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Israeli soldiers recall Gaza attack orders “Fire on anything that moves in Zeitoun”

February 3, 2009

at TimesOnLine By :

“Fire on anything that moves in Zeitoun” – that was the order handed down to
Israeli troops in the Givati Shaked battalion, who reduced the eastern Gaza
City suburb to little more than rubble in a matter of days.

According to Israeli soldiers who took part in the three-week offensive, the
destruction of the area, a known Hamas stronghold, was designed to send a
wider message to Gazans. “We pounded Zeitoun into the ground,” an Israeli
soldier who was deployed in the area, told The Times.

“We knew everything was booby-trapped, we knew that they would try to kidnap
us and if they did that was the end, we were finished . . . so we took no
chances. We pounded them with fire; they never had a chance.”

Stretched along the southeastern corner of Gaza City, Zeitoun is where the
coastal enclave narrows to just under five miles, serving as the perfect
launching point for the Israeli military’s forays deeper into the Gaza Strip.

Soldiers on foot first entered the neighbourhood on January 4, overtaking
several key positions there and finally withdrawing on January 14 –
destroying much of the area in their wake.

The stories that have emerged from Zeitoun have been some of the most shocking
of the war. The Samuni family said they lost 29 members after soldiers
forced them all into one building that subsequently came under fire.
Survivors said that the initial shelling killed 22 people, while others
slowly bled to death after being denied medical care for nearly three days.

Others, including the Helw and Abu Zohar families, have similar accounts of
watching loved ones dying of their wounds and coming under fire after
emerging from their homes carrying white flags.

Human Rights organisations have called for an independent investigation into
the Israeli army’s conduct in Zeitoun, accusing them of denying medical
access to the wounded and firing on civilians. An Israeli military spokesman
said that the incident was being investigated, and that the accusations were
being taken “very seriously”.

The soldier, who broke Israeli military censorship restrictions to talk to The
Times
and did not wish to be named, was part of the second wave of
troops who set up positions in the neighbourhood. “Most of the positions had
been secured and we heard that the [Hamas] fighters had gone into the other
areas. We had been warned of traps and it was very tense. We were to shoot
first and ask questions later.”

He added that Zeitoun was a known Hamas stronghold and that militants had used
the local fields and orchards to launch rocket attacks into southern Israel.

“There was definitely a message being sent,” he said. This weekend, the
experienced infantryman took leave from his unit and was able to read some
media accounts of Zeitoun. “I read about the family, the Samunis, and it was
hard, it was horrible.” Asked if what he had read made him rethink his
actions in Gaza he said: “I don’t know, I’m not sure. It maybe raised some
questions.”

Israel banned journalists from entering Gaza during the military operation. It
has since censored the names of military units and soldiers who took part in
the fighting, fearing that lawsuits will be filed against them by human
rights organisations, which renewed their criticism of Israel’s conduct
yesterday.

“Having interviewed dozens of victims and witnesses and, having examined the
ballistic evidence from north to south, we are convinced that Israel did not
do everything possible to minimise civilians’ harm and death,” said Fred
Abrahams, of Human Rights Watch.

“The rules of engagement were exceedingly loose, and they dropped the bar on
the laws of war. This allowed civilian casualties to rise.”

Some in Israel have questioned the decision to send the Givati Shaked
battalion to the area. Two of the battalion’s four company commanders were
removed, although one was later exonerated in an incident that involved the
killing of Iman al-Hams, a 13-year-old Palestinian girl, in Rafah on October
2004. In the same year 11 Givati soldiers were killed when militants
captured two armoured personnel carriers in Zeitoun.

One soldier from Givati Shaked told an Israeli daily newspaper that “revenge
is our first impulse” after a friend of his was killed during an operation
in Gaza last year.

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