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:: Article nr. 51822 sent on 07-nov-2009 11:32 ECT
In Gaza town, a bitter aftermath
By Ashraf Khalil, LATimes
HURT: Fatma Zidane el-Banneh, 8, left, and her mother, Azza, return to the school in Beit Lahiya, in northern Gaza, where Azza says her daughter was burned by white phosphorus used in the Israeli military offensive.
Witnesses say white flags didn't keep Israeli troops from firing at and killing Palestinians. Incident in Khozaa could be key to any war crimes probe.
February 15, 2009
Reporting from Khozaa, Gaza Strip Ś She was the strongest among them, the natural leader. So when the shelling stopped and the Israeli soldiers announced through loudspeakers that all residents should come out of their homes and head for the center of town, neighbors turned to Rawhiya Najar for guidance.
Emptying the cupboards of sheets and tablecloths -- anything white -- she led a procession of 20 women and children into the streets holding a white flag in each hand, residents say.
The group had made it perhaps 200 yards when a soldier stepped out from a door down the street and shot Najar in the head, multiple witnesses say. Her body lay in the street for 12 hours, villagers and doctors say.
Weeks after Israel declared a unilateral end to its offensive in the Gaza Strip, the aftermath still burns in Khozaa, a farm town of 11,000 in the south of the territory. Chunks of white phosphorus still lie scattered throughout neighborhoods, buried in dirt and sand; when excavated, they immediately ignite and spew noxious smoke that smells vaguely of garlic.
As the International Criminal Court weighs a war crimes investigation of the Gaza offensive, the experience of Khozaa could be a key part in the evidence. It was here that Israeli troops staged a series of incursions from Jan. 11 to 13, facing off against local militant fighters and leaving a trail of accusations and recriminations in their wake.
These include charges of indiscriminate firing on civilians and ambulances and what one international weapons expert called the heaviest use of controversial white phosphorus munitions in the 22-day offensive.
Local officials say 19 people were killed during the assault, 16 of them civilians. About 150 people were injured, most from prolonged exposure to phosphorus smoke, local medical officials say.
It is impossible to fully confirm many of the details of what happened here. But interviews with more than a dozen Khozaa residents, medical professionals, government officials and local militant fighters depict a chaotic three-day span when phosphorus smoke filled the streets and homes as families cowered indoors.
The Israeli army, which staged its offensive after years of rocket attacks against southern Israel emanating from the Gaza Strip, refuses to discuss individual charges in detail. A statement in response to questions about the events in Khozaa declared that the military is "currently conducting post-operation investigations."
Israeli officials have insisted that their soldiers tried to avoid civilian casualties, and accuse Hamas fighters of cynically using Palestinian civilians as human shields.
Residents acknowledge an active militant presence in the district, and local militant commanders say about a dozen fighters directly engaged Israeli forces here. But militants and residents deny that the area was a frequent spot for rocket launches into Israel, saying those cells prefer to operate from farther north in Gaza.
The incursion starts
The assault began with an intense artillery barrage just before midnight Jan. 10.
The shelling continued until dawn, when Israel staged the first of three thrusts into the district. Armored bulldozers, backed by tanks and air support, moved in about 5 a.m., residents say, demolishing several homes in the Azzata district, where Rawhiya Najar lived.
Neighbors say the soldiers repeatedly withdrew and returned over the next two days, leaving residents disoriented and fearful. The final offensive began just after midnight on Jan. 13, with an all-night artillery barrage that engulfed the district in smoke, residents say. Isolated groups of terrified villagers huddled in different homes for safety, including at least 30 relatives in the home of Khalil Hamdan Najar, 57.
Israeli drones patrolled the skies, unseen but identifiable from their distinctive lawn-mower whines. Under cover of darkness and phosphorus smoke, ground forces took up positions throughout the neighborhood, taking over several homes, residents say.
At 6:30 a.m., with shells beginning to strike the roof of his home, Khalil Najar led a group of relatives outside, waving a white flag. A series of missile strikes killed Khalil and injured several family members, they say. His granddaughter Alaa, 14, and son-in-law Ahmed, 23, later died at a hospital.
When it grew light outside, Rawhiya Najar urged her neighbors to crowd onto the roofs of their homes, hoping the sight of civilians would deter the barrage, neighbors said.
The 47-year-old, who had returned from the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca just days before the Israeli offensive began, was known as a forceful and generous personality. She was also a staunch supporter of the local militant groups, and would often leave tea and cakes on her windowsill at night for the fighters who operated in the area.
When the rooftop strategy proved ineffective, about 200 people huddled in an exterior courtyard surrounded by three concrete walls from still-intact homes. They included Rawhiya and Eman Najar -- relatives in a district where almost everyone is a Najar by either birth or marriage.
Eman said that at least eight armored bulldozers had surrounded them, and one began demolishing the home just yards in front of the group.
"He picked up the side of the house like it was a box of matches," she said. "We were practically face to face. We could see the bulldozer driver chewing gum and smiling like it was all a game."
Just before 8 a.m., the soldiers ordered all residents to "head for the city center."
Multiple witnesses tell identical versions of what happened next. As the procession turned a corner next to a yellow garbage container, a soldier stepped out from behind a red metal door about 200 yards ahead and shot Rawhiya Najar in the temple. As residents scrambled for cover, 21-year-old Yasmine Najar was shot and wounded while trying to rescue Rawhiya, neighbors say.
"I'm convinced that woman was shot while waving a white flag," said Fred Abrahams, the senior emergencies researcher for Human Rights Watch, citing separate interviews with several residents.
"Their testimony was consistent, credible and corroborative. All the pieces of the puzzle fit."
In nearby Khan Yunis, ambulance driver Marwan Abu Reida responded to a call just after 8 a.m. about the body of a woman lying in the street. The neighborhood was shrouded in thick white smoke when he arrived, he said, and before he could approach Rawhiya's body, gunfire from a nearby home forced him to abandon the ambulance and take shelter with residents.
"It is so scary. Bullets are hitting the house and it is shaking after each missile that is fired from the planes," Abu Reida told The Times by phone that day.
"We may die in any moment."
As the Israeli assault continued, Eman Najar and her neighbors decided to attempt a final break for safety. About 1:30 p.m., the group, crouching, ran down a dirt path. They could see Rawhiya's body still lying next to the yellow garbage container, less than 100 yards away but had no way of knowing whether she was alive or dead.
When they reached the main road, a neighbor and relative named Mahmoud Najar helped usher them to safety. But when he heard about the shooting of Rawhiya, Mahmoud, 55, grabbed a white flag and vowed to retrieve the body.
The group walked about three miles before reaching a United Nations-run school, where ambulances arrived to evacuate the wounded.
Israeli forces withdrew from Khozaa about 8 p.m. on Jan. 13.
Mahmoud Najar, the neighbor who tried to retrieve Raw- hiya, was found dead just a few yards from his home. He died of a gunshot wound to the abdomen.
Abu Reida, the ambulance driver, emerged from hiding. He retrieved Rawhiya Najar's body and finally delivered her to the local morgue.
Special correspondent Yasser Ahmad in Khan Yunis contributed to this report.
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