*Mohammed, shot dead along with his mother by Israeli soldiers.
Zeitoun, Eastern Gaza
The “kill Arabs” hate grafitti reported in the Israeli daily Ha’aretzand numerous other news sources, and found throughout the Gaza Strip’s bombarded and militarily-occupied regions, is still scribbled on the walls of Mousa al Samouni (19) and the ten other members of his family’s home in the Zeitoun district east of Gaza city. On nearby walls are “you can run but you can’t hide” and “1948-2009”, references to the Nakba* and what many refer to as the new Nakba: the 3 weeks of war on Gaza. Into the walls of the family’s home Israeli soldiers punched five different snipers holes, behind which they propped themselves on bags filled with sand dug out from underneath tiles in the house.
Like so many other houses occupied by the Israeli military, the house in which Mousa and his family lived was left a tangle of destroyed furniture, soiled clothing, and graffitied walls. At least 12 homes were bombed [residents cite 20 destroyed houses] or leveled in the area, and the orchards and chickens which generated incomes were razed and destroyed in the farming community, where the majority were living self-sufficiently.
Mousa’s family had 1.5 dunams (1 dunam is 1,000 square metres) of fruit and olive trees and a modest 3,000 chicken farm, before all was destroyed by Israeli troops. Reports put around 100 farmers out of work and out of a livelihood in the Samouni quarter alone.
Those houses which remained standing, like Mousa’s, did so largely because they served as sniper positions and military camps for the Israeli soldiers who desecrated the interiors and left them shells of their former home-selves.
But the more glaring reminders of those days are the inescapable memories of two of Mousa’s brothers and both parents, and over 40 relatives, suffering ghastly deaths at the hands the Israeli soldiers who imprisoned Mousa and his extended family in a small house before bombing it. Mousa and the elder two of his surviving 7 younger siblings, may be forced to bear the impossible burden of providing for a family instead of continuing in university or finishing high school.Mousa and the next oldest, Helmé (15), have told their gruesome story enough by now that they go through the details efficiently, pulling out photos of their dead parents and siblings, narrating meticulously how they came to be orphaned. One photo shows father and mother, Rachad and Rabab, standing smiling in front of a garden. Another has martyred Walid (17) posing in front of a backdrop of tranquility: a pond, a swan, birds, lilies… There’s no photo of Tawfiq (21), but he has left behind a wife and an infant boy.
Helmé reveals the scar, several inches long, on his abdomen left by shrapnel from the bomb which brought down the house and killed his parents. A lasting reminder.
Mousa leaves to sort out university bureaucracy, trying to continue with life, and an uncle, also named Helmé, takes over the narration, mentioning his personal losses: his dead wife and infant son, his dead mother and father, among other relatives. While he is able to tell the story, his sorrow and disbelief are evident. “I waited until I had money for a house before getting married. Now suddenly my house is gone and my wife and son dead.” He, too, pulls out photo mementos: his wife and his only child, asleep.
Helmé describes the lead-up to the house-bombing of January 5th.
“We were all in my house on January 3rd. It has 3 floors: my wife, son and I were on the 3rd floor, my brothers on the 2nd, and my mother and father on the 1st.
During the night, the Israelis started firing from Apache helicopters and shelling from tanks. It was terrifying. We all came down to the ground floor.”
The next morning, Helmé recounts, the firing had stopped. Relatives fleeing Israeli shelling nearby came to the house, including Helmé’s brother, Rachad Samouni, and his family.
“There were about 50 of us,” Helmé continues. “We all stayed on the 1st floor. The Israelis bombed the 3rd floor while we were still inside the house. They bombed with other explosives which blew the walls out.
Then, Israeli soldiers came to our house. My father had worked in Israel and knew how to speak Hebrew. He told them we were just children and farmers, there were no fighters. They ordered us to leave.”Helmé’s uncle, Atiya, was in his own home nearby when Israeli soldiers arrived. “Who owns this home?” Helmé reports they asked, saying that the soldiers shot Atiya point-blank when he stepped out of the house, hands up.
Helmé’s allegation that Ahmed, Attiya’s 4 year old son, was the next shot by the soldiers is supported by other witness accounts from the day. Some have the toddler running out, grabbing hold of a soldier’s legs and crying out “why did you kill my father?”. Others say that Ahmed and his mother were killed, and many other injured, when the soldiers turned their fire to the interior of the house. Ahmed didn’t immediately die but instead bled to death over the course of the day, denied access to medical care.
Helmé’s narration continues, again corroborating what others have said and written. That the extended family was taken at gunpoint to the house of Wael Samouni, that others were brought, and that they remained captive inside during the day and night, without food and water, numbering roughly 100 people.
“We stayed 1 night in the new house, not sleeping because we were so scared and because of the firing,” Helmé says. Early the next morning (January 5), his brother Salah and a cousin Mohammed Samouni went outside to collect wood for a fire, to make bread. It was quiet and they thought the soldiers might have left.
“They were out between the wall on the street and the house when 2 Apaches above opened fire, firing a rocket at them. Mohammed was killed instantly.” Salah survived, but was injured, with shrapnel fragments in his forehead, back and legs.
“When the Apache fired the rocket, I grabbed Mohammed and got him inside, bandaged his head and tied a tourniquet around his wounded leg to stop the bleeding.”
It was then that Helmé saw his wife, son and cousin had been just been killed.
Maha (Helmé’s wife) and Masouda (Mohammed’s wife) had been standing at the door with their babies in their arms. An Israeli sniper on a neighbouring roof shot Maha, their 6 month old son Mohammed and Masouda’s nearly year-old baby Mu’tassim dead. Masouda survived with light injuries.
Minutes later, says Helmé, the Israeli army dropped 2 more shells on the house.
“All around me people were lying dead, like they were sleeping.”
Maysa’ Samouni, sister in law of ophans Mousa and Helmé, described the scene after the bombings.
“The persons killed around me were my husband, who was hit in the back, my father-in-law, who was hit in the head and whose brain was on the floor, my mother-in-law Rabab, my father-in-law’s brother Talal, and his wife Rhama Muhammad a-Samuni, 45, Talal’s son’s wife, Maha Muhammad a-Samuni, 19, and her son, Muhammad Hamli a-Samuni, 5 months, whose whole brain was outside his body.”
The BBC reported that the Israeli military said forces allowed medical help “to the greatest extent possible subject to the perceived risks”.
Yet this is contested by the many survivors who watched loved ones bleed to death or returned to homes to find the injured dead, denied access to emergency medical care, like the family of 4 year old Ahmed who bled to death: (the family) tried to contact the Red Cross and ambulances, but they were told repeatedly that soldiers were blocking access to the area. All the while, Ahmad and his mother were bleeding heavily from their wounds. They continued calling for medical help but kept receiving the same answer ‘We cannot reach you.'”
And from the vantage point of volunteering in the Red Crescent’s ambulances I know countless calls for help went unanswered. Leila, who was present for the belated evacuation of some of the Samouni victims, also knows otherwise: the Israeli military actively prevented medics from reaching the wounded, in Zeitoun, in Ezbet Abed Rabbo, all over Gaza.
Mousa, his brother Helmé, and their 6 younger siblings continue to live in the house which Israeli soldiers occupied and in which their brother was shot dead. An uncle, Arafat Samouni, is living with the orphaned children, along with his wife and 1 child. But this is merely moral support. Financially and emotionally, Mousa and his siblings are devastated.
*The Nakba is what Palestinians call the Zionists’ bloody expulsion of 750,000 Palestinians from historic Palestine, along with the destruction of over 530 villages, for the creation of Israel in 1948.
REPORTS ON THE SAMOUNI MASSACRES:
*Helmé, 15, with a photo of his murdered parents.
*17 year old Walid, murdered at his home by Israeli soldiers.
*razed fruit trees, destroyed chicken farm, devastated land and houses in the Samouni area. [photo: Tales to Tell]