O’Keefe And Survivors Of Cast Lead Massacre Join Forces – OpEd
By Stuart Littlewood
No fewer than 29 members of the Samouni family, including many of the women and children, were callously slaughtered by Israeli troops during their assault on the Gaza Strip, known as Operation Cast Lead, some two years ago.
For the benefit of those who have not seen the Goldstone Report, extracts describing events in considerable detail are included in an appendix below. After reading the report it is no surprise that the Israeli regime has pulled out all the stops to discredit Judge Goldstone and his colleagues for daring to reveal the true behaviour of ‘the most moral army in the world’.
The dispassionate way Goldstone tells it is horrific enough. Other sources say the killing spree was actually much, much worse… nothing less than a cold-blooded massacre.
Having assured us at the time that he “took every precaution to check and double-check” the facts, Goldstone has been under intense pressure to retract. In a bombshell article in the Washington Post last month he writes: “If I had known then what I know now, the Goldstone Report would have been a different document.”
So what does he know now that he didn’t know then? Referring to the mass killing of members of the Samouni family, it seems the shelling “was apparently the consequence of an Israeli commander’s erroneous interpretation of a drone image, and an Israeli officer is under investigation”.
And what are we supposed to draw from this… that it was all a pure accident, no war crime intended, just bad luck on the Samounis?
Yes. Bin the report, the pro-Israel lobby tells the United Nations.
How does that slap in the face play with the family? Showing typical Palestinian resilience the traumatized survivors are picking themselves up by their own bootstraps. Helped by their friend Ken O’Keefe they are busy gearing up for the switch Gaza must soon make from aid dependency to paying its way through trade.
While the Gaza government announces that funds are at last available or pledged to commence public works projects such as housing, infrastructure and sanitation, the Samounis’ private venture – if successful – might provide a helpful blueprint for others in rebuilding trade links as the prison door to the outside world is gradually forced open.
‘Social enterprise’ is One Way to Go
O’Keefe served as a US marine. Now a peace activist, he is remembered especially for his part in resisting the Israelis’ murderous assault in international waters on the Mavi Marmara, the lead vessel in the Free Gaza flotilla last year.
The economic strangulation of the tiny coastal enclave by Israel’s 5-year blockade and the devastation to homes, factories, infrastructure and livelihoods caused by the blitzkrieg of 2008/9 (‘Operation Cast Lead’) and the daily air-strikes ever since, not to mention US and EU sanctions, have caused chronic suffering and despair.
As O’Keefe puts it: “Parents are not only unable to protect their children from Israeli aggression but also incapable of providing even the bare essentials without the aid. Children become both witness and victim of this reality. Many begin to lose respect for their parents, and that in turn causes parents to suffer from diminishing self-respect and depression.” Aid has become institutionalised, he says, and people in Gaza see it as their only means to live. Their dignity has been stolen. Long-term aid is an insidiously destructive weapon, destroying society from within.
At the root of all this is the blockade and the inability to conduct trade.
In an effort to make a worthwhile contribution O’Keefe and the family have launched a joint ‘social enterprise’ initiative comprising Aloha Palestine CIC and the Samouni Project. Both are EU registered non-profit companies.
Aloha Palestine is a community interest trading company, while the Samouni Project Mission plans to provide long-term quality education along with community services to over 200 members of the Samouni family as well as residents of surrounding Zeitoun in Gaza. To date the Samouni Project has planted an olive tree orchard, built a playground, procured a classroom/community centre and recruited teaching staff who are now developing the curriculum. Textbooks, computers, art and craft materials, school supplies, science equipment, teaching aids and musical instruments have been collected and are waiting in London. The next task is to deliver all this to Gaza then provide for the running costs of teaching staff and administration amounting to around £2400 a month.
Aloha Palestine’s function is to transport and deliver these items so that the classroom can be completed and classes begin.
“Doctors and engineers are picking up trash in Gaza today because it is the only job they can find”
Aloha Palestine is assembling an international trade convoy which plans to leave London early July arriving Gaza 3 weeks later. Among the drivers are members of the Samouni family. Any attempt to block it, says O’Keefe, will be seen as denying the Samouni community and its children the education they are entitled to.
Besides school equipment, I’m told the cargo will include textiles and building materials, industrial machinery and equipment geared towards economic development and the rebuilding of Gaza. After offloading in Gaza the vehicles will be reloaded with made-in-Palestine products for export.
“Palestinians are more than capable of standing on their own two feet,” says O’Keefe, “but our collective failure to direct our energy at the root of the problem has relegated them to the status of beggars. Doctors and engineers are picking up trash in Gaza today because it is the only job they can find. And they are the lucky ones who at least have a job.
“Samouni InterTrade Palestine (SIP) intends to confront the problem head-on and eliminate this injustice by proactive, as opposed to reactive, means. It is a social enterprise collaboration. The nature of a social enterprise is to tackle social problems within business models. Between us we have the wisdom of Palestinian culture, the understanding of the Western market and mindset, we are young and old, we are Internet and social media savvy, and we have significant backing from around the globe. Success will create jobs in Egypt, Europe and Palestine.”
On 28 April Egypt announced an end to the Egyptian blockade. “We shall cooperate with the post-Mubarak government so as to ensure the economic and human rights of the people of Palestine are finally respected.” Their objective, O’Keefe explains, is to transport people and cargo through the Rafah Crossing to Egypt continuously and without obstruction, as viable trade requires.
They aim to play their part in the rebuilding of Gaza and to see an egalitarian economy develop, turning despair eventually into prosperity. “The stage is set for SIP’s historic mission. The timing couldn’t be better.”
O’Keefe intends to take full advantage of the EU’s 44-member Euro-Mediterranean Partnership which is heavily committed – so it says – to peace, stability and shared prosperity. Israel has benefited handsomely by being rewarded with around €25bn euros of trade a year while maintaining its brutal blockade on Gaza and keeping its occupation jackboot on the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Palestine has barely had a look-in. “As an EU-based company, Aloha Palestine will demand the right to trade with Palestine just as EU companies trade with Israel… We’ll have top attorneys on retainer, prepared to take legal action if necessary,” says O’Keefe.
He is at pains to stress that his venture is all about ‘Safe Trade’, defined as the commercial exchange of non-hazardous items – in other words, trade that’s transparent and stimulates economic growth while posing no danger to society. “Unlike the free trade that is conducted between Israel, the EU and the United States, there will be no trading of weapons,” he says emphatically.
– Stuart Littlewood is author of the book Radio Free Palestine, which tells the plight of the Palestinians under occupation. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.
Noting that there was almost no indication of armed resistance by Palestinians in the area at the time, the Goldstone Report observes: “Among the issues of particular concern to the Mission in Zeytoun are the killings of the Samouni family, the mass destruction in the area…”
Here is a flavour of the Goldstone Mission’s findings:
To investigate the attacks on the houses of Ateya and Wa’el al-Samouni, which killed 23 members of the extended al-Samouni family, the Mission visited the site of the incidents. It interviewed five members of the al-Samouni family and several of their neighbours on site. Two members of the extended al-Samouni family, who were eyewitnesses to the incident, Messrs. Wa’el and Saleh al-Samouni, testified at the public hearing in Gaza. The Mission also interviewed PRCS [Palestinian Red Crescent Society] ambulance drivers who went to the area on 4, 7 and 18 January 2009, and obtained copies of PRCS records. The Mission finally reviewed material on this incident submitted to it by TAWTHEQ [Central Commission for Documentation and Pursuit of Israeli War Criminals] as well as by NGOs.
The so-called al-Samouni area is part of Zeytoun, south of Gaza City… It is inhabited by members of the extended al-Samouni family, which gives its name to the area…
Graffiti left by Israeli soldiers in the house of Talal al-Samouni, which were photographed by the Mission, included (a) in Hebrew, under the Star of David: “The Jewish people are alive” and, above a capital “T” [referring to the army (Tsahal)], “This [the letter T] was written with blood”; (b) on a drawing of a grave, in English and Arabic, “Arabs 1948-2008 ”; and (c) in English: “You can run but you can not hide”, “Die you all”, “ 1 is down, 999,999 to go”, “Arabs need to die” and “Make war not peace”.
During the morning of 4 January 2009, Israeli soldiers entered many of the houses in al-Samouni area. One of the first, around 5 a.m., was the house of Ateya Helmi al-Samouni, a 45-year-old man… The soldiers entered Ateya al-Samouni’s house by force, throwing some explosive device, possibly a grenade. In the midst of the smoke, fire and loud noise, Ateya al-Samouni stepped forward, his arms raised, and declared that he was the owner of the house. The soldiers shot him while he was still holding his ID and an Israeli driving licence in his hands. The soldiers then opened gunfire inside the room in which all the approximately 20 family members were gathered. Several were injured, Ahmad, a boy of four, particularly seriously. Soldiers with night vision equipment entered the room and closely inspected each of those present. The soldiers then moved to the next room and set fire to it. The smoke from that room soon started to suffocate the family…
At about 6.30 a.m. the soldiers ordered the family to leave the house. They had to leave Ateya’s body behind but were carrying Ahmad, who was still breathing. The family tried to enter the house of an uncle next door, but were not allowed to do so by the soldiers. The soldiers told them to take the road and leave the area, but a few metres further a different group of soldiers stopped them and ordered the men to undress completely. Faraj al-Samouni, who was carrying the severely injured Ahmad, pleaded with them to be allowed to take the injured to Gaza. The soldiers allegedly replied using abusive language.
[Four year-old Ahmad had been shot twice in the chest.]
At the house of Saleh al-Samouni, the Israeli soldiers knocked on the door and ordered those inside to open it. All the persons inside the house stepped out one by one and Saleh’s father identified each of the family members in Hebrew for the soldiers. According to Saleh al-Samouni, they asked to be allowed to go to Gaza City, but the soldiers refused and instead ordered them to go to Wa’el al-Samouni’s house across the street. The Israeli soldiers also ordered those in other houses to move to Wa’el al-Samouni’s house. As a result, around 100 members of the extended al-Samouni family, the majority women and children, were assembled in that house by noon on 4 January. There was hardly any water and no milk for the babies. Around 5 p.m. on 4 January, one of the women went outside to fetch firewood. There was some flour in the house and she made bread, one piece for each of those present.
In the morning of 5 January, around 6.30 – 7 a.m., Wa’el al-Samouni, Saleh al-Samouni, Hamdi Maher al-Samouni, Muhammad Ibrahim al-Samouni and Iyad al-Samouni, stepped outside the house to collect firewood. Rashad Helmi al-Samouni remained standing next to the door of the house. Saleh al-Samouni has pointed out to the Mission that from where the Israeli soldiers were positioned on the roofs of the houses they could see the men clearly. Suddenly, a projectile struck next to the five men, close to the door of Wa’el’s house and killed Muhammad Ibrahim al-Samouni and, probably, Hamdi Maher al-Samouni. The other men managed to retreat to the house. Within about five minutes, two or three more projectiles had struck the house directly. Saleh and Wa’el al-Samouni stated at the public hearing that these were missiles launched from Apache helicopters… Saleh al-Samouni stated that overall 21 family members were killed and 19 injured in the attack on Wa’el al-Samouni’s house. The dead include Saleh al-Samouni’s father, Talal Helmi al-Samouni, his mother, Rahma Muhammad al-Samouni, and his two-year-old daughter Azza. Three of his sons, aged five, three and less than one year (Mahmoud, Omar and Ahmad), were injured, but survived. Of Wa’el’s immediate family, a daughter and a son (Rezqa, 14, and Fares, 12) were killed, while two smaller children (Abdullah and Muhammad) were injured. The photographs of all the dead victims were shown to the Mission… and displayed at the public hearing in Gaza.
After the shelling of Wa’el al-Samouni’s house, most of those inside decided to leave immediately and walk to Gaza City, leaving behind the dead and some of the wounded. The women waved their scarves. Soldiers, however, ordered the al-Samounis to return to the house. When family members replied that there were many injured among them, the soldiers’ reaction was, according to Saleh al-Samouni, “go back to death”. They decided not to follow this injunction and walked in the direction of Gaza City.
PRCS had made its first attempt to evacuate the injured from the al-Samouni area on 4 January around 4 p.m. after receiving a call from the family of Ateya al-Samouni. PRCS had called ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross], asking it to coordinate its entry into the area with the Israeli armed forces. A PRCS ambulance from al-Quds hospital managed to reach the al-Samouni area… Israeli soldiers on the ground and on the roof of one of the houses directed their guns at it and ordered it to stop. The driver and the nurse were ordered to get out of the vehicle, raise their hands, take off their clothes and lie on the ground. Israeli soldiers then searched them and the vehicle for 5 to 10 minutes. Having found nothing, the soldiers ordered the ambulance team to return to Gaza City, in spite of their pleas to be allowed to pick up some wounded. In his statement to the Mission, the ambulance driver recalled seeing women and children huddling under the staircase in a house, but not being allowed to take them with him
On 7 January, the Israeli armed forces finally authorized ICRC and PRCS to go to the al-Samouni area during the “temporary ceasefire” declared from 1 to 4 p.m. on that day. Three PRCS ambulances, an ICRC car and another car used to transport bodies drove down Salah ad-Din Street from Gaza City until, 1.5 km north of the al-Samouni area, they found it closed by sand mounds. ICRC tried to coordinate with the Israeli armed forces to have the road opened, but they refused and asked the ambulance staff to walk the remaining 1.5 km. Once in the al-Samouni neighbourhood, PRCS looked for survivors in the houses.. in Wa’el al-Samouni’s house they found 15 dead bodies and two seriously injured children. One of the children had a deep wound in the shoulder, which was infected and giving off a foul odour. The children were dehydrated and scared of the PRCS staff member. In a house close by, they found 11 persons in one room, including a dead woman.
The rescue teams had only three hours for the entire operation and the evacuees were physically weak and emotionally very unstable… The rescuers put all the elderly on a cart and pulled it themselves for 1.5 kilometres to the place where they had been forced to leave the ambulances. The dead bodies lying in the street or under the rubble, among them women and children, as well as the dead they had found in the houses had to be left behind. On the way back to the cars, PRCS staff entered one house where they found a man with two broken legs. While they were carrying the man out of the house, the Israeli armed forces started firing at the house… PRCS was not able to return to the area until 18 January.
On 18 January 2009, members of the al-Samouni family were finally able to return to their neighbourhood. They found that Wa’el al-Samouni’s house, as most other houses in the neighbourhood and the small mosque, had been demolished. The Israeli armed forces had destroyed the building on top of the bodies of those who died in the attack. Pictures taken on 18 January show feet and legs sticking out from under the rubble and sand, and rescuers pulling out the bodies of women, men and children. A witness described to the Mission family members taking away the corpses on horse carts, a young man sitting in shock beside the ruins of his house and, above all, the extremely strong smell of death.
The Mission found the foregoing witnesses to be credible and reliable. It has no reason to doubt their testimony.
The Mission received testimony on the death of Iyad al-Samouni from Muhammad Asaad al-Samouni and Fawzi Arafat, as well as from a PRCS staff member. In the night of 3 to 4 January, Iyad al-Samouni, his wife and five children were, together with about 40 other members of their extended family in Asaad al-Samouni’s house, very close to the houses of Wa’el al-Samouni and Ateya al-Samouni (the scenes of the incidents described above). At 1 a.m. on 4 January 2009 they heard noise on the roof. At around 5 a.m. Israeli soldiers walked down the stairs from the roof, knocked on the door and entered the house. They asked for Hamas fighters. The residents replied that there were none. The soldiers then separated women, children and the elderly from the men. The men were forced into a separate room, blindfolded and handcuffed with plastic handcuffs. They were allowed to go to the toilet only after one of the men urinated on himself. The soldiers stationed themselves in the house.
In the morning of 5 January, after the shelling of Wa’el al-Samouni’s house, two of the survivors took refuge in Asaad al-Samouni’s house… The persons assembled in Asaad al-Samouni’s house walked out of the house and down al-Samouni Street to take Salah ad-Din Street in the direction of Gaza City. They had been instructed by the soldiers to walk directly to Gaza City without stopping or diverting from the direct route. The men were still handcuffed and the soldiers had told them that they would be shot if they attempted to remove the handcuffs. On Salah ad-Din Street, just a few metres north of al-Samouni Street and in front of the Juha family house, a single or several of the Israeli soldiers positioned on the roofs of the houses opened fire. Iyad was struck in the leg and fell to the ground. Muhammad Asaad al-Samouni, who was walking immediately behind him, moved to help him, but an Israeli soldier on a rooftop ordered him to walk on. When he saw the red point of a laser beam on his body and understood that an Israeli soldier had taken aim at him, he desisted.
The Israeli soldiers also fired warning shots at Muhammad Asaad al-Samouni’s father to prevent him from assisting Iyad to get back on his feet. Iyad al-Samouni’s wife and children were prevented from helping him by further warning shots. Fawzi Arafat, who was part of another group walking from the al-Samouni neighbourhood to Gaza, told the Mission that he saw Iyad al-Samouni lying on the ground, his hands shackled with white plastic handcuffs, blood pouring from the wounds in his legs, begging for help. Fawzi Arafat stated that he yelled at an Israeli soldier “we want to evacuate the wounded man”. The soldier, however, pointed his gun at Iyad’s wife and children and ordered them to move on without him. Iyad al-Samouni’s family and relatives were forced to abandon him and continue to walk towards Gaza City. At al-Shifa hospital they reported his case and those of the other dead and wounded left behind. Representatives of PRCS told them that the Israeli armed forces were not permitting them to access the area.
PRCS staff member told the Mission that three days later, on 8 January, PRCS was granted permission by the Israeli armed forces through ICRC to evacuate Iyad al-Samouni. The PRCS staff member found him on the ground in Salah ad-Din Street in the place described by his relatives. He was still handcuffed. He had been shot in both legs and had bled to death.
The particular manner in which the conflict affected women was dramatically illustrated for the Mission by the testimony of a woman of the al-Samouni family (see chap. XI). She had three children and was pregnant when her family and her house came under attack. She commented on how the children were scared and crying. She was distressed when recounting how her 10-month-old baby, whom she was carrying in her arms, was hungry but she did not have anything to give him to eat, and how she tried to feed him by chewing on a piece of bread, the only food available, and giving it to him. She also managed to get half a cup of water from an ill functioning tap. There were other babies and older children. She and her sister exposed themselves to danger by going out to search for food for them. Her husband, mother and sister were killed but she managed to survive. Her other son was wounded in the back, and she carried both out of the house.