Human Rights Watch and other groups allege that Israel's tactics for achieving military advantage in Gaza led to disproportionate death and suffering of a civilian population that was denied medical care, refuge and electricity, especially in the urban warfare in and around Gaza City.
It is difficult to reach the town of Abed Rabbo. The once well-maintained roads are rutted from craters and holes that the Israelis tore into the streets with their bombs, bulldozers and fires. The land is now totally destroyed; a once lush and tranquil neighborhood transformed into an arid brown and shattered hell on earth. All one can see is devastation and masses of people covering the place digging through the rubble for missing relatives.
"Gaza became a kind of free fire zone for the Israelis," said Fred Abrahams, Senior Emergencies Researcher for Human Rights Watch in Gaza.
In early January, Israeli tanks and bulldozers took up hilltop positions around Abed Rabbo's five-story house. Abed said that on the night in question, more than 70 members of his family were crowded into one apartment. That day shelling intensified, and they heard an Israeli soldier calling for people to come out of their homes. He explains how they invaded his home and harshly investigated him and his family. "They found nothing. I am a police officer in the Ramallah government; I have nothing to do with Hamas.
For a moment, he stops to remember the past. “This house used to have four floors, and a nice garden. It brought us peace and tranquility. The Israeli army came to this house many times before; the last visit was in March of 2008. That day when they left us, they did not take anything or harm anyone. However, they were back. It was 12:50 pm on the fourth day of the military ground invasion when the army took control of the region. A real battlefield was born and thousands of people were trapped. Nobody could leave due to the excessive fire from the Israelis, and the soldiers with their tanks kept on coming, and coming, and coming.
“We were all told to leave." Abed said he gathered his wife, their three daughters and his mother Souad Abed Rabbo. Souad carried a white robe around a mop handle and his wife and two daughters waved white headscarves as they walked outside. When they opened the door, they saw an Israeli tank parked in their garden about 10 yards away.
Abed’s voice trembled and he began to cry. ”We saw two of the soldiers get out of their tank, and we told them we wanted to leave. They were eating chips and chocolate. We waited and waited for their response but were given no answer. Then, to our own surprise, a third soldier emerged; he opened fire on the children with insanity.
Souad Abed Rabbo was shot as she pushed her son back inside and the little girls fell on the stairs. When the shooting was over, 2-year-old Amal and 7-year-old Souad were dead. Abed went on, still having difficulty to speak, shaken with tears. "Souad was only seven years old, Summer was three, and Amal was of only two years. My mother was shot as well, and I watched all whom I loved fall to the ground. I screamed for them to stop! I ran into the house to call civil defense, ambulances, anyone who could help.
"For one hour we helplessly watched as the injured lay there bleeding and two of my daughters were killed despite the so called ceasefire. No help was able to come to us in time. One of the ambulances tried, but the Israeli soldiers stopped the paramedic and forced him to remove his clothing. They then bombed the ambulance and it was buried in rubble. The paramedic fled naked while their gunfire surrounded him.
"I left the house with some of my family members. We carried my mother in a crib. I held Summer in my arms, and she was still breathing despite her gaping spinal wound. I thought to myself, ‘no way can I leave little Summer, even if I end up dead like my other two daughters.’ I passed her to my brother and then took the body of Souad in my hands, and my wife held Amal as we left the house.
"The soldiers were firing uncontrollably above our heads and everywhere around us. Many of the houses were demolished by their tanks and bulldozers. As we crossed one of the roads, there was a man and he tried to save us but the snipers saw this and killed both him and his horse. When we finally reached the town of Jabaliya, we saw that everyone had brought all of the injured citizens here. So shocked were we by what we saw that we threw our bodies to the ground, and for one hour we remained there unable to fathom what had become of our people."
When asked him why he thought they would kill his children, he replied, "I am certain they were drunk, or were given orders to kill everyone including the children. This was in Ha'aretz a couple of days ago, that many Israeli rabbis were giving orders to leave no one alive. I don’t know why my daughters were killed. They never committed any crimes; they were children! They did not fire rockets at Israel, although Israel claims to only aim at those who have first fired at them.
(Please refer to my article, How to Kill a Palestinian, January 28, 2009, for recent quotes by various Rabbis. One quote, “extermination of the enemy is sanctioned by the Torah” by Eli Yeshaii comes to mind)
"We are a very peaceful people, we have nothing to do with fighting or rockets. I know if I go to the court about what has happened, the Israeli army would create thousands of pretexts to make their soldiers appear innocent. They have done this with many other cases before. It was not a war between two immense armies. Obviously, it was a war between civilians and the fourth largest army in the world: Israel. However, they do not call it a war. They call it an operation.”
Abed Rabbo’s story is one of at many such white flag incidents across the Gaza Strip that human rights investigators are looking into. There is a growing pattern of alleged abuses in which Israeli soldiers committed war crimes during their 22-day military campaign in Gaza. Along with the white flag incidents, Human Rights Watch is calling for an international investigation into widespread charges that Israelis prevented medical teams from helping wounded Palestinians trapped in their homes and needlessly demolished hundreds of houses, including that of Abed Rabbo.
Fred Abrahams says, "The evidence we've gathered in these cases so far is exceedingly strong. All the research so far suggests they shot civilians that were leaving their homes with white flags. This was not a rogue unit. These needless civilian deaths resulted from concrete decisions made by the military."
This was an operation where tens of thousands of Gazans were either killed or psychologically and physically wounded. The devastation did not only affect the people, but all you can imagine. Yet buildings can be repaired and the land will grow again, but Abed Rabbo’s personal hell will never be alleviated. He will never hear the laughter of Saoud and Amal again, but he will hear the aching cries of Summer, now a paraplegic due to her injuries. The only thing that functions is her mind. A mind that will forever be telling the nightmare of what happened to her life. Even during her first interview in the hospital, in every single detail, she narrated the story to Al-Jazeera as her father did.