U.N. wants to know if war crimes were committed in Gaza

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 9, 2009 

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — The U.N. high commissioner for human rights Friday called for an investigation of possible Israeli war crimes in Gaza as local residents told more gruesome tales about Israeli troops neglecting wounded civilians and the killing of unarmed Palestinians.

High Commissioner Navi Pillay noted the case of four boys who were rescued Wednesday by the International Committee of the Red Cross from the side of their dead mother in a dwelling 100 yards from an Israeli military post. The Red Cross called the incident "shocking," and Pillay told the BBC that it "had all the elements of what constitutes a war crime."

Eyewitnesses interviewed by McClatchy correspondents, along with Israeli and Palestinian human rights groups, described gruesome scenes in and near Gaza City.

Among them: the charred remains of a toddler that had been partially devoured by wild animals, reported by the Red Cross; and an infant bleeding to death in his mother's arms, reported to a McClatchy special correspondent; and an unarmed man allegedly shot dead by an Israeli soldier in front of his family, reported by a relative who spoke to a McClatchy special correspondent and a witness who was interviewed by an Israeli human rights group.

McClatchy staff reporters couldn't independently verify the alleged violations of international law because Israel has blocked foreign correspondents from entering Gaza.

The Israeli military says it's investigating the reports, but it defended its soldiers.

"Israeli forces aim for military targets," said Maj. Avital Leibovich, the chief Israeli military spokeswoman for the international media. "We aim for Hamas targets. We don't just kill innocent people for no reason."

Israel and Hamas ignored a unanimous United Nations Security Council resolution calling for an immediate cease-fire. The Bush administration abstained from voting on the resolution and the Israeli government dismissed it as ineffective and impractical, while Gaza militants launched more rockets on Friday into southern Israel, causing no serious injuries.

There was no sign that the conflict would end soon. Instead, Israeli leaders directed the military to intensify operations in Gaza, where about 800 Palestinians — nearly half of them women and children — have been killed in the past two weeks, according to Palestinian medical officials.

In what the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs called "one of the gravest incidents" of the military operation, 30 Palestinians were reported killed when Israeli shells hit a home south of Gaza City that was filled with more than 100 residents who were trying to avoid the fighting.

Leibovich said the Israeli military so far hasn't been able to confirm that its forces hit the house and questioned reports that soldiers had rounded up family members in the neighborhood and escorted them to the home that was later hit.

Survivors interviewed by a McClatchy special correspondent at a Gaza City hospital, however, described being trapped for days inside their homes while Israeli forces moved through the neighborhood trying to root out Hamas militants.

Masouda Samouni said that Israeli troops forced her and her family out of their home as the soldiers searched the neighborhood in the first hours of the ground offensive, which began a week ago.

More than 100 residents eventually crowded into the home of Wael Samouni, where the families quickly ran short of food and water, she said.

While they were hiding in the home, survivors said, Israeli shells struck the building. The family members scrambled from room to room looking for safety, but medical officials said 30 people were killed, including Samouni's 10-month-old son.

Samouni said she was cradling her infant son when shrapnel struck both.

"I saw him," she said from her hospital bed. "His head went down and he opened his mouth. At that moment, I knew that he was dead and I held him to my chest."

Israeli forces allowed rescue workers to enter the neighborhood on Wednesday to lead the survivors to safety.

During the Israeli sweep of the neighborhood, two other members of the Samouni family said they watched an Israeli soldier shoot an unarmed man in front of his children.

While recovering from the attack at a Gaza City hospital, Rawyah Samouni told a McClatchy special correspondent that she witnessed an Israeli patrol converge on her nephew's house next door.

One of the soldiers demanded that the homeowner, Atiya Samouni, come out, she said.

He followed the order, Samouni said, and an Israeli soldier shot him twice in the chest and left him for dead.

In a separate interview given to the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem, Atiya Samouni's 22-year-old son Faraj described seeing his father shot from inside their house.

"They threw stun grenades into the house and fired," Faraj Samouni told B'Tselem. "They broke down the door and asked who the homeowner was. My father came out of the room and said yes. When he was standing at the door, he was fired at from about three meters and died."

Leibovich categorically dismissed the idea that an Israeli soldier would kill an unarmed man. The Israeli military said Thursday night, however, that it was looking into the story.

Rescue workers and survivors who were allowed late this week to escape Israeli-controlled areas described stark scenes.

Iyad Nasr, a Red Cross spokesman in Gaza, said that medical personnel had recovered the charred bodies of three Palestinians children, including a toddler, found next to a house in a neighborhood near Beit Lahiya in the northern Gaza Strip.

Nasr said that the toddler's body had been "eaten by wild dogs from the street."

A humanitarian aid worker said he came across the bodies in the northern Gaza Strip and that they appeared to have been hit by an Israeli shell while they were trying to run for safety.

The worker, who asked not to be identified for fear of jeopardizing his ability to take part in rescue efforts, said the youngest, around two years old, had been partially eaten by wild animals.

"It was like charcoal," the man said of the toddler's body. "Also without any limbs, because some of the animals ate some of his limbs."

The humanitarian challenges have been compounded by the inability of aid groups to get food into Gaza.

Leibovich said that a senior Israeli defense official met Friday with representatives of the U.N. and the Red Cross to discuss the groups' allegations that Israeli forces weren't doing enough to ensure the safety of relief workers in Gaza.

Leibovich, however, said that one of the incidents that prompted the U.N. to halt the movement of its staff in Gaza — the fatal shooting Thursday morning of a U.N.-contracted relief truck driver near the Erez crossing — wasn't a result of Israeli fire.

"We looked into it, and we did not shoot at that truck," Leibovich said.

U.N. officials stood by their account, in which Palestinian contractors said that Israeli ground troops opened fire on the forklift truck, killing a driver and wounding two others. The incident caused the private Palestinian company, the only one authorized by Israel to deliver U.N. aid into Gaza, to suspend its operations for the safety of its staff.

The U.N. World Food Program, which feeds 265,000 Palestinians in Gaza — some 18 percent of the population — said that it was able to deliver food within Gaza but that it risked running out of stocks within several days if trucks didn't resume deliveries into the territory, spokeswoman Barbara Conte said.

With no U.N. or Red Cross deliveries entering Gaza on Friday, 50 truckloads of goods did pass through the Erez crossing carrying donations from Palestinian and Jordanian groups, said Peter Lerner, an Israeli military spokesman.

(Hamda, a McClatchy special correspondent, reported from Gaza City. Nissenbaum reported from Jerusalem. Shashank Bengali contributed to this article from Jerusalem.)

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