Mahmoud Abu Said could hardly speak about what happened to him when the soldiers first arrived to his neighborhood. His eyes filled with tears, the muscles in his face began to twitch, and his voice faltered. As the baby-faced, 19-year-old resident of Rafah in Southern Gaza recounted how Israeli soldiers used him as a human shield, torturing and then kidnapping him, he collapsed into a plastic chair.
“I feel so afraid,” he muttered. “It’s not normal. I feel weak and I’m not myself.”
Mahmoud was among several residents of the Gaza Strip who provided me with testimony of being used as human shields by Israeli forces during their ground invasion in July. He is also among the young men from various locations around the besieged coastal territory who told me they were kidnapped by Israeli soldiers, taken to a prison in southern Israel, physically abused and interrogated about activity by armed resistance groups operating in Gaza.
The Israeli military and its international corps of supporters have accused Hamas of exploiting residents of the Gaza Strip as human shields, hoping to deflect from the whopping toll of civilian casualties they caused. But interviews with Palestinians from Gaza’s border areas revealed the opposite to be true: Israel has repeatedly used defenseless civilians to shield themselves from potential guerrilla attacks, brutally abusing young men like Mahmoud Abu Said during their invasion of Gaza. The practice is not only a war crime that violates international human rights law, it was outlawed by the Israeli Supreme Court in 2005.
As we stood on the porch of the ransacked home of Mahmoud’s family, a drone buzzed incessantly overhead while squadrons of F-16s roared by. The red tile roof above us had been punctured with gaping holes from Israeli shrapnel; the interior of the house had been trashed by the soldiers who transformed it into a shooting gallery; and the house next door was reduced to a pile of rubble. But nowhere was the damage exacted by Israeli forces more apparent than in Mahmoud’s bloodshot eyes and nearly catatonic expression.
“Traumatized!” his friend exclaims. “He’s completely traumatized.”
After a drink of water, Mahmoud managed to pull himself together. He recalled what happened when the soldiers arrived on July 14 during the first stage of Israel’s ground invasion of the Gaza Strip. The entire Abu Said family had gathered at his spacious home, including 30 cousins. When a platoon of Israeli troops appeared in the dirt road outside the house, the terror began.
After ordering the family to evacuate the house under the shelling their army had just initiated, the soldiers called for Mahmoud’s father, Abdul Hadi El Said. As soon as he appeared at his doorstep, they shot him in the chest, leaving him to die. Miraculously, after bleeding for two hours, he managed to survive and seek medical help. The rest of the family fled west away from the oncoming troops; however, the soldiers grabbed Mahmoud and refused to allow him to leave.
Mahmoud said the Israeli troops dragged him back into his house, blindfolded him and wrapped him in a blanket on the floor as they began to blow holes in the walls to use as makeshift sniper slits — what US troops in Afghanistan called “murder holes.” Then the soldiers stripped Mahmoud to his underwear, handcuffed him, slammed him against a wall and began to beat him. With an M-16 at his back, they forced him to stand in front of open windows as they hunted his fleeing neighbors, sniping directly beside him at virtually anything that moved. When they were not using him as a human shield, Mahmoud said, the soldiers left him alone in the room with an unleashed army dog who was periodically ordered to attack him.
It was on the top floor of Mahmoud’s home, in a darkened crawl space, that an Israeli sniper killed two of his neighbors through a murder hole. Saleh Israibi and Ala Abu Shabab, two young men who had attempted to flee under the intensifying Israeli shelling, were killed in front of their own homes. According to Saleh Israibi’s father, Suleiman, his 22-year-old son was shot to death while attempting to rescue a neighbor he found bleeding in the street.
I met Suleiman Zreibi in front of the ruins of his home, which Israeli forces destroyed with a combined salvo of missiles and artillery shells. Behind him was the car his son once drove for a living. It too had been destroyed by Israeli shells, turned to a hulk of gnarled metal. “We’ve been suffering and it started more than 60 years ago, not yesterday,” Suleiman Zreibi declared. “When I build a house, the Israelis bomb it. When I try to make a living, they destroy my business. When I try to have a child, they kill him.”
While Suleiman Zreibi escaped to a UNRWA school where he has been living for the past 40 days — “the life there is shitty,” he remarked — Mahmoud Abu Said was kidnapped by the Israeli soldiers who used him as a human shield, taken to southern Israel and placed in a prison cell.
Every three hours, Mahmoud said, he was blindfolded and taken to questioning sessions where interrogators beat and slapped him as they demanded information about tunnel networks and armed resistance activity. After six days and coordination with the International Committee of the Red Cross, Mahmoud said he was released back into the Gaza Strip.
When I left the Abu Said home in Rafah, proceeding through the rocky lanes that lined the shattered neighborhood, I stepped across the shards of spent Israeli munitions dumped indiscriminately on residents over the course of several weeks. Mortar shells, US-made Mark-82 500-pound “dumb bombs,” drone missiles, and spent bullet casings. These were Israel’s calling cards in southern Gaza.
The harrowing visions of Rafah blended into the desolate landscape of Beit Hanoun, another border city Israel flattened during its ground invasion of Gaza, and where marauding soldiers forced an entire family to serve as their shield against guerrilla retaliation.
Trapped at Home in a Holy War
The city of Beit Hanoun is situated in the northeastern corner of Gaza, just at the edge of the Israeli-imposed buffer zone and therefore in one of vulnerable areas in the strip. It is one of the first areas Israel destroyed when it mounted its ground invasion in July. When I arrived during a five-day ceasefire that began on August 14, the sound of gunshots marking the discovery of new bodies sounded in the distance. Thousands of residents had returned for the first time to the ruins of their homes to survey the damage.
The city was destroyed by Israel’s Givati Brigade, an infantry division led by the religious nationalist Colonel Ofer Winter. In a July 10 letter to his troops, Winter pledged a “holy war” on the people of Gaza, vowing to punish them for committing the sin of blasphemy.
“History has chosen us to be the sharp edge of the bayonet of fighting the terrorist enemy ‘from Gaza’ which curses, defames and abuses the God of Israel’s battles,” Winter wrote. He added, “I turn my eyes to the sky and call with you ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord.’ God, the Lord of Israel, make our path successful, as we are about to fight for Your People, Israel, against an enemy who defames your name.”
At the easternmost outskirts of Beit Hanoun, I met Abdul Rahman, a 50-year-old farmer who had lost almost everything to the Israelis. In 2005, Israeli bulldozers razed his citrus trees to extend the buffer zone, wiping out trees that provided oranges to the entire Gaza Strip. They then destroyed the wells he used to irrigate his land. And when they returned this year, they leveled his four-story home, killed his flock of 80 goats and incinerated the five tons of wheat he had stored. Bees buzzed all around us as we spoke, the remnants of an apiary Rahman had kept until it was obliterated by Israeli bombs. His fate was a reminder of the continuous, unrelenting nature of Israeli violence against the residents of Gaza’s border communities.
“In the blink of an eye, everything my father worked for for 70 years was gone,” Rahman said. “During the past month, I feel like I aged two years.”
Unlike in areas like Shujaiya, where residents were bombarded without warning, many of Beit Hanoun’s locals were able to escape ahead of the Israeli onslaught. When Rahman returned to his home during the first temporary ceasefire, however, he found rubble of his neighbors’ home littered with human flesh and dismembered limbs. Some had not been able to escape after all.
The dead were all members of the Wahadan family, one of the 89 families completely or mostly liquidated by Israeli forces in the Gaza Strip during the seven weeks of Operation Protective Edge. According to Rahman and several of his neighbors, Israeli troops from the Givati Brigade ordered the Wahadan family to remain in their home as the rest of the residents from the area fled, warning them that if they attempted to evacuate they would be shot. They were turned into human shields as members of the Hamas-affiliated Qassam Brigades staged period attacks on the occupying Israeli forces, attempting to dislodge them from the area.
Though Israeli forces knew the Wahadan family was still inside their home — they had ordered them to remain there, after all — they did not attempt to evacuate them when a bombardment was called in. According to Rahman, at least 10 members of the Al-Wahadan family were trapped in the house when it was attacked. All of them died and their body parts were not removed for 10 days.
Here are the names of the dead I collected from Rahman and his neighbors:
- Hatem Wahadan, 50
- Samira Wahadan, 30
- Jamila Wahadan, 28
- Fatma Wahadan, 50
- Tzaki Wahadan, 70
- Suhad Wahadan, 70
- Sumud Wahadan, 20
- Ghena Wahadan, 2
The Wahadans’ neighbors told me two members of the family survived —10-year-old Hussein Wahadan and 12-year-old Ahmed Wahadan— because Israeli troops kidnapped them and held them in a jail for several days. I was unable to locate either of the boys. However, in the northern Gaza Strip town of Oum Al-Nasser, I encountered other families who told me they were used as human shields by invading Israeli soldiers, and more young men who said they had been kidnapped and violently interrogated. The testimonies aligned in a clear pattern, forming a dizzying portrait of systematic violent leveled against the largely defenseless civilian population of Gaza’s border communities.
Family Held at the Base of a Tank
Roads scarred by Merkava tank tracks and irreparably damaged homes defined the landscape of Um Al-Nasser in the northern Gaza Strip. The town’s impoverished population of Bedouin farmers was among the first to bear the brunt of the Israeli invasion that began on July 17. When I visited a month later, the psychological wounds locals bore from their experience were still fresh.
Just off the main square, in a cinderblock home tucked behind corrugated tin gates, 35-year-old Reem Adameeri described how she and several members of her family were used as human shields by the Israeli soldiers who had invaded Um Al-Nasser. According to Adameeri, on the night of the invasion her house was completely surrounded by soldiers, tanks and bulldozers. A sniper had taken a position from a white house down the main street, while shells rained down in the other direction. She was trapped inside with seven members of her own family, 14 members of her brother’s family, and many of her neighbors.
“We witnessed death everywhere,” Adameeri recalled. “It was really hard.”
That morning, after a night of heavy shelling, a few of the older women emerged from the home with a white flag. Once she made contact with the soldiers occupying her village, who berated her and her family for not having attempted to evacuate earlier, Adameeri said she saw 20 members of neighboring families sitting in the middle of the main street, a few dozen meters in front of a tank. The troops ordered her and her family to do the same — sit for hours in front of Israeli tanks parked in the center of Um Al-Nasser.
Among those seated in the middle of the street were six members of the Mismeh family. Kamal Ahmed Mismeh, 55, and his wife, 50-year-old Miasar Mismeh explained they were forced to sit in the center of town in the front of a tank. The Um Al-Nasser residents I spoke to reported no signs of military activity by the Qassam Brigades or other armed factions in the area, insisting that the Israelis were able to take their village in a matter of minutes. Yet Israeli forces resorted to force against the civilian population anyway, leveling the local kindergarten and shelling residents as they attempted to evacuate.
“It was like 1948,” said Farajalah Jarrad, 55, a farmer from the outskirts of Um Al Nasser. “Actually, it was worse than 1948.”
Were the trapped residents of Um Al-Nasser used as human shields? Kamal Mismeh said he and his neighbors were forced to sit in the middle of the road for three hours between 6:30am and 9:30am on July 18. They were in the immediate proximity of tanks, but Mismeh maintained that they were not held close enough to convince him that he was being used by the soldiers to shield themselves from potential harm.
However, Farajalah Jarrad told me that when he witnessed the group seated before the tank as he and his family evacuated, they were clearly being used as human shields. Jarrad recalled that the men were forced to strip down to their underwear before they were positioned in front of the tank. His testimony was confirmed by several members of his extended family I interviewed in the village and the nearby city of Beit Lahiya.
It was in Beit Lahiya, in a small apartment off a busy street, that I met Afeef Jarrad, 32, and his 26-year-old brother, Ahmad. They had been forced to cram into an apartment with their parents, wives and children as their home in Um Al-Nasser was badly damaged in the invasion. The situation was less than optimal, but a far better arrangement than the dank Israeli prison cells where they had languished for days after being kidnapped.
Following a night of intense shelling as Israeli troops poured into Um Al-Nasser, the Jarrad family found soldiers throughout their village as soon as they emerged from their home. They were ordered to march two kilometers to the nearest UN school (even the elderly were sent on the trail with no time to prepare), but Afeef and Ahmad Jarrad had to stay behind. They said the Israelis forced them into an armored vehicle, driving them toward a prison in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon, beating them along the way.
In the prison, Afeef and Ahmad were interrogated every few hours about the Qassam Brigades, the tunnels and anything related to armed resistance. Ahmad said he was blindfolded for two days straight. Afeef recalled, “There was no sleep. They sat us on the chair for six hours and sat us in the cell, then brought us back to the chair three or four hours later. We didn’t know if it was night or day.” He said he was bound to a chair during the long questioning sessions.
“The conditions were unspeakable,” Afeef added. “They threw food in our face that even a dog wouldn’t eat.”
Afeef was held for eight days, while his brother remained in jail for 16 days. In the end, they said they provided their interrogators with nothing of value. They had never been in contact with any armed faction; they were simply two civilians who had been violently abused by Israeli forces during the invasion that left their home and hometown in ruins. Released from the Israeli jail, they were sent home to the more spacious prison called the Gaza Strip.
The ceasefire announced on August 26 has given the beleaguered residents a reprieve from the Israeli military’s ongoing assault. Almost every family I encountered in Gaza was touched by the violence, with more than a few left to bury their loved ones in abrupt mourning ceremonies. As a vaguely defined ceasefire sets in, they are left to wonder if they will ever receive justice for the suffering they endured.