The McGirk Affair: Claims of Cold-Blooded Executions Not Credible

The tragic story of Khaled Abed Rabbo and his three young daughters — said to have been shot in cold blood by an Israeli soldier on Jan. 7 in the northern Gaza Strip as the family waved white flags — has been retold in many outlets, including Time Magazine, the Irish Times, the Washington Post, the Independent, BBC, and the Sydney Morning Herald, among others. Indeed, the Irish Times reports that “Each day, journalists and human rights investigators come to interview the grieving father.” And, as reported by McClatchy News, the Abed Rabbos’ allegation “is one of at least five such white flag incidents that human rights investigators are looking into across the Gaza Strip.”

Yet, human rights investigators and journalists overlook the serious inconsistencies in the varying accounts delivered by Khaled and his relatives, as well as an ambulance driver who claimed to try to help the family. Moreover, early Palestinian accounts of the deaths — as well as early reports in the Los Angeles Times and Ha’aretz — tell an entirely different story which involves neither white flags nor cold-blooded executions of small children.

The Story’s General Outline

Several Western media outlets claim that the Abed Rabbo family was at home in the Abed Rabbo district of Jabalya, in the northern Gaza Strip, close to the Israeli border on Jan. 7, when an Israeli tank unit approached the house and ordered everybody to evacuate. These articles claim that when several family members exited the home waving white flags, they saw two soldiers standing next to a tank. Then a third soldier emerged from the tank and shot the three girls, killing two (2-year-old Amal and 7-year-old Souad) and seriously injuring 4-year-old Samer, in addition to injuring their grandmother with gunfire. The family eventually left the home to seek treatment. (The unclear circumstances of their departure appear further down.) Later the Israeli army reportedly destroyed all the buildings in the area.

Inconsistencies in Khaled Abed Rabbo’s Story

Some media outlets acknowledge that Abed Rabbo’s account is unverifiable, but that doesn’t stop them from repeating it. For instance, Donald Macintyre of the Independent writes: “It so far has been impossible independently to verify Mr. Abed Rabbo’s claim” (“‘I watched an Israeli soldier shoot my two little girls’; Grieving Palestinian father says children were killed after family obeyed order from troops to leave Gaza home,” Jan. 21, 2009). Tim McGirk from Time Magazine also touches on the question of the credibility of the story, but seems satisfied with the family’s account and “genuine” grief. He writes: “Interviews with Abed Rabu’s wife Kauther, his mother-in-law and three neighbors, including Saad Abed Rabu and Khadra Abed Rabu (from the same clan), matched his account of the shootings, and certainly the family’s grief and anger appear genuine” (“Voices from The Rubble,” Jan. 29, 2009). But had McGirk even bothered to consult other Western media outlets, he would have found numerous inconsistencies concerning various aspects of the alleged incident. And, had he gone one step further and checked early Palestinian reports, he would have had a different story all together. The disparities are described below.

Did Any Fighting Immediately Precede the Calls to Come Outside?

Was there fighting right before the Israeli army called on residents to leave their homes? Khaled Abed Rabbo’s account differs in different media outlets, one time saying there was no fighting, and another claiming “the shelling intensified.”

Time (Tim McGirk, Jan. 29): Residents of Jebel al-Kashif recall being warned by the Israelis through loudspeakers to evacuate their homes. “There was no fighting, so we weren’t too worried when the Israelis told us to leave,” Abed Rabu recalls.

McClatchy, (Dion Nissenbaum, Feb. 2): On Jan. 7, Abed Rabbo said, the shelling intensified, and they heard an Israeli soldier calling for people to come out of their homes.

Sydney Morning Herald (Jason Koutsoukis, Jan. 24): Souad Abed Rabbo [Khaled’s mother] was in her apartment on the edge of the Jabalya refugee camp near the Israeli border on January 7 when the call came from Israeli soldiers for everyone in the area to come outside.

Her apartment had been bombed, and there was an Israeli tank unit approaching the building.

What Did the Soldiers Do to the Ambulance Driver and His Ambulance?

The ambulance driver who said he tried to reach the Abed Rabbos seems to be a particularly unreliable source. In one media outlet, he claims Israeli soldiers backed his ambulance into his house, crushing it. In another, he left the scene and returned only to find the ambulance crushed under a demolished building. He also contradicts himself about what the soldiers did to him – did they beat him, order him to strip or just tell him to leave? Samiyeh al-Sheikh cannot get his story straight.

1) Time: The ambulance driver, Samiyeh al-Sheikh, who lives close by, said he heard shots and screams coming from Abed Rabu’s house. “But when I tried to go toward him, the Israeli soldiers beat me up. Then, with a bulldozer, the soldiers backed the ambulance against my house and crushed it like sand.”

2) McClatchy: Samieh al-Sheik, the ambulance driver who lived in an adjacent home, heard the shouting. Without thinking about what could be waiting outside, Sheik said he ran to his ambulance, turned on the emergency lights and d rove towards the screams.

As he turned the corner and headed for Abed Rabbo’s home, Sheik said he came face-to-face with the Israeli tank unit. The soldiers ordered him to get out of the ambulance and told him to walk straight out of the neighborhood.

“I didn’t see what happened to the family that day because I couldn’t reach them,” said Sheik, who returned to find the ambulance crushed under a demolished building.

3) Irish Times (Jan. 26): Samih al-Sheikh, an ambulance driver, heard the Abed Rabbos screaming from his home, 60 metres away.

He started up the hill in his ambulance, in uniform, with the intention of helping them, but came upon two Israeli tanks.

The Israelis told me to get out of my ambulance with my hands up. The made me strip down to my underwear. They wouldn’t let me go to the Abed Rabbos,” he said.

4) In the Independent, Khaled says that an ambulance was held up due to poor road conditions, and says nothing about the army forbidding his neighbor to approach in his ambulance. Macintyre wrote: “Khaled Abed Rabbo said that there had been a delay before the ambulance could reach the building because the road from the west had been made impassable by the churning of the tanks.

The soldiers had in the end let the family leave on foot, he said.

He added that they walked two kilometres before finding a vehicle to take them to Kamal Adwan Hospital.”

Under What Circumstances Was the Family Able to Leave?

The family’s story about whether or not the soldiers permitted them to leave with the wounded and dead vary from article to article. One account says the soldiers allowed them to go with no trouble. Others claim that soldiers refused to let them leave for a couple of hours, and when they finally agreed, shot at the family’s feet (and another account says around their head) as they fled.
1) Sydney Morning Herald: Ahmed, Husam, and another son, Farj, recall that their mother and the three girls were dragged into the house. “When the soldiers realised that two of the girls were dead, they said Khaled could take her to the hospital.” . . .

Khaled said the soldiers told him he could take his daughter to the hospital, and he set off on foot with Sammer in his arms.

His wife walked with him, carrying one of the dead girls, and another brother, Ibrahim, carried the second dead girl.

2) Time: For two hours, Abed Rabu says, he was unable to summon help or move from the house. He says he pleaded with the soldiers to let him leave with his injured family, but they refused. Finally, his aged father picked up Samar in his arms and stood in the doorway. He said, “I’m willing to risk my life to take her to the hospital.” This time, Abed Rabu says, the soldiers allowed them out. He and nine family members followed, carrying the two other wounded children and their grandmother. “I couldn’t tell if Suwad and Amal were still breathing, but there was still a chance they might be alive,” says Abed Rabu. “As we walked up the road, the soldiers shot at dirt around our feed.” Abed Rabu says he carried his daughters more than a mile. By the time they reached the hospital, the girls were dead.

3) Irish Times: In separate interviews, Khaled and Souad said the soldiers shot around their feet and over their heads as they were fleeing. Both recounted how a man with a horse-drawn cart who tried to help them was also shot dead.

The claim about the man with the horse-drawn cart does not appear elsewhere.

Who Carried Whom?

In another detail which does not check up from story to story, Khaled is not consistent about which family member carried which daughter as they walked to the hospital. Even despite his trauma, you would think that Khaled would be able to recall whether he was carrying for two kilometers his critically injured child who ultimately survived or a child that was killed.

1) Sydney Morning Herald: Khaled said the soldiers told him he could take his daughter to the hospital, and he set off on foot with Sammer in his arms. His wife walked with him, carrying one of the dead girls, and another brother, Ibrahim, carried the second dead girl.

2) Independent: He said: “I carried Suad, who was dead, my wife carried Amal and my brother Ibrahim carried Samer.”

Where Was the Tank?

1) Time: . . . Israeli tanks churned across the strawberry fields and knocked their way into a little park about 20 yards (18 m) from the family home.

2) Nissenbaum: When they opened the door, they saw an Israeli tank parked in their garden about 10 yards away.

What Do Palestinian Sources Say about the Abed Rabbo Sisters?

According to the Palestinian Ma’an News Agency, the Abed Rabbo girls were not shot dead in cold blood as they wave white flags. Rather, the day of the incident, on Jan. 7 the agency reported, under the headline “Airstrike kills three sisters during supposed lull”:

Israeli warplanes killed three Palestinian civilians on Wednesday afternoon during what Israel had earlier declared to be a unilateral three hour halt in its attacks on Gaza. . . .

Medics at Kamal Udwan Hospital confirmed that three sisters were killed by Israeli fire in the east of Jabaliya Refugee Camp. The sisters were identified as two-year-old Amal, four year-old Su’ad and six-year-old Samar. Others were injured, medics said.

Likewise, Palestinian Satellite Channel TV from Ramallah reported on Jan. 7:

The Israeli shelling of the northern strip has been renewed after the end of the three-hour truce announced by the occupation forces at noon. However, Israeli warplanes continued intensive overflights of Gaza. The sources noted that the Israeli warplanes carried out four air strikes on areas in northern Gaza. The sources added that the occupation’s planes bombarded areas in Jabaliyah, causing the martyrdom of three sisters. (Translated by BBC World Monitoring)

In yet another version of events, Palestinian medical officials told the Los Angeles Times that the girls were killed by a tank shell:

Palestinian medical officials said three sisters from the Abed Rabbu family – Suad, 6; Amal, 4; and Samar, 2 – were killed by an Israeli tank shell in Jabaliya.

Ha’aretz likewise reported:

The war returned in the evening. Electricity went out, and the water supply was disrupted. An artillery shell struck the Abed Rabbo home in the northeast Strip, killing three girls, aged 2, 4 and 6.

(Strangely, all of the accounts which attribute the deaths to either air strikes or tank artillery — and not to a cold blooded execution — state that three sisters, not two, were killed.)

Hamas Activity in the Area

Tim McGirk of Time briefly visits the question of Hamas activity in the area, reporting:

Whether the troops believed they were under threat when they opened fire is unclear. Most residents of Jebel al-Kashif claim there were no Hamas fighters in the area of the time of the alleged incident, but a middle-aged farmer in a battered army jacket took me aside and said, in a near whisper, that Hamas had been firing rockets from the vicinity of where the episode took place.

Had McGirk done some further digging on this point he might have found the Jan. 27, 2009 report about Izbet Abed Rabbo, home for the Abed Rabbo family, from the Palestinian newspaper, Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, which carried this critical report Jan. 27, 2009 (translated by Palestinian Media Watch):

The Abd Rabbo family kept quiet while Hamas fighters turned their farm in the Gaza Strip into a fortress. Right now they are waiting for the aid promised by the [Hamas] movement after Israel bombed the farm and turned it into ruins. . .

The hill on which Abd Rabbo family lives overlooks the Israeli town Sderot, a fact that turned it into an ideal military position for the Palestinian fighters, from which they have launched hundreds of rockets into southern Israel during the last few years. Several of the Abd Rabbo family members described how the fighters dug tunnels under their houses, stored arms in the fields and launched rockets from the yard of their farm during the nights.

The Abd Rabbo family members emphasize that they are not [Hamas] activists and that they are still loyal to the Fatah movement, but that they were unable to prevent the armed squads from entering their neighborhood at night. One family member, Hadi (age 22) said: “You can’t say anything to the resistance [fighters], or they will accuse you of collaborating [with Israel] and shoot you in the legs.”

Given the long list of Gazans wounded and even executed by Hamas, it’s no wonder that the Abed Rabbo clan is not forthcoming with information about the tunnels and rockets in their midst. And, given the fact that homes in the area were used as weapons depots (against the will of the owners), it is possible that the Abed Rabbo girls were killed by secondary explosions of Hamas munitions. In which case, there’s good reason for the Abed Rabbos, who await reparations from Hamas, to tell the white flag story. It’s certainly much safer. Western journalists and human rights investigators won’t break their legs.

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