Yesterday, Monday 17 May, 2004, Israeli occupying forces supported by launched an incursion into Rafah in a military offensive unprecedented in scale since 2002. At time of publication, 12 Palestinians, including one child, have been killed and more than 20 Palestinians have been injured. This, the second military incursion into Rafah in less than one week, began yesterday morning when IOF amassed on all sides of Rafah blocking all major and minor roads out of the town and refugee camp.
In light of statements made by IOF officials, the operation is expected to continue for several days and PCHR is consequently extremely concerned that the number of civilian casualties will continue to increase.
According to preliminary investigations conducted by PCHR’s field worker in Rafah, in the early hours of 17 May 2004, IOF blocked off Salah Al Din Street separating Rafah from the rest of the Gaza Strip. In areas around the illegal Israeli settlement of Morag located to the north of Rafah and the Sofa crossing into Israel, IOF reportedly began razing areas of Palestinian agricultural land. PCHR’s fieldworker has no direct access to this area due to the intense Israeli military presence and has been unable to obtain further details.
At approximately 01:00 this morning, an Israeli helicopter gunship fired missiles into a crowd of Palestinians in the street in Block B of Rafah refugee camp. Three members of the Palestinian resistance were killed and 5 Palestinian civilians walking nearby were injured. Those killed were identified as Walid Mousa Abu Jazer, 26, from Rafah; Mohammed Khalil al-Jundi, 24, from Rafah; and Mohammed Abdul Rahman al-Nawajha, 31, from Rafah.
Approximately two hours later, IOF, supported by dozens of armoured vehicles and under cover of Israeli aircraft, launched an incursion from the illegal Israeli settlement block of Gush Katif into the Tel As-Sultan neighbourhood, to the west of Rafah. At approximately 04:00, Israeli helicopter gunships fired three missiles into a crowd of Palestinian civilians on the street near the Bilall Mosque in the middle of Tel As-Sultan neighbourhood. Two missiles hit the crowd killing five civilians immediately. Two of the dead were brothers, including one child. An additional ten civilians were injured. The third missile hit the Bilall Mosque, setting fire to the Mosque’s library. Those killed were identified as Hani Mohammed Quffa, 18, from Rafah; Tareq Ahmed Sheikh-Eid, 24, from Rafah; Ibrahim Ismail al-Ballawi, 18, from Rafah; Mohammed Jasser al-Sha’er, 17, from Rafah; and Ahmed Jasser al-Sha’er, 18, from Rafah.
During the incursion, IOF took up positions on the roofs of Palestinian homes in the Tel As-Sultan neighbourhood and used snipers in these positions to open fire at Palestinians moving in the areas below. Shelling from tanks and sniper fire resulted in the killing of four more Palestinians. Thus far, due to restrictions on accessing the area, PCHR has not been able to verify the exact circumstances of these killings. Three of the four killed have been identified as Ziad Hussein Shabana, 22, sustained a bullet wound in the chest; Emad Fadel al-Mughari, 34, sustained multiple bullet wounds; and Mahmoud Ismail Abu Touq, 34, sustained two bullet wounds to the chest and abdomen.
Medical crews and local residents have not been able to retrieve the fourth victim from the area yet due to intense Israeli military gunfire. IOF have reportedly repeatedly opened fire at emergency medical crews and ambulances trying to reach the killed and wounded in the neighbourhood. PCHR’s field worker has also reported that in four instances, emergency medical crews were forced to evacuate their ambulances due to IOF gunfire. During the incursion IOF have also conducted house to house searches.
PCHR condemns this latest IOF incursion into a densely populated civilian residential area in Rafah and the resulting unlawful killings and injuries to civilians. As the offensive continues, PCHR is extremely concerned at the escalating casualties amongst civilians, including attacks on medical staff. PCHR calls upon the international community, specifically the High Contracting Parties to the Fourth Geneva Convention, to intervene immediately to halt this current Israeli military offensive and ensure the protection of Palestinian civilians in this area.