As of 7 February 2009, DCI-Palestine has confirmed the deaths of 304 children, and is investigating a further 96 reports of child fatalities. This means that as many as 400 children could have been killed in Operation Cast Lead.
On Wednesday, 14 January 2009, at around 5:00pm, 14-year-old Amira was on the first floor of her home in Tel al-Hawa in southern Gaza City. She was with her father, brother Ala (13) and sister Ismat (15) when Israeli tanks entered their neighbourhood: “We were very scared,” recalls Amira.
At approximately 6:30pm, Amira’s father, who is the muezzin (person who leads the call to prayer) for the mosque next door left the house to call the Isha (night) prayer. He quickly returned home, and shortly after put the children to bed amidst the sound of nearby shelling and gunfire.
Amira recounts that her father told her and her siblings that he was going to look out the front door of the house to see what is happening. “Sleep and do not be afraid,” he told them. The children fell asleep, but awoke screaming at the sound of a loud explosion just outside their house.
They jumped out of bed and ran to the front door of the house. Amira exited the house first and as she ran several metres beyond the front door, she recalls sensing that she had stepped on a person and froze where she stood. She looked behind her and saw her father lying on the ground and bleeding heavily by their front door. Amira and her siblings, Ala and Ismat, knelt down around their father as they screamed and cried in fear. “Please God, don't let my father die" Amira repeated as she sat on the ground next to him.
Amira’s brother and sister told her to stay with their father while they went to get an ambulance. Her brother and sister had already run several metres when Amira heard the sound of another explosion. At that moment, she reports feeling her right leg divide into two parts. Amira screamed out in pain and her brother and sister ran back to help her. Amira’s brother tried to move her leg but could not. So Ala and Ismat set off again to find an ambulance, telling Amira not to be afraid. Amira watched them run down the street until they rounded a corner and moved out of sight. She could no longer see her siblings but she could hear their voices shouting, “Ambulance! Ambulance! Please help us.” Moments later, Amira heard the sound of yet another explosion and saw heavy smoke rising from the area where her siblings had gone. She could no longer hear their voices.
Amira sat by her father, pleading with him to wake up but he did not move. She grew afraid when she heard the sound of tanks approaching and crawled back inside her house through the front door. She convinced herself that her father would wake up and follow her inside so she deliberately left the front door open for him. Inside the house, she crawled to the balcony overlooking the street. Moments later, she heard yet another explosion and saw smoke rising from the area where her father was lying. When the smoke cleared, she saw that her father’s legs had been torn from his body. At this point she says, “I knew he was dead.” Exhausted, and numbed by the pain from her right leg, Amira fell asleep on the balcony, waking up to daylight the following morning (Thursday).
Cold and thirsty, Amira struggled into the kitchen to drink some water. As she pulled herself up to stand on her left leg, she fainted and fell to the ground. Amira regained consciousness some time later and was then able to pull herself up to the kitchen sink to drink water from the tap. Afterwards, she crawled outside to where her father’s body lay to retrieve his mobile phone from his pocket. She wanted to give the phone to her father’s cousin who lived about 500 metres away so he could inform her father’s contacts that he had been killed. She dragged herself to his house and knocked on the door, but no one answered.
Amira then covered herself with a nylon sack she found on the ground and with the leaves hanging from a nearby tree in order to stay warm. She remained in this location until the next morning, falling in and out of consciousness throughout the night. She recalls being afraid of the sound of barking dogs, tanks and shellfire. She reported saying to herself “My father will protect me,” each time she felt afraid.
By morning light (Friday), Amira saw that there was a hole in the wall surrounding the nearby house of a journalist she knew well because her older sister had befriended his daughter. Weak and dehydrated, Amira crawled through the hole into the garden and then inside the house in search of water. She found a room with many mattresses and blankets and also a bottle of water from which she drank.
"I crawled and grabbed the bottle of water and quickly began drinking. The water was delicious. I then slept on a mattress and covered myself with a blanket because I was very cold. I could see a helicopter from the shattered window of the room".
"I slept and woke up several times. [...] Once, I crawled into the bathroom and filled the bottle with water from the tap. While crawling back to the room, I saw a jar full of pickled olives thrown on the floor of the kitchen. For sure it was for stock purposes. We used to store pickled olives until they became edible for the year ahead. I grabbed the jar and tried to open it because I was starving, but I failed. I left it there and crawled back to the room. I lay down on the mattress and covered myself. I reckon it was Saturday. I slowly began drinking from the bottle. I did not want to waste water because I did not feel able to go back and fill it".
More than 60 hours after her ordeal began, Amira was finally discovered when the journalist who owns the house returned and discovered her lying in the room. He had earlier evacuated his family to another location in fear of the imminent arrival of Israeli forces in the neighbourhood. When the journalist asked Amira how she arrived at his home, she responded, “I’m wounded uncle. I’m sorry I entered your house without your permission. I was hesitant to do so, but I did not know any place else to go. Please forgive me.”
Amira was rushed to Shifa Hospital where she underwent immediate surgery to fuse the shattered bones in her right leg. She suffered significant blood loss and required a blood transfusion as a life-saving measure. Four days later, Amira underwent further surgery to rehabilitate her leg.
Amira was placed under the care of a group of French doctors who wanted to send her to France for further treatment to ensure she does not suffer the loss of her lower limb. On 22 January and again on 23 January, Amira, accompanied by her aunt, was taken via ambulance to Rafah crossing to enter Egypt. Both times, they were denied entry by Egyptian officials who shouted abuse at them, accusing them of lying about the extent of Amira’s injury.
As of 5 February 2009, Amira is still in Gaza awaiting permission to enter Egypt via Rafah crossing in order to receive continuing medical treatment abroad. Efforts by delegations of international doctors are ongoing to coordinate and obtain the proper permits for her exit. Amira is exhibiting signs of psychological stress as a result of the trauma she experienced and further delays in her treatment will only set back her recovery.
The use of indiscriminate force in densely populated civilian areas is a violation of international law. All parties are bound by international legal obligations to distinguish between combatants and civilians and take all necessary precautions to minimise civilian casualties when conducting hostilities. All parties must respect the principle of proportionality and necessity when conducting and planning military operations. In the context of densely populated Gaza, military commanders must exercise even greater diligence to minimise harm to civilians. Israel’s use of heavy artillery and tanks in Gaza City’s neighbourhoods is a violation of international law as these weapons are by nature indiscriminate, striking at military and civilian objects without distinction as in the case of this family.
As the surviving victims of Operation Cast Lead struggle to cope in its aftermath, DCI-Palestine continues to call for:
An independent investigation into incidents involving civilian fatalities during Operation Cast Lead, and prompt prosecution in accordance with international law of those found responsible for ordering, planning and carrying out war crimes;
For further information please go to the Gaza Under Attack page
Update: As of 25 February, Amira is out of the hospital and residing with relatives in Gaza City. After unsuccessful attempts to enter Egypt via Rafah crossing despite the best efforts by intermediaries, Amira's injured leg began to exhibit signs of improvement and the risk of amputation was significantly reduced. She continues to receive medical care in Gaza City as she is no longer deemed a priority case for medical evacuation by the Palestinian Ministry of Health. Although she displays promising signs of physical recovery, the psychological stress from the trauma she endured are ever present.