The New York Times is belatedly catching up with the fact that recent claims by Israeli soldiers that their army carried out atrocities during Operation Cast Lead, including unjustified shootings of civilians, are nothing more than rumors. For instance, referring to one of the two key allegations about the killing of innocent civilians, Ethan Bronner reported March 27: “Officers familiar with the investigation say that those who spoke of the killing of the mother and her children did not witness it and that it almost certainly did not occur.” Significantly, details about the mother and children in question — including their names and where and when they were allegedly killed — were never made public, neither by the IDF soldiers making the accusations, nor by army officials carrying out the investigation, nor by human rights groups charging Israel with atrocities.
At least, not until March 26, when the Associated Press published an article by Karin Laub entitled “Interviews support Israeli army misconduct in Gaza.” Laub, relying on the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, suggests that she has identified the Palestinian mother in question:
When Israeli soldiers expelled Abir Hijeh, her five children and their neighbors from homes in a Gaza war zone, she said they warned her in broken Arabic: Go south or you might get shot.
The group went the wrong way and came under fire from Israeli soldiers. Hijeh was wounded and her 2-year-old daughter was killed. . .
Mohammed Ghannam, a field researcher for the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, said a review of his files found two possible matches, involving the Hijeh and Ayyad families, who were neighbors in Zeitoun.
The families’ accounts were similar to those of the soldiers, though there were some discrepancies and no independent corroboration. Both shootings took place near Israeli sniper positions set up in commandeered homes, with holes broken into walls for aiming rifles. . .
Abir Hijeh told an AP reporter investigating the Israeli soldiers’ accounts that her house came under heavy fire before dawn on Jan. 5, the third day of the Israeli ground offensive, and that her husband, Mohammed, 37, was killed by tank fire.
Moments later, Israeli troops entered the home and ordered Hijeh and her five children, ages 2 to 15, to go next door, where about three dozen people were confined to one room.
About noon, soldiers speaking in broken Arabic told everyone except the young men to leave and head to the southern town of Rafah. “They said, `Go to Rafah. If you go to Gaza City, you’ll be shot, if you go to Rafah, you won’t,'” she said.
However, when they reached a T-junction, the eldest in the group decided to swing left, toward Gaza City, to check on his brother, who lived about 20 yards up the road, before turning toward Rafah. Everyone, including Hijeh and her children, followed.
Retracing the family’s steps with an AP reporter this week, Hijeh, 33, said they had walked just a few yards in the direction of Gaza City when soldiers fired warning shots at their feet.
“They told us `Go to Rafah’ and we raised our hands, all of us, the children and elderly,” she said. “We turned our backs to head to Rafah and then the Israeli army began shooting heavily.”
Most in the group ran into a courtyard for cover, but Hijeh was carrying her 2-year-old daughter, Shahed, and could not keep up. She was struck by a bullet and the toddler was also hit. Hijeh said the shots were fired from a commandeered house belonging to the Abu Zor family 50 yards away.
She made it to the courtyard, where she said she saw her neighbor, Ola Arafat, on the ground. Hospital officials said the woman died several days later.
Hijeh said her daughter was still alive, so the group started walking, eventually finding taxis to take them south. The little girl was dead by the time they reached a hospital, she said.
It is odd that Mohammed Ghannem of the Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR) so eagerly embraces Abir Hijeh’s story. It is downright troubling that the “AP reporter investigating the Israeli soldiers’ accounts” did not bother to investigate PCHR’s own detailed, albeit faulty, documents about Palestinian casualties during Cast Lead, none of which, significantly, support Abir Hijeh’s claims.
Thus, PCHR’s weekly report covering the period of Jan. 1-7 makes no mention of the death of 37-year-old Mohammed Hijeh, Abir’s husband, on Jan. 5 or any other day. Nor does it include the death of any 2-year-old named Shahed, nor any 2-year-old at all for the entire week of Jan. 1-7. Likewise, PCHR’s daily report covering Jan. 5 makes no mention of any of the Hijehs. (Both reports were checked for a variety of spellings.)
Another victim mentioned in Abir Hijeh’s story — neighbor Ola Arafat, who reportedly died “several days later,” according to hospital officials cited in the AP story — was found in the Jan. 1-7 PCHR report, which states under the heading of Jan. 7:
Also in the evening, Medical sources in Shifa Hospital reported the deaths of four civilians, including two children, and one woman:
1) Eihab al-Harrizin, 22, from al-Shoja’eya;
2) Ahmed Jaber Hwaij, 7, who had been wounded on 27 December 2008;
3) Mohammed Sameer Hijjou, 16; and
4) ‘Ola Mas’oud ‘Arafat, 20.