Returning to the scene of a Gaza war crime

Looking to rebuild in Khuzaa. (Erin Cunningham)

KHUZAA, occupied Gaza Strip (IPS) - Khuzaa is a small farming village perched on a gentle slope east of Khan Younis. Its fertile farmland once produced fruit and vegetables for export to Israel, whose own lush plains are just 500 meters from Khuzaa’s center, and are visible through the town’s narrow streets.

But the relative quiet of this rural border town, about 25 kilometers southeast of Gaza City, was shattered 10 January when Israeli forces launched an all-out, three-day assault that killed 16 civilians and destroyed many of Khuzaa’s houses and its agricultural land.

Perilously close to the border with Israel, Khuzaa was the only place outside of the cities in Gaza’s north — which were effectively severed from central and southern Gaza by Israeli troops 5 January — to suffer a full-blown ground invasion during Israel’s three-week assault that ended 18 January.

Four months later, international human rights organizations are accusing Israel of committing war crimes in Khuzaa. Its residents continue to live with frequent military incursions and the daily threat of gunfire from Israeli watchtowers on the border.

“This assault was the worst thing to ever happen to us,” says Khuzaa’s mayor, Abu Ayman. “It is worse than when the village was divided in 1948.”

Khuzaa saw little fighting in the first two weeks of the attacks. But on 10 January, a barrage of white phosphorus shells landed deep into residential areas, locals and a March report by Human Rights Watch say.

The next two days saw an onslaught of rockets and missiles fired from fighter jets, unmanned drones and Apache helicopters — a precursor to a ground invasion of tanks, bulldozers and soldiers at midnight 13 January.

The men and boys of the village were blindfolded and detained in a massive hole dug by Israeli bulldozers, locals say. Terrified residents whose homes were bulldozed or occupied by the Israeli military fled to the safety of an open courtyard at Khuzaa’s center.

“Many of the villagers who were taking refuge in the courtyard had moved there from the outer parts of Khuzaa because of the previous attacks,” Amnesty International’s head researcher for Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Donatella Rovera, told IPS on telephone from London.

“These attacks happened where they thought they would be safe,” Rovera said.

When the courtyard where villagers had taken refuge also came under attack — an Israeli bulldozer began to demolish one of the courtyard walls, locals say — Rawhiyya al-Najjar, a female resident of Khuzaa, decided they had no choice but to evacuate.

Carrying a white flag, Rawhiyya led a group of women and children out of the compound and into the village in the early hours of 13 January, according to residents and human rights groups.

She was shot in the head with a single bullet, independent testimonies confirm, and took 12 hours to die after a medic who tried to reach her also came under fire from Israeli forces.

Rovera says that Rawhiyya’s murder, the reckless use of white phosphorus, and systematic destruction of homes by the Israeli military in Khuzaa constitute war crimes.

“The patterns of attacks as they happened in Khuzaa are consistent with the broader patterns throughout the war, which constitute grave breaches of international law, including war crimes,” Rovera told IPS.

Rawhiyya’s brother and Khuzaa’s local head of relief services, Yusuf al-Najjar, says some 130 homes and thousands of trees were destroyed in the three-day assault.

“The bulldozing of homes and of farmland suggests very strongly a type of collective punishment against the residents of Khuzaa,” Rovera says.

Because low-level clashes between Palestinian fighters and Israeli troops took place on the outskirts of Khuzaa, Rovera says, the destruction of homes by Israel’s military appeared to be a “settling of scores.”

“This is not the type of action that was taken in military necessity,” Rovera says. “The clashes were over.”

Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention prohibits the punishment of people not directly involved in the original act of aggression.

Israeli military officials have so far failed to address the nature of operations undertaken in Khuzaa, Rovera says.

Since Israel’s withdrawal from the village and its declaration of unilateral ceasefire 18 January, Khuzaa’s residents have continued to live under the threat of constant gunfire and military incursions into their territory.

At least two people have died as a result of Israeli gunfire in Khuzaa since the formal end of operations, and seven have been injured.

On 13 May, local media reported Israeli troops and military vehicles approached the outskirts of the village, but that there were no casualties.

“After we have our dinner, everyone just goes to sleep,” says Yusuf al-Najjar, as an unmanned Israeli drone whines above the village. “No one dares step outside after dark. Israeli soldiers still come into our village every night, and we can’t do anything but be afraid.”

Many of those displaced in the fighting refuse to return to their land near Israel’s border, after Israel unilaterally expanded the extent of Khuzaa’s farmland it is using as a “buffer-zone” between itself and the coastal territory.

Prior to the war, local farmers say the buffer-zone made up approximately 200 meters of land inside Khuzaa. Now, it appears the Israeli army has closed off as much as 700 meters of Khuzaa’s land, forbidding farmers from tending to or harvesting their crops. Village residents only discover an area is “closed” after they are shot at.

Because Khuzaa, like the rest of Gaza, has received no funding to rebuild, Yusuf al-Najjar is using his own money to persuade residents to return to the village and reclaim their land.

Jaber Khalil Ghadeyah, a farmer who has peach and apple groves stretching all the way to the Israeli border, is the only one who has accepted the offer so far — and Yusuf is paying for his new irrigation system.

Ghadeyah says he certain Khuzaa will see another war, but that he will never leave the land he has lived on for 30 years.

“If the Israelis come and destroy our village, we will rebuild,” says Yusuf. “And if they come again, we will rebuild again.”

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