8 Palestinians killed in Israel attack were unarmed civilians says UN inquiry


Justin Huggler In Bureij Refugee Camp, Gaza Strip

The Independent

17 December 2002

A UNITED Nations inquiry has found that, contrary to claims by the Israeli army, eight of the 10 Palestinians killed in a raid in the Gaza Strip were unarmed civilians.

There was fury among Palestinians at the death toll and the timing of the raid on Bureij refugee camp early on Friday 6 December, during Eid al-Fitr, the festival that marks the end of Ramadan and is one of the most important holidays in the Muslim year.

At the time, the Israeli army claimed most of the dead were armed militants, but a UN inquiry has found that this was not true, according to UN sources. The aim of the raid was to demolish the home of one militant and capture others, the army said. The UN ordered its own inquiry because two of the dead were employees of Unrwa, a UN agency which provides humanitarian relief to Palestinian refugees. Their deaths came on top of already strained relations between the UN and the Israeli authorities after the death of Iain Hook, a British Unrwa worker shot dead by an Israeli sniper in Jenin last month.

Usama Tahrawi, who worked as a caretaker at a UN-funded school, was one of seven men killed when an Israeli helicopter gunship fired a missile at a group of Palestinian men on the street. The Israeli army claimed the helicopter fired at armed militants and killed five Hamas gunmen. The UN inquiry found that was not true.

Ahlan Kandil worked as a teacher at a UN-funded school. Her husband, Mohammed, remains in the flat where she died. Her blood is still smeared across the floor, more than a week after her death. Mr Kandil said he had not cleaned it because he wanted to prove that she was a civilian killed inside her own home.

“We were sleeping when we heard the mosque loudspeakers telling people to be careful because there was an incursion,” said Mr Kandil. “I heard gunfire from all directions. We were getting ready to take the kids and go downstairs because it’s safer. She was getting dressed.

“Suddenly she moved her face. The bullet had entered at her teeth. Another hit her at the side. She said, Help me, Mohammed.’ Then she turned to look for the kids to see if they were all right. I went to see what happened to her and she fell on the floor, bleeding from her mouth.” Mr Kandil rushed his wife to hospital but she died of her injuries.

There was confusion after the militant group Hamas claimed her as a “martyr”, but Palestinian militant groups routinely compete with each other to claim “martyrs” killed by the Israeli army as their own for political gain. Hamas sources have said she was not a militant.

On the spot where the helicopter missile killed seven men, Hassan Tahrawi, father of the dead UN employee, pointed out the location, a hundred metres away, where he found his son’s leg after the missile blew him apart.

There were militants who fought the Israeli forces who came into Bureij that night, witnesses said, but they were at the other end of the camp.

The young men were on the streets because during Eid, Muslim Palestinians traditionally call on friends and relatives late into the night to celebrate. The men had been at a party and went into the street to see what the noise was. With them was the dead Mr Tahrawi’s 15-year-old cousin, Marwan. He had been safely at home but rushed out when the gunfire started and joined the group. His mother showed us his burnt shoes, the only way they could identify his remains.

Ziad Ramadan, aged seven, escaped by minutes. His elder brother Ra’id ordered him to go home because it was not safe, the boy said. As he walked away, the missile hit and he was thrown through the air. Two of his older brothers were killed.