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At a Flash Point in Gaza, A Family's Deadly Ordeal

The Obama administration's Middle East envoy, former senator George J. Mitchell (D-Maine), arrives in Israel as renewed clashes threaten a tenuous cease-fire between Israel and Hamas after a 22-day conflict in the Gaza Strip.

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By Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, January 27, 2009

ZAYTOUN, Gaza Strip -- Just before dawn on Jan. 4, a sledgehammer crashed through the living-room wall of the home of Almaz al-Samuni in this southern enclave of Gaza City, pounding a hole wide enough for someone to poke a rifle through while shouting in a language she didn't understand.

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"Get out of the house now," an Israeli soldier ordered, this time in accented Arabic, she recalled. Almaz, small for her age of 13, and her family quickly did as they were told, heading for her uncle Wael's house nearby, where by daybreak 92 family members had packed in thigh-to-thigh. It was a week into Israel's 22-day war with Hamas.

At least 29 members of the Samuni family died over the next two weeks -- including Almaz's mother and two brothers. Sixteen or more were killed Jan. 5 when at least two Israeli shells smashed Wael al-Samuni's crowded house. At least six others wounded in that attack died more slowly, over more than three days when the Israeli army kept emergency vehicles from entering the neighborhood, according to another teenager who had been stranded and later rescued from the house.

The shelling of Zaytoun has become a flash point in the debate over whether Israel did enough to prevent the loss of civilian life while targeting fighters from Hamas, the Islamist movement that controls the Gaza Strip. Hamas fighters operated in residential areas throughout the conflict and targeted Israeli civilians with rockets, killing three during Israel's offensive.

The shelling cut a devastating swath through the Samuni family, which for many years has farmed the rocky fields along an unpaved cul-de-sac here.

This account of the Zaytoun attack and its aftermath was taken primarily from interviews with a dozen members of the Samuni family who survived the assault, as well as statements and patient logs from Gaza City's Shifa and al-Quds hospitals. The information largely parallels an earlier account given by the International Committee of the Red Cross, which concluded that by thwarting rescue efforts for four days Israel had "failed to meet its obligation under international humanitarian law."

Survivors said that Israeli soldiers were aware of the many dead and wounded who were stranded and that the Israelis ignored or rebuffed pleas from fleeing relatives to help the injured.

An Israeli government official declined to answer any specific questions about the incident, saying it was still under investigation. "What is clear is that Hamas militants in that area were engaging us with combat," said Maj. Avital Leibovich, a military spokeswoman. "Many of the civilian areas were turned into military compounds of Hamas."

On Sunday, Israel appointed a team of experts in international law, headed by the justice minister, to defend its troops against possible war crimes charges arising from the offensive.

"Officers and soldiers sent on the mission in Gaza must know that they are safe from various tribunals and that Israel will help and defend them, just as they protected us with their bodies during the military operation," Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said in remarks before the weekly cabinet meeting Sunday.

Israel largely barred foreign reporters from Gaza during the fighting, though some eventually entered through Egypt. Israel permitted entry late last week.

A Place of Strategic Value

Israeli soldiers rumbled into Zaytoun before midnight Jan. 3 in armored vehicles and descended by rope onto rooftops from helicopters. Israeli military and Red Cross officials said there were heavy clashes in the area. Local residents denied that any Palestinian fighters were present but described hearing constant shooting and having to dodge "crossfire" as they moved from house to house seeking shelter.

At a slight elevation, the neighborhood offered a vantage point over the breadth of the Gaza Strip.

"It was a place with strategic value," said Arafat al-Samuni, who lives in Zaytoun. "There is no other reason to come here. None of us is Hamas."

On the morning of Jan. 4, after clearing out Almaz Samuni's house, Israeli troops moved to the next home and used their rifle butts to break down the door of her cousin, Moussa al-Samuni, 19, he recalled. They forced Moussa's family to leave, and the troops set up a command post inside the home, he said. Then they set about clearing remaining families from the neighborhood.

While his younger brother Waleed, 17, sneaked out the back door into tall grass, Moussa and 13 other members of his family quickly fled out the front door. As the family exited, Moussa said, soldiers lifted the men's shirts and pulled down their trousers, ostensibly to check for explosives.

The family ended up next door in Talal al-Samuni's home. After a few hours, with bullets occasionally smacking the stone walls, the group, now numbering more than 40, moved again, this time across the street to the larger home of Wael Samuni. Soon nearly the entire family had congregated there.

"We were so nervous because we knew something bad could happen at any minute, but we had nowhere else to go," said Moussa, who is slender, with short, wavy hair. "We wanted to be together."

For the Wounded, No Aid

Down the street, Arafat Samuni, 36, was having coffee with his cousin Nadal, 30. When shooting erupted and grew closer, Nadal decided to return to his house, about 20 yards away, to make sure his family was safe. He never made it.

"Fifteen minutes after he left, I got a call saying Nadal was wounded. I ran out and found him near his front door," Arafat said. "He was bleeding from his abdomen and told me to go home. I pulled him inside his house. I called friends and begged them to get any car, any vehicle, any ambulance."

Nadal died six hours later, about 3 p.m., Arafat said.

Meanwhile, for more than 24 hours, the people gathered in Wael Samuni's house waited for a lull in the fighting that did not come. They called relatives and for ambulances to evacuate them. Salah al-Samuni, 30, received a text message around midnight saying, "Ambulances are on the way." They never came.

Finally, when things seemed a bit quieter, Moussa and two cousins crept outside to gather wood and trash to make a fire, for warmth and to bake some bread. It was before 6 a.m. on Jan. 5, he said.

"I heard an Israeli drone overhead, and about a second later something crashed into the doorway of the house," Moussa said. "I could see that my nephew Mohammad was dead -- his body was torn in pieces. My cousin Rashed was bleeding from his arm, so I ripped his shirt into a bandage and tried to tie it around." Then another shell hit the roof, he said.

Several Samuni family members who were inside said that they never heard the impact of the second shell but that suddenly the ceiling of the one-story building came crashing down on top of them.

"You couldn't see or hear anything. The air was filled with smoke and pressure and my ears felt like they were shaking," said Salah Samuni. Part of the roof collapsed on his head, leaving a bloody gash. His 2-year-old daughter, Azza, died instantly, as did his grandmother. His 6-month-old daughter, Shifa, was unscathed.

"Out of the tragedy, that is a miracle," he said.

Survivors began to panic.

"I screamed at everyone who could move to get out of there," said Salah, who has a slight build and a wispy, graying beard. "I could see across the room that my father was still breathing, but by the time I got to him, he was gone. We grabbed whoever we could carry and ran."

Just after 6 a.m., the sun was rising as dozens of Samunis poured out of the shattered house and made their way up Salahaddin Road, the nearest main route to the hospitals of Gaza City. All around them, the shooting continued.

"We had walked about a kilometer when I saw some Israeli soldiers and an ambulance driver," Salah said. The ambulance driver apologized profusely, he said, but told him: "It is too dangerous. I can't go in until the fighting stops."

Salah recalled telling the soldiers, "We need first aid, and there are many dead back in Zaytoun. You hit us, and we need help."

"Go back to your death," the soldier replied, according to Salah. "You can't go up this road."

Moussa also tried to make it up the street and was intercepted by Israeli soldiers. "I told them there were wounded people, but they told me to shut up," he said. They detained him in a nearby house for the rest of the day before releasing him, he said.

The Red Cross report also said that Israeli troops "must have been aware" that there were wounded civilians in need of medical care. Salah and others said some Israeli soldiers shot at the fleeing Samuni family members, to try to direct them back to Zaytoun.

"All the time they were shooting at the road or above our heads," said Sobhi Mahmoud Samuni, 55. "But we kept running toward the hospitals."

That day, Jan. 5, the logbook at Shifa Hospital recorded that at least 39 Samunis came to the emergency room with various injuries.

"It was shocking to see so many from one family," said Ramiz Ziyara, 33, a general-surgery resident who said he treated a young girl with shrapnel lodged in her brain. "She was okay. She was lucky."

Fifteen wounded people remained inside Wael's house, along with at least 16 bodies.

"I couldn't walk," said Ahmad al-Samuni, 16. "My feet and legs hurt too much, so I just tried to lie still to escape the pain." His two brothers, Ismail, 14, and Isaac, 13, lay bleeding beside him, in far worse condition.

For hours, he said, he held Ismail's hand while the boy faded in and out of consciousness from a large head wound. At the urging of his grandmother, who also remained in the house with a broken leg, they prayed, reciting over and over, "I bear witness that there is no god but God, and Muhammad is his prophet." By nightfall, Ismail had died.

The next morning, still unable to walk, Ahmad said, he gathered bits of a shattered door frame and with a lighter managed to make a small fire in one room. He found a pot and the only food left in the house, uncooked spaghetti and tomatoes, and heated it for his brothers.

"We were so thirsty, we were cutting open a hose and sucking as hard as we could to get water out," he said, frequently losing his concentration, and once, briefly, his temper, as he recounted the story. "It only wet our lips."

That evening, Isaac, who had shrapnel in his abdomen, died, too. "He was bleeding for two days, and no one came to help," said Ahmad. At least four others, his uncle Tawfik and aunt Rabab and two of their children, Rashad and Waleed, also died within 48 hours of the shell striking the roof, he said.

"I sat in there for four days, and all we could do was pray," said Ahmad, whose head was later shaved in the hospital so a wound could be cleaned. "I was sure I was going to die."

Frustration for Rescuers

Two days before the shell struck Wael Samuni's house, the Red Cross had begun negotiating with the Israeli army to get ambulances into Zaytoun to evacuate civilians. "For the first two days, people were calling and literally begging us to come get them,' " said Antoine Grand, head of the Red Cross in Gaza, who declined to allow the ambulance teams working those days to be interviewed.

"We said: 'We're doing our best. Hang on,' " Grand said. "Then their mobile phone batteries died."

"We normally have good coordination about these things," he added. "But for days we asked for a green light to get in there, and it wasn't granted. I don't know why. It is extremely frustrating."

Leibovich, the Israeli army spokeswoman, declined to comment on why the army had not allowed the Red Cross into Zaytoun. Grand corroborated Leibovich's assertion that there were clashes in the neighborhood but said that should not have prevented emergency workers from being given access.

"Look, on the one hand, we don't want to go in while the fighting is going on. But they weren't fighting 24 hours a day for all those days," Grand said, adding that there was an Israeli army post 100 yards from where the Samuni house was struck. "Permission could have been granted earlier."

On Jan. 7, the Red Cross was finally permitted to enter Zaytoun, during a three-hour pause in combat operations to allow for humanitarian relief. The wounded had to be evacuated by donkey cart, because the Israeli army would not move earthen barricades it had placed in the road, according to the Red Cross's report. There was not enough time to retrieve the dead until Jan. 18, when at least 21 bodies were removed from the site, Grand said. The Red Cross's investigation of the events will be completed in the next few months, he added, and will be "shared privately" with the Israeli government.

Residents said there were 22 bodies in and around the Samuni home, and Shifa Hospital logged the arrival that day of 22 dead. The explanation for the discrepancy with the Red Cross figure is unclear. The Red Cross said the bodies were found in at least two houses, while survivors said all of the dead had been killed in Wael's home. Again, the variation in accounts remains unexplained.

Six other people, including Nadal and some of those who escaped from Wael's house, died elsewhere, Samuni family members said.

Moussa Samuni found a final body Jan. 19, in a field just north of the neighborhood. It was his younger brother Waleed, who had run out the back when the soldiers appeared. He had been shot in the head, leg and stomach. He was unarmed and not a fighter, his brother said.

'No Fighters Here'

For three days after the last of the bodies were recovered and buried, the Samunis mourned in a large tent erected amid the wreckage of their neighborhood by the Fatah movement, the political party of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Large posters displayed color photographs and names of the dead, as well as a few snapshots of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who died in 2004. Aid groups brought chicken and rice for lunch every day around noon. Dozens of dead birds were scattered about the property, filling the air with a sweet, acrid smell when the wind changed.

"There were no fighters here. That is why I do not understand why this happened," Arafat Samuni said, disputing the Israeli military's statement about combat in the area. "We are farmers. We are not political. We are not resistance."

All but three of the houses on the street were demolished. The remnants of the various families that make up the Samuni clan sat all day, each day, on the rubble of their destroyed homes and met with well-wishers, aid workers and journalists. Most answered questions politely but without emotion.

Some broke down when telling their story. On Friday, the tent was rolled up and trucked away, but the Samunis stayed behind.

"I am supposed to be back in school," said Moussa, an accounting student, staring at the ground. "But my father is gone. My mother is gone. My brother is gone. All I have left is my 2-year-old sister, and now I am the head of the family."

Staff researcher Robert E. Thomason in Washington contributed to this report.


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