08/21/2014 10:02 AM
The Unprotected: A Gaza Family Destroyed by Israeli Bombs
By Julia Amalia Heyer and Juliane von Mittelstaedt
For an entire week, eight people -- women, children and an elderly man -- were trapped in their house in Gaza. They couldn't leave and nobody could help. An hour before the cease-fire, the family was wiped out by Israeli bombs.
Zaki Wahdan is looking for a head. Or a body. The remains of eight people that have to be here. The two small brothers, the grandparents, the mother, the two sisters and the little niece. So far he has found only 13 legs, with small and large feet. But how can he identify them with these feet, blackened as they are with dirt and blood?
He is standing on the rubble of his parents' house and walks around the perimeter of what was once the living room. They have to be here beneath him, underneath shredded mattresses, clothing, a child's bicycle and tons of concrete. They are so close, yet Zaki can't get to them. Had he not been detained by the Israeli military, he too would have ended up in this concrete tomb.
Zaki and his older brothers come to this mountain of concrete and rubble every day. According to Islamic tradition, the bodies must be buried as quickly as possible. But now they've been here almost two weeks; the site smells of death and there are flies buzzing around. Zaki walks across the rubble and doesn't know what to do. With a broad, good-natured face, he seems like an overgrown child. At 19, he is now the youngest son once again. But what does it mean to be a son when you no longer have any parents or grandparents?
Zaki pulls on iron bars and shakes chunks of concrete. Should he dig with his hands? A hopeless prospect. They really need a backhoe, but they are all being used elsewhere. Entire blocks have disappeared in Beit Hanoun, in the far northeastern corner of the Gaza Strip. Everything was leveled where the Wahdan family lived. The extended family owned 14 buildings, with 200 people living in them four weeks ago. Now there is nothing left but a single pile of rubble. Behind it is wasteland and the border with Israel is only a kilometer away. Beit Hanoun juts into Israel like a finger, and the Al-Burrah neighborhood, where the Wahdan family lived, is the fingertip.
Beit Hanoun's 50,000 residents have long been accustomed to Israeli tanks driving through their town. But now it has become one of the worst battlefields of this war. Some 91 people have died here, including 23 children and 22 women. And eight members of the Wahdan family.
According to the United Nations, 85 percent of the dead in the Gaza Strip are civilians, while Israel puts the number at no more than 60 percent. But what do such numbers really tell us?
The case of the Wahdan family is only a footnote in this war, in which more than 2,000 people have died. But it also exemplifies how innocent civilians became victims of the conflict. The fate of the Wahdan family helps provide answers to the question many are talking about, over whether this war was commensurate.
SPIEGEL spoke with family members, with the family's friends and neighbors, with Palestinian human rights activists and with a colonel in the Israeli army. They all confirmed many details; only the army was unwilling to comment specifically on the case. Based on these statements, and with the help of chat histories, it is possible to reconstruct the last days of the eight people who died in Beit Hanoun.
The resulting image reveals that the Israeli army -- apparently knowingly -- accepted that the Wahdan family would die in this war. The family's house was bombed, even though the Israeli military must have known that an old man, three children and four women were inside. They died because they were unable to flee -- because they were prisoners in their own home.
Mistakes happen in war, and civilian deaths are often unintentional. Perhaps someone made a mistake when he dropped the bomb. But can eight deaths simply be nothing but a mistake? At what point do such incidents become acts of negligence? And when do they become war crimes?
July 8 -- THE WAR BEGINS
Most members of the Wahdan family left their houses before the operation, known in Israel as "Protective Edge," began. The situation had become turbulent, and the army was firing from the border. But Zaki's grandparents, like many Palestinians, were unwilling to leave the home where they had lived for decades. It was their most important asset, a white, three-story dwelling with plenty of room for an extended family. Behind it was a garden with olive trees and beehives.
Besides, nothing had ever happened before; the Wahdans had remained in their house during the two previous wars in Gaza. They felt safe, precisely because they were so close to the border. They were constantly under observation from the Israeli side, and drones circled in the air above them. No missiles were being fired from the Al-Burrah neighborhood where they lived. The Wahdans believed that the soldiers knew that they were peaceful people, that they were more interested in their orange trees than politics, and that they were beekeepers and construction workers, most of them unemployed. They were a family of men for whom even the small Gaza Strip was too big, which is why they rarely left Beit Hanoun.
But everything changed when the war began on July 8. On the first day, Hamas fired at least 158 rockets at Israel, and the Israelis attacked 223 targets in Gaza. Bombs were falling on Beit Hanoun every day and the neighborhood was also under artillery fire. The Wahdan family members who had stayed realized that it was now too dangerous to leave the house. Besides, they had nowhere else to go. All of Gaza was being bombed, and no place was safe.
There were 15 people in the house at the time: grandfather Zaki and his wife Suad, both in their mid-60s; father Hatim, 51, mother Bagdat, 50, and six of their sons: the two youngest children, Hussein, 10, and Ahmed, 14, as well as Zaki, 19, Mohammed, 20, Bahjat, 29, Rami, 30. And the daughter Sumoud, 22 with her one-and-a-half-year-old Ghina. Two of the father's brothers were also there.
The last family member to enter the house was Zaki's sister Zeinab, 27. She worked as a medical technologist at the nearby hospital in Beit Hanoun, where she had spent three days caring for the wounded and testing blood samples. Now she had come home to shower and get some rest. As one of the few family members with a steady income, Zeinab was paying for her father's cancer drugs. She dreamed of leaving Gaza and going to Egypt to earn a master's degree. She loved Arab pop music and Turkish TV series. She also loved her brother Zaki, who lived at home, occasionally working in construction and sometimes receiving money from their father.
Zaki and Zeinab, the two siblings, were similar -- both unmarried, happy and with a zest for life. They had grown up in Gaza and lived through two wars, and yet nothing had prepared them for what happened next.
July 17-- THE GROUND OFFENSIVE
On the evening of July 17, Zaki and his brother Ahmed were watching Al Aqsa TV, the Hamas station. Although the brothers were not Hamas followers, Al Aqsa was the only station that aired 24-hour reports on the fighting, funerals and destroyed buildings. Little Ahmed, as his brother would later remember, said: At some point, you'll be pulling me out of the rubble. And then he started crying. Soon afterwards, Israel announced that the ground offensive had begun. A Hamas spokesman went on Al Aqsa TV to declare that the soldiers would not set foot in Gaza.
The tanks rolled toward Al-Burrah the next evening, where the army suspected there were tunnels leading underneath the border. The soldiers had dropped flyers in advance and now they were using loudspeakers to order residents to leave. People quickly ran away, with nothing but the clothes on their backs. But the fighting had already begun around the Wahdans' house. It was too late. They had missed their last chance to flee.
The family called the International Committee of the Red Cross, says Zaki. The Red Cross, they knew, could help coordinate their evacuation with the Israeli army. The family was unaware that their neighborhood was now in a closed military zone. Dozens of Hamas fighters would be killed there in the next few days, as would three Israeli soldiers. This likely explains why the Wahdans could not be evacuated, surviving family members believe. The Red Cross has a policy of not commenting on individual cases.
At 10:34 p.m., Zeinab Wahdan, the eldest daughter, received the following text message from her best friend, Doha Atala, 26: Are you okay? Where are you now?
Zeinab replied: I'm in the shit. They've come in now.
Doha: Why didn't you leave the house? Is it true that tanks are shooting nearby? Zeinab responded immediately. It would be her last response for the next six days: Yes, it's close. We didn't leave the house. How could we? They're bombing like crazy. I've had enough. They should stop. How are you?
'Must We Begin to Pray?'
Doha wrote: We're in better shape. I heard that all of Beit Hanoun has taken refuge in the schools.
In that same night, just before dawn, Israeli soldiers blew a hole into the garden wall and then broke down the front door. They shouted in Arabic: Everyone come here! Anyone hiding in the house will be shot!
When questioned by SPIEGEL, the Israeli army colonel in command at Beit Hanoun confirmed that the soldiers had taken control of buildings in various neighborhoods. "From the moment we entered Al-Burrah, we also went into houses." The soldiers used the houses as their base, often staying there for several days. According to the Israeli colonel, they are not supposed to occupy houses with civilians in them, especially for longer periods of time. "But it can happen," he added.
Two weeks later, 19-year-old Zaki recounted what happened in the house on that first day. His brothers corrected him, sometimes adding details to his story.
The soldiers grabbed the grandfather and used him as a human shield, pushing him from room to room, resting their M-16 assault rifles on his shoulder as they searched for fighters and weapons. They found nothing, Zaki and his brothers say. The men in the family were searched, bound and blindfolded and their mobile phones were confiscated. Only Zeinab, the sister, managed to hide her phone, which would be the family's only connection to the outside world over the next six days. The Wahdans were now prisoners in their own home, and there was shooting all around them.
According to Zaki, the family was ordered to remain in the entrance hall, where there was nothing but an old carpet on the floor. Verse 255 from the second Sura of the Koran, meant to protect the house and its occupants, was hanging on the wall. The soldiers slept on mattresses in the living room, their M-16s by their sides. Snipers were positioned on the roof. The men smashed windows and doors and broke holes through the walls so that they could move from one house to the next.
On that same afternoon, all the adult men except the grandfather were taken to Israel for interrogation. According to Zaki, the seven blindfolded men were loaded into an armored vehicle at 2 p.m. They were taken to the prison in Ashkelon, 15 kilometers (9 miles) north of Gaza. The Israeli army confirms that dozens of men from Al-Burrah were questioned in Israel, but it is unwilling to comment on individual cases.
The others remained behind. Zaki and Zeinab had now been separated. They didn't know they would never see each other again.
Zeinab wrote on her Facebook page: God have mercy!
July 20 -- IMPRISONMENT
Zaki was questioned for eight hours in Ashkelon. Was he a member of Hamas? Did he know where the tunnels were? The Israeli who interrogated him called himself Abu Daoud. He spoke Arabic, knew a lot about Islam and treated Zaki well, although the handcuffs were painful. The prisoners were given sandwiches and water. On the third day, having found nothing incriminating, the soldiers sent the Wahdans back to Gaza. Zaki, his brother, his father and his uncles returned to Gaza through the Erez border crossing. They wanted to return to their home, but Palestinians they met in Erez said: Are you crazy? No one reaches Beit Hanoun alive.
They went to stay with relatives in Gaza City instead. Zaki tried to reach his sister Zeinab, who had stayed in the house, but she had switched off her mobile phone. When she contacted her brother the next day, she said that the soldiers were still there, and that the family members had nothing left to drink because their water tank had been destroyed.
Zeinab called whenever she could, from the bathroom, or when she was cooking, which the soldiers only allowed in the first few days. She was afraid that they would confiscate her mobile phone, or that the battery would die, since the electricity had gone out. She kept their conversations to less than a minute, and then she would immediately switch off the phone.
On July 24, 16 people died when the army fired mortar shells at the United Nations school in Beit Hanoun. Tanks advanced into the center of the town, where soldiers searched the town hall, destroyed computers, ripped out the hard drives and took them along.
What happened in the Wahdan house during those days can only be reconstructed through Zeinab's calls and her posts on Facebook.
On the day the UN school was hit, Zeinab wrote on Facebook: We have been locked in with the Israeli army for the last five days. Pray to God that it will end soon.
Her friend Doha asked: Why didn't you leave, like everyone else?
Zeinab replied: We couldn't leave. We are the only ones here.
Doha wrote: Don't let them see they you have a mobile phone. Take care of yourself, and try to reach the Red Cross.
Zeinab was distraught, says Zaki. Her voice sounded weaker each time he spoke with her. Once, she said to him: "We are waiting until it's our turn to die."
At 1:46 p.m., Doha wrote: Zeinab, where are you? Everyone is looking for you! I'm worried. Please turn on your phone!
'No One Is Helping Us'
A little over an hour later, Zeinab replied: We're locked in. It's terrible. I can't leave the phone on. I can't have the phone with me anymore.
Doha replied: Be careful and watch yourself! Don't be afraid!
At 4:32 the next day, Doha wrote: Zeinab, where are you?
Her friend replied an hour-and-a-half later: Don't worry, I'm still alive. We have now been locked in for a week. It's exasperating. Not even the Red Cross is helping us.
Doha asked: Do you have food and something to drink? I'm so worried.
Zeinab replied: No water, no electricity. No one is helping us.
The soldiers left the house on the morning of the sixth day, July 25. Soon afterwards, the grandfather called the mayor of Beit Hanoun, Mohammed Nasiq al-Kafarna. He is a professor of Arabic and a member of Hamas, but he is popular, even among those who oppose the Islamists. Kafarna remembers that the grandfather said to him: "Please get us out of here. We are desperate." The mayor promised to help, but he also said that coordinating with the Israeli army could take some time. His assistant called the UN office in Gaza, which promised to contact the Israelis, he says. In the end, says Kafarna, the UN worker promised that they would evacuate the Wahdans by the breaking of the fast that evening. The UN is not commenting on the case. It had thousands of similar inquiries within just a few days.
But nothing happened. When the time to break the fast began, Zaki's mother called the mayor from the house and asked: "Must we abandon all hope and begin to pray?"
At 7 p.m., Zeinab called her eldest brother Rami for the last time. He remembers that she told him that the soldiers had instructed the family to remain in the house, and had assured them they would be safe there. But then, says the brother, Zeinab added: It's even more dangerous, now that the soldiers are gone. This is the brothers' account. There is no one left who was witness to his words.
July 26 -- THE BOMBARDMENT
A 12-hour cease-fire was to begin the next morning at 8 a.m. The brothers say that they started for the house early in the morning and that they called Zeinab for the last time at shortly after 7 a.m. to say that they were on their way.
When they got to Al-Burrah, it was very quiet and they were the only ones there. There was a burnt smell in the air and dust was settling. When they reached the spot where the house had been, there was nothing left.
But where were the eight people who had been inside?
They had hoped that the soldiers had taken Zeinab and the others to Israel with them, says Zaki. They knew that it was a naïve hope, and yet it was the only one they had. The soldiers couldn't possibly have left them in the house, they thought.
That was when they found the feet.
It wasn't until later that they saw what had happened in the one hour between 7 and 8 a.m. During the war, Beit Hanoun was filmed more than any other place with many broadcasters having set up their cameras on a hill near Sderot, a town on the Israeli side of the border. From there, the Wahdans' houses could easily be made out two kilometers away. The Al-Arabiya network also had a camera set up on the hill that morning.
The brothers keep playing one of Al-Arabiya's videos on their mobile phone as they tell the story. There is a time stamp in the upper corner of the video. The first aerial attack on the Wahdan houses began at 7:02 a.m., and the last explosion could be seen at 7:53, creating a giant cloud of smoke and dust. The entire group of houses was destroyed in less than an hour. The cease-fire began seven minutes later.
The video shows what happened, but it doesn't explain why the Israeli air force bombed the Wahdans nor does it say why Zaki lost half his family. He has no answers, which is perhaps the worst feeling of all.
But there could be an explanation. It has to do with the location of the house, in the northeastern corner of Gaza, an area that now looks as if it had been struck by an earthquake. The devastation stretches from the house into the center of Beit Hanoun, where three quarters of the buildings are uninhabitable and 30,000 people are now homeless. Satellite images show that entire communities along the border were systematically flattened.
Three weeks later, the colonel says that he is sad that the neighborhood was destroyed. "But we had no choice," he adds, noting that there were tunnels, booby traps and arms caches everywhere. Of course, he points out, the Israelis would not intentionally bomb civilians. And yet mistakes can happen, he admits.
Four More Graves
Still, it would have taken Hamas decades to build tunnels underneath all of the blocks of houses that were destroyed. It seems more likely that one reason Israel unleashed such a massive bombardment on Beit Hanoun before the cease-fire was to make it permanently uninhabitable -- and to expand its security zone.
It looks as though the eight people died simply because they were in the way.
In her last note to her friend Zeinab, at 7 p.m. on July 27, Doha Atala wrote: Is the army in your house? I'm so worried. Where are you?
When there was no response from Zeinab, Atala called her friend's father. He told her that the house was gone, and that they had found Zeinab's leg, which they had recognized by a birthmark on her instep.
The brothers took the legs to the cemetery in Beit Lahia, a sandy strip of wasteland lined with dozens of fresh graves and mountains of garbage. They dug just one grave for eight people, placed the legs inside and marked the spot with a piece of concrete and a plastic bottle. In the days following, they returned to the cemetery several times, bringing more limbs, skin and flesh.
But that doesn't mark the end of the story of the Wahdans. Four more graves had to be dug.
August 3 -- THE SECOND ATTACK
After the brothers had been in Gaza City for several days, they moved to a UN school in Jabalia. But it was too crowded there, so the family rented a house nearby. It was little more than a shack, but 35 to 40 people, mostly women and some 13 children, stayed there.
Zaki says that he woke up shortly after midnight on Aug. 3. There was electricity again, and he wanted to turn on the fan and charge his mobile phone. A rocket struck the building at that very moment. The explosion ripped his father to shreds, and his uncle's legs were so severely damaged that they had to be amputated. A second rocket struck the room where the women were sleeping. Zaki's sister-in-law Jamila and her three-year-old daughter Nour were killed, as was another sister-in-law, Sanoura. Twelve people were injured, including five children.
Zaki had survived a second time.
Israel withdrew its ground troops from the Gaza Strip on the same day, Aug. 3. The war wasn't over yet, but it was subsiding.
The seriously injured children were taken to the Al-Shifa Hospital: 14-month-old Raiqa, 18-month-old Mohammed and Omar, 3. The boys each have a huge scar from their chest to their hip. Mohammed's face is burned, he receives infusions through a catheter in his arm, and his legs are bandaged. The children lie there rigidly, and occasionally they suddenly start screaming.
The army is unable to comment on the case, but the Israeli colonel confirms that Hamas did not fire any rockets from the refugee camp where the house was. Why was the family suddenly attacked?
There is nothing but speculation at the moment. Perhaps militants had been hiding there a few days earlier? Or perhaps the drone pilots had mistaken the sacks of rice and flour and canisters of oil and water that the Wahdans had carried into the house for bomb-making materials? But shouldn't the drone pilot have noticed that there were children in the house?
Perhaps someone merely made a mistake when he fired the rocket at the house in Jabalia. Perhaps the second attack was nothing but bad luck. But what about the first attack, on the house in Al-Burrah?
Can the bombing of a house in which there were eight people even be called a mistake, eight people that the army must have known about, because soldiers had stayed in the house for several days?
Life in the Staircase
"The army made no effort to protect the Wahdan family," says Mahmoud Abu Rahma of the Al Mezan Center for Human Rights. He has documented the family's case. Abu Rahma criticizes both Israel and Hamas, and although, as a Palestinian, he is not neutral in this conflict, he is politically independent. "There were hundreds of such cases in this war," he says, "but the deaths of these eight people in Beit Hanoun is one of the clearest cases. It may amount to a war crime."
He now intends to collect further evidence, but he already knows that it won't be much use. After the war five-and-a-half years ago, the Palestinians filed hundreds of criminal complaints and the UN also found evidence that the Israeli army had committed war crimes. But no one was truly held accountable. Only one soldier was sentenced to a prison term, of seven months, for stealing a credit card and using it to withdraw cash.
The Wahdans are now living on the staircase landing of a UN school in Jabalia, where 1,500 people are housed. There are foam mattresses on the floor and they have hung up a sheet to provide some privacy.
Before their father was killed by the rocket, the brothers relate, he said that he wouldn't rebuild the house in Al-Burrah because it was too dangerous there now. Zaki doesn't know what will happen next. He says that he can still see the image of his dead father in front of his eyes. He has trouble sleeping, and he is apathetic and furious at the same time. "This war did nothing for us. All this destruction here, and we're supposed to be the winners? No, perhaps Hamas won, but our family has been destroyed."
At the top of Zeinab's Facebook timeline, there is now a message from a friend. It hurts so much that you're gone, he writes. Enjoy paradise!