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In the Silence, Gazans Take Stock

Remains Retrieved; Survivors Recount Attack on Family

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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Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, January 20, 2009; Page A16

JERUSALEM, Jan. 19 -- For the first time in 24 days, there was no fighting in the Gaza Strip on Monday -- no shelling or shooting by Israeli soldiers, no launching of rockets by Hamas guerrillas. But there was still plenty of death, as rescue crews and survivors dug under demolished buildings to retrieve the last victims of the war.

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In Zaytoun, a neighborhood outside Gaza City, another corpse -- the 48th so far -- was recovered Monday from a single devastated block. It was the address of several homes belonging to the al-Samuni family, an extended clan whose members said they were ordered by Israeli forces into a building that was later shelled. The incident has drawn international calls for an investigation into possible war crimes.

Zinad al-Samuni, 35 years old and a mother of eight, returned to her home Monday and pointed to a smear of blood on the wall. More blood was under a mattress, where she said her children had been sitting early on Jan. 4 when Israeli soldiers burst in and opened fire. She said her husband, Atiyeh, and her 4-year-old son, Ahmed, were fatally shot.

"I carried him in my arms, still bleeding, and we had to step over the body of his father," she said in an interview with a reporter for London's Daily Telegraph, who was allowed into Gaza by the Israeli military as part of a small pool of foreign reporters. During the fighting, Israel blocked foreign journalists from entering the strip. She added, "We had to leave Atiyeh, but I hoped to save Ahmed. He died as I carried him."

The Israeli military has said it is investigating what happened to the Samuni family, and said Monday it has found no evidence so far of wrongdoing by its troops. Yet interviews with survivors, along with accounts from paramedics and officials with the International Committee of the Red Cross, seem to corroborate earlier reports that dozens of members of the family died shortly after Israel launched its ground offensive in Gaza on Jan. 3.

Little remains of the block where the Samunis lived. Most of the buildings in the vicinity, including a mosque and a chicken farm, were bulldozed by Israeli forces or leveled by explosions.

Another house reduced to rubble was that of Wael al-Samuni, 39. Israeli troops had rounded up about 110 Palestinians -- mostly members of the Samuni family -- and ordered them to stay inside; about 24 hours later, the house was shelled repeatedly and about 30 people inside were killed, according to survivors interviewed by journalists, Israeli human rights groups and United Nations agencies.

Three other children in the house died after reaching a hospital, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, which called it "one of the gravest incidents" of the war.

One of those found dead in the house was Rizka al-Samuni, who lived next door. Her husband, Faris al-Samuni, 59, said she sought refuge there because the house had a concrete roof, which she thought would afford greater protection from Israeli bombs.

"Our house has a corrugated iron roof, and she thought it would be safer to go next door to Wael's house," Faris Samuni said Monday, tears welling in his eyes. He said that he had run away during the fighting but that his wife had stayed. Unlike other Samuni family members, he did not say that she had been forced into the house by Israeli soldiers.

Rizka Samuni's decomposed body was recovered from the site Sunday, after Israeli troops withdrew from Zaytoun, the pool report said.

The deaths in Zaytoun were first reported by the International Committee of the Red Cross, which reported Jan. 8 that it had received repeated distress calls from the neighborhood but that the Israeli military prevented ambulances from reaching the site for four days.


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