On 13 September, a day after Israeli tank shells decapitated his 16-year-old son, Walid Abu Oda went back to his family’s northern Gaza farm in a vain search for the head.
Asked how he was coping with the loss, he said, “How do you think it feels to lose a son, to see your son without his head?”
The killing of Walid’s son, Ismail Abu Oda, along with his friend Hussam Abu Sayed, 17, and his grandfather Ibrahim Abu Sayed, 91, is raising questions about whether Israel has taken sufficient strides to bring it’s army into compliance with international humanitarian law.
The incident was similar to previous incidents, such as those described in judge Richard Goldstone’s UN-mandated report on Israel’s winter war on Gaza. Human rights groups say the September killings and others only underscore the importance of implementing the report’s call for investigations and accountability.
A lack of credible investigations, by Israel or international bodies, into these and other allegations makes it likely that Israeli soldiers will continue to violate the laws of war in Gaza. The dearth of probes “makes it very easy for the soldiers and the commanders first to shoot and second to get away with it,” said Mahmoud Abu Rahmah, a spokesman for the Gaza-based Al-Mezan Center for Human Rights.
Immediately following the shelling, the Israeli military announced it was merely “returning fire” at “suspects” who, they claimed, fired rocket-propelled grenades at Israeli forces.
Initial reports in the Israeli media repeated the military’s claims verbatim. “Shells kill three as IOF targets militant on Gaza Strip border,” declared the headline that ran in the next day’s edition of Haaretz.
“1 terrorist dead, 4 wounded in IOF response to Gaza attack,” reported The Jerusalem Post. Ynet: “IOF on Gaza incident: Suspects tried to fire anti-tank rockets.” Not to be outdone, the settler-run Arutz Sheva announced: “IOF Kills Two in Firefight with Gaza Terror Infiltrators.”
While Haaretz identified the three victims as a grandfather and two teenagers, the other news portals simply reported, as fact, that the three were “suspects,” “militants,” “terrorists.”
Two days later the military backtracked, admitting what Palestinian witnesses had said all along: the three were civilians.
Brig. Gen. Eyal Eisenberg would later clarify in a statement sent to journalists that “we understand from a re-creation that we undertook that the three casualties were not involved in act of terror.” The statement insisted, however, that one of the Palestinians had picked up an RPG launcher and aimed it at Israeli forces stationed along the border.
The case yielded a number of questions: Why did the army initially declare the three to be militants? Why did the Israeli soldiers decide to shoot in the first place?
The Israeli military did not respond to repeated requests for answers to these and other questions.
In Gaza, witnesses, relatives of the victims, and human rights experts told Palestinian agencies that there was no basis for Israel’s claims that the three appeared to pose a threat to military forces.
All these sources stressed that the three victims visited the border area nearly every day, and were known to the soldiers stationed there. They also point out that the area where the shelling took place is in plain view of army installations on the northern border, a fact that Palestinian agencies verified in a visit to the site. The agencies found no evidence that anyone in the area was holding an RPG-launcher.
Ismail Abu Oda had been a quiet kid who attended prayers at the local mosque, and while he had only a ninth-grade education, was a talented mechanic: “He could spend 10 days in a [mechanic’s] shop and gain 10 years’ worth of knowledge,” his father says. He was saving money to buy a motorcycle.
Walid Abu Oda recounted the day, the third day of the Eid Al-Fitr holiday that marks the end of Ramadan.
The day of the shelling, Ismail and Hussam decided to accompany the elderly shepherd to his land, bringing chicken with them to make a barbeque to mark the holiday. “As I had promised my son, I bought them chicken,” he said. Walid did not join the three because he was attending a religious festival in Gaza City.
He said the two teens arrived around 10 a.m., sitting and talking while the elderly man, Ibrahim Abu Sayed, the owner of the land, watched over the sheep. They lit a fire and grilled the chicken.
Late in the afternoon, Walid Abu Oda said, the first tank shell fell, still some distance from the three. (The Al-Mezan Center said this first shell landed some 200 meters away.)
“My son called and said the rockets were coming,” Abu Oda said. He left the festival, in Gaza City, and rushed to return to Beit Hanoun. After the first call, he said, “I had a feeling that I had lost my son.”
When a second shell exploded closer to the group, the three began herding the flock of 30 sheep into a barn, in order to evacuate.
A third shell then exploded, hitting the wall of the barn.
“When I was near Jabaliya I got another call.” It was a relative calling to say his son had been killed.
“I saw my son in the hospital morgue, without a head,” Abu Oda said. Ismail had been decapitated by flachettes, small metal darts contained in certain tank shells used by Israel. He showed some of the flachettes that had been found near the bodies, along with a fragment of the tank shell.
The two boys and the grandfather were dead. All but one of the 30 sheep were slaughtered.
Investigations carried out by Al-Mezan confirmed Abu Oda’s account. Abu Rahmah, the Al-Mezan spokesman, recently conducted a field visit in connection with the probe that found Israeli forces fired two shells toward the three Palestinians before the deadly shot.
The third shot was a shell containing flachettes, he confirmed, that hit the brick wall of a sheep barn where one of the teens was attempting to bring the sheep to shelter.
“The young man got the sheep and put them in the barn. He was closing the door when the shell hit him.”
“The shell hit a brick wall. This helped the splinters [flachettes] go back in the opposite direction and hit the two men,” Abu Rahmah said. The other two were standing 12 to 15 meters northeast of the barn when the shell exploded.
“The selection of the weapon and the way it was used gives us some info about the intent,” he added. “There is evidence that the intent was to kill the three persons with three shells.”
Photos taken that day by a Belgian photojournalist show the bodies laying in the morgue wrapped in white cloth. Hussam Abu Sayed, wearing an orange shirt, dried blood coming from his mouth and ears, a chunk of the skull missing above his right eye. Ibrahim Abu Sayed’s head was apparently intact except for a deep puncture in the right cheek.
Victims’ ‘familiar faces’
Muhammad Abdel Aziz Abu Oda operates a farm adjacent to the area where the three were killed. His farm, where he grows olive and lemon trees, is the last human encampment on the edge of the “buffer zone” where anyone who enters is shot on sight by the Israeli occupation army.
Abu Oda told said he comes to his land every day in coordination with the Israeli military. He also said that the three victims of the 12 September shelling visited the area every day. “The soldiers knew them,” he said in an interview on his land bordering the buffer zone.
Al-Mezan’s Abu Rahmah also confirmed this impression, saying the three would have been “familiar faces” for the soldiers stationed on the border.
He claimed Palestinian guerillas never came to the area because it lies in plain sight of the watchtowers along the border.
Ismail Abu Oda’s father also said that he had never known of fighters visiting the area where the killings took place. “If my son had worked with the resistance, I would not be sad; I would be proud,” he said.