Twilight Zone / Grapes of Wrath

"The purity of arms is our guiding principle," the brigade commander said, concluding his briefing after his soldiers opened fire on an innocent family with flechettes, killing a mother, her two children and a cousin.

"The purity of arms is our guiding principle," the brigade commander said, concluding his briefing after his soldiers opened fire on an innocent family with flechettes - shells that disperse nails to make them more lethal - and killed a mother, her two children and a cousin, and wounded several more youths and a toddler who were just about to settle down to sleep for the night in huts in their vineyard.

Said the brigade commander for the northern Gaza Strip, Colonel Yoel Strick, in his briefing on the killing of members of the Hajin family last week: "The tank discerned four figures in combat-type motion ... The proximity to the position was such that the soldiers at the outpost could see their faces." Also: "We know the family and we've asked them not to wander about in the area since their innocent movement is exploited by other elements for the purpose of planting explosives." And finally: "When the investigation is complete, the data will have to be examined ... to see why the commander felt that incriminating combat-type behavior was occurring."

"The Israel Defense Forces regret the harming of innocent civilians," said the IDF Spokesman, after earlier making insinuations about supposedly incriminating findings that might somehow relieve the IDF of its responsibility for the killing - a cell phone that was found near the dead bodies, or "signs of crawling" left by those who tried to escape with their lives after they were fire at without warning.

On Wednesday evening, it was the turn of the Hajin family in Gaza; on Saturday, it was the children of the Darama family in Tubas; on Sunday - the Halika family in Beni Na'im. These are especially murderous days - 13 innocent victims in less than a week - the same week in which the chief of staff declared that Palestinian violence is a cancer and the brigade commander insisted that "purity of arms" is the IDF's guiding principle.

Only once during this interview did Othman Hajin, the father who witnessed the deaths of his wife and two children in his vineyard, break down and weep. When he was asked about the apology issued by the defense minister, he replied: "What good is an apology when they killed my wife and children? What meaning does it have when they made orphans of my children? What is it worth after what they've done to us? They knew that we live there ... that children were sleeping there ... It's appalling ... Instead of calling out on a loudspeaker, instead of shooting in the air, instead of firing illuminating shells. What kind of progressive army is this that kills women and children this way?" he asked, each question punctuated by sobs, until he felt embarrassed in front of his young son, Sa'id, who sat on his lap the whole time, his shoulder bandaged because of the piece of flechette shrapnel that pierced his flesh.

After the shelling subsided, Othman found the four-year-old boy clutching his dying mother. The boy had followed her out in the dark when she tried to save his brothers. When he saw her fall to the ground, bleeding, he ran to her and held on tight. Now the child clings to his father.

The other bereaved father, Hashem Hajin, an elderly blind man dressed in a white galabiya, who lost his son Mohammed, 18, in the vineyard and has another son in the hospital in critical condition, leans on his cane and wonders when peace will come. "May they be the last victims and may there be peace," he says. No one in this house of mourning in the Jabalya refugee camp in Gaza spoke of vengeance.

A tin roof covers the wide inner courtyard that is surrounded by the family's cramped living quarters in Jabalya. A sandy path leads to the house. The mourners' tent in front is full of gloomy, wary-looking youths. Though we are uninvited guests, we are received graciously, even when identified as Israelis. Othman, 50, emerges barefoot from his small room, having just said his afternoon prayers. He wears a white, knitted skullcap and his cheeks are covered with stubble. His restraint is impressive. For most of his life, he worked in Israel, building cattle barns and chicken coops at various moshavim. He inherited the vineyard from his father, who was killed in a nearby auto accident last year. The 12 dunams [three acres] were divided into three sections, with four dunams going to each son.

A few weeks ago, an IDF officer came to the vineyard. Ruweida, Othman's wife, went out to greet him. According to Othman, the officer asked if the family lived in the vineyard and Ruweida explained that the family made its living from the vineyard and that, during the summer, they could be found there day and night. The officer asked if they had ever seen strangers about and Ruweida assured him that they hadn't. Then the friendly officer left and Othman says they felt much more secure in their vineyard after his visit: Now the IDF knew them, they knew that they lived there in the summer, nothing bad would happen to them. He hastened to tell his neighbors about the reassuring conversation with the officer.

Last Wednesday, Othman went into the city to repair a generator. His wife took their four daughters to buy clothes and backpacks for the new school year. That night, the girls decided to sleep at the house in Jabalya. Thus they were saved from the shelling, for which their father is fervently grateful. In the evening, the father returned and the sons had finished picking figs with their mother. Some other relatives who had stopped by the vineyard to visit were also there. One cousin brought felafel and hummus from the city. The boys went off to eat under the fig and lemon trees at the edge of the vineyard, several dozen meters from the family's hut. A rusty barbed-wire fence marks the border of the vineyard, which lies about 150 meters from the sand barricade where the tanks are positioned, guarding the settlement of Netzarim behind them.

Night fell and the vineyard was in total darkness. A lantern hung by the hut gave off a faint light. There were 10 of them - Ruweida, Othman and little Sa'id had stayed by the hut. The other sons and cousins had gathered under the fig and lemon trees. Sa'id quickly fell asleep on the ground next to the hut. Then Othman transferred him to his mattress and went to say his evening prayers. Ruweida prepared to go to sleep. Her toothbrush and toothpaste were later found lying on the water container next to the hut.

There was a loud boom and Othman says he immediately realized that it was a tank shell. The time was about 11:00 or 11:30 P.M. He says he heard three shells landing one after the other. Then he heard his sons crying for help. He rushed to hide behind the wall of the hut. His wife started moving in the direction of the shelling, to see what had happened to her sons. Perhaps troubled that he didn't do the same or that he didn't stop her, Othman keeps talking about how dangerous it was for him to move from his place. Shortly afterward, the sound of gunfire was heard and then Othman heard his wife screaming, too. Her voice soon went silent. He realized that something terrible had happened to her, too.

Now, all he could think of was saving Sa'id. He crawled over the sand toward the mattress where the boy was sleeping. Gunfire rang out again, but when he reached the mattress, he found it empty. "I couldn't find the boy," he says. He called his name over and over, but got no response. He says he was afraid to move. "I expected the next shell to hit me." He was sure that all of his sons were dead. Whenever he tried to crawl nearer the place where they were, the soldiers opened fire. He is convinced they had night-vision equipment. At one point, they also began to illuminate the vineyard with a searchlight. Othman despaired of getting any closer and crawled back to his mattress, to the cell phone he had left behind, and used it to call for help. He says it took about half an hour (15 minutes, according to the brigade commander) before the ambulances that he summoned were allowed to evacuate the dead and wounded.

Embedded shrapnel

"Save my sons!" Othman yelled to the first UNRWA ambulance that the soldiers permitted to approach. By then, he had seen that one of his sons was wounded in the leg. In the darkness, he asked who it was. "Sharif," replied his son, 20. Othman told him to keep crawling back to where it was safer, but the searchlight coming from the tank prevented him from moving.

Shortly after that, when the first ambulance driver reassured him and explained that the army had promised not to shoot anymore and to allow the evacuation to proceed, he saw his son Salah, 14, at the edge of the vineyard. The wounded youth, who crawled about 15 meters under fire, is now hospitalized at Shifa Hospital in Gaza with pieces of shrapnel from the flechettes embedded all over his body. Othman lifted the bleeding boy and carried him to the ambulance. Then he saw his wife. She was lying face down on the ground, having been struck by numerous bullets. He wasn't sure if she was still alive. Three men carried her to the ambulance. Then Othman remembered Sa'id, who was missing. He told the medical crew that he had a four-year-old boy who had disappeared and they told him they had found him wounded next to his mother.

At the hospital, Othman saw the four dead bodies: his wife, Ruweida; his sons, Ashraf, 23, and Nihad, 19; and their cousin, Mohammed, 18. The other sons - Sa'id, Rifat, Sharif and Salah - were all wounded. Apart from Salah, who is still hospitalized, the rest are back at home, their wounds bandaged.

Their father wonders why Benjamin Ben-Eliezer's public apology did not include an offer to transfer Salah to Israel for medical treatment. At the defense minister's bureau, they promised to check into it.