Friday, February 20, 2009 
18:49  Mecca time, 15:49  GMT     
Investigating Gaza's 'war crimes'   

To launch Al Jazeera's new weekly show, Focus On Gaza,
correspondent Ayman Mohyeldin visited the village of Khuza'a where
residents and human rights experts believe a possible war crime took
place during Israel's offensive on the Gaza Strip.
A photograph of her recent pilgrimage to Mecca is now all that remains of 
Rawhiyya al Najar.
The mother was a Gaza native who had lived her entire life through
conflict before it was to end on January 13, aged 37, by what was
estimated to be a single shot to the head.

Testimony from
eyewitnesses, friends, neighbours and human rights experts about the
incident tell the story of how a woman carrying a baby and white flag
was shot in broad daylight by an Israeli soldier.
Nasser al Najar, Rawhiyya's husband, still has the bloodstained white flag he 
says his wife was carrying when she was killed.
In 1949, the newly formed state of Israel, many of whose citizens
had been victims of Nazi war crimes, signed the Geneva Convention on
the protection of civilians in time of war.
Among the conditions of the convention Article three states:
"Persons taking no active part in the hostilities ... shall in all
circumstances be treated humanely."

Analysis and features from Gaza and Israel 

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Article 32 states: "Civilian hospitals organised to give care to the
wounded and sick ... may in no circumstances be the object of attack." 
However, during Israel's recent war on Gaza there is evidence to
suggest that these conditions were frequently ignored and that the
Israeli military disregarded the laws of war.
Villagers in Khuza'a are accustomed to living under the guns that
man the nearby Israeli watchtowers, but Nasser says there are normally
no Palestinian resistance fighters in the area and consequently he felt
the village would be spared a full Israeli incursion.
However, on January 12, the Israelis began an intense shelling of
the area and deployed white phosphorous, a move that was considered a
precursor to a ground attack.

White flag hope
Bombs were falling and a number of houses in the area were on fire.
Nasser, along with many others, decided to leave the area, fearing
the men in the village would be taken prisoner by the Israelis. He
could not persuade his wife to join him.
"She said ... If they were going to kill her, then she would rather die in her 
own house," he says.
"She thought that maybe if we lifted white flags they might have some mercy on 
us and not kill us.
"She said the white flag represents peace so they won't harm us ... But they 
didn't respect the white flag." 
Expert view 

Fred Abrahams of Human Rights Watch gives his report on the incident 
Rawhiyya's daughter, Hiba, stayed with her mother but the falling
phosphorous caused coughing fits and hampered their efforts to put out
the fires.
By 1100pm that night Khuza'a was shut off from the outside world by
Israeli tanks, with bulldozers to the east and special forces to the
The villagers, now mostly old men, women and children sheltered
together in the larger houses, but neither the size of the buildings
nor the white flags were to offer any protection.
By 0730am and tanks and bulldozers were busy demolishing houses.
Increasingly hemmed in the women and children huddled together,
including Rawhiyya, decided they had no choice but to try and leave.

No assistance
"Rawhiya was leading them. She said if all the women and children
start moving out then everyone else could follow afterward. So she
distributed white flags and led them out," Iman says.
"She walked at the front carrying a white flag, followed by other women 
carrying white flags or holding out their children."
Yasmine al Najar, another of the women, was at the front of the
group with Rawhiyya when they spotted Israeli special forces positioned
in a house opposite them.
Despite the presence of children and white flags allegedly on display the 
soldiers began to open fire.
Rawhiyya was trying to lead women and children to safety 
"I was right next to her, a centimetre away." Hiba recalls. “Our
neighbour was also walking next to her… she was holding up her child as
though a flag …. Then he shot her." 
Yasmine attempted to help her neighbour.
"A bullet hit Rawhiya in the head… it entered through one side and
went out through the other… I took a bullet in the foot," she says.
In the nearby town of Khan Yunis, Marwan Abu Raida, a paramedic at
the Nasser hospital, was finishing his first call out of the day when
he received the call sending him to Khuza'a. It was 0745am
"I drove straight there… I was still 60 to 70 meters away from the
body when what I think were Israeli Special Forces started shooting at
me," he says.
"I felt powerless… there was nothing I could do for her. My
understanding was that medical teams were protected under international
ethics and law and that medical teams should be protected and they
should have freedom of movement."
As the hours passed, and With the emergency services unable to help
them and the bulldozers closing in, the women made frantic appeals for
help, some of which aired live on the midday news.
"No one answered our calls for help," Iman, another of the stranded residents, 
"At the end we decided to go out together and face the bombardment.
The way we saw it was it's better to walk in to the fire than stay and
die under the rubble."

'Targeted killing'
Crawling on their hands and knees and still under fire, the
villagers tried to reach the relative safety beyond the cordon of
special forces but were shot at once more.
Nasser is convinced his wife's death was a deliberate killing 
"Everyone went into one of the houses on the street and they were stuck
there," Yasmine says. "But I kept running for about 300 metres until I
reached the ambulance and paramedics waiting for us. 
It was six hours later that the Israeli army began to withdraw,
leaving Iman's 16-year-old brother who had been captured tied up in a
house and Rawhiyya’s body in the street.
Calm and everyday life as much as it can exist, has now returned to what is 
left of Khuza'a but the scars of the war remain.
Fred Abrahams, an analyst for Human Rights Watch has been
researching white flag killings in Gaza during the course of the recent
"Our job is to look at how the parties to the conflict, Hamas and
Israel, respected or disrespected international law and there's such a
long list of issues but this case seems to be quite clear cut and
that's why we focused on it," he says.
"It seems to us to be a targeted killing, and all the evidence so
far suggest that she [Rawhiyya] was shot in plain sight, it was
daylight, they saw the flag and if proven that would be a war crime."
It is not easy for investigators to build a picture of exactly what
happened. The recollections of people under artillery and sniper fire
are often contradictory but in the case of Rawhiyya’s killing there is
a remarkable consistency.
"In this case I don’t see why they [the Israeli military] would have
thought that these women were a risk or a threat to them and therefore
that could potentially make this a war crime," Abrahams says.
Nasser has obtained a death certificate from the examining doctor,
confirming the paramedic's earlier diagnosis that his wife's death was
caused by a single shot to the head.
A GPS calculation of the distance confirms that she was shot at 120 metres.
This together with Abrahams findings in other parts of Gaza have led
him to a conclusion which if correct would point to a war crime
implicating not only the soldier responsible, but the entire Israeli
Military Chain of Command.
However there is little Human Rights Watch can do other than publish
the findings of the report and Abrahams says the Israeli army, like
many militaries, does not outline official rules of engagement.
Hiba has built a shrine to her dead mother 
For Rawhiyya's friends and relatives there is also little comfort. 
Nasser is doing what he can to look after his daughter but he says
there is still so much that reminds them of Rawhiyya and their house
overlooks the spot where she was killed.
Hiba has built a small memorial where her mother died.
"I thought about what she used to say about staying strong and steadfast," she 
"When people called us and told us to leave we used to tell them that we will 
stay here, and we will stay strong." 
 Focus on Gaza, A War Crime? can be seen on Al Jazeera from Friday February 20 
at the following times GMT: Friday 1430 and 2030; Saturday 0330 and 2230; 
Sunday 0830; Monday 0130; Tuesday 1030  
 Source: Al Jazeera  
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