real name) - along with several other soldiers who took part in the Cast Lead military attack on Gaza that ended two years ago this week - was arranged by Breaking the Silence, an organization of army veterans whose mission is to expose Israelis to IDF practices in the occupied territories. Uri's testimony about civilian killings in that attack appears to correspond with one of the testimonies provided by graduates of the Rabin Pre-Military Academy, the published version of which prompted an angry response by the IDF spokesman's office, directed at the soldiers, the academy and the media. Breaking the Silence had chosen not to publicize Uri's testimony, which appears below, in accordance with a rule that requires at least two eyewitnesses to such grave incidents before they are publicized. Uri's responses to Haaretz's questions corroborate testimonies of Palestinians survivors of the onslaught, underscoring their importance and value.

On Sunday morning, January 4, 2009, during the first hours of the Israeli ground invasion of Gaza, Uri's company in the Givati Brigade moved from a house they had taken over in the Zeitun neighborhood (southeast of Gaza City) to a three-storey building that had been taken over earlier by a different company.

Crushing a shoelace between his fingers as he answers questions, Uri looks at his hands rather than at his partner in conversation:

"There was already one family inside this house, herded into one room. The house had already been searched, [the soldiers] had looked for weapons and such, all the closets were emptied, all the drawers were opened and everything was on the floor, and all the soldiers were sleeping on mattresses in the living room. This is the house we took. We were there all of the first week.

"[The army] prepared us for massive resistance, [that it would be] like going back into Lebanon. [That there would be] antitank missiles. They told us there would be massive resistance by entire regiments organized by Hamas . . . they said that it wouldn't be easy and not everyone would return. Until we actually went in, the feeling was that we would be running with bullets flying overhead. In the end, it turned out we were in an area where there was no resistance at all . . . resistance in Zeitun came only from the mosque, one of the first things we bulldozed with D-9s because they shot at us from there. . . On Sunday, a few hours after we arrived, we were fired on [by Palestinians] with an RPG [rocket-propelled grenade]. Suddenly, inside the house, we received intelligence that there was a small group with an RPG downstairs; they missed our house and hit the one next to us. . . Someone spoke over our communications lines and told us there was a small group [of Palestinians] there."

Who told you?

"Someone sitting in the war room [outside the Gaza Strip] who gets information from wiretaps, from informers. And there were a lot of unmanned drones in the air that saw everything. Every area in Gaza is photographed; they see everything. We got [the information] 10 or 20 seconds after we got fired on by the RPG, or to be more exact, [the RPG was fired on] the house next to ours. [The RPG] killed the father and injured an infant girl; that left the brother, the mother and two young children, along with the wounded infant. And they came to the house we were in."

This was Sunday, January 4?

"Yes.[The house we took over had] a reinforced steel door and a soldier sat there with his weapon at the ready to make sure that no one went in. [Then] someone opened the door, an entire family entered, and he didn't shoot at them. His jaw simply dropped. He didn't know what to do with himself. He went into complete shock. In less than a minute, [the soldiers] recovered their composure and stopped [the family], told them to raise their hands in the air, and took the young man and tied him up. We put everyone into the room with the other captives [the members of the household].

"The woman had a bundle in her arms, a baby who had lost half its hand from the [RPG]. Our medic quickly bandaged it. The baby was about a year-and-a-half or 2 years old. There was a lot of blood; it lost three fingers and half a pinky finger. It didn't matter that much because it died later. They were thrown out of the house a few days later, took a wrong turn and an [IDF] marksman shot the whole family down."

Everyone had been sitting together in that room?

"Yes, the men sat with the women, the men with their hands and feet tied and their eyes blindfolded, and the women on mattresses, together with the guard who sat at the door and watched them. The prisoner interrogator took them one by one into the kitchen and asked them questions. I overheard him questioning the brother."

You don't know what he asked them about?

"I didn't understand. I don't speak Arabic. At a certain point we were ordered to take them all outside, and this took time. We sat and asked ourselves whether the baby would remember that Hamas shot off its hand . . . Now that it's dead, it's ironic to think about it."

Did they know they had been hurt by a Palestinian bomb?

"I have no idea."

Did you ask the interrogator what they said or knew?

"I asked, but the amount of information he gave me was minimal. He explained that the man was the woman's brother and not her husband . . . at a certain point they told us to take them out of the house."

Do you remember what day this was?

"In the middle of the first week. It's really hard to tell the difference between day and night because you are guarding, not sleeping."

How is it that the people who were hit by the [Palestinian] RPG are the exact same ones killed by the [IDF] marksman? Are you sure that the mother with the baby was killed?

"That's a very good question. . . I did not see them leaving the house; I saw only this specific family walking in what was apparently the wrong direction. I understood that they were told to go to the right and they went to the left. That's what we were told. Suddenly I see a marksman from another house firing at the family leaving our house."

Why are you convinced that this was the woman with the baby treated by your medic?

"I'm trying to recall. I'm sure it was the same woman, but why am I so sure?"

Immediately after the IDF attack, when I was in Gaza, I interviewed a woman named Maysa Samouni. She had been with her husband and baby daughter at the Samouni home in the Zeitun neighborhood - the house in which Givati soldiers gathered together about a hundred members of the extended Samouni family on January 4, and upon which IDF rockets were fired the next day. Today it is known that the rockets were fired by order of the Givati commander Col. Ilan Malka, who has since been interrogated by the military's criminal investigation unit in connection with the deaths of 21 Palestinian civilians. He had seen, in a drone photo, a group of people standing outside the building holding what he interpreted to be weaponry and gave the order to fire on them. All they had done, in fact, was strip wooden planks from a shed in order to build a fire to bake bread and prepare tea. [The Palestinians] felt safe at a distance of only 80 meters from the soldiers who had gathered them in the house. Maysa's husband was killed in the shelling; her 1-year-old daughter Jumana lost three fingers.

Maysa told me that she, along with her husband's brother Musa and other survivors extricated from among the bodies in the bombed house, sought refuge in the home of her uncle As'ad Samouni. They did not know that you were there. She also told me that a soldier paramedic treated her and her daughter, but not Musa. This must be the same incident.

"You are making me have doubts."

Not RPGs - IDF missiles

A lack of sleep, anxiety, and half-baked information received by the soldiers from their commanders can explain the confused testimony of "Uri," who has mourned the death of the infant with her heartrending wounds for two years. His testimony metamorphosed into a rumor spread by one of the soldiers at the academy, according to which "a commander released the family and told them to go to the right. One of the mothers with two children did not understand and went to the left. They forgot to tell the marksman on the roof to hold his fire and, you can say, he acted the way he was supposed to, according to instructions. The sharpshooter saw a woman and children approaching him, crossing the line beyond which they were not supposed to go. He shot straight at them. In any case, what happened was that in the end he shot them," as reported in Haaretz on March 18, 2009.

When the testimony at the academy was publicized, I had already been in the Gaza Strip for two months, gathering testimony from survivors. Like other journalists, I had been asked to "locate" the mother and children who were killed. Muhammed Subuh, a researcher for B'tselem, and I were having difficulty finding information about the deaths that corresponded to the testimony above - testimony which received prominent media coverage because of the gravity of the incident.

I knew about and began to write about other civilians killed by IDF soldiers at short range in the Zeitun neighborhood, but there was no mother with two children among them. Until I interviewed Uri nearly two years later, I had no way of knowing that the mother was Maysa, excerpts of whose testimony Haaretz published on March 11, 2009, a week before the academy soldiers' testimony was published in the press. (B'tselem published her complete remarks on its Internet site at the height of the military attack).

On March 30, 2009, the IDF released the following statement (based on its interrogation of soldiers at the academy): "A claim [was] made by a different soldier who had supposedly been ordered to open fire at a woman and two children. . . it was found that during this incident, a force had opened fire in a different direction, at two suspicious men who were unrelated to the civilians in question."

Aside from a grave mistake in identification, Uri made other errors: It turns out that what had exploded a few dozen meters from his makeshift army base was not a Palestinian RPG but missiles fired by Israel from the air. The information the soldiers received from the war room had been erroneous from the start. This happened again on the second day of the land attack. The woman and infant treated by the medic did not leave the house "in the middle of the week" but a few hours after they were wounded.

But the IDF investigation was also far from precise: One of the so-called "suspicious men" shot was the civilian Iyad Samouni, who had a direct connection to the civilians removed from the house. He had been among the shackled and blindfolded family members found by Uri in the house. He also left the house in shackles.

Jews have hearts of gold

I spoke with Imad Samouni, Ayad's brother, on May 4, 2009, in Gaza, in the home of Salah Samouni. His testimony, albeit only part of it, is published here for the first time. "[On Sunday, January 4], we escaped [because of the bombing] to the home of my uncle As'ad Samouni, a concrete block house . . . and within five minutes the army arrived, demanding that we open the door, and if not, they would blow the house up. I opened the door. and they asked us to lift our shirts. I know Hebrew and I told the family not to worry because Jews have better hearts than we do, I worked with them for 10 years. They tied us up, the men, seven of my brother and cousins. Hands behind our backs. The women were in the same room. There were 46 of us. Together with the children.

"The soldiers passed among us, made our home into their hostel . . . two guarded us. [The shackles] hurt me terribly and my fingers swelled. A soldier tried to open them but couldn't, and only made them tighter. My wife cried that they hurt me. He brought scissors and cut down to the flesh to open them. My wife cried. And I'm a man, I told them not to cry, and he brought new plastic ties. We stayed that way from Sunday to Monday. . .

On Monday the house 200 meters away was bombed. We didn't know then what had happened. Who was coming? Maysa came, the wife of Toufik [my sister's son], and her baby daughter, and Musa and three small sisters came to me, thinking there were no soldiers at our place. The army caught them and they entered. I was tied up, and one of the girls shouted 'Mother is dead.' I asked who was talking. I couldn't see, my eyes were blindfolded, and my wife said, 'It's your niece, your sister Rabab's daughter.' Musa came, Rabab's son, with his sister-in-law Maysa and the children and told me that the whole family was dead. I went crazy, everyone was dead. I didn't know anything. We were tied up. Our girls who had been crying started to scream. The soldiers could not control them. They said: We'll take everyone out of here, except for two. That was at about ten o'clock [in the morning, January 5]."

"A man has been killed. Your brother"

The soldiers held Imad and Musa, despite their pleading to be allowed out with the others, inside the house, still shackled and blindfolded, terrified and isolated, until Wednesday, January 7. Then they were released and asked to march with their hands, still tied, in the air, holding a white rag. On the way, Imad said, "We saw a bulldozer demolishing and destroying, and reached the Salah A Din highway. Musa told me 'A man has been killed. Your brother.' I looked and it was Iyad who had been inside the house with me earlier and taken out. I saw his crushed legs . . . afterward I learned that Iyad went out with everyone [on Monday], he lifted up the white rag with his family, maybe he had a cell phone, and they shot him in the legs. He shouted to his wife and to mine to lift him up, and the soldiers shot at him or aimed their rifles. They told him to crawl, because he was only wounded a little in the leg. And then from a distance they shot at him, and his second leg went . . . he was bleeding . . . he bled for three days and died. Neighbors passed by and weren't allowed to help him."

The Goldstone Report also addresses the killing of Iyad, whose hands, like those of the other men, were still shackled by white plastic ties when Red Crescent paramedics collected his body four days later. An investigation by the Palestinian Center for Human Rights found that while they were still walking, shackled hands in the air, the telephone in Iyad's cousin's pocket began to ring. Iyad tried to take the phone from his cousin's pocket, and then, the sharpshooter on the roof fired at him. Uri, for his part, is glad to hear that baby Jumana and her mother are still alive.