Monday, September 25, 2017

Uncovering the truth in Khuza’a


By Ruairi Henchy - January 27, 2015
TAGS:
Section: [Main News] [Life under Occupation]
Tags: [Gaza] [Human rights] [Operation Protective Edge]

What remains of Khuzaa after the Israeli attack. Photo by Lazar Simeonov.

As one of the coldest winters in recent history across Palestine and the Middle East starts to break, and people begin to look toward the spring, the inhabitants of Khuza’a in the Gaza Strip are still reeling from the effects of the July-August 2014 war. The approximately one and a half month conflict left 2,205 Palestinians dead, mostly unarmed civilians, whereas 71 Israelis died, the vast majority of them soldiers. 

The asymmetric conflict mostly consisted of the Israeli army’s intensive bombardment of the Gaza Strip by land, sea and air. However, for short periods of the conflict, Israeli soldiers did enter and occupy some areas of Gaza. As soon as the ground troops entered, however, they were met with stiff opposition from all of the Palestinian resistance groups, and within a matter of days, the IDF had already sustained its most significant casualties since the 2006 war with Lebanon. These losses drew a fierce backlash from Israel, who reverted to intense bombardment and demolition of entire neighbourhoods in order to avoid clashing with the Palestinian militant groups at close quarters on the ground. One such area was the town of Khuza’a, east of Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip.

The Palestine Monitor spoke with Walid Rouk, a local from Khuza’a working with the charity Freedom Aid, to hear more about what happened there and the efforts to return to normal life since the war ended. Walid explains that the population of Khuza’a is about 15,000 people, 84 of whom were killed during the war. This small village lost more people during last summer’s violence than the entire state of Israel. 

Rouk recounts with pride how Yasser Arafat awarded his town a certification, along with the West Bank city of Jericho, for being the most beautiful places in Palestine. Khuza’a was an important agricultural area in Gaza, renowned for its olive groves and lemon trees. It was one of the quietest areas in the notoriously overcrowded Gaza Strip, and was well provided for in infrastructure with good telecommunications, electricity and water services.

All of this was wiped out in four short days when the Israeli army entered and occupied the area with tanks and infantry. Thousands fled in the face of the invasion, carrying their loved ones and whatever few prized possessions they could lug along with them. Walid stayed with his family and neighbours for two weeks in a United Nations school, and he paints a harrowing picture of the scenes he encountered on returning. The Khuza’a of his youth was no more. 90% of the buildings were completely destroyed by bulldozers and tanks. This included his old school, all but two of the town’s mosques and all but one room of his old house lay in ruins. The town graveyard had even been blown to smithereens—there was no safe haven in Khuza’a for the living or the dead.

Indeed, Walid tells of how the stench of death haunted the air as he returned to what used to be his home town. Most of the residents had fled, but during the initial evacuation, he had already seen neighbours and friends, many carrying white flags, being shot at from behind by the advancing Israeli soldiers and artillery. Moreover, some of the old and infirm were unable to run and could not be evacuated in time. Nobody who remained in the village was left alive after the Israeli army’s four-day occupation. So when Walid and others returned, the unburied remains of many of their neighbours had already been baking in the summer heat for two weeks, in the streets and beneath the rubble. They lay where they fell.

One such case, which has shot to prominence as of late, is the death of 74-year-old Ghalya Abu Rida. The Israeli military released a photo of an IDF soldier giving Ghalya a drink of water. She was later found dead. Ahmed Qdeh, a journalist from Al-Aqsa TV and a local from Khuza’a claimed to have witnessed this event. “During the aggression, an Israeli soldier approached the old woman and took a photo for another soldier while giving her water. They then executed her by shooting her in the head from a distance of one metre and let her bleed until she died,” said Qdeh. 

An Israeli English language blog, Israelly Cool, dismissed the story as lies and “a Palestinian Blood Libel.” Walid Rouk, however, corroborates Qdeh’s account, saying that he visited the area around Ghalya Abu Rida’s home after returning to Khuza’a. He spoke to her neighbours and family about what happened; “I went to see her family at her old home and they showed me the medical report from Nasser Hospital in Khan Younis. The report said she was shot from one metre away and the bullet it was lodged inside of her head,” Rouk claimed. 

This alleged summary execution is one of the many cases being looked at closely by groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International as instances of possible war crimes committed by the Israeli army in Khuza’a and elsewhere in Gaza during the Operation Protective Edge in the summer of 2014. Both parties have been prevented from sending their international experts to Gaza to document the facts, but have been slowly gathering information through the limited operations they already have extant in Gaza. 

Walid trembles when he speaks about what happened in Khuza’a, condemning the lack of humanity of the world toward his people. “No media covered what happened, there was no camera from anywhere covering Khuza’a. This is a war against humanity, not just Palestinian people,” he told the Palestine Monitor over the phone. 

This is what led him and his friends to set up the Humans of Khuza’a Facebook page, to record some of these stories and share them with the world. With the ongoing work being done to document potential war crimes in the area and the Palestinian Authorities recent moves to join the International Criminal Court, perhaps the horrors of Khuza’a will be belatedly relayed to the world through these fora. 

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