'Holding This Medal Insults My Relatives, Slain in Gaza by Israel'

91-year-old Henk Zanoli returned his Righteous Among the Nations medal to Israel after six members of his Palestinian family were killed in a bombing in Gaza.

Amira Hass
Amira Hass
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Henk Zanoli.
Henk Zanoli.Credit: courtesy
Amira Hass
Amira Hass

In a few words, a letter that arrived by messanger at the Israeli embassy in Holland on Thursday afternoon told the story of three bereaved families whose lives were intertwined: Zanoli, Pinto and Ziadah. Enclosed in the letter was the Righteous Among the Nations medal that was granted to Johana Zanoli-Smit (posthumously) and her son Henk for hiding and rescuing a 12-year-old boy, Elhanan Pinto, during the Nazi occupation of Holland.

On Thursday, Henk Zanoli, 91, returned the medal to the State of Israel because, he wrote, the state murdered six of his relatives, members of the Ziadah family from the El Boureij refugee camp in the Gaza Strip.

Zanoli, a lawyer, wrote to Ambassador Hayim Davon that “...for me to hold on to the honour granted by the State of Israel under these circumstances, will be both an insult to the memory of my courageous mother who risked her life and that of her children fighting against suppression and for the preservation of human life as well as an insult to those in my family, four generations on, who lost no less than six of their relatives in Gaza at the hands of the State of Israel.”

At his mother’s request, Henk set out for Amsterdam one day in 1943 and returned with Pinto, whose parents had been sent to concentration camps from which they would not return. The trip by train to their village in the Utrecht region was difficult and frightening; the campaigns to catch Jews were at their height. The Zanolis were already involved in resistance to the occupation. Johana’s husband was arrested and exiled to Dachau, and a few months before Germany surrendered, he died in the Mauthausen concentration camp. The Nazis executed her son-in-law in the dunes of The Hague for his participation in the Dutch resistance movement. Another of her sons was engaged to a Jewish woman, who was arrested for the crime of being Jewish and murdered. Elhanan Pinto was saved and eventually emigrated to Israel.

Johana Zanoli and Henk didn’t talk much about the years of the occupation, said Angelique Eijpe, 41, Zanoli’s great-grandniece, who is a diplomat in the Dutch foreign service. Johana Zanoli died in 1980. She didn’t expect to receive a prize for her deeds, nor did her son initiate the receipt of the Righteous Among the Nations award at a ceremony held in 2011 at the Israeli embassy in The Hague.

The initiator was the survivor, Pinto.

“Only recently did I discover that they were actually traumatized after losing three family members: a husband, a son-in-law and a fiancee,” said Eijpe. “The entire family was involved in resistance to the occupation, but they didn’t talk about it much. I only remember that they disliked Germans.”

In the late 1990s Eijpe was studying at Birzeit University on the West Bank where she met Isma’il Ziadah, an economics student who was born in the El Boureij refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. The family originated from the village of Faluja (on whose land is present-day Kiryat Gat and other Israeli communities). They married several years later and since then have been living together abroad. Since 2012 they have been living with their three children in Oman, where Eijpe works as the deputy head of the Dutch diplomatic mission. In June they went to The Hague for their summer vacation and often spoke with their family in Gaza via Skype.

Skype is a poor substitute for a real meeting. But a real meeting is almost impossible due to the limitations that Israel imposes on the movement of residents of the Gaza Strip. Isma’il and his two older sons (ages 6 and 7), who were registered in the Palestinian population registry, are not allowed to leave or enter the Strip to travel to the West Bank via the Erez checkpoint, to land at Ben-Gurion International Airport, to enter the West Bank via the Allenby terminal on the Jordanian border, or to stay on the West Bank.

As a Dutch woman, Eijpe, the wife and mother, is allowed to land at Ben Gurion, enter the West Bank via Allenby and visit there. She is not allowed to enter the Gaza Strip via the Erez checkpoint or the Rafah terminal, which aside from a short period after the revolution in Egypt has been open only to Palestinians who are residents of the occupied territories. Isma’il and his two sons last visited the Strip in 2010, entering via Egypt. The Egyptians denied entry to Eijpe. “For us the siege of Gaza is a very concrete, very personal matter,” said Eijpe, who last saw her mother-in-law in 2005.

In Oman the Skype connection is blocked, so they all particularly enjoyed the unlimited conversations from The Hague. Isma’il spoke with his brothers in Gaza and with his mother, Muftiyah, 70. The children spoke a lot with their cousins and their grandmother, whom they called “Tiyah.” “How you’ve grown,” she said proudly, never tiring of looking at the third grandson who appeared on the computer screen, and whom she didn’t know yet. Since the start of the July 8 assault, they have become more emotionally dependent on these Skype conversations.

On Sunday, July 20, at noon Isma’il Ziadah spoke to the daughter of one of his brothers who lives in Gaza City. She suddenly received a phone call informing her that “something has happened in El Boureij,” and then the Skype connection was interrupted. That morning it was reported that in the Shujaiyeh neighborhood in Gaza seven Israeli soldiers were killed, as well dozens of civilians living in the neighborhood, whose homes were bombed with their occupants inside or who were shot while fleeing from the neighborhood. Ziadah was unable to contact his family in El Boureij.

Maybe it’s an electricity blackout, he thought, perhaps a problem due to the bombings. He asked his sons to go play downstairs in the yard. Their games interfered with his feverish attempts to renew contact with his home. And still he didn’t imagine the worst.

Isma’il’s brother Hassan, 50, a psychologist who lives and works in Gaza, told Haaretz this week: “That night there were many bombings and shellings in the eastern part of El Boureij. Nobody slept, not those in the camp and not us in Gaza. We considered the possibility that they had left the house. Mother and four brothers, their wives and children, live in the house. Khaled, who is a nurse, was in the clinic all the time in any case. His wife and children had gone to her family. The other three brothers, Jamil, 53, Youssef, 43 and Omar, 32, decided in the end to remain, along with our mother. Jamil’s wife, Bayan, also remained, and their 12-year-old son, Shaaban, insisted on staying with them.

“Two of the wives and their young children, and five of Jamil and Bayan’s six children, drove to Gaza, although the road from the camp was also difficult and frightening, with continuous bombings and shellings.”

At about 12 noon Hassan spoke by phone with his brother Jamil, to make sure that the children had arrived safely in Gaza. “See you,” said Jamil.

At about 2:30 p.m. a friend contacted Hassan to tell him that he had heard that the home of someone called Abu Suhayb Ziadah had been bombed. Hassan didn’t imagine that it was the house in El Boureij and that Abu Suhayb was his brother Khaled. He thought that it was one of his relatives, also Abu Suhayb, who lives in Gaza.

Hassan contacted several relatives — and then he got a call from his brother Sa'ed, who also lives in Gaza. He was crying: “Our home in El Boureij was bombed.” It was a four-story house, the pride of the mother and her sons, a house built on land purchased with savings they all contributed, and to which they moved only in 2003 from a small asbestos-roofed home provided by UNRWA.

“We all assumed that the army gives people a warning — by phone, with a warning missile — before it bombs a house or shells a neighborhood, that the army would give them time to leave,” Hassan said. “The grandson Shaaban, who is very close to my mother, remained in the house with them. If my mother had had any suspicion that our house was among Israel’s targets, for some reason that I can’t imagine, she wouldn’t have allowed her sons and her grandson to stay. I’m convinced of that.”

They drove to the hospital in Dir Al Balah to identify the bodies: Four arrived immediately; another two were identified later and brought to the mosque next to the cemetery, just as the funeral was about to begin. Another body was discovered in the ruins of their home: that of Mohammed Maqadmah, 30, a resident of the camp. According to B’Tselem — the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories — he was a member of the military arm of Hamas.

Hassan Ziadah has been working at the mental-health center in Gaza since 1991. He treats trauma victims and knows how to diagnose his condition and that of his family at present. “Mourning always takes time, but how do you deal with it when the loss is of six family members?” Hassan says. “You’re overwhelmed. You think about mother and then you’re angry at yourself for forgetting your elder brother, or think about your nephew and immediately reprimand yourself for not thinking of your younger brother.

“And besides, even before we lost them we lived in a situation of tremendous fear, insecurity and a sense of imminent death. This situation didn’t change even after they were killed. So we couldn’t yet begin to mourn naturally. Mourning has its own rituals, both religious and social, that make things easier. But like thousands of others, we were unable to observe these rituals because of the bombings and shellings.”

One of the trademarks of an Israel Defense Forces assault is the killing of entire families or many members of the same family, inside their homes. B’Tselem has documented 60 such families that were killed during the four weeks of the war: 458 people, including 108 women under the age of 60, 214 minors and 18 men and women aged 60 and over. On July 20 the IDF killed nine families, a total of 73 people.

The IDF spokesman did not reply to Haaretz’s question as to whether the Ziadah home was bombed by mistake — and if not, which family member was the target of the bombing, and whether the killing of the six civilians in the house is considered legitimate “collateral damage.” The spokesman replied that the IDF invests great efforts to avoid harming civilians, is working to investigate complaints about irregular incidents, and will publish the results after the investigations are concluded.

12-year-old Shaaban Ziadah.Credit: courtesy
Bayan Ziadah.Credit: courtesy
Muftiya Ziada, the family matriarch.Credit: courtesy

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