Whitewashing the Slaughter of the al-Samouni Family

?Whitewashing the Slaughter of the al-Samouni Family

Goldstone Repents
Élise Hendrick

April 5, 2011

As an example of the Israeli 'investigations', Goldstone cites what he considers 'the most serious attack that the Goldstone Report focused on', namely the killing of 29 members of the al-Samouni family (whose name Goldstone misspells) in their home. 'The shelling of the home', Goldstone asserts, citing no evidence, 'was apparently the consequence of an Israeli commander's erroneous interpretation of a drone image.' Now, it is certainly not easy to pick a single 'most serious' attack in a four-week massacre that included chemical attacks on hospitals and UN facilities where civilians were seeking refuge, a rampage at a chicken farm that destroyed the farm and killed thousands of chickens, and the destruction of Gaza's domestic source of cement for construction, but the slaughter of the al-Samouni family certainly belongs on any short list.

The al-Samouni killings, which we are now to believe were all the result of a misinterpreted drone image, were discussed at length in the Report. The destruction of the Samouni neighbourhood, in which the al-Samouni family live, was so extensive that, when the UN Mission visited it in June 29, it "saw very few buildings left and a few tents standing amidst the rubble of collapsed houses and bulldozed land" (par. 705). One of the first of the al-Samouni family to be killed was Ateya al-Samouni, whose house was entered by force by Israeli soldiers, who threw "some explosive device". "In the midst of the smoke, fire and loud noise," the Report continues,

Ateya al-Samouni stepped forward, his arms raised, and declared that he was the owner of the house. The soldiers shot him while he was still holding his ID and an Israeli driving licence in his hands. The soldiers then opened gunfire inside the room in which all the approximately 20 family members were gathered. Several were injured, Ahmad, a boy of four, particularly seriously. Soldiers with night vision equipment entered the room and closely inspected each of those present. The soldiers then moved to the next room and set fire to it. The smoke from that room soon started to suffocate the family. A witness speaking to the Mission recalled seeing "white stuff" coming out of the mouth of his 17-month-old nephew and helping him to breathe.

708. At about 6.30 a.m. the soldiers ordered the family to leave the house. They had to leave Ateya's body behind but were carrying Ahmad, who was still breathing. The family tried to enter the house of an uncle next door, but were not allowed to do so by the soldiers. The soldiers told them to take the road and leave the area, but a few metres further a different group of soldiers stopped them and ordered the men to undress completely. Faraj al-Samouni, who was carrying the severely injured Ahmad, pleaded with them to be allowed to take the injured to Gaza. The soldiers allegedly replied using abusive language. They also said "You are bad Arabs". "You go to Nitzarim".

709. Faraj al-Samouni, his mother and others entered the house of an uncle in the neighbourhood. From there, they called PRCS. As described below, at around 4 p.m. that day a PRCS ambulance managed to come in the vicinity of the house where Ahmad was lying wounded, but was prevented by the Israeli armed forces from rescuing him. Ahmad died at around 2 a.m. during the night of 4 to 5 January. The following morning those present in the house, about 45 persons, decided to leave. They made themselves white flags and walked in the direction of Salah ad-Din Street. A group of soldiers on the street told them to go back to the house, but the witness said that they walked on in the direction of Gaza. The soldiers shot at their feet, without injuring anyone, however. Two kilometres further north on Salah ad-Din Street, they found ambulances which took the injured to al-Shifa hospital in Gaza.

[.] At the house of Saleh al-Samouni, the Israeli soldiers knocked on the door and ordered those inside to open it. All the persons inside the house stepped out one by one and Saleh's father identified each of the family members in Hebrew for the soldiers. According to Saleh al-Samouni, they asked to be allowed to go to Gaza City, but the soldiers refused and instead ordered them to go to Wa'el al-Samouni's house across the street.

711. The Israeli soldiers also ordered those in other houses to move to Wa'el al-Samouni's house. As a result, around 100 members of the extended al-Samouni family, the majority women and children, were assembled in that house by noon on 4 January. There was hardly any water and no milk for the babies. Around 5 p.m. on 4 January, one of the women went outside to fetch firewood. There was some flour in the house and she made bread, one piece for each of those present.

712. In the morning of 5 January 2009, around 6.30 - 7 a.m., Wa'el al-Samouni, Saleh al-Samouni, Hamdi Maher al-Samouni, Muhammad Ibrahim al-Samouni and Iyad al-Samouni, stepped outside the house to collect firewood. Rashad Helmi al-Samouni remained standing next to the door of the house. Saleh al-Samouni has pointed out to the Mission that from where the Israeli soldiers were positioned on the roofs of the houses they could see the men clearly. Suddenly, a projectile struck next to the five men, close to the door of Wa'el's house and killed Muhammad Ibrahim al-Samouni and, probably, Hamdi Maher al-Samouni. The other men managed to retreat to the house. Within about five minutes, two or three more projectiles had struck the house directly. Saleh and Wa'el al-Samouni stated at the public hearing that these were missiles launched from Apache helicopters. The Mission has not been able to determine the type of munition used.

713. Saleh al-Samouni stated that overall 21 family members were killed and 19 injured in the attack on Wa'el al-Samouni's house. The dead include Saleh al-Samouni's father, Talal Helmi al-Samouni, his mother, Rahma Muhammad al-Samouni, and his two-year-old daughter Azza. Three of his sons, aged five, three and less than one year (Mahmoud, Omar and Ahmad), were injured, but survived. Of Wa'el's immediate family, a daughter and a son (Rezqa, 14, and Fares, 12) were killed, while two smaller children (Abdullah and Muhammad) were injured. The photographs of all the dead victims were shown to the Mission at the home of the al-Samouni family and displayed at the public hearing in Gaza.

714. After the shelling of Wa'el al-Samouni's house, most of those inside decided to leave immediately and walk to Gaza City, leaving behind the dead and some of the wounded. The women waved their scarves. Soldiers, however, ordered the al-Samounis to return to the house. When family members replied that there were many injured among them, the soldiers' reaction was, according to Saleh al-Samouni, "go back to death". They decided not to follow this injunction and walked in the direction of Gaza City. Once in Gaza, they went to PRCS [the Palestinian Red Crescent] and told them about the injured that had remained behind.

715. PRCS had made its first attempt to evacuate the injured from the al-Samouni area on 4 January 2009 around 4 p.m. after receiving a call from the family of Ateya al-Samouni. PRCS had called ICRC, asking it to coordinate its entry into the area with the Israeli armed forces. A PRCS ambulance from al-Quds hospital managed to reach the al-Samouni area. The ambulance had turned west off Salah ad-Din Street when, at one of the first houses in the area, Israeli soldiers on the ground and on the roof of one of the houses directed their guns at it and ordered it to stop. The driver and the nurse were ordered to get out of the vehicle, raise their hands, take off their clothes and lie on the ground. Israeli soldiers then searched them and the vehicle for 5 to 10 minutes. Having found nothing, the soldiers ordered the ambulance team to return to Gaza City, in spite of their pleas to be allowed to pick up some wounded. In his statement to the Mission, the ambulance driver recalled seeing women and children huddling under the staircase in a house, but not being allowed to take them with him.

716. As soon as the first evacuees from the al-Samouni family arrived in Gaza City on 5 January, PRCS and ICRC requested permission from the Israeli armed forces to go into the al-Samouni neighbourhood to evacuate the wounded. These requests were denied. On 6 January around 6.45 p.m., one ICRC car and four PRCS ambulances drove towards the al-Samouni area in spite of the lack of coordination with the Israeli armed forces, but were not allowed to enter the area and evacuate the wounded.

717. On 7 January 2009, the Israeli armed forces finally authorized ICRC and PRCS to go to the al-Samouni area during the "temporary ceasefire" declared from 1 to 4 p.m. on that day. Three PRCS ambulances, an ICRC car and another car used to transport bodies drove down Salah ad-Din Street from Gaza City until, 1.5 km north of the al-Samouni area, they found it closed by sand mounds. ICRC tried to coordinate with the Israeli armed forces to have the road opened, but they refused and asked the ambulance staff to walk the remaining 1.5 km.

718. Once in the al-Samouni neighbourhood, PRCS looked for survivors in the houses. An ambulance driver who was part of the team told the Mission that in Wa'el al-Samouni's house they found 15 dead bodies and two seriously injured children. One of the children had a deep wound in the shoulder, which was infected and giving off a foul odour. The children were dehydrated and scared of the PRCS staff member. In a house close by, they found 11 persons in one room, including a dead woman.

719. The rescue teams had only three hours for the entire operation and the evacuees were physically weak and emotionally very unstable. The road had been damaged by the impact of shells and the movement of Israeli armed forces, including tanks and bulldozers. The rescuers put all the elderly on a cart and pulled it themselves for 1.5 kilometres to the place where they had been forced to leave the ambulances. The dead bodies lying in the street or under the rubble, among them women and children, as well as the dead they had found in the houses had to be left behind. On the way back to the cars, PRCS staff entered one house where they found a man with two broken legs. While they were carrying the man out of the house, the Israeli armed forces started firing at the house, probably to warn that the three-hour "temporary ceasefire" were about to expire. PRCS was not able to return to the area until 18 January.

720. On 18 January 2009, members of the al-Samouni family were finally able to return to their neighbourhood. They found that Wa'el al-Samouni's house, as most other houses in the neighbourhood and the small mosque, had been demolished. The Israeli armed forces had destroyed the building on top of the bodies of those who died in the attack. Pictures taken on 18 January show feet and legs sticking out from under the rubble and sand, and rescuers pulling out the bodies of women, men and children. A witness described to the Mission family members taking away the corpses on horse carts, a young man sitting in shock beside the ruins of his house and, above all, the extremely strong smell of death.


727. With regard to the attack on the five men who stepped out of Wa'el al-Samouni's house to fetch firewood in the early morning of 5 January 2009 and to the subsequent shelling of the house, the Mission notes that the members of the other families who had been moved by the Israeli forces into Wa'el al-Samouni's house had been searched by Israeli soldiers, as recounted by Saleh al-Samouni. Everything indicates that the Israeli forces knew that there were about 100 civilians in the house. Indeed, the families had asked to be allowed to leave the area towards a safer place, but had been ordered to stay in Wa'el al-Samouni's house. The house must have been under constant observation by the Israeli soldiers, who had complete control over the area at the time.


729. The Mission notes that, four days later, the Israeli armed forces denied that the attack on the house of Wa'el al-Samouni had taken place. On 9 January 2009, an Israeli army spokesman, Jacob Dallal, reportedly told the Reuters news agency that "the IDF did not mass people into any specific building. [.] Furthermore, we checked with regard to IDF fire on the 5th. The IDF did not target any building in or near Zeitun on the 5th." The Mission is not aware of any subsequent statement from the Israeli Government which would contradict this blanket denial or suggest that the allegations have been the subject of further investigation.

735. In the morning of 5 January 2009, after the shelling of Wa'el al-Samouni's house, two of the survivors took refuge in Asaad al-Samouni's house. From the testimonies received, the Mission is not able to state whether the Israeli soldiers then ordered the al-Samouni family members in the house to leave and walk to Gaza City, or whether it was the families who pleaded with the soldiers to be allowed to leave having heard the appalling news of what had happened to their relatives in Wa'el al-Samouni's house. In any event, the persons assembled in Asaad al-Samouni's house walked out of the house and down al-Samouni Street to take Salah ad-Din Street in the direction of Gaza City. They had been instructed by the soldiers to walk directly to Gaza City without stopping or diverting from the direct route. The men were still handcuffed and the soldiers had told them that they would be shot if they attempted to remove the handcuffs.

736. On Salah ad-Din Street, just a few metres north of al-Samouni Street and in front of the Juha family house, a single or several of the Israeli soldiers positioned on the roofs of the houses opened fire. Iyad was struck in the leg and fell to the ground. Muhammad Asaad al-Samouni, who was walking immediately behind him, moved to help him, but an Israeli soldier on a rooftop ordered him to walk on. When he saw the red point of a laser beam on his body and understood that an Israeli soldier had taken aim at him, he desisted. The Israeli soldiers also fired warning shots at Muhammad Asaad al-Samouni's father to prevent him from assisting Iyad to get back on his feet. Iyad al-Samouni's wife and children were prevented from helping him by further warning shots. Fawzi Arafat, who was part of another group walking from the al-Samouni neighbourhood to Gaza, told the Mission that he saw Iyad al-Samouni lying on the ground, his hands shackled with white plastic handcuffs, blood pouring from the wounds in his legs, begging for help. Fawzi Arafat stated that he yelled at an Israeli soldier "we want to evacuate the wounded man". The soldier, however, pointed his gun at Iyad's wife and children and ordered them to move on without him.


741. While the fire directed at Iyad al-Samouni could have been intended to incapacitate rather than to kill, by threatening his family members and friends with lethal fire, the Israeli armed forces ensured that he did not receive lifesaving medical help. They deliberately let him bleed to death.

(emphasis supplied, footnotes omitted)

In other words, far from being a single incident of shelling a home, the Israeli military's operations in the Samouni neighbourhood were a murderous rampage in an area under the complete control of the Israeli military, in which no combat was taking place. The rampage began with violent home invasions, in which defenceless men, women, and children were killed and wounded. The Israeli ground forces then ordered the survivors into the house of Wa'el al-Samouni, where about 100 members of the family ultimately gathered with little food or water, and, one imagines, scant breathing room.

The house was under direct observation by Israeli ground troops, who had a clear line of sight when several male members of the family stepped out to collect firewood. The Israeli military first directed fire at the men, and then bombarded the house itself.

When the survivors of the Israeli bombardment tried to seek safety elsewhere, they were told to 'go back to death', a remark that sounds suspiciously like a statement of intent to kill, coming as it did from a soldier in the army that had ordered 100 defenceless civilians, mostly women and children, into a house and then attacked it.

If this were not enough, the Israeli military deliberately prevented the evacuation of the wounded, and denied ambulances access to the neighbourhood, for a period of several days. And when a handcuffed Iyad al-Samouni was shot down in front of his family as they walked to Gaza City in hopes of finding safety, Israeli soldiers threatened to shoot those who tried to help him to his feet,. In one case, soldiers threatened to shoot the wife and children of a man who pleaded with the Israeli soldiers to allow him to help al-Samouni. Al-Samouni's family were required on pain of death to leave him dying in the street.

Even if we were to assume (charitably) that the unsupported claims of drone errors made sense (which they don't, given that there were Israeli soldiers right on the ground who had a clear line of sight, making reliance on drone images unnecessary), they explain only the decision to shell the house of Wa'el al-Samouni. The 'drone theory' provides no explanation for the killings by ground troops that preceded and followed the shelling of the house, nor do they explain the callous refusal to allow the wounded to be evacuated.

Goldstone, however, mentions none of this, neither the fact that the Samouni neighbourhood was not a combat zone, nor that it was under the complete control of Israeli ground forces at all relevant times, nor that the Israeli military ordered the al-Samouni family into the house they shelled in the first place, nor that they refused to allow ambulances to evacuate the wounded and dealt cruelly with those who attempted to do so themselves (rather than 'go back to death', as they had been ordered). There is no reason to believe that Goldstone is unaware of these facts, which were described in great detail in the report issued by the fact-finding mission that he chaired. As such, his omissions - which turn a well-documented murderous rampage of the utmost cruelty into an unfortunate stuffup - are profoundly dishonest.

He does, however, reassure us that 'an Israeli officer is under investigation for having ordered the attack', that is, the shelling, not the other depredations Goldstone omits. 'While the length of this investigation is frustrating' he continues, 'it appears', based on no supporting evidence, 'that an appropriate process is underway'. Despite not providing any reason to believe that Israel's internal 'investigations' of war crimes have been fundamentally overhauled in order to end the well-documented culture of impunity in the Israeli military, he is 'confident that if the officer is found to have been negligent, Israel will respond accordingly.'

Never mind that 'an appropriate process' tells us precisely nothing about whether the process is independent, transparent, credible, and allows the victims to participate and give evidence on fair terms. Nor need we tarry on the equally empty word 'accordingly'. What is most noteworthy in this statement is that Goldstone assumes that the most an officer who either actively ordered or refused - despite being legally bound to do so - to stop the rampage in the Samouni neighbourhood could be accused of is 'negligence'. Goldstone is a former Constitutional Court Justice with extensive experience in international war crimes tribunals. He certainly knows that there is a chasm a mile wide between mere negligence - failure to exercise due care - leading to death and the degree of specific intent that would have been obvious had he provided complete account of the Israeli military's actions in the Samouni neighbourhood. But clearly, even overwhelming evidence is not sufficient for Goldstone to find intent when the criminals are Israelis, as opposed to Palestinians, whose criminal intent 'goes without saying'.

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