Majda Sulaiman Khuday, 49, could not hold back the tears as she recalled the night of 23 July 2014. “Can you imagine the humiliation?” she asked. “Lying in front of these young men, naked.”
Majda has had severely impaired vision for most of her life, and when the Israeli shelling escalated the couple felt safer huddling together in their home than attempting to flee westwards toward the town of Khan Younis, where some of the village’s residents had sought refuge.
Shadi and Majda told The Electronic Intifada that their mobile phones were switched off so they didn’t receive Israel’s texted warnings, but noted they would not have known where to flee even if they had.
On 21 July, in preparation for its ground invasion of the village, the Israeli army bombed access roads to Khuzaa. “From that moment on, nobody was allowed to move in or out of the village,” an inquiry on Israel’s 51-day attack on Gaza undertaken for the UN Human Rights Council concluded.
According to the UN report, satellite imaging detected 163 craters throughout the densely populated village. The escalated attacks from ground and air left families isolated and forced to choose between two potentially lethal options: remaining in their homes or attempting to flee.
After a night of intense shelling, Shadi decided at dawn on 24 July that he and his wife must try to leave the village. His neighbor’s house had been swallowed in flames.
“Come on, let’s go!” Majda recalls him yelling, conjuring his urgency and their mutual panic.
They rushed to collect their most important papers and belongings in a small bag and headed out. But just as Majda reached the gate to their home, a missile struck. The blast slammed her to the ground. Both of Majda’s legs were torn open, and a piece of shrapnel lodged deep above her left eye.
As we spoke almost a year later, Majda lifted up her skirt to reveal the deep scars gouged into her left ankle and below her right knee. Her left eye is permanently half-shut.
She was sitting under the same arbor of the well-muscled grapevines where she lay in July 2014, immobilized by the blast of the missile, her face covered in blood and the flesh on her legs ripped.
Majda recalled what happened next.
Her husband screamed for help. His cousin hurried to the scene. He scrounged a piece of wood and a young boy ran up and offered his shirt. Majda remembers her husband fashioning a tourniquet to reduce the bleeding from her leg.
Then Shadi sat down next to his wife, crying. Eventually, having given up on the possibility of medical help arriving, he carried his wife back into their home.
As the shells rained down around them, Majda told her husband to go outside with a white flag in hopes it would prevent the army from shelling their home. “I didn’t want the house to collapse on our heads,” she said.
Shadi opened the door to exit the house, holding the white flag, filled with trepidation. Immediately a bullet shot past his head. Today a hole as big as a ping pong ball punctures their doorway.
Then, around 30 soldiers entered their front yard, assault rifles drawn.
They ordered Shadi to take off all his clothes, throw the white flag to the ground and put his head down.
They barked at him, “Who else is inside?”
“Only my wife,” Shadi told them.
When the soldiers ordered him to bring her out to them, he tried to explain that she was badly injured. “You have five seconds to get her out, if you don’t we will kill both of you,” Shadi remembers them threatening.
He pulled Majda from her bed and onto the stone veranda, her bandages unfurling and coming off as he did. The soldiers then ordered Majda to take off all her clothes. She complied, removing first her abaya (a robe), then her headscarf, until she was left only in her underwear.
Some soldiers entered the tiny one-bedroom house, while the rest kept their rifles pointed at the nearly naked couple on the ground.
The soldiers then tore through their home, smashing windows, shattering dishes and kitchen items. They pointed to multiple mattresses piled in the house and insisted they were evidence that Shadi and Majda were harboring militants.
Denied medical aid
Colonel Ofer Winter, the commander of Israel’s Givati brigade who headed the operation in Khuzaa last July, told Israeli media: “There is virtually no house [in the village] that is not harboring evil. It is amazing — every house. All these houses are full of explosives.”
Shadi told them no one else was sleeping there and begged for an ambulance for his wife.
Majda remembers that when one soldier came to replace her bandages that had been torn off, another soldier asked him why he was helping her.
The couple was forced to lie on the ground outside for hours, with no water or food, as the soldiers ransacked their home, blowing open a hole in a wall to create an exit for themselves.
The UN inquiry reported that Palestinians who were detained in their homes in Khuzaa were beaten and threatened with death. In some cases their treatment amounted to torture.
Finally, the army allowed Shadi to take his wife inside, where they remained for four days without any medical attention or food.
According to Human Rights Watch, Israel allowed Palestine Red Crescent Society vehicles to enter Khuzaa to retrieve the injured for brief periods during the siege, once on 24 July and again the following day.
But as documented by both organizations, as well as by other independent observers, these volunteers and medical workers also came under direct fire and did not have enough time to collect all the injured — people like Majda and Shadi, who remained trapped in their home.
Samir Zaqout from the Gaza-based Al Mezan Center for Human Rights told the Electronic Intifada that even those ambulances that were allowed to enter could not move freely around the village to retrieve the injured.
Israel’s foreign ministry recently released its own findings on the army’s conduct during last summer’s assault on Gaza.
The report paints a rosy picture of the 51 days of Israel’s land, air and naval assault on the tiny territory and its 1.8 million inhabitants — estimating a far smaller proportion of those killed to be civilians than figures arrived at by the UN and all human rights organizations, and placing the blame for their deaths almost entirely on Hamas’ tactics.
Where journalists and human rights groups have reported that summary executions and willful neglect of the wounded in Khuzaa, Israel’s report emphasizes the army’s extensive efforts to coordinate ambulances to enter the besieged village. The report even goes as far as to highlight the army’s careful treatment of an elderly woman, providing her with food, water and medical assistance.
But this rosy picture bears no resemblance to the reality witnessed by survivors.
“Her legs started to become infested with maggots,” Shadi remembers of his wife’s injuries. He called Majda’s brother, who is a doctor, who told him to put salt water on her wounds.
Shadi entered the destroyed kitchen, and managed to scavenge some salt from the ruination there. The treatment offered some relief for Majda’s pain and drove away the infestation.
On the fourth day, 28 July, the Israeli army allowed more ambulances to enter Khuzaa to collect only those injured.
Majda and Shadi said the emergency vehicles had been given a scant 20 minutes to scoop up the wounded. The drivers raced around the village, loading their vehicles with as many injured people as could fit. Majda was placed in a car with six other people.
Still, according to Zaqout, most of the injured were left behind until the siege on the village ended on 1 August.
Majda was treated at Nasser Hospital in southern Gaza: her right leg was broken and her left needed surgery. She had to spend one month recovering in the hospital, and another six months bedridden and incontinent, at home.
Shadi has repaired the blown-out wall and uses aluminum sheets to cover their bombed roof. While none of the destroyed homes in Khuzaa have been rebuilt, UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestine refugees, has provided some materials to partially repair damaged homes, according to Zaqout.
By the end of retelling her ordeal, Majda appeared exhausted. Her legs were in pain.
Today, nearly blind, she can walk slowly and cautiously through her courtyard.
“There was no reason for them to do this to us,” she said. “No reason.”
Charlotte Silver is a journalist based in San Francisco. Twitter: @CharESilver