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In Gaza town, a bitter aftermath

Witnesses say white flags didn't keep Israeli troops from firing at and killing Palestinians. Incident in Khozaa could be key to any war crimes probe.

February 15, 2009|Ashraf Khalil

KHOZAA, GAZA STRIP — She was the strongest among them, the natural leader. So when the shelling stopped and the Israeli soldiers announced through loudspeakers that all residents should come out of their homes and head for the center of town, neighbors turned to Rawhiya Najar for guidance.

Emptying the cupboards of sheets and tablecloths -- anything white -- she led a procession of 20 women and children into the streets holding a white flag in each hand, residents say.

The group had made it perhaps 200 yards when a soldier stepped out from a door down the street and shot Najar in the head, multiple witnesses say. Her body lay in the street for 12 hours, villagers and doctors say.

Weeks after Israel declared a unilateral end to its offensive in the Gaza Strip, the aftermath still burns in Khozaa, a farm town of 11,000 in the south of the territory. Chunks of white phosphorus still lie scattered throughout neighborhoods, buried in dirt and sand; when excavated, they immediately ignite and spew noxious smoke that smells vaguely of garlic.

As the International Criminal Court weighs a war crimes investigation of the Gaza offensive, the experience of Khozaa could be a key part in the evidence. It was here that Israeli troops staged a series of incursions from Jan. 11 to 13, facing off against local militant fighters and leaving a trail of accusations and recriminations in their wake.

These include charges of indiscriminate firing on civilians and ambulances and what one international weapons expert called the heaviest use of controversial white phosphorus munitions in the 22-day offensive.

Local officials say 19 people were killed during the assault, 16 of them civilians. About 150 people were injured, most from prolonged exposure to phosphorus smoke, local medical officials say.

It is impossible to fully confirm many of the details of what happened here. But interviews with more than a dozen Khozaa residents, medical professionals, government officials and local militant fighters depict a chaotic three-day span when phosphorus smoke filled the streets and homes as families cowered indoors.

The Israeli army, which staged its offensive after years of rocket attacks against southern Israel emanating from the Gaza Strip, refuses to discuss individual charges in detail. A statement in response to questions about the events in Khozaa declared that the military is "currently conducting post-operation investigations."

Israeli officials have insisted that their soldiers tried to avoid civilian casualties, and accuse Hamas fighters of cynically using Palestinian civilians as human shields.

Residents acknowledge an active militant presence in the district, and local militant commanders say about a dozen fighters directly engaged Israeli forces here. But militants and residents deny that the area was a frequent spot for rocket launches into Israel, saying those cells prefer to operate from farther north in Gaza.

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The incursion starts

The assault began with an intense artillery barrage just before midnight Jan. 10.

The shelling continued until dawn, when Israel staged the first of three thrusts into the district. Armored bulldozers, backed by tanks and air support, moved in about 5 a.m., residents say, demolishing several homes in the Azzata district, where Rawhiya Najar lived.

Neighbors say the soldiers repeatedly withdrew and returned over the next two days, leaving residents disoriented and fearful. The final offensive began just after midnight on Jan. 13, with an all-night artillery barrage that engulfed the district in smoke, residents say. Isolated groups of terrified villagers huddled in different homes for safety, including at least 30 relatives in the home of Khalil Hamdan Najar, 57.

Israeli drones patrolled the skies, unseen but identifiable from their distinctive lawn-mower whines. Under cover of darkness and phosphorus smoke, ground forces took up positions throughout the neighborhood, taking over several homes, residents say.

At 6:30 a.m., with shells beginning to strike the roof of his home, Khalil Najar led a group of relatives outside, waving a white flag. A series of missile strikes killed Khalil and injured several family members, they say. His granddaughter Alaa, 14, and son-in-law Ahmed, 23, later died at a hospital.

When it grew light outside, Rawhiya Najar urged her neighbors to crowd onto the roofs of their homes, hoping the sight of civilians would deter the barrage, neighbors said.

The 47-year-old, who had returned from the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca just days before the Israeli offensive began, was known as a forceful and generous personality. She was also a staunch supporter of the local militant groups, and would often leave tea and cakes on her windowsill at night for the fighters who operated in the area.

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