“Fire on anything that moves in Zeitoun” – that was the order handed down to Israeli troops in the Givati Shaked battalion, who reduced the eastern Gaza City suburb to little more than rubble in a matter of days.
According to Israeli soldiers who took part in the three-week offensive, the destruction of the area, a known Hamas stronghold, was designed to send a wider message to Gazans. “We pounded Zeitoun into the ground,” an Israeli soldier who was deployed in the area, told The Times.
“We knew everything was booby-trapped, we knew that they would try to kidnap us and if they did that was the end, we were finished . . . so we took no chances. We pounded them with fire; they never had a chance.”
Stretched along the southeastern corner of Gaza City, Zeitoun is where the coastal enclave narrows to just under five miles, serving as the perfect launching point for the Israeli military’s forays deeper into the Gaza Strip.
Soldiers on foot first entered the neighbourhood on January 4, overtaking several key positions there and finally withdrawing on January 14 – destroying much of the area in their wake.
The stories that have emerged from Zeitoun have been some of the most shocking of the war. The Samuni family said they lost 29 members after soldiers forced them all into one building that subsequently came under fire. Survivors said that the initial shelling killed 22 people, while others slowly bled to death after being denied medical care for nearly three days.
Others, including the Helw and Abu Zohar families, have similar accounts of watching loved ones dying of their wounds and coming under fire after emerging from their homes carrying white flags.
Human Rights organisations have called for an independent investigation into the Israeli army’s conduct in Zeitoun, accusing them of denying medical access to the wounded and firing on civilians. An Israeli military spokesman said that the incident was being investigated, and that the accusations were being taken “very seriously”.
The soldier, who broke Israeli military censorship restrictions to talk to The Times and did not wish to be named, was part of the second wave of troops who set up positions in the neighbourhood. “Most of the positions had been secured and we heard that the [Hamas] fighters had gone into the other areas. We had been warned of traps and it was very tense. We were to shoot first and ask questions later.”
He added that Zeitoun was a known Hamas stronghold and that militants had used the local fields and orchards to launch rocket attacks into southern Israel.
“There was definitely a message being sent,” he said. This weekend, the experienced infantryman took leave from his unit and was able to read some media accounts of Zeitoun. “I read about the family, the Samunis, and it was hard, it was horrible.” Asked if what he had read made him rethink his actions in Gaza he said: “I don’t know, I’m not sure. It maybe raised some questions.”
Israel banned journalists from entering Gaza during the military operation. It has since censored the names of military units and soldiers who took part in the fighting, fearing that lawsuits will be filed against them by human rights organisations, which renewed their criticism of Israel’s conduct yesterday.
“Having interviewed dozens of victims and witnesses and, having examined the ballistic evidence from north to south, we are convinced that Israel did not do everything possible to minimise civilians’ harm and death,” said Fred Abrahams, of Human Rights Watch.
“The rules of engagement were exceedingly loose, and they dropped the bar on the laws of war. This allowed civilian casualties to rise.”
Some in Israel have questioned the decision to send the Givati Shaked battalion to the area. Two of the battalion's four company commanders were removed, although one was later exonerated in an incident that involved the killing of Iman al-Hams, a 13-year-old Palestinian girl, in Rafah on October 2004. In the same year 11 Givati soldiers were killed when militants captured two armoured personnel carriers in Zeitoun.
One soldier from Givati Shaked told an Israeli daily newspaper that “revenge is our first impulse” after a friend of his was killed during an operation in Gaza last year.