This morning, Thursday, as each morning, Israeli gunboats began firing towards Gaza’s coastline at around 7am. Although there is supposed to be a ceasefire in force, we’ve heard an assortment of weapons being fired on each of the five days since it began. Yesterday, we were informed that nine people had been injured by shelling from an Israeli gunboat.
Today, we visited several families whose homes were taken over and used as military positions by Israeli soldiers during the three-week military campaign. In most cases, the families had fled or were expelled by the soldiers. In some cases, however, the soldiers prevented the families from leaving, using them as “human shields.”
In the Zeitoun neighbourhood of Gaza City, members of the Sammouni family told us that 46 of them, mostly children, were held captive in their home for two days in early January.
According to one member of the family we interviewed:
“A large number of soldiers came into the house and put all of us in one room on the ground floor. They confiscated our mobile phones, and handcuffed and blindfolded the men and older boys. For two days we could not move; they only allowed us to get a bit of food to the children. We knew that another group of relatives had been killed by Israeli soldiers in the house across the road and we were screaming in fear. Eventually, at the end of the second day, they let us go but kept two of the men and threatened to kill them if the Qassam (Hamas’ armed wing) attacked them.”
Every single room in the house had been extensively vandalized. In the houses, we saw Israeli army supplies, sleeping bags, medical kits, empty boxes of munitions and spent cartridges of Israeli bullets, providing incontrovertible evidence of the soldiers’ stay in these houses.
Every one of these houses we visited was in a shocking state. All the rooms had been ransacked, with furniture overturned and/or smashed. The families’ clothing, documents and other personal items were strewn all over the floors and soiled and, in one case, urinated on. In one house in the Sayafa area in north Gaza, several cardboard boxes full of excrement were left in the house – although there was a functioning toilet which the soldiers could have used.
Walls were defaced with crude threats written in Hebrew, such as “next time it will hurt more” and, in one house, a drawing of a naked woman. As well, in every case, the soldiers had smashed holes in the outer walls of the houses to use as lookout and sniper positions.
In one house, soldiers had dug up the tile floor in order to get to the sand beneath which they had used to fill up sand bags to block the windows, even though there was plenty of sand in the courtyard of the house. Such deliberate vandalism seemed both spiteful and gratuitous.
Chris Cobb-Smith, the military expert in our team who was an officer in the British Army for 20 years, was staggered at what he saw and the behaviour and apparent lack of discipline of the Israeli soldiers.
“Gazans have had their houses looted, vandalised and desecrated. As well, the Israeli soldiers have left behind not only mounds of litter and excrement but ammunition and other military equipment. It’s not the behaviour one would expect from a professional army,” he said.
Abu Abdallah told us that the soldiers who took over his home in Hay al-Salam (east of Jabalia, north Gaza) held him, his wife and their nine children hostage for two days in the basement.
“We had no water to drink and the soldiers did not allow us to go get water. I had to take water from the toilet cistern with a small receptacle for the small children to drink. I went to the bathroom several times to weep. I did not wish my children to see me cry.”
The family was allowed to leave the house after two days but when they returned on 18 January, after the announcement of the ceasefire, they found that the Israeli army had demolished their home. It had been, he said, a large and beautiful house.
Abu Abdallah and his wife had worked abroad for 28 years and had used all their savings to build it when they returned to Gaza in the late 1990s. Now all that is left is a pile of rubble.