IN one corner of Salah Samouni’s modest living room hangs a ‘martyr poster’ – a customary honor printed for those killed in all Israeli attacks, in the West Bank and Gaza over the years.
On the Samouni poster, the 29 faces stare back from eternity, from Muhammad Helmi Samouni, age six months, to Rizqa Muhammad Samouni, age 55. It was this oversize poster that Salah Samouni brought with him to the public hearing held by the UN Fact Finding Commission led by Richard Goldstone in Gaza City in June.
Helmi and Salah Samouni spoke in September, nine months after the war, in one of the remaining houses of the Samouni family. The rest were destroyed during Israel’s war on Gaza in December and January. We sat on hard plastic chairs while a pot of thick Arabic coffee was served.
On 4 January 2009, nearly 100 members of the extended Samouni family were rounded up by the Israeli army, searched, some handcuffed and corralled into one house. After an excruciating night crammed into Wael Samouni’s storeroom, the Israeli military shelled the building, killing 21. Eight others were killed by Israeli forces in the same vicinity in a span of two days.
The Samouni compound is in a farming area on the outskirts of Gaza. Many members of the extended family are still living in tents, tin shacks and in the wreckage of their homes. Wael Samouni’s family has pitched a tent on the foundation of the same house where the shelling took place.
Goldstone’s delegation and the Red Cross visited the Samouni neighborhood and saw the destruction. Salah Samounis said he hadn’t seen the UN team’s report, but said they felt it was significant that international teams visited, and listened to their story.
‘At least there were people listening, and standing with us. They were not only professional, they also felt with us,’ he said.
The story of the deaths in the Samouni compound has been recorded by the Goldstone commission, by various human rights groups and by a few journalists.
Still, visiting the Samounis themselves, one gets a sense not only of the terror of the initial killing, but of how trauma persists, how it hangs and stays with the survivors.
‘My father, mother, wife, and six-month old son were killed. I had been married for a year and a half. My entire life was destroyed,’ Helmi Samouni said.
‘For months afterwards I would wake up in a nightmare that I was in a different reality, in which I too had died.’
Helmi said he regrets not having spent more time with his family. He described how before the war he worked in a restaurant in Gaza’s upscale Rimal neighborhood. He would leave for work early in the morning and return after 10pm. Nine months after the massacre, he was still unable to return to work.
Salah Samouni echoed the notion that after the massacre, without justice, without accountability for what happened, he and his family are living ‘in another world. … But this is our world, this is reality.
‘After everything that happened, we still want to know why. We are civilians. There was no resistance in this area. … Give us a reason,’ he said, standing on the ruins of his cousin Wael’s house, the same house where the 21 members of his family were killed.
For the Hamas government in Gaza, the Samounis were elevated as symbols of sumud – steadfastness – in the face of the immense suffering wrought on Gaza by the Israeli military. Ismail Haniyeh, the de facto prime minister, mentioned the family in his dawn sermon on the Eid Al-Fitr holiday.
‘To the Samouni family, this is your Eid,’ he told the thousands of faithful who gathered in Gaza City’s Yarmouk stadium.
When asked Salah Samouni what he thought of Haniyeh’s words, he said, “Insha’Allah” – God willing.
The story of the massacre begins early on the morning of 4 January, in the first hours of Israel’s ground invasion of Gaza. It was an escalation from the Israeli jets and unmanned drones that had been pounding the Gaza Strip since the start of the war on 27 December.
At around 5am, Israeli soldiers entered several of the houses in the Samouni neighborhood.
The Goldstone report states: ‘The soldiers entered Ateya Al-Samouni’s house by force, throwing some explosive device, possibly a grenade.In the midst of the smoke, fire and loud noise, Ateya al-Samouni stepped forward, his arms raised, and declared that he was the owner of the house.
‘The soldiers shot him while he was still holding his ID and an Israeli driving license in his hands.
‘The soldiers then opened gunfire inside the room in which all the approximately 20 family members were gathered. Several were injured, Ahmad, a boy of four, particularly seriously.’
At around 6:30am, the soldiers ordered the family to leave, they had to leave Ateya’s body behind, but four-year-old Ahmad was still breathing, according to the Goldstone report.
However, ‘A few meters further a different group of soldiers stopped them and ordered the men to undress completely.’
The report goes on: ‘Faraj al-Samouni, who was carrying the severely injured Ahmad, pleaded with them to be allowed to take the injured to Gaza City.’
The soldiers refused his pleas. ‘You are bad Arabs,’ they told the family. ‘You go to Nitzarim,’ referring to the nearby abandoned Israeli settlement.
Faraj, his mother, and others then entered an uncle’s house in the neighborhood, where they called a Palestine Red Crescent Society (PRCS) ambulance, which was turned away by the soldiers in the area.
That night, Ahmad died, and about 45 people who had been sheltering in the house decided to walk to Gaza City, defying the orders of soldiers who ordered them to stop, and even shot at their feet, the witnesses told the Goldstone commission.
After walking for two kilometers along Salah Ad-Din Street (a main north-south thoroughfare in Gaza), they found ambulances that took the injured to the Ash-Shifa Hospital in the city center.
In the pre-dawn invasion on 4 January, the soldiers also entered the other houses in the Samouni compound, landing on the roof of one, banging on the door of another, and using a sledgehammer to knock a hole in the wall of a third, the Goldstone report states.
The soldiers separated the men from the women, and had Salah Samouni’s father identify each family member in Hebrew. The men were also searched and then handcuffed. Following this, the soldiers corralled around 100 members of the extended Samouni family into a storeroom in a house owned by Wael Samouni. Salah Samouni said he asked the soldiers to allow them to go to Gaza City. His request was denied.
‘They checked us one by one. They made us lift up our shirts,’ Helmi Talal Samouni explained, making a gesture with his arms. ‘They knew that we were all civilians, that there were no weapons in the storeroom.’
For 24 hours, beginning at noon on 4 January the 100 Samounis (one family member said the number was 97; Wael Samouni told the commission it was 105).
They used cell phones to call for help. ‘For 24 hours we called ambulances, and doctors and radio stations, and friends and everyone was saying ‘we can’t get to you, we can’t get to you,’” Helmi Samouni said.
At around 5:30pm on 4 January, women in the house wanted to bake bread with a little flour they found in the house. Some men stepped from the building, collected wood and made a fire. Fourteen-year-old Rizqa Samouni baked bread, as soldiers in neighboring buildings looked on.
At six the next morning the children awoke crying with hunger.
‘We had no electricity, no gas, and we’d had nothing to eat. The children were starving,’ Helmi Samouni said.
Five men, along with some women, went out from the house to collect firewood again, while a woman and child fetched water from a nearby well.
A shell was fired at the men, killing Muhammad Ibrahim Samouni and injuring Salah in the head. Wael and Iyad were also wounded.
The men said they immediately reentered the building where the women began bandaging their wounds.
Then another Israeli projectile struck the house. Salah and Helmi Samouni both said it was a missile fired from an American-made Apache helicopter, although the Goldstone commission said it could not establish this definitively. The shell killed 19 people.
Standing on the ruins of Wael Samouni’s house nine months later, Salah Samouni pointed out (as he had done for the Goldstone team) the positions in neighboring houses where Israeli soldiers were stationed, where they had a clear line of sight to Wael Samouni’s house.
In the dust and chaos of shrieking children after the shelling, the Samounis decided to flee. The able-bodied among them carried as many of the wounded as they could carry. The women waved their scarves.
Flight and aftermath
After proceeding less than 100 meters down the road Israeli soldiers in the same building Salah Samouni pointed out ordered them to stop, firing on them.
‘Go back unto death,’ the soldiers shouted from a building they were occupying, speaking in classical Arabic.
Salah said he refused the soldiers’ orders. ‘Fine,’ he told them, ‘then we will die on the road.’
But, Helmi noted, ‘there were some we could not carry.’ He said he was aware that there were some family members who were still alive but they had to leave behind.
For the next four days, PRCS and ICRC personnel and the Samounis themselves attempted to return to their compound to retrieve the dead and rescue the injured. Each time they were turned back by the Israeli military. Various members of the family also told Ma’an that after the initial shelling, Israeli forces knocked down what remained of the house, either with tanks or with bulldozers.
After four days, the Israeli military allowed the ambulances to pass through. Incredibly, rescue workers found two children alive in the rubble of Wael Samounis house, along with bodies. Ma’an met one of the surviving children, 13-year-old Amal (literally "hope"), was present when Ma’an visited the area in September.
According to the surviving members of the family, it was another 13 days before all the bodies were recovered from the area.
‘If the ambulances had been able to get through on the second day or the third day, there would have been more survivors,’ Helmi said.
Approached about the killings, Israel’s military did not deny the claims made in this article or in the Goldstone report.
In response to the Samounis’ account of the massacre, the military said ‘claims regarding the deaths in the Samouni family have been submitted to the Office of Advocate General.’
‘The investigation of these claims indicates a complex matter that includes several sub-occurrences that took place at various stages of the operation,’ the military added in a statement.
‘Some of these occurrences are undergoing investigation by the Criminal Investigations Unit and cannot therefore be commented upon. Other occurrences are undergoing operational investigation.’
The military spokesperson’s office also stated: ‘The claim regarding the concentration of one hundred of the family members in one building and its bombing shortly thereafter in a manner that caused the death of approximately twenty of them, was recently passed along, by an order of the Chief of Staff, Lt Gen Gabi Ashkenazi, to undergo a thorough investigation by the General Staff, headed by a senior officer with the rank of Colonel.’