As of 18 February 2009, DCI-Palestine has confirmed the deaths of 324 children, and is investigating a further 60 reports of child fatalities. This means that as many as 384 children could have been killed in Operation Cast Lead.
On Sunday, 4 January, at around 3:30am, the Awaja family awoke to the sound of tanks and a bulldozer demolishing their house. The family lives in Nuzha City’s Sifa neighbourhood, north of Beit Lahiya and about 500 metres from the border with Israel. Inside the house was Kamal Awaja, his wife Wafa and their six children: Umsiyat (12), Subhi (10), Ibrahim (8), Hala (6), Deia’ (3), and Thikrayat (11 months).
“I immediately jumped out of bed and put on my clothes, while my wife Wafa, who woke up seconds before me, ran to the children’s room to wake them up”, said Kamal. “I saw the concrete ceiling of my house shaking. I screamed and ran into the living room, and then rushed with my children and wife to the kitchen and bathroom on the east side of the house. I saw a huge Israeli bulldozer demolishing the southwest side of the house. The roof of the house was shaking and began to fall.”
The southwest side of the house was destroyed causing the roof to fall. Fortunately for the Awaja family, the roof collapsed in such a way as to form a protective concrete tent under which the family took shelter.
“At this moment, I reached for my mobile phone and used its light to signal the bulldozer so that the driver would know there are people inside and stop. My son Subhi was injured when a small stone fell on his head from the ceiling. Stones and gravel were falling like rain on our heads. We shouted loudly and stood next to one another so that someone would rescue us, or the soldier driving the bulldozer would hear us and stop. We were very terrified.”
The family fled outside to the yard for safety. Once outside, Kamal saw about 30 Israeli tanks and bulldozers approaching from the west and heading east towards al-Ghboun area in Beit Lahiya. Five of the tanks stopped on the dirt road about 20 metres from their demolished house and began to patrol the area moving from east to west. The family remained outside in the cold weather until daylight. Kamal’s wife then decided to search through the rubble of their destroyed house to retrieve her ID and mobile phone to contact the Red Cross for assistance. Kamal’s phone had run out of credit and had no signal. They knew his wife’s phone had credit and hoped for reception to call for help.
As the family moved towards the pile of rubble that was once their home, Kamal reported hearing four gun shots ring out from the east and then heard his son Ibrahim shouting, “Ah! Ah! Fire! Fire!” Ibrahim (8) had been struck by live fire on the right side of his abdomen and was bleeding. Kamal carried his son and started running south towards the main road. Five more gun shots rang out from the south. Kamal was struck in his pelvic area but managed to cross the main road before falling to the ground with his son in his arms. His wife had also been shot once in each thigh and was bleeding heavily. Their remaining five children luckily escaped injury.
Kamal lay on the ground with his injured son in his arms. He kept talking to Ibrahim telling him to recite verses from the Holy Quran so he would not lose consciousness. Kamal put his hand on his son’s wound which was deep and exposed his innards, but Ibrahim kept shouting, "It’s burning daddy, it’s burning.” Their other children surrounded them, crying in fear.
Soon after, Kamal detected movement from the south and was surprised to see Israeli soldiers moving towards them on foot.
“I saw around 12 soldiers wearing camouflaged caps, and moving from one fence to another, and heading towards us. They were about 80 to 100 metres away. Judging from their movement from one point to another, crawling, and pointing at each other to proceed, it seemed they were searching and combing the area. ‘Why did we live here?’ Ibrahim suddenly asked while leaning his head on my right arm. I did not answer him. He looked at me and said ‘Each one will meet his own destiny.’ Our area is a border area and has always been within the range of bullets. ‘It’s ok. The Israelis are here and they will rescue us; me, you, and your mother,’ I said to him. My children kept on crying, while sitting next to their mother.”
The soldiers were about 10 metres away when Kamal reported hearing bullets fired.
“I suddenly heard bullets, and sensed sand flying over me. I saw my left hand flying in the air by itself and landing on my forehead. I felt I had been shot in the head and died. I opened my eyes for a while. I saw Ibrahim’s head was bleeding. I was sure this was an execution. So, I pretended I was dead. ‘They killed him with his son,’ I heard my wife shouting. She and the children were crying. I pretended to be dead for 10 minutes, while hearing my wife and five children crying. I was terrified that the soldiers would kill me.”
Kamal sustained gunshot wounds to his left hand and right leg. When the soldiers had moved some distance away, Kamal lifted his right arm to signal to his wife and children that he was still alive. He saw that his son Ibrahim was shot in the head and stomach.
About ten minutes later, an Israeli tank approached from the northwest. Kamal could see a soldier standing on top, manning the machine gun mounted on the tank. Kamal reports that the soldier looked directly at him and at Ibrahim but did not do anything. When a second tank followed, his son Subhi began waving his sister’s red jacket to signal the soldier to stop. The soldier pointed directly at Kamal and then pointed south toward Beit Lahiya. Kamal motioned he wanted to go northwest, the direction of the hospital, but the soldier again pointed to the south. As the second tank passed them, Kamal reports the soldier was looking directly at him and smiling. They did not stop to assist or help evacuate the dead and wounded.
In an act of desperation, Kamal left his family and dragged himself to al-Khusa area which was about 700 metres away from their house. Bleeding and in pain from his wounds, it took Kamal three to four hours to reach this area. As he neared, he was discovered by two young Bedouin men who took him to their home and tried to treat his wounds. Kamal explained what had happened to him and his family and told them that his son Ibrahim was lying dead on the street. The young men tried calling the Red Cross for assistance but were told they could not be reached because the Israeli army had entered Beit Lahiya and were blocking the main roads. Kamal spent most of the night at the house and then returned to the area where he left his wife and children by the next morning (Monday). His wife and children had slept outside in a sheep yard with no water, food or blankets to keep warm. Kamal’s wife's health was deteriorating as she continued to bleed from her wounds.
Once again, Kamal gathered his family and returned to the site of their demolished house. They took shelter under the concrete tent that once formed the roof of their house. Only parts of the kitchen and bathroom survived the demolition. The family remained there until Wednesday 7 January before help arrived. Kamal describes the ordeal:
“For three consecutive days, we lived off of bits of food we found under the rubble in the kitchen. I started a fire to make bread from some flour we found. I found some cans of food in the kitchen, which helped us. I was able to recover some blankets from under the rubble. I used the blankets to cover my children who slept on the rubble, and complained of gravel beneath them. They felt pain for four days. Subhi would crawl to the water tank, which fell to the ground during the destruction of the house and still had a few litres, and bring us water that contained sand and small white worms. We had to drink it because there was no alternative and we did not know for how long this would go on. By (Tuesday) night, Subhi brought the last drops of water. I distributed the water equally. What worried me the most was my wife’s continuous bleeding. I used Thikrayat’s diapers as bandages. Whenever a diaper became filled with blood, I would use another one.”
On Wednesday morning, 7 January, Kamal sensed a quiet calm over the area for the first time. Soon after, he spotted a Bedouin woman and her daughter grazing sheep nearby and called out to them for help. They brought a horse and carriage to help evacuate the family. Kamal explains, “I asked them to go and bring Ibrahim, who had been lying on the street for four days now. When they approached Ibrahim’s body, they began screaming and slapping their faces at the horrific scene. They brought him and placed him in the carriage. I looked at Ibrahim and found more than five bullet wounds in his feet that I had not seen before.”
The Bedouin woman and girl took them to the Shaima area near Beit Lahiya and from there, a man took them on his tractor to Kamal Edwan Hospital. As Kamal and his wife underwent surgery, Kamal’s relatives buried their son Ibrahim.
As of 27 January, Kamal is living in a tent next to their demolished home with his surviving children. His wife remained in the hospital for almost two weeks as her condition was serious due to the severe blood loss she experienced. Kamal’s wife is now at her parent’s house until she regains her strength and can rejoin her family.
Kamal describes the suffering of his children in the aftermath of the Israeli incursion in their area.
“The children are traumatized by the difficult experiences they went through. They scream while they are asleep. They looked for their clothes under the rubble. Hala was very happy when she found her school uniform under the rubble without a scratch. They also face trouble reaching their schools - Sakhnin and Omar Eben al Khattab in Beit Lahiya - because most of them had been destroyed during the incursion. They now go further to new schools that they are not accustomed to. "
The testimony gathered from the Awaja family raises serious allegations regarding the conduct of the Israeli military during Operation Cast Lead. Since the cessation of hostilities, similar allegations of houses being bulldozed without warning to civilians inside, shooting of civilians attempting to flee their homes in search of shelter or in need of medical assistance, and the willful targeting of civilians, including children, have surfaced in investigations by human rights group and media reports. These allegations, if proven true, constitute grave violations of the Fourth Geneva Convention amounting to war crimes.
The principle of distinction is paramount to international law. All parties must distinguish at all times between combatants and civilians and between civilian and military objects during the conduct of hostilities. The wilful killing of civilians not taking direct part in hostilities is a war crime and a grave breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention for which individuals may be held criminally responsible.
In light of the documented facts of this case, DCI-Palestine continues its 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;
- The official suspension of the upgrade of EU-Israel bi-lateral relations pending the investigation; and the annulment of the upgrade should Israel be found responsible for committing war crimes.