Ramallah, August 25, 2015—On August 1, 2014, Rafah’s streets were busy with residents emerging from shelter in anticipation of a 72-hour temporary truce set to begin at 8 a.m. that morning.
The ceasefire never took shape as clashes broke out between an Israeli army reconnaissance unit and Palestinian fighters, which led to the capture of Israeli soldier Lt. Hadar Goldin.
Within the hour, Israeli forces initiated the Hannibal Directive, which authorizes the use of excessive force or devastating firepower to prevent the capture of a soldier by enemy forces.
According to Amnesty International, an Israeli military inquiry determined “more than 2,000 bombs, missiles and shells were fired during the entire day, including 1,000 in the three hours following the capture.”
While an Israeli military forensic unit confirmed on August 2 that Goldin was dead, and the chief military rabbi issued a death certificate that evening, Israeli attacks on Rafah continued through August 4.
At least 135 Palestinians lost their lives over these four days. Defense for Children International – Palestine (DCIP) confirmed that 82 children were among the dead.
The Hannibal Directive permits indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks against civilians in complete violation of international law. Despite overwhelming evidence of war crimes, not one perpetrator has been held accountable.
The cases below of four families give a glimpse into the horror that many others endured at hands of Israeli forces between August 1 and 4. In addition to the deaths, the attack on Rafah caused injury, temporary displacement, long-term homelessness, and severe disruption of education for Palestinian children.
DCIP spoke with child survivors from these four families about their lives one year on from the assault.
2014: Abu Mohsen family
On Friday, August 1, the Abu Mohsen family, who had sought refuge with their relatives, took advantage of the 72-hour ceasefire to return home and salvage belongings. An hour after arriving, Saleh Abu Mohsen and his daughters Aseel, 17, Marah, 11, and Rama, 9, heard a series of rapid explosions that left them unnerved.
The area came under intense bombardment. Staying was not an option. Saleh thought a way to hedge against the indiscriminate shelling was to separate into two groups. At least then, they would not all die together.
Aseel, with a female neighbor, kept a short distance from her father, who led the way with his two younger daughters in hand. When they reached Salah al-Din Street, Saleh saw four Israeli tanks. While running to safety, he heard gunshots, and when he looked back, he saw his neighbor running toward him without his daughter. He attempted to search for Aseel, but intense firepower and fear for the lives of his two other children forced him to flee.
Three days later, Saleh received a call informing him of the whereabouts of his daughter. He returned to Salah al-Din Street with an ambulance and found her body. She had sustained a gunshot to the neck and shrapnel wounds in her shoulder.
2015: Marah Abu Mohsen
“No matter what we try to forget, the conversations my friends and I have circle back to the war because we all saw and lived it,” says Marah. “I can’t forget how I was shuddering and screaming with Rama under the staircase as the sound of the explosions rattled our home.”
The damage done to the house remains unfixed and a constant reminder of the day Marah lost her sister Aseel. “We used to sleep in the same room,” she says. “Today, her bed is empty.”
Still, she reckons, “It’s better than moving from house to house as we did during the war.” She says her father wants to purchase a house in the center of Rafah so they would not be on the frontlines if a new war breaks out.
Marah, 12, remembers the sound of a series of rapid explosions in the area around her home in Rafah that left her unnerved on August 1, 2014.
2014: Namleh family
The Namleh family, like many others, fled their home when Rafah came under intense bombardment on Friday, August 1.
An Israeli drone fired a missile at the Namleh family while on the street in the Jnaineh neighborhood. Yousef, 24, his wife Wala, 23, and his sister Angham, 10, died instantly, and six others sustained permanent wounds.
Angham’s brother, Wael, 25, lost his right leg. His wife, Isra, 19, lost both of her legs. Their son, Sharif, 2, lost his left foot and right eye. Their daughter, Abeer, 1, suffered burns to her legs and arms. Wael’s sister, Shahd, 9, and nephew, Qusai, three months old, also sustained serious burns.
“I found myself being blown away and knocked down on my back,” said Wael. “Dust and smoke rising all around me. I saw Yousef lying on the ground next to me, his legs almost cut off. My son Sharif’s left foot was cut off and he was covered in blood.”
2015: Shahd Namleh
“My entire life has changed after this incident,” says Shahd. “I constantly remember my sister Angham because she was the closest person to me. I no longer have anyone to play with at home because she was my only sister, and we thought in the same way, and were always together.”
Eid al-Fitr, the holiday that marks the end of Ramadan, was difficult for Shahd this year.
“I dreamt that Angham and I were wearing our holiday clothes, and we went to my grandfather’s house to celebrate the holiday as we used to every year, but I spent this holiday at home alone,” she said, as tears streamed down her face, before falling silent.
The injury and burns Shahd suffered in the incident have left visible marks on her hand, foot, and chest. “Since that day I only wear long-sleeve clothing that covers my hand,” she says. “I feel people stare at it and the other burns on my body.”
Shahd, 10, suffered serious burns when an Israeli drone fired a missile near her in Rafah on August 1, 2014.
2014: Neirab family
The massive firepower unleashed by Israeli forces continued overnight into Saturday, August 2. Around 3 a.m. that night, an Israeli fighter jet fired a missile directly at the Neirab family home in Rafah’s Shabura refugee camp, destroying it and severely damaging the adjacent Eita family home.
Bassam Neirab, 45, lost his wife, Arwa, 46, and their daughters Duha, 14, Ibtisam, 12, and Ola, 4, in the attack. His neighbors, Fathi Eita, 45, and his wife Abeer, 39, lost their sons Ibrahim, 9, Ahmad, 7, and Mohammad, 5, to shrapnel that tore their bodies apart. Ten other members of both families sustained injuries.
The Neirab family recovered Ibtisam’s body from underneath the rubble five days after the incident.
“We made a mistake by confusing her with our neighbor’s son who was cut in half,” said Bassam. “We buried [the body parts] in two different graves, but now we found out they belonged to the same child that was not my daughter.”
2015: Ahmad Neirab
“It’s normal for any person who loses his mother and all his sisters in the blink of an eye to have his life and everything around it change,” says Ahmad, 17.
For Ahmad, the academic year following last summer’s hostilities was important because he had to sit the tawjihi, or matriculation, exams. The scores determine eligibility for the various university degrees.
“There was no study atmosphere available to me after our home was gone, and we moved from school to school, and from home to home; so it’s normal that my average will go down like this,” he says. “I passed the tawjihi in the midst of these circumstances, but my score is very low and I don’t know what I’ll study with it.”
Ahmad now lives with his father and three of his brothers in a room in his uncle Bassem al-Neireb’s home in the center of Rafah.
“My uncle Bassem’s family has 11 members, and he has teenage daughters, so we can’t be completely free around them,” says Ahmad. “My brothers and I stay in the street until midnight and we go back just to sleep in the room.”
The rubble of what used to be their home lies untouched. When Ahmad’s father went to the Ministry of Public Works to request they clear the debris, officials told him he had to wait his turn or remove it at his own expense.
“If we have to wait our turn just to remove the rubble, and we have been for more than year, then how much time will we need to rebuild the house?” says Ahmad.
“It was a small size and built with asbestos,” he says of their destroyed home. “But it’s still my home and it’s the nicest home because I lived in it, and I was born it, and my siblings and I played in it.”
Ahmad Neirab, 17, lost his mother and all his sisters when an Israeli fighter jet fired a missile directly at his home in Rafah on August 2, 2014.
2014: Abu Rejel family
In response to the thousands of displaced people across the Gaza Strip, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) had turned 90 schools into shelters. One of these safe havens was the Rafah Boys Preparatory School ‘A’, a temporary home for 3,000 registered civilians.
On Sunday, August 3, at 10:40 a.m., an Israeli drone missile struck a group of people, queuing to buy ice cream, six meters (20 feet) from the school gates. Twelve people died, including nine children, and 25 sustained injuries, half of whom were children.
Among the dead were Munther Abu Rejel, 6, and his sister Aya, 3, who suffered severe shrapnel wounds to the chest. Both were in a bathroom next to the street where the missiles landed. Their mother, Mirvat, 40, recalled the chaos that erupted soon after the explosion.
“I looked for the rest of my children. I called my husband who was visiting a friend in Tal al-Sultan in Rafah. I kept looking until I found them. They were terrified and screaming. But I could not find Munther. I asked them about him, and they said they did not see him.”
Many of the deaths resulted from shrapnel that scattered throughout the schoolyard, where children had been playing.
2015: Haitham Abu Rejel
“I’m sad my younger siblings died,” says Haitham, 12. “I love [them] and I know they’re alive in heaven and that I’ll see them one of these days.”
In the meantime, a picture of Aya and Munther that his mother Mirvat hung in the living room will have to do.
The trauma they experienced that day remains present. “At night, when the electricity is out, we’re scared to come out or go anywhere,” says Haitham.
Haitham, and his four other siblings, have struggled this school year to keep up. “My mother used to help us with homework,” he says. “But now, after my two young siblings died, she no longer helps us study like before.”
Aya’s twin sister, Doaa, 4, wets herself since the day of the bombardment, Haitham says. Her sister Anwar, 10, requires special attention at school.
“The school counselor has to sit with my sister Anwar in class because she gets scared,” says Haitham. “She doesn’t sit in her place and she keeps moving and shaking during classes. This happened to her after the war.”
Haitham, 12, lost his brother Munther, 6, and sister Aya, 3, when an Israeli drone missile struck a group of people near the gates of the Rafah Boys Preparatory School ‘A’ on August 3, 2014.