RAFAH, Gaza Strip – The first of August dawned as a day of promise for the Mahmoum clan and thousands of other Palestinians stuck in United Nations shelters in Rafah – thanks to a temporary cease-fire with Israel, they could go home for three days.
But the expected respite quickly turned into one of the deadliest and most controversial episodes in the recent war between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. After just two hours, amid fear Hamas captured an Israeli soldier, the Israeli military sealed off the Rafah area and began shelling. By the end of the next day, 190 Palestinians were dead, according to a list of names compiled by two Gaza human rights groups, including 14 members of the Mahmoum family.
The Rafah operation is almost certain to be a focus of U.N. investigators and rights groups looking into possible war crimes because it highlights a key concern: The treatment of civilians.
A Palestinian rights group argues the Israeli army violated the rules of war, which include giving adequate warning to civilians, using proportionate force and distinguishing between civilians and combatants. Unlike in many other Gaza battles, civilians were caught by surprise by the sudden fire and sealed exits.
“None of the rules of international humanitarian law was observed,” said Mahmoud Abu Rahma of the Al Mezan rights group.
The Israeli military confirmed Rafah residents were barred from leaving the area Aug. 1, but declined comment on the war crime allegations. It denied firing into a densely populated area without regard for civilians, saying precise airstrikes hit targets linked to militants and artillery – though inherently inaccurate – was only aimed at open fields.
Late Aug. 2, the suspected capture of the soldier turned out to be a false alarm, and the Rafah episode is one of several under internal military review.
“If we accidentally or mistakenly targeted a civilian situation, it was a mistake, and we are very sorry about that,” an officer from the army’s Southern Command said on condition of anonymity as he wasn’t authorized to speak on the record.
The following account is from interviews with Palestinian survivors and the Israeli military, along with events witnessed by the Associated Press.
Cease-fire in effect
The cease-fire took effect at 8 a.m. Friday. Mustafa Mahmoum, a municipal bulldozer operator, was at work clearing rubble from previous Israeli strikes. But after weeks in a shelter, his wife Iqzayer, 34, and their seven children returned to the family home in Tannour in east Rafah, about 2 miles from the Israeli border.
A few houses down Ouroba Street, the main thoroughfare, Azizeh, 47, the wife of one of Mustafa’s cousins, and her nine children also moved back home into their two-room shack with a roof of corrugated metal.
At 9 a.m., the commander of Israel’s Givati Brigade, Col. Ofer Winter, had just dozed off after a sleepless night when he received an alert from the field.
Givati soldiers searching for Hamas’ network of military tunnels were ambushed by Hamas gunmen, he was told. Over the next half hour, it became apparent that Maj. Benaya Sarel, a recon officer, and Liel Gidoni, his radio operator, were killed, and 2nd Lt. Hadar Goldin was missing.
At 9:36 a.m., Winter announced over the field radio the word nobody wanted to hear: “Hannibal.”
Hannibal is the name for the military protocol to be followed if a soldier falls into enemy hands. The aim is to stop the capture, even if it means loosening open-fire regulations.
Winter ordered all forces to take territory so the kidnappers couldn’t move, he told Israel’s Yediot Ahronot newspaper.
The officer in the Southern Command, which oversaw the Gaza fighting, told the AP the brigade tried to seal off an area with a radius of 1.5 miles around the suspected capture point, a mile from the border. Over the next eight hours, soldiers fired about 500 artillery shells, he said. The military said it also launched about 100 airstrikes against targets in Rafah Aug. 1 and 2, but did not provide a breakdown for each day.
The priority was to rescue Goldin.
“That’s why we used all this force,” Winter told the newspaper. “Those who kidnap need to know they will pay a price. This was not revenge. They simply messed with the wrong brigade.”
The assault began sometime before 10 a.m., sending Azizeh Mahmoum and her children fleeing from their shack to Mustafa’s sturdier brick home. Within minutes relatives gathered. As the fire became more intense, they no longer felt safe. So they ran across Ouroba Street in groups, trying to reach a small, narrow alley for cover. The alley lay next to a supermarket owned by the Bilbesis, a relatively wealthy family, and led toward a hospital.
As they ran, Azizeh’s son Hani, 23, was struck by a projectile.
“I saw his body flying into the air in front of me,” said his brother, Sami, 20.
That was just the start. His mother and three siblings – Wafa, 25, Asma, 16, and Yehiyeh, 13 – all died.
A cousin, Anam Mahmoum Hamad, had just entered the alley when the wall of a house collapsed from a drone strike. It killed Mustafa’s wife, she said, and another four children – Bissan, 10, Hiba, 7, Duaa, 3 and Obada, 2.
Others kept running, including Mustafa’s 24-year-old sister, Halima, barefoot over the scorching asphalt. The shells rained all over, in front of her and behind, she said.
By noon, an AP videojournalist saw at least 20 bodies along Ouroba Street.
The Bilbesis administered first aid to the wounded who made it to the basement of their building on Ouroba Street. An ambulance eventually evacuated some of them.
In the meantime, Abu Yousef al-Najar Hospital was filling up with hundreds of people running from the fire or searching for the missing. By the day’s end, 63 bodies were squeezed into the morgue, said Dr. Abdullah Shehadeh, the hospital director. At one point he heard shells falling every 10 seconds, he said.
Hamad, the Mahmoum cousin, had been at the hospital for about two hours when medics brought in the lower body of her 4-year-old son, Anas. She said she recognized his clothes.
That evening, with concerns that the Israeli soldier could be smuggled out, the military warned in automated calls to residents that any vehicle trying to leave Rafah would be shot.
‘It was a horrible scene’
The next day, Mustafa returned to Ouroba Street to search for the bodies of his wife and four dead children. He found them near the Bilbesi supermarket amid the debris.
“It was hard,” he said, struggling to keep his composure.
The heavy Israeli fire continued Saturday, including airstrikes on homes that killed several dozen people, according to the Gaza-based Palestinian Center for Human Rights.
By late that day, it had become clear that Goldin, the 23-year-old soldier, had been not captured but killed in a firefight. After forensic analysis of remains found in the tunnel, he was declared dead.
It was not until Sunday that some bodies on Ouroba Street could be retrieved.
“It was a horrible scene,” said Ghassan Bilbesi, son of the supermarket owner. “People had lost their hands, their arms.”
Mustafa’s wife and children were buried Monday, Aug. 4, in the sandy soil of a new cemetery on the edge of Rafah, in a row of 14 still unmarked, cinder block-lined graves. Hamad has no idea where her son’s remains lie.
Death toll climbs
In all, 121 Palestinians were killed in Rafah Aug. 1 and 69 Aug. 2, according to the Palestinian Center for Human Rights and Al Mezan rights group, which compiled the names. The dead included 55 children, 36 women and five men over the age of 60.
In the Tannour and adjacent Jneineh neighborhoods alone, 37 people were killed on Aug. 1, the rights groups say. The Mahmoum clan lost seven children, six women and a young man.
The losses played into a bigger debate over the uneven death toll in the war. More than 2,140 Palestinians were killed, three-fourths civilians, according to the U.N. On the Israeli side, 72 people were killed, all but six soldiers.
Israel said it warned civilians to leave targeted areas through automated calls and leaflets, and accused Hamas of putting civilians at risk by using them as human shields in crowded neighborhoods. The military said the events in Rafah, along with others, are under review by officers who were not part of the chain of command. The conclusion will be handed to the army’s advocate general.
Even if the findings of U.N. investigators are months away, Mustafa Mahmoum is determined to demand justice for his family and trial for Israeli officials who ordered the Rafah attack. Trying to rescue a soldier does not justify killing civilians, he said.
“Even in war,” he said, “children are protected.”