By Craig Whitlock and Reyham Abdel Kareem
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, January 9, 2009
JERUSALEM, Jan. 8 -- Emergency workers said they rescued 100 more trapped survivors Thursday and found between 40 and 50 corpses in a devastated residential block south of Gaza City that the Israeli military had kept off-limits to the International Committee of the Red Cross for four days.
Relief agencies said they feared more people remained in the rubble of several shattered houses in the Zaytoun neighborhood. Red Cross officials said that they began receiving distress calls from people in the houses late Saturday but that they were blocked by the Israeli military from reaching the area until Wednesday.
"There are still people under demolished houses -- we are sure of it," said Khaled Abuzaid, an ambulance driver for the Red Cross who treated survivors at the site Wednesday and Thursday. "But without water or electricity, we are sure they will die."
In an interview at al-Quds Hospital, a Red Cross medical center in Gaza, Abuzaid said rescue workers found 16 bodies Wednesday in a large room of a house in Zaytoun: seven women, six children and three men, all members of the al-Samuni family.
Most had sustained trauma injuries from shelling, but many had gunshot wounds as well, he said. Four children, weak but alive, were found lying under blankets, nestled next to their dead mothers, Abuzaid said. Red Cross officials had said earlier that 12 adult bodies had been found in the house but otherwise corroborated Abuzaid's account.
Abuzaid said he was part of a crew of 10 paramedics and other rescue workers who reached Zaytoun on Wednesday afternoon, during a three-hour break in combat operations in Gaza during which relief agencies were allowed to deliver supplies and medical care to stricken Gazans.
He said Israeli soldiers told the crew of Red Cross and Palestinian Red Crescent workers in advance that they were forbidden to take cameras, radios or cellphones to the site. It is standard practice for crews to carry such equipment on rescue missions.
The Red Cross has accused the Israeli military of repeatedly refusing to grant permission for ambulances to go to Zaytoun, even though soldiers were stationed outside the damaged houses and were aware people were wounded inside. In a statement issued early Thursday, the agency called the episode "unacceptable" and said the Israeli military had "failed to meet its obligation under international humanitarian law to care for and evacuate the wounded."
The Israeli military said it was investigating but declined to respond to specific allegations by the Red Cross. "This is a complaint, and we have to check it," said reserve Brig. Gen. Ilan Tal, an Israeli military spokesman.
The United Nations also pressed Israel to investigate the Red Cross allegations. John Holmes, chief of U.N. humanitarian aid programs, called the Zaytoun deaths "a particularly outrageous incident." "What they found was absolutely horrifying," he said at a news conference in New York.
B'Tselem, the Israeli human rights group, said residents of Zaytoun who had been trapped in other houses have given similar accounts of how Israeli soldiers were aware of their plight but refused to allow rescue workers into the neighborhood. "What these family members say consistently is that the IDF was close by," said Sarit Michaeli, a spokeswoman for the group, referring to the Israel Defense Forces. "This wasn't some remote area. The soldiers certainly were about and were aware of their position."
Access to Zaytoun, near a major north-south road that bisects Gaza, remained highly restricted Thursday. Red Cross and Red Crescent crews were allowed back to the site during another three-hour break in the fighting, evacuating 103 people who had been trapped for days without food and water, according to Anne-Sophie Bonefeld, a Red Cross spokeswoman in Jerusalem. Other relief officials said the people rescued Thursday were crammed inside three houses on the same block as the Samunis' house.
Two surviving members of the Samuni family said dozens of their relatives in the area had been rounded up by the Israeli military early Sunday and ordered to stay inside a handful of houses while soldiers conducted operations door-to-door. They said some people died in the shelling, which left a gaping hole in the roof of the Samuni home.
Their accounts could not be independently corroborated. Survivors of the fighting in Zaytoun remained scattered at hospitals across Gaza, and Red Cross officials said they were trying to account for their whereabouts and medical condition. The Israeli military has barred foreign journalists from entering Gaza.
"It was horrible," said Shifaa Samuni, 70, who was detained in the family's house but fled with her grandson Monday afternoon after the killings. She said two of her sons and three daughters-in-law were among the dead.
"Look how much I lost," she said at al-Quds Hospital, where she was receiving treatment for minor injuries, including wounds to her hands. "Why? We did nothing. We are a peaceful family."
Ahmad Talal Samuni, 23, said the neighborhood came under heavy shelling and helicopter gunfire Saturday night. He said that when tanks approached, two of his uncles and their families, who lived nearby, rushed over to seek refuge in his home, about 45 people all told. The next morning, he said, fighting resumed and soldiers came to the house.
"They told us not to leave -- not by using loudspeakers, but by shooting," he said in a telephone interview from Shifa Hospital in Gaza City, where he was tending to other relatives. "The soldiers were shooting in the air and they told us to go east, in the direction of Salah Din Street."
The soldiers ordered the family into a large concrete house owned by another relative, Ahmad Samuni said. By then, about 70 people were gathered inside, he recalled. "The soldiers told us not to leave. . . . We were hungry. There was no milk for the babies, no medicine for the ill children."
Shortly before dawn Monday, three Samuni men decided to leave the house so they could gather other relatives and bring them back, said Meysa Fawzi Samuni, 19, a member of the family who survived the fighting and gave an extensive interview to B'Tselem. The group provided a written version of her statement to The Washington Post, but she could not be reached to independently confirm her account.
Meysa Samuni told B'Tselem that an explosion struck the doorway of the house as the three men prepared to leave, killing one of them. Moments later, a larger explosion on the roof rocked the house. She said she fell to the floor, covering her infant daughter with her body.
"Everything filled up with smoke and dust, and I heard screams and crying. After the smoke and dust cleared a bit, I looked around and saw 20-30 people who were dead, and about 20 who were wounded," Meysa Samuni said in her statement.
She said she was only slightly injured; her baby also survived but lost three fingers in the explosion.
After about 15 minutes, Meysa Samuni said she, her brother-in-law Musa and his two young sisters, Islam, 5, and Isra, 2, fled and knocked on the door of another relative's home nearby.
Israeli soldiers had already occupied the house, she said, and were guarding about 30 Palestinians inside, several of whom had been blindfolded.
Meysa Samuni said the soldiers seized Musa, tying his hands and blindfolding him. Another soldier gave first aid to Meysa and her infant, bandaging their hands and checking their pulses. The Israelis said the mother and daughter could leave.
"They ordered us to leave the house and we walked along the street about 400-500 meters" -- about a quarter-mile -- "until we found an ambulance," which took them to Shifa Hospital, where she later met a few relatives who had escaped the shelling on the house, she said in her statement. "As far as I know, the dead and the wounded who were under the ruins are still there."
Abdel Kareem reported from Gaza City. Special correspondent Samuel Sockol in Jerusalem contributed to this report.