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The surviving children of the a-Sawarkah family. From right to left: Lama, Rim, Nur, Diaa’, Fahed, Fawzi. Photo by: Olfat al-Kurd, B’Tselem
From the field

Israeli air force kills 14 civilians in the Gaza Strip, including three women and eight children in operation branded “Impressive success”

November 2019 saw another round of hostilities in the Gaza Strip. This time, Israel killed 35 Palestinians, 14 of whom were civilians who took no part in the fighting, including three women and eight children. According to OCHA figures, hospitals treated more than 100 individuals wounded in Israeli attacks, including more than 45 minors. During the fighting, Palestinian armed groups fired about 450 rockets and mortar shells at Israel, injuring several civilians.

The UN reports Israel destroyed 12 housing units and severely damaged at least 12 others. This left at least 24 families, with at least 135 members, 48 of them children under five, homeless. About 500 additional housing units were partially damaged.

Thirteen of the civilians who did not take part in the fighting were killed in three different attacks. In two of these attacks, two members of the military wings of Palestinian armed groups were also killed – Ahmad 'Abd al-’Aal (Hamas) and Muhammad a-Sawarkah (Islamic Jihad). No official source said the two men were the targets of the assault. As far as B'Tselem is aware, they were killed unintentionally along with their family members.

Among the dead were nine members of the a-Sawarkah family, including five children, who were killed in the bombing of their Deir al-Balah family compound. Shortly after this attack, the IDF Spokesperson stated in Arabic that the target was a top Islamic Jihad member, Rasmi Abu Malhus, information that proved erroneous and based on social media posts. The military later claimed the attack was aimed at an Islamic Jihad training facility. Media reports ultimately revealed that contrary to the military’s official statements, the target – the a-Sawarkah family compound – had not been reassessed for many months, and no attempt was made to make sure no civilians were on site prior to the attack.

This information brought to light more details about Israeli bombings in Gaza, including that contrary to claims made by all officials over the years, targets are added to the “target bank” in an almost arbitrary process and the military rewards personnel for naming more targets. It also emerged that prior to bombing a site listed in its “target bank”, the military rarely checks whether it is, in fact, being used for the purposes that earned it a place in the bank to begin with, or whether any civilians who may be hurt are on site. While this information emerged in the context of the deadly attack on the a-Sawarkah family, it also explains the bombings of hundreds of other homes in Gaza over the years – including during Operation Cast Lead, Operation Pillar of Defense and Operation Protective Edge –which killed thousands.

The military law enforcement system investigated only a handful of the thousands of deaths caused by these bombings, and all of the investigations thus far completed have ended in nothing, with the military repeatedly finding that “at the time the decision was taken, it was considered that the collateral damage expected from the attack would not be excessive in relation to the military advantage anticipated from it”, and that, “this assessment was not unreasonable under the circumstances”. However, the information that has now been revealed about the military’s practices shows that its processes are much less orderly and meticulous than previously stated and that it is highly doubtful that the extent of the “collateral damage expected from the attack” had, in fact, been assessed. These new revelations also raise questions about the true nature of this alleged “assessment”, the information on which it was based, and the information on the basis of which the site was initially added to the target bank. All of this corroborates the fact that this is simply a whitewashing mechanism.

The policy is formulated by government officials and top military commanders and backed by baseless legal opinions furnished by the Military Advocate General Corps. The military accordingly continues to implement this policy in every round of fighting, despite its horrifying outcomes. B'Tselem has repeatedly stated over the years that this policy is patently illegal and immoral. Now it turns out hundreds of senior and junior officials within the institutions that plan, approve and implement this policy have known this for years, yet nothing has been done to change it.

From right to left: Isma’il, Ahmad and Ibrahim ‘Abd al-‘Aal. Photos courtesy of the family

13 Nov. 2019: The killing of three members of the 'Abd al-’Aal family and two members of Islamic Jihad in the Gaza City industrial area

On Wednesday morning, 13 November 2019, at around 9:00 A.M., the Israeli air force fired a missile at a tin structure used for storing and compressing metal scraps in the neighborhood of a-Tufah in Gaza City. Three employees, all residents of Gaza City, were on site at the time: Muhammad al-Yazji, 23 and father of one; his brother, Nasrallah, a 13-year-old eighth-grader; and Ahmad Abu ‘Aweidah, 23. On site were also two brothers who work in a family woodshop across the way: Ibrahim 'Abd al-’Aal, 17, and Ahmad 'Abd al-’Aal, 23. Muhammad al-Yazji and Ahmad Abu ‘Aweidah were wounded by shrapnel. Nasrallah al-Yazji suffered minor injuries in the leg. Ibrahim and Ahmad 'Abd al-’Aal ran to their family woodshop, but as soon as they entered, two missiles hit it. Another missile was fired at the wounded Muhammad al-Yazji and Ahmad Abu ‘Aweidah, who had fled the tin structure. Ibrahim and Ahmad 'Abd al-’Aal and their brother, Isma’il, 16, who was in the woodshop, were killed. Two members of the military wing of Islamic Jihad who were in the area, Soheil Qanitah and Mahmoud Hathat, were also killed.

In a testimony he gave B'Tselem field researcher Muhammad Sabah on 13 November 2019, Muhammad al-Yazji recounted:

Muhammad al-Yazji in hospital. Photo by: Muhammad Sabah, B’Tselem, 18 Nov. 2019

At around 9:00 A.M., I heard a huge explosion that shook the place. Ahmad Abu ‘Aweidah and I were hit by shrapnel all over our bodies and ran west. Ibrahim and Ahmad 'Abd al-’Aal ran to their woodshop, which is about thirty meters east of the tin shack. As soon as they went in there, I heard two explosions one after the other. We kept running until we were a few dozen meters away from the shack, and then I sat down against the wall of a house and started wiping the blood off my face, and Ahmad Abu ‘Aweidah went to get a car. When he was barely a few meters away from me, another missile landed near us. I was hit by shrapnel in the chest and other places in my body. I had trouble breathing and couldn’t move. I felt like I was going to die. I had a hard time seeing, too, especially in the right eye that had been directly hit.

In a testimony he gave B'Tselem field researcher Muhammad Sabah on 2 December 2019, Nasrallah al-Yazji recounted:

Nasrallah al-Yazji. Photo by: Muhammad Sabah, B’Tselem, 3 Dec. 2019

Suddenly there was a very strong explosion, and I saw a lot of smoke. I felt a sharp pain in my leg. I crawled and looked around inside the shack but couldn’t see anyone there. I couldn’t get up. I managed to crawl outside, and I heard Muhammad shouting and calling Ahmad Abu 'Aweidah. I saw blood on his face, and I saw Abu ‘Aweidah bleeding from the leg. I saw Ahmad 'Abd al-’Aal advancing toward the woodshop, and when he got there, two missiles fell on it.

I crawled toward Muhammad and Ahmad Abu ‘Aweidah, and then another missile fell on them. I called out to Muhammad and to someone who was standing on the roof of a nearby house. I said: “Help me, I can’t walk”, but he didn’t answer me. I don’t even know if he heard me. I tried to walk again, but I couldn’t. I kept crawling, and then I managed to walk a little, maybe 50 meters, until I came across someone who lifted me up and took me to the main road to find someone to evacuate me, but no car passed by.

I told him: “There are two more wounded people over there. Go over there. Help them”. He tried calling emergency services and kept walking until we came across a car that took me to a-Shifaa Hospital.

I still can’t believe this happened to us. My ears are still hurting from the bombing, and my leg still hurts. The incident left me terrified: the noise of the bombings, the blood, my injuries, my brother’s and Ahmad Abu ‘Aweidah’s. I was sure I was going to die, and I was scared no one would come help us and we wouldn’t get treated. It’s an industrial area, not a residential area, and because of the fighting there was no one around. People were scared. I’ve been anxious ever since, and every noise startles me.

Khitam 'Abd al-’Aal, Ibrahim’s, Ahmad’s and Isma’il’s mother, who is married and has 13 other children, spoke about the incident in a testimony she gave B'Tselem field researcher Olfat al-Kurd on 8 December 2019:

Khitam al-Yazji and her son Yunes. Photo by: Olfat al-Kurd, B’Tselem, 3 Dec. 2019

When I got to the hospital with my husband and two of my sons, Fathi, 22, and Mahmoud, 21, I went from place to place, looking for my sons. I was told Ahmad was in surgery, but they wouldn’t let me in to see him. I went back to the morgue and told myself I had to open the cold chamber and see the martyrs because one of my sons might be there. A lot of people were standing at the entrance, including Fathi. He told me: “Mother, Ibrahim”. I said to him: “May God have mercy on his soul”.

I sat beside the cold chamber, put my head in my hands and cried. I was in shock. My husband, Ayman, and his mother, Sa’dah, came and sat beside me. After a little while, my entire family and my husband’s entire family came and gathered around me, really close. A few minutes later, they brought my son Ibrahim’s body. I said: “May God have mercy on his soul”. A little while later, they also brought my son Isma’il’s body, and again, I said: “May God have mercy on Isma’il’s soul”. I held the gurney tight and told my husband: “It’s Isma’il”. His face was all bloody. I looked at him, and my heart broke. I couldn’t take any more and I told my husband I wanted to go home. I couldn’t stop crying

About fifteen minutes after I got home, Ibrahim’s and Isma’il’s bodies were brought to us. I hugged them and kissed them and wished them rest and mercy. I prayed to God to give me strength after their death. They took my sons’ bodies for prayer in the mosque nearby. I heard over the mosque speakers: “Hold off a little with the prayer for the martyrs because their third brother, Ahmad, has joined them.”

After about half an hour, they brought my son Ahmad and placed him before me. I cried and hugged him and kissed his head and prayed for Heaven’s mercy.

My sons were innocent. They were at work, and the Israeli military attacked them with missiles mercilessly. I lost three sons all at once. I look at their photographs and say: Three sons! It was a huge shock for me and my husband. I hoped Ahmad would survive, but he joined his brothers.

Does the Israeli air force know who my sons were? Ahmad was the life of the house. He always had a charming smile. Ibrahim worked night and day. I’d ask him to rest sometimes, but he was hardworking and didn’t like to stay home with nothing to do. I long to see Isma’il come home from school again.

They left a huge hole in our lives. I keep going over to their closet, touching their clothes, smelling them and crying. My heart has broken from the pain. They stole my happiness. I was waiting for Ahmad to marry his fiancée, Maryam 'Abd al-’Aal, his cousin on his father’s side. The wedding party was supposed to take place this April, but they took him away from her. She’s also in shock and crying over him all the time.

From right to left: Islam, Raafat and Amir ‘Ayad. Photos courtesy of the family

13 November 2019: The killing of three members of the ‘Ayad family while they were riding a motorcycle in Gaza City

On Wednesday morning, 13 November 2019, at around 9:15 A.M., Raafat ‘Ayad, 54 and retired, was riding on a motorcycle with two of his sons, Islam, 23, and Amir, 7. The three were headed from their home in the Gaza City neighborhood of a-Zeitun to the home of Raafat’s ex-wife, Manal ‘Alwan, 43, several hundred meters away. Raafat was planning to drop off Amir and head to a-Shifaa Hospital to visit another of his sons, Ihab, 25, who had been wounded about ten minutes earlier when Israel attacked Palestinians who were launching rockets from farm fields near Raafat’s home. As they neared ‘Alwan’s home, the Israeli air force fired a missile directly at them, killing Raafat and seriously wounding Amir and Islam, both of whom died of their injuries shortly after.

Manal ‘Alwan, 43, a mother of four including Islam ‘Ayad, gave a testimony to B’Tselem field researcher Olfat al-Kurd:

That morning, I was home with my daughter Iman, 13, Islam’s sister, doing housework. At around 9:30 A.M., I heard a motorcycle in front of the house. I was sure it was my ex-husband with the boys. Suddenly, I heard a huge explosion at the entrance to the house. I opened the door right away and saw my son, Islam, my ex-husband and his son, Amir, who’s still a kid. They were all lying on the ground with head injuries.

I was sure my ex-husband and son were dead right from the start, but I heard Amir groaning in pain. I started shouting at the top of my lungs: “People, save the child!” Women from the neighborhood saw I was breaking down and took me inside. I felt like I was in a nightmare. I didn’t understand what had happened, why they’d dropped a bomb. And it all happened right in front of my house.

Islam was a good young man and we were very close. When he was 16, the Israeli army caught him near the fence, and he spent three years in Nafha Prison. They didn’t let me visit him the whole time. Ever since he fell as a martyr, I haven’t been able to stop crying. My life has turned black, and I feel like the house is dark. My daughter Iman is also very sad. Her brother, Isma’il, was the one who pampered her and played with her.

I can’t forget little Amir’s cries of pain as he lay wounded on the ground, or the sight of my son Islam lying there.

Amir’s mother, Arzaq al-Masri, 30, who is divorced and has another child, lives in Beit Hanoun. Amir was transferred from her custody to his father Raafat’s three days before he was killed. In a testimony she gave B'Tselem field researcher Olfat al-Kurd, she spoke about what went through when she got to the hospital.

I ran quickly to the cold chamber at a-Shifaa Hospital and found Amir there on a gurney. I grabbed his hands. I cried and shouted. I was in shock over what happened to him. I hugged him and couldn’t stop crying. My family could barely separate us. I couldn’t leave him. Then they took me home.

Saying goodbye to Amir was the hardest thing I’ve ever been through in my life. I cried and shouted, hugged him, touched his face and kissed him for the last time. My little boy Muhammad was with me, and he said goodbye to him, too. He cried and said Amir would be in heaven. Amir was everything in my life. I lost my happiness, my joy, my smile.

From right to left: Muhannad a-Sawarkah, his father, Rasmi, and his cousin, Mu’az. Photos courtesy of the family

14 November 2019: The killing of nine members of the a-Sawarkah family when the family compound in Deir al-Balah was bombed

On Thursday night, at around 12:30 A.M., several hours before the ceasefire went into effect, the Israeli air force dropped at least three guided bombs on homes belonging to the a-Sawarkah family on the southern outskirts of Deir al-Balah, while the family members were sleeping. The family compound consists of two tin and cinder block structures and a caravan.

Eight family members were killed in the attack: Rasmi, 45, a former administrative employee with the Palestinian Authority Military Intelligence Agency; one of his wives, Maryam, 33; their two children, Salem, 2, and Firas, 1; Muhannad, 12, Rasmi’s son from a previous marriage; and Rasmi’s sister-in-law, Yusra, 39, and her two children, Mu’az, 7, and Wasim, 13. Yusra’s husband, Muhammad a-Sawarkah, 40, was wounded in the attack and died of his wounds eight days later.Rasmi’s second wife, Wisam, 33, and three of their children, Diaa’, 10, Yusef, 8, and Fahed, 6, were also wounded. Four of Muhammad and Yusra’s children, Narmin, 10, Rim, 8, Lama, 5 and Salem, 3, were also hurt. The rest of the family’s children, Nur, 11, Fawzi, 4, Rasmiya, 2, and Farah, 2 months old, were not physically hurt in the attack.

Shortly after the attack, the IDF Spokesperson stated in Arabic that it had been targeted at top Islamic Jihad member Rasmi Abu Malhus, information that proved erroneous and based on social media posts. The military later claimed the attack was aimed at an Islamic Jihad training facility. However, media reports indicate that contrary to the military’s official statements, the target, the a-Sawarkah family compound, had not been reassessed for many months prior to the attack. An admission from a security establishment official affirms this information: “Targets like a warehouse for weapons aren’t always checked [again] by the IDF before an attack; there’s no way for the IDF to check that. You can’t knock on their door.

From right to left: Salem, Farah, Nur, Fahed, Diaa’, Fawzi, Rim, Lama. Photo by: Olfat al-Kurd, B’Tselem

‘Atef Lahlub, 47, a father of eight, lives about 200 meters from the a-Sawarkah family compound. He spoke about that night in a testimony he gave B'Tselem field researcher Khaled al-‘Azayzeh:

On Thursday, at around 12:30 A.M., I was asleep in my house in the al-Barakah neighborhood, south of Deir al-Balah. I was woken by a very loud explosion that shook the walls of the house. I called my brother Ahmad, who told me the explosion had come from the direction of the homes of Rasmi and Muhammad a-Sawarkah, about 200 meters south of my house. I ran over there and, on the way, met more local residents who were hurrying there.

When I got there, all I saw was large craters where the houses had stood. We started looking for the occupants along with several paramedics and people from the civil defense. We found Rasmi’s body lying north of his house. He was injured in the head. Then we found his wife, Wisam, who was shouting and looking for her children as we took her to the ambulance. She said she had a two-month-old baby and that her sons were buried under the sand. We kept looking. We dug with our hands and found Maryam, Rasmi’s wife, buried under the sand north of the house, and the baby, Farah, who was alive, and two kids dead next to her. We also found Muhammad, Rasmi’s brother, between his house and Rasmi’s house. He was unconscious. His wife Yusra was next to him, taking her last breaths. We also found two kids, Wasim and Mu’az, Muhammad’s sons, dead and buried under the sand.

After a few hours of searching, I went to the hospital and, together with relatives, counted the martyrs and the wounded. It turned out two kids were missing, Salem and Firas, Rasmi’s sons. I went back home and at 6:30 A.M., we found both of them next to each other, buried under the sand north of their house. They had both been killed.

Taleb Mesmeh, a neighbor of the a-Sawarkah’s who helped dig for the family members. Photo by: Khaled al-‘Azayzeh, B’Tselem, 14 Nov. 2019

Wisam Abu Harb (a-Sawarkah), 33, Rasmi’s widow and a mother of six, recounted in a testimony she gave B’Tselem field researcher Olfat al-Kurd on 27 Nov. 2019:

That night, around midnight, we were all asleep. Our house was a simple structure with a tin roof. Suddenly, I heard a powerful blast and thought the entire house, the stones and the iron rods, was collapsing on the children and me. I started to scream and called to my children, my husband and his wife. I couldn’t see anything in the dark.

I looked for my children and finally found all of them outside the house. Yusef, Diaa’ and Fahed were wounded from shrapnel. I was also wounded by a few pieces of shrapnel in my head and legs. I saw right away that Muhannad, my husband’s son, whom I raised since he was a week old, wasn’t there. I started to ask where he was and to look for him. I found him in a pit covered with sand. I could only see his head. I started to clean the sand from his head. He wasn’t breathing and it was obvious he was dead.

Afterwards, I went to the house of my brother-in-law Muhammad and found him and his wife there, both lying on the ground. My sister-in-law was dying, fighting for her life. Muhammad was wounded over his entire body. Their daughter Nur was standing next to them.

I started looking for my baby, Farah, 2 months old. I looked for her everywhere – in the ruins, between the stones – but I didn’t find her. I couldn’t see a thing in the dark. I also tried to look for my husband and his wife, but I couldn’t, because of the pile of sand and stones. I sent my son Diaa’, who is 10, to his grandmother’s house a short way off our house, to tell them what happened and to call an ambulance to rescue us.

Two-month-old Farah a-Sawarkah was salvaged from the debris. Photo by: Khaled al-‘Azayzeh, B’Tselem, 5 Dec. 2019

Afterwards, the ambulances arrived and started taking away the wounded and the martyrs. I told the paramedics that I couldn’t find my 2-month-old baby. They found her under the sand. I was sure she was dead. I didn’t see her until I was at the hospital and I was happy to find out that she was alive.

After the hospital, we went to the home of my husband’s mother, and then I learned that my husband, his wife and their three children had all been killed, and that my sister-in-law Yusra and her two sons had been killed and her husband was in critical condition. I started to scream. I screamed at everyone. I screamed about what happened to us. Why were we bombed? What crime did the children commit? Why were they killed? My children now live in great fear.

The hardest was when they brought the martyrs home, so we could part from them. My heart burned from crying. I looked at Muhannad, my husband’s son, whom I raised as my own child, and I cried so hard. Since the bombing, my daughters wake up at night frightened and they start screaming. Especially Rasmiya, who is 2 years old. They go to the ruins of our house and come back wrapped in sadness and loss. They lost their father and their siblings, the house that gave them shelter and protection.

My life has become a great disaster. I live in a state of shock and great fear. May God have mercy on the martyrs, and give us the strength to bear the disasters that have befallen us. The pain is immense. I’ve become a widow, and my children – orphans. We’ve all become homeless, too. We now live with my brother-in-law’s children, who lost their parents, in my mother-in-law’s house.

Nur a-Sawarkah, 11, a sixth-grader, told B’Tselem field researcher Olfat al-Kurd:

Nur a-Sawarkah. Photo by: Khaled al-‘Azayzeh, B’Tselem, 5 Dec. 2019

I was at home that night. Everyone was sleeping and only I couldn’t fall asleep because of the noise of some drones. Afterwards I heard tremendous thunder when they bombed our house. My sisters Narmin, 10, and Rim, 8, were sleeping next to me. I ran outside fast – without seeing a thing, because the electricity was cut off by the bombing. I heard three bombings within a few seconds. At that moment I saw Narmin, who also tried to escape but didn’t succeed, because both of her legs were hit.

I moved westwards from the house and when the bombing stopped, I went back and started to look for my sisters. Instead of a house there were a pile of ruins and large pits. I found Wisam, my uncle’s wife, and her children, and together we started to look for my sisters and my cousins. I found my sister Rim buried under sand. Her face was covered with blood. I tried to save her, to pull her out of the sand. I found my brother Salem and my sister Lama next to my mother, who recited the ‘Shahada’ prayer and then was silent. I tried to wake her up, I said, ‘Get up, Mother, get up,’ but she didn’t hear me. I realized that she was dead.

Salem was crying. Afterwards I found my father, who was bleeding. He asked me to call an ambulance. I ran to the concrete warehouse 15 meters east of our house and asked the owner to call an ambulance. He called, and I went back home – to our destroyed house.

Time passed and the ambulance didn’t show up. No one came to rescue us. I was so frightened. All the time I heard drones above us. I was afraid of them and I was afraid they would bomb us again.

When I heard about everyone who was killed I froze with shock – I didn’t cry and I didn’t shout. I felt numb, I couldn’t feel any emotion. Since the Israeli army bombed our house and killed my family I haven’t cried, not even when I parted from the ones who were killed before the funeral. I only looked at them and felt deep sadness. I couldn’t believe what had happened to us. All the people who came to console us cried when they hugged and kissed me, and only I couldn’t cry.

Salem, Nur’s three-year-old brother, who was injured in the attack. Photo by: Khaled al-‘Azayzeh, B’Tselem, 5 Dec. 2019

My father was in the hospital for about a week in critical condition. When I heard that he died, too, my body started to shake. I went into a terrible panic when I heard that. When I saw his body, so I could part from him, I ran away. I couldn’t look at him.

Three weeks have gone by since they were killed. I miss them all very much, and especially my brother Mu’az, whom I loved very much. We were very close. I keep walking back to the place where our house stood. I remember my brothers, Mother, Father. I remember how I would sit with my cousins, how we played together. The moments I had when the whole family sat around the table to eat. I remember how my mother always made sure that I and my siblings did our homework. We were the happiest family, and suddenly, in one blow, I lost my happiness.

Now I am scared all the time, especially at night. When I hear the planes, I get very frightened. Why did they bomb us, children who were sleeping in their house? What did we do to them? We didn’t do anything to the Israeli army, which took my mother and my father from me, my brothers and my aunt and uncle and my cousins. They took everything that was beautiful in my life away from me. We became orphans.