Two reports from U.K.’s The Guardian –
‘As I ran I saw three of my children. All dead’
The small dead bodies were laid next to one another on the tiled floor of the morgue corridor, the blood drained from their cheeks. One had a bandage still wrapped around his head, another lay with his mouth half-open in his oversized, bloodstained clothes.
For a week the Samouni family had taken shelter in their small, single-storey home in Zeitoun, south-east of Gaza City, and there they survived wave after wave of Israeli bombing and artillery strikes. Then came Israel’s ground offensive, the next phase in what Israel argues is a necessary and justified battle against the Palestinian militants firing rockets out of Gaza.
The Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, promised an “iron fist” for Hamas and said he would treat the civilian citizens of Gaza with “silk gloves,” though the Palestinians of Gaza know perhaps better than most that there are few silk gloves in war.
The Samouni family woke on Sunday morning to find themselves surrounded by camouflaged Israeli troops and dozens of tanks, who had set up a position in the rubble of what was once the large Jewish settlement of Netzarim. As dawn broke, the soldiers seized control of the highest buildings in the district and ordered several of the neighbours into the Samouni family home and there a dozen of them waited, without food and without water.
“All day Sunday there was shooting and bombing. We didn’t have anything to eat, we didn’t have water to drink – our water tanks had been damaged in the fighting,” said Wael Samouni, 32, who on a normal day would be manning his stall at the vegetable market. “We couldn’t sleep.”
He stepped out of the house briefly and saw a man shooting an M16 assault rifle. He mistook him for a Palestinian militant. Samouni shouted at him: “Please don’t come here. They’ll kill us. Go away.” But as the gunman turned round, it became clear he was an Israeli soldier. The soldier shouted back in Arabic: “Bring me your ID.” Samouni disappeared back into his house and decided not to venture out again.
They passed another night under the bombing and artillery strikes, grateful to have made it through to morning. Samouni remembered sitting in the crowded living room yesterday, surrounded by his neighbours, wondering how much longer they had to endure. It was 6.30am.
“We were sitting and suddenly there was bombing on our house and everyone started to run. There were three rockets. I have no idea where they came from,” said Samouni. The rockets, believed now to be tank shells, hit the building and brought it crashing down. “I looked to my side, took hold of my boy Mohammad and I started to run. As I ran I looked back and saw on the floor my mother, two cousins and three of my children. All dead,” he said. Samouni and the others ran from the house, some raised white cloths as flags and they made it to a patch of safe ground where they were taken to hospital by car.
Yesterday, as three of his children were laid out dead on the hospital floor, Samouni was in a bed upstairs in the Shifa hospital, recovering from wounds to his legs and shoulder and comforting his son Mohammad, five, who had suffered a broken arm in the shelling and had just woken after his operation. He was still unsure exactly how many of his 10 children had died.
“It’s a massacre,” Samouni said. “I’m 32 years old and I’ve never seen such things as this. I couldn’t help myself or any of those around me. We just want to live in peace.”
At his bedside was his brother Nael, 36, who lives in a house close by. His wife and daughter had been in Wael’s house yesterday morning at the time of the shelling: both were killed.
“I wanted to go and join them the night before, but it was too dangerous to go out. If anyone moved he would be shot,” Nael said. “Then when I heard the bombing this morning I saw people running. I saw an injured man fall to the ground. I ran to help, but there was an Israeli sniper in the house next door who shouted: ‘Leave him alone.’ We couldn’t rescue anyone.”
As he ran, Israeli troops fired over their heads and then ordered them to lift up their shirts to show they carried no weapons under their clothes. “We just made it out and here to the hospital,” Nael said. Then, in a moment of anger, he pointed the blame. “Hamas is responsible for this. They are starving us, now they are killing us,” he said. “They asked the Israelis to enter but where is the resistance? They are hiding. All the leaders of Hamas are underground. It’s just the civilians confronting the Israeli army. I don’t like Hamas and I don’t want them ruling Gaza.”
Hospital officials believe nine people were killed in the Samouni house, including at least four children. But they were not the only civilians to die at the hand of the Israeli offensive yesterday. Just north of Gaza City in the Shamali district, a missile struck a three-storey apartment block in the middle of the night – home to three brothers, their families and their father. It hit the roof and dropped down to the basement, destroying half the building and killing Amer Abu Asha, 47, along with his two wives, three sons and one daughter.
Yesterday his brother Samer Abu Asha, 50, sat outside on a plastic chair under a green awning. Neighbours came to shake his hand and offer their sympathy before slipping away quickly to avoid the next missile strike.
The family were not asleep at 1.30am yesterday when the Israeli missile struck – the noise of the bombing had been too much. In the moments after the attack there was such confusion no one knew who or how many had died.
“We started searching but it was hard with the dust, the darkness and the smoke,” said Abu Asha. Neighbours told them bodies had been taken to the hospital, so they rushed to the Shifa in Gaza City, only to be told no one from their family had been admitted. “We went back home and searched everywhere,” he said. Finally they found his brother Amer lying on a patch of ground outside the house, mortally wounded, his stomach ripped open. “We started to search for others under the rubble. We found arms, legs, half a head,” he said. “We didn’t find a complete body.”
Abu Asha admitted that another brother in the family – but one who did not live in the building – was in the Hamas military wing but said he could not account for the bombing. They had received no warning. “It’s unjust. They are targeting civilians, children, old women,” he said. “Some European and Arab countries are supporting Israel in this terrorism. They want to crack down on Hamas, but Hamas is not in the houses. It’s on the front line. Go there and kill them. Not us.”
Shell-shocked children who are drawn into the cult of the martyr
The bombing, shelling and shooting will stop one day. The electricity and water will be restored. And the windows of the Mousa family’s flat, every one of them blown out by Israeli air force strikes on the Palestinian president’s palace next door, will be replaced.
But the trauma of the four Mousa children, aged three to nine years old, will not so easily be erased. For nearly two weeks now they have endured a constant barrage of shells from navy ships they can see through the plastic now covering the windows of their seafront flat in Gaza city, as well as the air force strikes on buildings nearby.
“The children scream and cry when there’s shelling. It goes on all night,” said their father, Raed, 35. “Every night, all night. The building shakes. We moved into the kitchen and sleep there. It’s the safest place in the house. But my children are very scared, their faces turn yellow. The sound of the guns is very loud. We try to keep them busy playing and with their toys.”
Their mother, Ahlan, is pregnant. “I look at them at night when they are sleeping and they are dreaming bad dreams. Safud [aged four] jumps from her bed screaming and crying,” she said. “All the time they are shelling. It’s terrifying. I don’t know what to tell the children. I say the sound is loud but it is still far away. But I can see they are afraid and that makes me afraid.”
That trauma may last a lifetime, with devastating consequences for Palestinian society, according to psychologists who have studied the impact of two decades of bloody conflict in the Gaza strip on children who have grown up under army watchtowers, dodging bullets, seeing classmates shot as they sat at the next desk, watching tanks and bulldozers destroy thousands of homes.
Even after the Israelis pulled Jewish settlers out of Gaza in 2005, children and their parents have had to endure regular rocket attacks and punishing sonic booms when Israeli jets broke the sound barrier over the territory. Now there is the bombing and fighting that has left more than 600 Palestinians dead in less than a fortnight.
Gaza’s leading child psychiatrist, Dr Abdel Aziz Mousa Thabet, who has studied the effects of violence and trauma on children for 20 years, said about 65% of young people in the enclave suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.
“There are many other traumatic symptoms, like headaches and abdominal pain and vomiting. There’s an inability to concentrate, panic, anxiety, irritability,” he said. “I’ve observed much change in the children. They are more anxious, more fearful. Children are panicky because of the explosions. Children want to leave. You hear it. They feel there is no hope, that the world can’t do anything for them and they can’t do anything for themselves.”
Thabet says the impact of trauma on older children combines with other experiences to push them to extremes.
The image of Mohammed al-Dura, the 12-year-old Gaza boy shot dead as his father vainly tried to protect him from Israeli gunfire at the beginning of the second intifada, is seared on the Palestinian consciousness. To many Palestinian adults it symbolises Israeli indifference to the lives of their children. But psychologists say that to many children its principal impact is to see a father who cannot protect his son.
With that – and humiliations such as Israeli soldiers beating Palestinian men in front of their children – has come a collapse in respect for the regular systems of authority.
The perpetual killing has also drawn many children into the cult of the “martyr” and led them to expect an early death.
Thabet said the traumatising of children was having a profound effect on Gaza’s future. The children he studied in the early 1990s are now adults.
“They become fighters. I warned about this 15 years ago, that in 15 years these traumatised children will be more aggressive, they will want to fight, there will be more violence in the community. You saw it in the factional fighting in Gaza in 2007,” he said.
“So now we will have another generation of more aggressive behaviour. They will go to more extremes because they have no future. This is a problem. I’ve been warning people of this but nobody was listening. It’s a cycle of aggression.
“Children see their parents killed in front of them. What do you expect?”