Among the 1,400 Palestinians killed during Operation Cast Lead last December and January, 1,085 died in Israeli air strikes, according to a study by the Gaza-based human rights group Mezan. Israeli soldiers killed 93 Palestinians at close range with rifles, according to the study, which was requested by Haaretz.
Even assuming a margin of error, Mezan has confidence in the statistics, which show that less than 7 percent of the dead were struck by bullets at close range. Because these are close-range killings, journalists often focus on them, from various points of view. Soldiers' views, for example, were made public after the soul-searching comments by graduates of the Yitzhak Rabin pre-military preparatory course earlier this year.
Did the Israel Defense Forces carefully examine each instance of close-range killing and find that they were justified? Do all the soldiers, sometimes the only eyewitnesses to such killings, share the army's position?
Raya Abu Hajaj, 65, and her daughter Majeda, 35, were among the people fleeing the Juhor Ad-Dik agricultural area, four or five kilometers south of the Karni crossing into Israel. At 6:30 A.M. on January 4, the first Sunday of the ground attack, one of many shells falling in the area crashed through the northern wall of the Abu Hajaj family's home; a young girl suffered a shrapnel wound on her hand. According to Salah Abu Hajaj, Raya's son, Israeli soldiers interrupted local radio broadcasts and ordered residents to leave their homes carrying white flags. Abu Hajaj and the neighboring Safadi family - 29 people in all - decided to flee to Gaza City.
The adults walked at the front of the group carrying small children; Majeda and Ahmed Safadi waved white rags. They walked to the west toward Salah Ad-Din Road. Near a house under construction by the Dughmush family, about 300 meters west of the Safadi home, they could make out a group of tanks at a standstill. The two families continued walking. One tank stood in a field to the north and began moving west, parallel to their route.
Suddenly the tank fired, apparently machine-gun fire while the tank was on the move, causing great panic in the group. They began to run back, to the east. Salah saw a soldier emerge halfway from the tank's turret. The tank was now between 50 and 100 meters from them. Salah heard shots. He saw his mother and sister fall. Their bodies would be collected from the spot two weeks later.
Did someone higher up know?
Haaretz sent the following question to the IDF Spokesman's Office on May 19: "Was the decision to shoot from a tank at a line of people walking and waving white flags made by an individual soldier or according to orders from someone higher up? Are we talking about an officer inside the tank or elsewhere? Was there intelligence about an armed fighter hiding among these civilians, based on which a decision was made to fire on the civilians, according to IDF regulations? Did the people pose a threat to the lives of the soldiers in the tanks, and how is it that there was no fire from the tanks to the west of the road, near the Dughmush home? Do the names of Raya and Majeda Abu Hajaj appear on the IDF list of people killed?"
On May 21, the spokesman's office replied: "The information given us by the reporter was checked over a period of several days by the IDF units on duty in the area. From this examination it became clear that the incident described is unknown to the army. We would be glad to receive further information that may be of use from the reporter, with her permission. It should be noted that during Operation Cast Lead, Hamas cynically exploited the civilian population and used it as a 'human shield.'"
On January 5, between 4 P.M and 5 P.M., soldiers apparently from Golani infantry units broke into the home of Samir Rashid in the Izbet Abed Rabbo neighborhood in east Jabalya. They broke through the house's western wall and entered the stairwell. The house faces a mosque where three members of Hamas' Iz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades were entrenched. The army shelled this house between January 5 and 6. According to several interviews by Haaretz, at those hours, IDF soldiers forced Palestinian civilians to march in front of them, break into homes and search them.
Using shock grenades, the soldiers walked up to the second floor of the Rashid home, where the entire family had gathered. Samir and Munir Rashid opened the door to the soldiers, immediately putting their hands over their heads. The soldiers demanded that Munir bring them the key to the iron entrance gate, and made Samir accompany them in searches of apartments on the upper floor. A few minutes later, when Munir returned with the key, he saw soldiers carrying his brother on a stretcher.
Samir was dressed only in his pants; blood ran from his naked chest. His dead body remained at the front of the building until January 14. From bloodstains discovered later it is possible to conclude that Samir Rashid was shot on the southeast porch of the four-story house. Two weeks later, after the attack had ended, there were no signs of shooting on the porch wall.
'They returned fire at the terrorists'
Haaretz asked the IDF Spokesman's Office: "Samir Rashid worked for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. According to his family, the agency and reporters have already asked the IDF why Samir Rashid was shot. The IDF answered that Rashid was trying to escape, according to the family. Is it possible to conclude that Samir Rashid was killed at close range? Has the IDF examined the circumstances surrounding Samir Rashid's killing?"
The spokesman responded: "Upon examination it came to light that IDF soldiers were fired on during their mission in the area under discussion, and they returned fire at the terrorists. During the exchange of fire in a combat zone, a man was hurt. The claims of shooting at close range are completely baseless."
The date when Jamila Da'ur, 61, and her son Mohammed, 32, were killed is unknown. On January 18, their bodies were found at the entrance to their home in the Atatra neighborhood. Someone had covered the woman's body with a blanket, apparently a few days after she died, because there were no signs of blood on the blanket. Mohammed was found with his hands in the motion of raising his shirt.
On the night of January 3, a Saturday, when the explosions and shelling increased, the Da'ur family wanted to escape from their home. But fleeing was also dangerous; shells fell all around, a rocket injured one of them, and glass shattered over people's heads in the distance. The Da'ur family did not get further than a hundred meters from their house, spending the night wide awake and frightened at a neighbor's.
The next day Jamila and Mohammed somehow managed to return home, apparently to gather up documents and some valuables. In the afternoon, the IDF dropped white phosphorous shells on the area, killing five members of the Abu Halima family. The last telephone communication with the Da'urs took place Sunday night. Two mattresses in a corridor and an ashtray filled with cigarette butts were discovered the day the fighting ended, so the family has concluded that the two were still alive that Monday morning. A mobile phone and ID cards they had on them have disappeared.
Haaretz asked the IDF Spokesman's Office: "Were the two killed because they were in an area that residents were asked to vacate? Were they killed because they were suspected of being armed or because armed people were in their vicinity?"
The office replied: "The matter was investigated, and is unknown [to us]. On the surface it appears the journalist has reached conclusions based on guesses and pieces of information. The army spokesman denies any statement that IDF soldiers intentionally shot, without reason, at Palestinians who were not involved [in fighting]. IDF soldiers and their officers have been trained and act in accordance with international legal regulations on warfare, and a great effort is made to reduce injury to the civilian population, even despite the monstrous use of civilians by Hamas."
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