“I don’t remember a white flag…” – Testimony from the soldier, S., a member of the IDF’s Givati Brigade, who shot at a group of Gazan civilians fleeing the war that had suddenly erupted near the home they had been sheltering it, as reported in Haaretz today.
A woman, head of a family, died on the spot.
The Haaretz report, today, does not say who she was, or where she was killed — perhaps it may be reported later on Israeli TV (see below), perhaps not.
Equality of respect for victims in this conflict is rare to the point of non-existence. The Haaretz story is like the maps of this place: just as, in order to understand the geography and history here, you need to have one map with the Israeli place names next to one with Arabic place names, you likewise need to look at this account and then open other internet pages or pull out other documents prepared by Israeli human rights groups and by the UN, in order to find out who the woman was, and to learn from survivors what was happening to her and to them at the time.
According to details of information collected by Human Rights Watch, it seems that this woman may have been Ibtisam al-Qanu’, 40, mother of seven children, killed in ‘Atatra [in northern Gaza] as an IDF bulldozer [a D-9?] was demolishing the house that also under fire as it was sheltering her and 39 other members of her family.
Haaretz reports today that “The evidence collected in the case, as well as exclusive interviews with S. and other soldiers indicted over Cast Lead, will be broadcast on television tonight on Ilana Dayan’s program ‘Uvda’ (‘Fact’ ), which airs at 9 P.M. on Channel 2. Based on evidence collected thus far, it seems the incident raises much larger questions than merely who fired and at what”.
The Haaretz story — published as a product of “Haaretz Service” — recounts that “When asked [apparently, by a police investigator] if he ever considered whether those approaching might be innocent civilians, S. replied, ‘If they were innocent, they wouldn’t have kept coming after the first shot was fired in the air‘. Was there an explicit order, the interrogator asked, to treat everyone who approached as a potential terrorist who should be killed? ‘I recall it being said that ‘even if they have a white flag with peace written on it, you shoot’, S. replied. But he quickly added: ‘They spoke to us a lot about the judgment we need to use, they spoke to us about the procedure to use in arresting a suspect. This sentence was said in the heat of things, perhaps to stress to the soldiers that this wasn’t a joke. I didn’t understand from it that I should shoot everyone. That is, I didn’t take it as an order. I think all the soldiers understood that it wasn’t an order, that we needed to use our judgment – just as they’re always telling us’.”
If orders can’t be taken literally, but are ironic exaggerations made casually, sloppily “in the heat of things”, that need to be understood by sophisticated cool heads, and if guns to carry out those orders are then put in the hands of someone whose judgment and reasoning — especially in the heat of things — tells him that “If they were innocent, they wouldn’t have kept coming after the first shot was fired in the air”, then there is a serious problem here, both of training, and of command.
The soldier did not, apparently, say, exactly — as the title of this Haaretz story reads, “I was only following orders”.
No. S. said he “didn’t take it as an order” to shoot, despite being told he could shoot “even if they have a white flag with peace written on it”.
After the shooting, S. recounted, “The battalion commander arrived and asked ‘Who fired?’ I said, ‘I fired,’ … He asked, ‘Why did you fire?’ and I answered, ‘The company commander’s orders were to shoot anyone who approaches the fortifications, because he’s a terrorist.’ He said, ‘Very good’ and went away.”
But, when the company commander arrived half an hour after the woman was killed, S. said, “He told me, in front of everyone, ‘You’re a cold-blooded murderer, you’ll go to hell …. When I tried to tell him, ‘But those were your orders,’ he told me, ‘Shut up. You won’t remain in my company’.” However, S. said, “that was it. From then on, until the end of the fighting, it was if nothing had happened”.
The killing of this Gazan Palestinian woman carrying a white flag has led to what Haaretz calls “the gravest indictment yet filed concerning actions committed during Cast Lead, and one of the gravest ever filed against any Israeli soldier”.
But, it wasn’t the only reported IDF shooting of civilians fleeing the onslaught in terror — it’s just the only one to have reached the level of indictment.
Haaretz reported that “despite the company commander’s severe rebuke at the time, a subsequent inquiry was buried at the battalion level and never went any farther – a fact which later led the military advocate general to investigate S.’s superiors as well. But this burial of the internal inquiry may have been due to the fact that the testimony provided there by S.’s commanders differed from what they later told the Military Police, especially with regard to the rules of engagement soldiers were given prior to the incident”…
This Haaretz story is reported in full today here.
The killing of this woman occurred the day after the IDF began the ground phase [on the night of 3-4 January 2009] of Operation Cast Lead [27 December 2008 to 18 January 2009].
B’Tselem was the first Israeli human rights organization to report the killing of Gazan civilians carrying white flags, on the morning of 18 January. These deaths took place in the village of Khuza’a in south-eastern Gaza. [The BBC began compiling reports from the same location, and other places, a few days earlier…]
The Goldstone report, prepared by a commission led by South African Justice Richard Goldstone and mandated by the UN Human Rights Commission, looked into some 36 possible war crimes committed during Operation Cast Lead. The Goldstone report has, however, been denounced loudly, strongly and continuously by the Israeli government, which now says it is the most serious attempt ever to “delegitimize” the State of Israel.
B’Tselem, on the other hand, notes on its website here, that one of its reservations concerning the Goldstone report is that “the claim as to Israel’s primary goal in conducting the operation was not sufficiently investigated”.
Human Rights Watch has researched and published [on 13 August 2009] a special report on White Flag Deaths — the shooting of Gaza civilians carrying white flags by IDF soldiers during Operation Cast Lead. This HRW report says:
“On July 29, the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a 163-page report on Operation Cast Lead which, among other things, addressed the allegations of soldier misconduct during the hostilities. For the first time Israel announced that IDF investigations into roughly 100 complaints were ongoing, and 13 criminal investigations had been opened. Among the investigations are five incidents where Israeli soldiers allegedly killed civilians holding white flags:
* The alleged killing from tank shellfire of two civilians carrying white flags in Juhr al-Dik on January 4.
* The alleged shooting of women carrying white flags, killing one, on January 4 (location unknown).
* The alleged shooting of civilians carrying white flags, killing one, in Beit Lahiya on January 5.
* The alleged shooting of civilians holding white flags, killing two, in the ‘Abd Rabbo neighborhood of Jabalya on January 7.
* The alleged shooting of civilians holding white flags, killing four, in Khuza’a on January 13.
The killing of two civilians in the ‘Abd Rabbo neighborhood of Jabalya on January 7 appears to be the case of Amal ‘Abd Rabbo and Su’ad ‘Abd Rabbo, documented in this report. The killing of civilians in Khuza’a on January 13 appears to be the case of Rawhiya al-Najjar and Mahmoud al-Najjar; the two other reported victims remain unclear. The killing of two civilians in Juhr al-Dik on January 4 may be the case of Majida and Rayya Abu Hajjaj, although the ministry report concluded that they were killed by tank shells instead of small arms fire. The killing of one woman on January 4 may be the case of Ibtisam al-Qanu`, but the report does not provide the location“… This is posted here.
This HRW report specifically investigated “seven incidents during the operation where Israeli soldiers fired with small arms on civilians, killing 11 people—including five women and four children—and wounding at least another eight. These casualties comprise a small fraction of the Palestinian civilians wounded and killed during the operation, but they stand out because, in each case, the victims were standing, walking, or in slowly moving vehicles with other unarmed civilians, and were trying to convey their non-combatant status by waving a white flag. All available evidence indicates that Israeli forces were in control of the areas in question, no fighting was taking place there at the time, and no Palestinian forces were hiding among the civilians or using them as human shields”.
- Here is the witness description collected by HRW from Ibtisam al-Qanu’s brother-in-law (Bassim) and his mother (Zakiya):
“an IDF bulldozer pulled up at the family’s house in ‘Atatra around 8:30 a.m. on January 4, and started to demolish its support pillars. About 40 members of the family were sheltering inside at the time, he said. At the same time, IDF gunfire began to strike the house, coming from a house about 100 meters to the north, he said. Those seeking refuge ran to a more sheltered room upstairs. Around 11 a.m., a bulldozer demolished one of the walls on the ground floor, strongly shaking the house. Bassim al-Qanu` said that Ibtisam and his mother, Zakiya al-Qanu`, 55, decided to go downstairs holding white flags to tell the soldiers that civilians were sheltering inside. According to Zakiya, when the bulldozer struck the house, she grew afraid that the family would be crushed. ‘Ibtisam and I came down, both of us holding white flags’, she said. “We opened the door and a sniper fired at us from a house [about 100 meters to the north]. Ibtisam was hit and I turned to go back inside and another bullet grazed my back. Ibtisam died in the doorway’. Zakiya said she tried to drag Ibtisam back inside the house, but she was pinned down by gunfire coming from what she thought was the west. On January 31, Human Rights Watch visited the house and saw four holes in the concrete stairwell and eight holes on the outer house wall near the stairs that were consistent with bullet marks. According to Zakiya, she went upstairs, and her family called the Palestinian Red Crescent and International Committee of the Red Cross to send an ambulance for Ibtisam, but no ambulance could come due to lack of coordination with the IDF …
About two hours later, around 1:30 p.m., Bassam [husband of Ibtisam], Bassim and Zakiya said a large number of Israeli soldiers forcibly entered the house and ordered all family members into one room. They forced the men to strip down to their underwear and then handcuffed and blindfolded them. At 2:30 p.m., the soldiers took the group to the Abu Jaffar al-Mansur elementary school, around 200 meters to the south, but did not allow them to bring Ibtisam’s body. Bassim said that he and Bassam ‘pleaded and argued strongly until they let us come back from the school for her body that night’. The Israeli soldiers were still in the house when the two men came back, he said, and Ibtisam’s body was lying in the stairwell. ‘We wrapped it in a blanket and carried her back to the school and laid it at the gate’, he said. Around midday on the following day, Bassam said, the soldiers allowed the family to leave the school and walk to Jabalya. ‘We carried the body and walked to Kamal Adwan hospital in Jabalya’, he said. The brothers Bassam and Bassim both said that Israeli soldiers shot over their heads and at the ground near them several times en route to the hospital.Hospital records seen by Human Rights Watch show that Ibtisam was admitted, dead, at 2:30 p.m. on January 5, with the cause of death listed as ‘a result of Israeli shelling’. Bassim said he believed that hospital officials hastily wrote ‘Israeli shelling’ as the cause of death on most medical certificates at that time, as they were overwhelmed by the large number of casualties being admitted”. This is posted here.