OPT - Cast Lead Aggression 1st Anniversary, Day 13: Child Human Shields

News and Press Release
Originally published
On 8 January 2009, 'Ala, 15, his brother, Ali, 16, and their cousin Hussein, 13, were released from the cold wet pit in the ground where they'd been detained by Israeli forces for two days and two nights, bound, blindfolded and semi-naked. These children had been used as human shields, a practice which constitutes a war crime and may amount to a crime against humanity. Upon their release, they were ordered to walk, under heavy fire, to Jabalia in the north of Gaza. 'Ala and Ali's older brother, Nafiz, 17, who had also been held in the hole, was transported to Israel and detained for eight more days. Al Mezan interviewed Hussein, 'Ala and Ali (now 14, 16 and 17 respectively) a year after their ordeal.

The Hole in the Ground

"The pit was really big, maybe a dunam (i1,000 square meters) or more, and there were about 60 people in it," recalls Ali. "We were blindfolded most of the time and handcuffed. The soldiers kept shooting near our legs and above our heads to make us more afraid. Shrapnel was falling into the hole. It was really terrifying."

Text Box: Ali, Hussein and 'Ala (left to right). (Photo Credit: Al Mezan)The boys, along with other civilians from their north Gaza neighbourhood of Al-Atatra had been detained on the morning of 5 January 2009, after Israeli forces stormed the house they were sheltering in. Before being taken to the pit that night, the boys were stripped to their underwear, blindfolded, tied in a human chain and marched around their neighbourhood to check civilian homes for booby traps or fighters.

Cold, Wet and Hungry

"We hadn't eaten breakfast that day, when the Israelis detained us," says Ali. "When we were put in the hole, we kept signalling for food and water but they didn't respond. They only gave us food on the third day and just one piece of pitta bread for four people. They made us drink water out of dirty cans. One of us tried to signal that he needed to go to the toilet, but they wouldn't let him; they made him do it on himself. While we were in the hole, we were thinking about our families and about how worried they would be. We were shivering with cold and fear and we were too scared to talk to each other. We didn't know why we were being kept in the hole; we thought they were going to bury us in it."

On 8 January, 'Ala, Hussein and Ali were released and ordered to go to Jabalia. Nafez, along with several other boys and men, was transferred to a detention facility in Israel where he was held for a further eight days. Ali explained the journey, "It was difficult to walk because of all the destruction. The planes kept shooting near our legs. We only made it about a kilometre before deciding to go back to the hole. We didn't understand where the Israelis wanted us to go and we thought we were going to be killed." When they got back to the hole they were told to take another route, and eventually made it to Jabalia.

"We saw a relative when we got to Jabalia," Ali says. "He told us that our family were sheltering in a UN school and we found them there. A doctor was giving my mother injections because she was so distressed we'd been taken." Hussein continues, "It was also really tough in the school. By the time we arrived there wasn't any room and we had to sleep in the corridors. We only had one thin blanket each and it was really cold. Sometimes I put it over me and sometimes under me. We stayed there for 22 days."

Prospects for Justice

In July 2009, in a rare step following the filing of a complaint by Al Mezan, Al-Haq and Adalah , the Israeli military police investigation branch requested a meeting with Ali, Hussein and 'Ala at Erez crossing to investigate their allegations. "We were really scared about going," says 'Ala. "I just kept thinking; how can we go there after what they have done to us already? Our lawyers at Al Mezan explained that this time they wouldn't detain us. But I was still really afraid and when I was speaking to the Israeli officer I was shaking with fear."

"I won't go again," Hussein declares. "It was too scary last time and you have to walk a long way on foot. My legs hurt the whole way because I was so scared." Nevertheless, at just 14, Hussein has put his trust in the Israeli judicial system. "I want the officers to know what the soldiers did to us; how they tortured us and kicked us. I expect they'll go to jail now that they know." Ali smiles and shrugs, his cynicism perhaps not misplaced. Despite the documentation of serious international humanitarian violations by a United Nations Fact Finding Mission, not a single Israeli soldier has been charged with a war crime a full year after Operation Cast Lead.

Hussein has already made plans for the next invasion, "I won't stay here next time," he explains, "I'll run away as soon as I hear the first Israeli bullet. I'll go and stay at a hospital. The Israelis don't attack hospitals."

According to the documentation of Al Mezan, the UN and international NGOs, during Operation Cast Lead, Israeli forces damaged or destroyed 15 out of 27 hospitals in Gaza and attacked three UN premises being used as shelters for the displaced, including with white phosphorous.