Remembering Beit Hanoun

Relatives of those killed in Beit Hanoun mourn for their loved ones, November 2006. (Sameh A. Habeeb)

In November 2006 a horrible war crime was committed in the Gaza Strip by the Israeli army. The operation was not directed at militants who were heading to fight Israel, but at a poor family. This action was committed by the same Israeli army which bulldozed Palestinian farms and crushed cars and houses. I remember every single detail of what happened that day in Beit Hanoun. I want to tell the story again as I am encouraged, but not satisfied by what Archbishop Desmond Tutu said after his investigative visit to Gaza. Although he was too late to investigate the massacre that occurred two years before, it was better than nothing. Tutu indirectly indicted Israel and held it responsible for the death of civilians.

The investigation helped me to remember what I witnessed that day. I went there quickly and I saw a slaughter. Blood was on walls, adjacent houses, the street and all around. The smell of Israel’s spent artillery shells mixed with the blood and burned flesh of children and old people. Women, men, old people and children were lamenting and weeping. Around 18 civilians were killed that day in addition to injuring many others. Those who remained alive either lost limbs or suffered other severe injuries.

I had to revive this horrific account again because so many people have not heard of it, nor were they correctly informed of the slaughter. The following is the testimony I wrote two days after I witnessed the massacre’s aftermath.

Accounts and witnesses

We entered the street; house number 71 has a sad story as well as all other houses in the area. It is the house of Bassem al-Kafarnah. He was killed at his own doorstep while calling for an ambulance for the injured who were scattered all over the street. Bassem is the father of five little girls; the eldest of them is seven years old and the mother is about to give birth to her sixth baby. We are not sure that when she delivers her baby she can also unburden her sadness and wounds from the loss of her husband, who left her alone; a prayer for her pains and fears over her six weak children who rely on God and then her for support.

An artillery shell destroyed the entrance of the house. It broke the inner walls, killing Bassem and buried his children’s dreams. The scene ended here, or maybe it just began; five children who did not yet realize the true meaning of life, but gulped the bitterness of death and lived it with every tiny detail and lineament.

The next house belongs to Mrs. Nema al-Athamnah. She was killed with her daughter Sana and daughter-in-law, Nehad. Nema and Sana were both widows and they were the only remaining hope for their children, who are now orphans. Now that hope is buried with the two mothers. Nehad and her four children were all injured, three of them are still hospitalized after losing their limbs.

Mrs. al-Athamnah’s daughter Umaya was also injured. She lost a leg and the other was smashed while her hand was broken and she is undergoing treatment in Egypt. Her husband, Sameer, was killed. Their daughter Malak, or angel, was injured by flying debris and shrapnel which scarred her lovely face.

Umaya’s brother, Iyad, has injuries to both his legs and he may never be able to walk again. His wife Inas is still hospitalized and is recovering from her wounds and burns. Their son Ahmad has a critical head injury, may God save him.

A group of women gathered around me. Each of them is trying to tell her piece of the story. Nisreen, Nema’s daughter, explained that “My mother, Manal, and Fatima Masoud, the three of them turned to piles of burnt and torn flesh. We collected what was left of them from the walls, doors and trees, and then put them in buckets carrying their names. We recognized them from pieces of their clothes which were stuck to their burned flesh.”

We moved to the next house, expecting different stories, but they sounded similar. The only difference was the amount of death. A sandy path separates the houses of the brothers Saad and Masoud al-Athamnah from that of their cousin. Nine shells hit the house. Yes, nine.

The first shell struck the house between the second and third floors, leaving three generations of one family a mixture of burnt flesh and crushed bones. The victims were: the grandmother, Fatima al-Athamnah, 78 years old, her son Masoud, 52 years old, Masoud’s son Samir Masoud, 23 years old, his daughter Fatima, 18 years old, and his second wife Sabah, 40 years old. They were living a simple life, but the last moments were catastrophic. They didn’t die peacefully; they screamed, and called for help, and tried to escape the savage weapon, which pursued them until it pulled their souls away ruthlessly. It turned them into pieces and deprived them of any peace in their last moments.

When the rest of the neighborhood’s 30 residents heard the explosion of the first shell, they rushed to the street, that sandy path, and there a new chapter of the tragedy occurred. The shell hit the wall of the second floor and exploded into burning shrapnel, blazing iron polluted with radiant substances dissolved the flesh. The second shell killed the sons of Saad and Hayat al-Athamnah: Muhammad, 16 years old, Mahdi, 17 years old, and Arafat, 18 years old.

Hayat al-Athamnah stoically told the story of of her departed children:

I saw Mahdi, his head was wide open and I could see his brain lying to his side. I called him, but received no answer, so I said, may God rest your soul. I then saw my son, Muhammad. His body was burned out and deformed and I called him, but only silence answered me, so I said, “May God rest your soul.”

I ran out from the shelling to a nearby alley; there I found my son Arafat. The lower half of his body was completely ruptured and his guts were dangling on the ground. I said Arafat, my baby, sweetheart, go with your brothers, they have all left, he pulled his head up and looked at himself then he started collecting his flesh and put it on what remained of his abdomen.

Yes, he was alive and looking at me. He then passed away in the hospital.

The shelling continued. Another shell hit the balcony of the fourth-floor room where Hayat’s grandson Mahmoud Majdi al-Athamnah, 12 years old, was sleeping, killing him. Another one smashed through the roof, killing Mahmoud’s cousin Ahmad, 10 years old.

Another shell, and then another. Each time with new victims: Manal, the wife of Ramiz Masoud, 26 years old, killed with her two daughters, Maysa, nine months old, and Maram, three years old. Their brother Abdullah lost his left hand and is still hospitalized. Hayat al-Athamnah explained that “We found the head of Maram at the entrance of the path and the body was at the other end.”

Mohammed al-Athamnah, the cousin of Saad and Masoud al-Athamnah, had rushed to the scene to call for an ambulance. Instead, they carried his dead body away and those of the five children.

Hayat al-Athamnah listed the injuries while her husband and their son, Abdul Mohaymen, were in an Egyptian hospital in critical condition. Injured in the back and neck, they have many wounds from shrapnel. The hand of her grandson Muhammad was severed and remained on the ground of the horrible sandy path long before somebody took it away. She said that “I saw the hand of Muhammad on the floor. I recognized it from his watch, which was warped around it; it was also carrying a mobile phone and a hand bag.”

Sameh A. Habeeb is a photojournalist, humanitarian and peace
activist based in Gaza, Palestine. He writes for several news websites on a freelance basis.

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