8 January 2012 | Palestinian Centre for Human Rights
“The other children keep talking about Dima and the memories of both incidents. ‘We wish to die like Dima’ is what the children sometimes say to me because of all the stress and our poor living conditions.”
On 8 January 2009, at approximately 11:00, four missiles were fired at the house of Juma’a al-Rahel (45) in Beit Lahiya, injuring 3 members of the extended al-Rahel family: Basma (3), Dima (5), and Faten (41). Many of the extended family were inside the house at the time of the attack, as six of the al-Rahel brothers and their wives and children live nearby. Immediately after the attack, the families fled the area and sought refuge in Beit Lahiya’s UNRWA school. On 17 January 2009 the school was targeted with white phosphorus bombs, leaving Dima’s sister, Ansam al-Rahel (13), severely injured. After six weeks of fighting for her life 5-year old Dima eventually died of her wounds in an Egyptian hospital on 1 March 2009.
Saeed al-Rahel (35), the father of Dima and Ansam, remembers the day of the first attack vividly. “I was at home when an explosion took place and all the windows were broken. I got out of the house. I heard people screaming in the house of my brother Juma’a, nextdoor. My daughter Dima was there and I heard people screaming that she was wounded. Several more missiles struck Juma’a’s house and we fled from the area. Dima was taken to hospital. On 13 January she was transferred to Egypt. I went with her.”
Saeed’s wife, Nisreen al-Rahel (33), and their other children, Sunia (17), Dina (15), Ansam (13), Ahmad (11), Mohammed (6), and Ali (4), stayed in the UNRWA school in Beit Lahiya after the attack. Nisreen recalls: “we stayed in the school building from 8 to 17 January. It was winter and very cold. We didn’t have any mattresses. We had to use blankets as mattresses and it was very difficult, especially for the children. We didn’t have enough food. We also had to ask other people to give us water. There was no clean water.”
On 17 January 2009 the Israeli army bombed the school building with white phosphorus shells. “Experiencing the attack on the school was more difficult for me than the attack on the house. At the moment that the bombing of the school started I was in a classroom with my children. The bombing started around 5:00am and it was dark. I heard Ansam cry ‘I am wounded in my head’. The firing of bombs was very intensive.” Ansam was severely injured in the head, she lost her hair in the place of the injury and the scars get infected from time to time as parts of her skull are missing. “She is still suffering because of her injuries. At school she loses consciousness when she is active,” say Nisreen.
Saeed remembers the moment he found out about the bombing of the school: “Before I went to Egypt I stayed in that same classroom with my family. I saw the attack on the television when I was in Egypt and I recognized the classroom. There was blood on the floor. When I called to my family, no one wanted to tell me how my daughter Ansam was doing.”
When Nisreen and her remaining children moved back to their house after the offensive they found it badly damaged and their livelihood destroyed. “Shortly before the war I bought cattle. We had 2 oxen, 17 goats and dozens of rabbits. I kept them next to our house. I took out loans to buy them,” explains Saeed. “When our family returned to our house after the war they found all the animals killed by shrapnel. Only one goat was still alive but he also died after a few days. Now I am stuck with many loans. I can barely provide for the treatment of my daughter Ansam. I was even arrested by the police because I cannot pay back my loans to people. With a complete lack of money I am also not able to repair the severe damage that was done to the windows and walls of our house.” Cardboard and blankets serve to protect the family from the nightly and winter cold.
The events of January 2009 have had a profound impact on the psychological wellbeing of the Saeed, Nisreen, and their children. “It has been very difficult for me because I lost one of my daughters and another one was badly injured. I remember Dima when I see girls going to school,” says Nisreen. “The other children keep talking about Dima and the memories of both incidents. ‘We wish to die like Dima’ is what the children sometimes say to me because of all the stress and our poor living conditions.”
Saeed noticed changes in his children too. “Ansam holds a lot of anxiety and stress since the war. One time I called her and she started screaming and threw a plate at me, screaming to leave her alone. I am her father and she is afraid of me.” Nisreen adds: “Ahmad’s scores were badly affected after the war. He used to be an excellent student. Now he even has problems in reading. He also suffers from bedwetting.”
Fear seems to have become a part of daily life for the family. ”The children, like me, are always afraid when they hear drones or firing. When we hear it, we all sit in a single room,” says Nisreen. The fear of another attack is never far from Saeed’s thoughts either: “I am afraid that another war will come. When people talk about it I feel afraid. When I hear drones in the area, I leave the house. I get afraid that they will target us again.”
PCHR submitted a criminal complaint to the Israeli authorities on behalf of the al-Rahel family on 9 September 2009. To-date, no response has been received.
After weeks of denying that it used white phosphorus in the heavily populated Gaza Strip, Israel finally admitted yesterday that the weapon was deployed in its offensive.
The army’s use of white phosphorus – which makes a distinctive shellburst of dozens of smoke trails – was reported first by The Times on January 5, when it was strenuously denied by the army. Now, in the face of mounting evidence and international outcry, Israel has been forced to backtrack on that initial denial. “Yes, phosphorus was used but not in any illegal manner,” Yigal Palmor, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, told The Times. “Some practices could be illegal but we are going into that. The IDF (Israel Defe
The incident in question is thought to be the firing of phosphorus shells at a UN school in Beit Lahiya in the northern Gaza Strip on January 17. The weapon is legal if used as a smokescreen in battle but it is banned from deployment in civilian areas. Pictures of the attack show Palestinian medics fleeing as blobs of burning phosphorus rain down on the compound.
A senior army official also admitted that shells containing phosphorus had been used in Gaza but said that they were used to provide a smokescreen.
The Ministry of Defence gave lawyers the task before the attack of investigating the legal consequences o
f deploying white phosphorus – commonly stocked in Nato arsenals and used by US and British forces in Iraq and Afghanistan – inside the Gaza Strip, home to 1.5 million Palestinians, and one of the most densely populated places in the world.
“From what I know, at least one month before it was used a legal team had been consulted on the implications,” an Israeli defence official said. He added that Israel was surprised about the public outcry. “Everyone knew we were using it, and everyone else uses it. We didn’t think it would get this much attention,” he said.
Because Israel is not a signatory to the treaty that created the International Court of Justice in The Hague, it cannot be tried there. Any country that is a signatory to the Gen
eva Convention, however, can try to prosecute individuals who took part in the Gaza operation as culpable of war crimes.
Despite a denial when The Times first reported the use of white phosphorus, an army spokeswoman said yesterday that the military had never tried to cover up its deployment. “There was never any denial from the beginning,” she said.
– President Sarkozy of France ordered the deployment of a frigate to international waters off Gaza to patrol against arms smuggling into the territory. Preventative measures against arms trafficking are one of Israel’s demands for a peace deal with Hamas. The warship will conduct surveillance with Egypt and Israel, the French presidency said.
January 5 The Times reports that telltale smoke has appeared from areas of shelling. Israel denies using phosphorus
January 8 The Times reports photographic evidence showing stockpiles of white phosphorus (WP) shells. Israel Defence Forces spokesman says: “This is what we call a quiet shell – it has no explosives and no white phosphorus”
January 12 The Times reports that more than 50 phosphorus burns victims are taken into Nasser Hospital. An Israeli military spokesman “categorically” denies the use of white phosphorus
January 15 Remnants of white phosphorus shells are found in western Gaza. The IDF refuses to comment on specific weaponry but insists ammunition is “within the scope of international law”
January 16 The United Nations Relief and Works Agency headquarters are hit with phosphorus munitions. The Israeli military continues to deny its use
January 21 Avital Leibovich, Israel’s military spokeswoman, admits white phosphorus munitions were employed in a manner “according to international law”
January 23 Israel says it is launching an investigation into white phosphorus munitions, which hit a UN school on January 17. “Some practices could be illegal but we are going into that. The IDF is holding an investigation concerning one specific unit and one incident”.nce Forces) is holding an investigation concerning one specific incident.”
Israel’s three-week offensive in the Gaza Strip may be over but Mahmoud Mattar, 14, will not be able to sense the quiet that has descended on his home town of Jabalya.
Blinded in both eyes, with third-degree burns over much of his torso, Mahmoud lies unconscious in the Sheikh Zayid Hospital on the outskirts of Cairo. He has said little since January 6, when an Israeli attack on his village in northern Gaza left him nearly dead on the street outside his mosque. Doctors say that he will never see again — and that the burns on his body were caused by white phosphorus, a controversial incendiary weapon that Israel originally denied using.
“He was walking to the mosque when the attack started,” his uncle, Nahad Mattar, said. “Two of his friends who were walking with him were killed instantly. Their bodies are in pieces. He was hit by something and his body began to burn.
“There were bits of blood and skin all over him. We couldn’t tell what was his and what was other people.”
Witnesses in Jabalya describe the signs of white phosphorus shelling — thick white smoke, a strong smell and fires that burn until covered with sand — and say that dozens more experienced burns in the same attack.
Israel, which originally denied the use of white phosphorus in Gaza when questioned by The Times two weeks ago, has since said that all weapons used in Gaza were “within the scope of international law”. Most Nato countries, including Britain and the US, use white phosphorus to create smokescreens. Its use as a weapon of war in civilian areas is banned under the Geneva Convention of 1980.
The Times has uncovered dozens of incidents in which doctors say that civilians have been wounded by white phosphorus, which burns at extremely high temperatures until its oxygen is cut off. Last week UN officials in Gaza were certain that their compound had been hit by white phosphorus shells.
Yesterday Amnesty International said its team had found proof that Israeli forces were using white phosphorus in densely-populated residential areas in Gaza City and in the north. “We saw streets and alleyways littered with evidence, including still burning wedges and the remnants of the shells and canisters fired by the Israeli army,” said Christopher Cobb-Smith, a weapons expert touring Gaza as part of Amnesty’s fact-finding team.
Medical experts in Gaza said that they were collecting tissue samples from burns victims to test for white phosphorus, but were unsure when they could be sent to the laboratories. Doctors in Egypt have barred journalists from hospitals where hundreds of wounded Palestinians have been taken. They would not comment publicly on the wounds, but in private said that they had “no doubt” they were treating chemical phosphorus burns.
Allison El Soukary, a British nurse who lives in Cairo and worked in an Essex burns unit for several years, said: “The shapes of the burns, small circular splotches that go deep into the skin — those are where the chemical hit and burnt through.” Doctors are unsure how long it will take for Mahmoud to recover. His breathing is ragged and unsteady and he does not understand where he is or why he is in pain. On the day he was wounded his father and brother took him to Gaza City’s Shifa Hospital. They said the prayer for the dead and were sure he was going to die. When they got to the hospital there were no beds, so they laid him on the ground with all the others.
Because of the extent of his injuries, Mahmoud received special clearance to travel to Egypt for treatment. But the convoy of 14 ambulances that attempted to make their way to the border came under fire and were forced to turn back. Two days later they were able to cross through the Rafah border crossing with Egypt.
In the Sheikh Zayid Hospital there are 29 patients who were pulled from the fighting in Gaza. At least five have burns consistent with phosphorus, say experts. Muhammad Hassanat, 26, and his neighbour Tamer Omar Ellouhe, 18, both lost their legs when a volley of artillery fire hit their Gaza City suburb of Zeitoun — the same area where dozens of members of the Samouni family were buried alive in an Israeli strike. The survivors were forced to wait several days for ambulances to get through the fighting. Yesterday Samouni family corpses were still being pulled from the rubble.
Mahmoud Hassanat, Muhammad’s brother, now sits in the polished marble hospital cafeteria, dividing his worry between family members still in Gaza and the patients upstairs.
“I had left him for dead,” he said. “I went to cemetery to prepare a burial plot and our father had gone home to tell our mother that her son was killed. Our mother went running down the street and discovered that he was still breathing a little. Doctors also thought he would die, but he is alive.”
Without his legs and with a broken arm, jaw, and ribs, Muhammad will no longer be able to support his wife and four children in his old job as an electrician. “We were attacked by an army. But we are not an army, we have no way to defend ourselves,” said his brother. “We will go back to our home. We are not political but we will go on with Hamas. This is how it is.”