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One Year After Israeli Assault on Gaza, Survivors from Samouni Family Remember the Tragedy that Killed 29

StoryJanuary 11, 2010
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One year after Israel’s assault on Gaza, we go back to a deadly attack that took place on one Gazan neighborhood. The Samouni family, who live in an agricultural area in the Zaytoun area of Gaza City, lost twenty-nine members of their family in the attack. Anjali Kamat and Jacquie Soohen visited the surviving members of the family in March. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

ANJALI KAMAT: We go now to Gaza, where at least five Palestinians have been killed in Israeli raids over the weekend. Three Palestinians allegedly from the group Islamic Jihad were killed in an air raid Sunday evening, and at least two others were shot dead by Israeli soldiers close to the northern border on Saturday. The attacks came as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned against renewed rocket fire from Gaza, citing as many as twenty rocket and mortar shells in the past week. No one in Israel was injured from these rounds.

AMY GOODMAN: Also this weekend, Egypt said it would ban all humanitarian aid convoys to Gaza from traveling across Egypt. On Friday, Egypt deported British lawmaker George Galloway, who had led the Viva Palestina aid convoy to Gaza, and declared him ”persona non grata,” citing clashes near the border with Egyptian security guards.

Egypt is also being criticized for its decision to build an underground wall along the border with Gaza, which could further tighten the blockade on the 1.4 million Palestinians in Gaza who have been under siege for over two-and-a-half years.

ANJALI KAMAT: Well, we go now back to a deadly assault on one Gazan neighborhood that took place just over a year ago. The Samouni family, who live in an agricultural area in the Zaytoun area of Gaza City, lost twenty-nine members of their family in the attack. I visited the surviving members of the family in March.

    ANJALI KAMAT: The orchards southeast of Gaza City came to an abrupt stop as we turned into Zaytoun. We were headed to the site of one of the worst massacres during Israel’s assault on Gaza. It was two months since Zaytoun had been bombed, but the agricultural town was still eerily empty. Pools of sewage, uprooted farmland, destroyed chicken coops, broken pipes, homes leveled to the ground, and everywhere, mountains of rubble.

    A young man called Fadi Samouni started giving us a tour of his neighborhood, pointing out where his relatives’ homes had once stood.

    FADI SAMOUNI: [translated] This was Fares As Samouni’s home. The house behind it belongs to Wael As Samouni, who is Fares’s son. This was Nafez As Samouni’s house, and next to it, Saleh As Samouni’s house. Next to that comes the houses of Ziyad As Samouni, Abu Khalil As Samouni, Jihad As Samouni and Hamed As Samouni. And here is a three-story building of Asad Samouni and the house of Azzat, who is also a Samouni.

    ANJALI KAMAT: Israel’s assault on Zaytoun was particularly deadly for the extended Samouni family, who lost twenty-nine members in air and ground operations early last January. Twenty-one of them were killed while seeking refuge in a single building that Israeli troops had ordered them into the previous day. Eight others were killed in separate incidents.

    One of the survivors, Hamed Samouni recalled how it all began early on the morning of January 4th.

    HAMED SAMOUNI: [translated] When they first came, they arrived in Apache helicopters. And they came to this house first. I heard the sound on the roof and thought maybe this is the resistance. They came in through the roof and entered while everyone was sleeping. The Israelis kicked the door open with their feet. Their weapons were drawn, and they told everyone to put their hands up. They began searching everything, and they blindfolded the people.

    ANJALI KAMAT: Over the next few hours, families were rushing for cover from bombs and planes overhead. They went from house to house searching for safety. Many of the survivors we met told us that Israeli troops had ordered approximately 100 civilians into one house in particular, the home of Wael As Samouni. These accounts are corroborated in several independent investigations, including the Goldstone report.

    Naheel Abdallah As Samouni, a thirty-eight-year-old farmer, explained how her family ended up in Wael’s house after fleeing their own home.

    NAHEEL ABDALLAH AS SAMOUNI: [translated] We escaped to our neighbor Abu Salah As Samouni’s house, which was made of concrete. We went there, and within seconds the bombing grew more intense and the shootings increased. The Israeli soldiers brought Rashad’s family and Ibrahim’s family to the house. We were about sixty people. Everyone was crying and terrified. Within seconds, the Israelis came to the door and told us to get out. They told the men to lift up their shirts and searched their bodies. We were so terrified, we ran out into the street barefoot and sought refuge in Wael As Samouni’s house.

    ANJALI KAMAT: Fadi Samouni also found his way to Wael’s house.

    FADI SAMOUNI: [translated] At 5:30 in the morning, the bombing increased. The planes had been flying overhead throughout the night. My family and I wanted to escape from the house. As I was about to open the door, two bombs hit the house. We fled to Abu Salah’s house, may God have mercy on him. Within five minutes, the third floor of his house caught fire. Three of us got out: my brother Ahmad, Salah and myself. We got out and ran toward Wael As Samouni’s house, which is where the massacre happened.

    ANJALI KAMAT: On his way, Fadi ran into a group of armed men he first mistook for Palestinian militants because of the way they were dressed.

    FADI SAMOUNI: [translated] We came across six soldiers. We first thought they were resistance fighters and told them to get out of here. They raised their guns at us and told us to come closer. We approached them, and they told us to kneel. They searched us thoroughly and began to ask who from here is Hamas, who is from Islamic Jihad. We told them we weren’t part of any group and that we were all farmers and cab drivers, as you can see.

    ANJALI KAMAT: For the rest of the day, dozens of family members remained crammed inside Wael As Samouni’s unfinished home with very little food or water. Outside, Israeli tanks roamed the streets.

    The bombing began early the next morning. Lamya Samouni’s son Hamdi was among the first to be killed. He and a few others had gone outside to get firewood and help some of their relatives stuck in a nearby grove.

    LAMYA SAMOUNI: [translated] There were some people among the trees, in a house, a room in the trees. They started to say, “Save us. We want to join you.” There were two stones they had to move. My son Hamdi and another young man, Mohammad Ibrahim Al Samouni, started to move the stones, when a bomb struck. It hit Mohammad, and it hit Hamdi.

    ANJALI KAMAT: And then another projectile struck Wael As Samouni’s house, which was packed with nearly a hundred civilians. Naheel remembered the terror that followed as the house continued to be shelled.

    NAHEEL ABDALLAH AS SAMOUNI: [translated] In seconds, another bomb came toward us from the north. We all fell to the ground and screamed in horror. We were terrified. The men started to say that whoever can move should get out. Before I could leave, my husband got injured. He started saying, “My leg is gone.” I said, “What do you mean ‘gone’?” I removed my veil. I tried to stop the bleeding. But he was very badly wounded and collapsed.

    ANJALI KAMAT: In the chaos and clouds of dust and smoke that followed the bombings, those who were able to fled the house, assuming that only the dead had been left behind. But under the dead bodies and the rubble, a number of people were still alive, among them Naheel’s husband Nafez As Samouni.

    NAFEZ AS SAMOUNI: [translated] I told my wife, “I’ve been injured. I’ve been injured.” She said, “What should I do? People want to get out of here.” There were over a hundred people in the house. It was completely full.

    ANJALI KAMAT: For him, the worst was yet to come.

    NAFEZ AS SAMOUNI: [translated] Some left and some — well, there were some twenty-five or nineteen dead people around me, and I spent the next four days looking at them.

    NAHEEL ABDALLAH AS SAMOUNI: [translated] My husband spent four days among the dead. We started to scream and cry. I thought he was also martyred. I told everyone that my son and husband had been martyred.

    NAFEZ AS SAMOUNI: [translated] I swear that their heads had been cut off. Oh, my god.

    ANJALI KAMAT: Nafez As Samouni is still haunted by the days he spent trapped among the dead and dying bodies of his relatives, many of them old men, women and young children. During this period, the Palestinian Red Crescent Society received 145 calls from Zaytoun, but Israeli ground troops refused to allow ambulances to enter the area.

    FADI SAMOUNI: [translated] If the ambulances had come from the beginning, this wouldn’t have happened, but nobody was able to respond to us.

    ANJALI KAMAT: Two-and-a-half days later, when help was finally allowed to approach the area, medical workers arrived on foot and took Nafez and a handful of other survivors to the hospital in donkey carts. Israeli forces still refused to allow ambulances to come right up to the house.

    Twenty-one dead bodies were left behind. It was only after the ceasefire was declared on January 18th that those who survived were able to return. They found most of their homes and a mosque had been demolished. Wael As Samouni’s house was also bombed and had collapsed over the lifeless bodies inside. Hamed As Samouni recalled the smell of death as he tried to pull out their bodies.

    HAMED SAMOUNI: [translated] I was the first one on the scene where they had dropped the bomb. There was a small opening, a hole. I went inside, and I found them all. They were under the rubble for seventeen days. While we were trying to rescue them, their skin was coming off in our hands. We pulled out their decomposing bodies with our hands. All our calls for ambulances, to the Red Crescent, to this place and to that, it was all for nothing. All for nothing.

    ANJALI KAMAT: Two months after the massacre, the horrors remained fresh in the minds of the survivors.

    NAHEEL ABDALLAH AS SAMOUNI: [translated] We can’t forget what happened. The girls cry every day. They remember their uncle. And it’s just like a dream. We woke up and found the Israelis above our heads, and they took us out of our houses, and the bombs were falling on us. We still can’t believe what is happening to us.

    HAMED SAMOUNI: [translated] If you come to this place at 10:00 at night, you will be afraid to come here, because it has become a land of ghosts. Twenty-nine people martyred in this area. How are people supposed to come here, to sleep, to eat, to drink? Even dogs live better than us.

    ANJALI KAMAT: We met an eight-year-old girl who watched her mother die in the attack on Zaytoun. Standing near a pile of destroyed belongings, she described her memories of the shelling of Wael Samouni’s house.

    EIGHT-YEAR-OLD GIRL: [translated] Everything is burned. There were no doors. We had no sleep, no mattresses, no beds, no food. Everything was black, and the smoke came from the outside and onto the wall. And everyone was martyred.

    ANJALI KAMAT: Today, more than a year later, no new homes have been built in this area, and the Samounis remain in dire poverty, living in makeshift houses on the rubble of their former lives.

    HAMED SAMOUNI: [translated] No one in the world is concerned about us. The Israelis kill us, and in the end they give us 200 shekels or 500 shekels as our compensation. As if it were just a question of food and drink.

    ANJALI KAMAT: The Goldstone report found that the twenty-one civilians who died in Wael As Samouni’s house lost their lives as a result of Israeli fire intentionally directed at them. It also accuses the Israeli Defense Forces of arbitrarily preventing the evacuation of the wounded, denying emergency medical care to injured civilians, and deliberately demolishing residential housing in Zaytoun. The Israeli government is yet to conduct an official investigation into these deaths. Survivors say no one from Israel has contacted them for testimony as yet. One year after the massacre, the Samouni family is still waiting for justice.

    For Democracy Now!, this is Anjali Kamat with Jacquie Soohen of Big Noise Films.

AMY GOODMAN: And thank you very much for that report, Anjali.

ANJALI KAMAT: Thank you.

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