How a Beit Hanun family was destroyed
By Amira Hass
The first shell that struck the house sent up a big cloud of dust and smoke. The parents and older children felt around in the sudden darkness of the morning, looking for the small children – to see if anyone had been hurt, to find and hold them, to run with them into the street.
Zahar, 33, is now lying wounded in the hospital in Beit Hanun; she has undergone one operation to remove shrapnel from her abdomen and is waiting for another on her leg. She was unhurt by the first shell. So was her 9-year-old son Sa’ed. They lived on the first floor of the house, in the east wing. After the first shell, she ran to where he was sleeping under the window. The light filtered in through the cloud of dust, and she saw his blanket was covered by fragments of broken glass. She pulled it off and found him shaking. “You weren’t hit,” she said, urging him to run and join her other children, May, Rami and Fadi, who fled with her downstairs.
Her 14-year-old daughter May helped her find her headscarf, skirt and pants, but she had no time to cover her head. Holding 5-month-old Maha, Zahar ran to the lane below the house. She gave the baby to a sister-in-law so she could put on her scarf, and then the second shell fell on the east wing of the house.
Was Sa’ed killed by this shell or by the third one, which also struck the house dead on? She does not remember. She was hit by the fourth shell, which struck the veranda.
But at this point, Zahar was still unharmed. She bent over Sa’ed, who was lying with all the other dead and wounded in the lane. A few seconds earlier, the other family members had run panicked into the street to get out of the house after the first shell. Zahar wiped the blood from Sa’ed’s mouth and ran to the main street, calling for help. She ran back to her son to try to revive him, to wake him, and then the fourth shell hit.
At first she did not notice she had been wounded, that she was bleeding and her leg was torn down to the bone. She sat down among the bodies and tried to bring Sa’ed back to life. Her second son, Fadi, was injured. She doesn’t know which shell did it. Her third son, Rami, fled into the garden of his uncle and neighbor, Dr. Hussein Athamneh, but the sixth shell found him there. Rami then ran into the street, toward the house of his uncle and aunt. The seventh shell found him outside their house, where it exploded.
The seven shells killed 18 members of the Athamneh family that day.
The shells had eyes
“It was as if the shells had eyes: Wherever we ran, they followed us,” said Tahani, Zahar’s sister-in-law, whose 12-year-old son Mahmoud was killed by the second shell. “The first shell woke us. I gathered the children. The son whose hand I was holding, Mahmoud, is the one I lost. We didn’t know where to go. We ran downstairs, we were barefoot. My daughter said her feet were burning from the heat of the explosion. The second shell fell when we were already downstairs. I went and turned over the children’s bodies, to see who was who, until I found Mahmoud.
“Not even one day had passed since we buried my brother Mazen. The army detained him and thousands of other men. They took them for a short interrogation and then released them. He and our cousin were arrested together and freed together. They told them at the detention point in Erez that they could go home. They went home, but there was a curfew. So other soldiers shot him because they violated the curfew. My cousin is in the hospital, seriously wounded. And Mazen, the uncle of my son Mahmoud, is dead.
“Less than one day after we buried his uncle, Mahmoud was lying on the floor among the dead. I tried to wake him, but he did not respond. Then the third shell hit. I fled into the house. The daughter of my brother-in-law also fled, but the shell followed her. My 14-year-old nephew fled and the shell followed him. It exploded, and he saw his hand fall to the floor. Now he is hospitalized in Egypt. Only people without a conscience could do that.”
Hayat Athamneh, 55, Tahani and Zahar’s mother-in-law, lost three children and two grandchildren in the shelling. “When the shells had enough of us, they went to the house of our relatives, but, thank God, they had fled. When the shells had enough of our relatives, they went to our neighbors. My children also fled, but the shells found them. And my ears started to go deaf from the noise. I could not hear a thing. I could only see. Black smoke, a lot of black smoke.
“And then I saw my son Mahdi, lying here in the west part of the house, near the garden.” Athamneh bent down, picked up a bloodstained stone and kissed it. “It is my son Mahdi’s blood,” she said. “I saw him lying here, his brains on one side and his head on the other.”
Thousands of mourners
Dressed in black, Athamneh came from the mourners’ tent in the yard of a neighboring building. For three days, thousands of mourners have streamed there from all over the Gaza Strip. Some of them went to look at the Athamneh family’s house, passing through the lane still filled with rubble, shell fragments, shrapnel and pools of blood. On Friday afternoon, some of the mourners gathered outside the home of Bassam Kafarneh, the neighbor who was hit by a shell when he ran to help the first casualties. He died in an Israeli hospital. His mother, also hospitalized in Israel, is in very serious condition.
Athamneh walked to where her son Majdi sits with other mourners. Praising the lord, she told the group how her family died and pointed to the places where every person fell. “I saw Tahani, Mahmoud’s mother. I told her that Mahmoud was thrown on the floor here. Dead. And I saw my husband’s brother Mas’oud and his wife Sabah, and Sanaa, whose husband died a year ago, and Manal, the wife of his son Ramez, and their two daughters, one eight months old and the other three. I saw them all. Dead.
“The steel in the house was bent and torn from its place. How could people not be torn apart by those shells?”
Athamneh’s eyes were dry as she told about her dead. So were Tahani’s. Zahar, lying in a hospital bed surrounded by family and friends, began to cry only when she remembered that Sa’ed’s new glasses were ready. They had ordered them a day or two before the Israel Defense Forces invaded.
The day the shells fell, Athamneh’s daughters Tamam and Najat had been sleeping in the house with their children, because their houses had been badly damaged during the last IDF invasion. No one is investigating whether they were hit by tanks or bulldozers, shells or missiles, or from an explosion when the soldiers blasted holes in the walls to pass between houses. Four hundred homes were damaged in Beit Hanun in one week, including 25 that were completely destroyed.
The soldiers’ invasion of the Athamneh family home has also been almost forgotten. At 10 A.M., on November 1, a tank entered the garden, destroying hothouses, trees, pipes and a generator, until it hit a wall. The soldiers made a hole in the wall and entered the house, gathered all the family members and sent the women to a room on the first floor. The men were put in the kitchen and bathroom.
The soldiers collected all the cell phones, and with leashed dogs, searched all the rooms on all four floors. They called out the names of all the family members. Majdi, Zahar’s husband, has a pacemaker. He said he felt ill and asked the soldiers to call an ambulance. He overheard one say someone was sick. Another soldier responded, “Let him die.”
Majdi showed the soldiers his medical papers. One of the soldiers hit him in the chest and his nose started bleeding. After two hours, the soldiers left. They returned three days later through the hole in the wall. They again gathered all the family members, counted them, searched and left after three hours.
“They knew very well who was in the house, how many children, how many women. They knew very well there were no terrorists and no arms in this house,” said Majdi.
Majdi showed visitors the walls and ceilings hit by the shells, the clothes strewn by the blast, the broken furniture and concrete. “I believe the soldiers are happy they killed us,” he said. “They had an order from [Defense Minister Amir] Peretz and [Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert to kill us. They wouldn’t do it without orders. What kind of a mistake is it, if 10 shells hit one after the other, killing people in their beds? Not one shell was a mistake. I collected the martyrs. One by one. Avigdor Lieberman said Israel must act like the Russians in Chechnya. He just joined the government, and they immediately started doing what he said.”