October 18, 2004

Map 6: Tel al-Sultan 2004


IDF soldiers in the Tel al-Sultan neighborhood shot and killed Sabir Abu Libdeh, aged 13, and wounded his two brothers on May 19 when they violated a curfew to get water. Caterpillar D9 bulldozers had severed water pipes in the area. 2004 Fred Abrahams/Human Rights Watch

IDF forces also reportedly killed fifteen Palestinian civilians in the neighborhood, either by helicopter gunship or gunfire, including three children under age eighteen.Asma and Ahmed al-Mughayer, aged fourteen and ten, respectively, were shot while feeding pigeons on their roof; Sabir Abu Liba, aged thirteen, was killed as he tried to get water.[223]The IDF also reportedly killed five combatants.Human Rights Watch also documented one case of the army forcing a civilian to build sandbags.Most dramatically, on May 19 an IDF tank and helicopter opened fire on a demonstration to protest the destruction in Tel al-Sultan, killing nine and wounding forty-three.)

The incursion into Tel al-Sultan began in the early morning of May 18 when IDF soldiers entered the neighborhood backed by armored vehicles, tanks, and helicopters.Around a helicopter gunship fired a missile near the Bilal Ibn Rabah Mosque, wounding two Hamas activists, seventeen-year-old Hany Muhammad Qufeh and twenty-four-year-old Tariq Ahmed Sheikh al Eid.

Accounts of the incident vary slightly.According to local human rights groups and media accounts, Palestinians on their way to morning prayers went to Qufeh's aid when a second missile struck.[224]Qufeh was killed, as were five others: Tariq Ahmed Sheikh al-Eid, Ibrahim and Ismail al-Bal'awi (son and father, respectively), and Muhammed and Ahmed al-Sha'er (brothers).Two more missiles landed in the area, damaging the mosque.A fire destroyed the top-floor library, which held the largest collection of religious texts in the Gaza Strip.The interior of the library was being repaired when Human Rights Watch visited the site on July 15, but black streaks out the windows from the fire were still clear.

According to the IDF, soldiers spotted several armed Palestinians planting explosives near the mosque, and ordered the gunship attack.[225]Abu Husayn from Islamic Jihad confirmed that Palestinian fighters had planted a mine near the mosque, perhaps the work of Qufeh.Hamas also issued a statement saying that two of its fighters had died: Hany Qufeh and Tariq al-Eid, but it remains unclear if the four other individuals were involved.[226]

Around the same time, three armed activists were reportedly killed in Badr Camp at the edge of Tel al-Sultan.[227]According to Abu Husayn from Islamic Jihad, a Palestinian gunman killed two Israeli soldiers in the Badr Camp section of the neighborhood, but the IDF did not acknowledge these deaths and they could not be confirmed.Residents in the area had heard the story but they were unsure if it was true.

By morning, the IDF had surrounded and sealed Tel al-Sultan with tanks and APCs, forbidding anyone to enter or leave.Inside, bulldozers tore up streets, ostensibly to reveal mines or to impede bomb-laden cars.A trench was dug on the main east-west street linking Tel al-Sultan to Rafah, known as Beach Road (though access to the sea is blocked by Israeli settlements).Soldiers occupied multi-story dwellings, placing snipers on the top floors or roofs with commanding views.

Abdul Sattar Abu Ghali, who had his three-story home occupied in the early morning of May 18, told Human Rights Watch how IDF soldiers destroyed the outside wall of his house with a tank, held his family in one room and forced his twenty-seven-year-old son Wa'el to prepare sandbags for a sniper's nest on the roof.Such destruction of outside walls was common in Rafah because it allowed soldiers to enter a building without exposure in the streets.Forcing a civilian to perform a task that directly supports military activity is a violation of humanitarian law.Mr. Abu Ghali told Human Rights Watch:

Suddenly we heard the sound of the wall crashing in.Then a tank came in backwards into the front room and the soldiers jumped in.They opened the inside door and went straight to the top floor, the third floor.They took my son to the second floor and me too.All of us were on the second floor, about twenty-one people.They also brought another man, Ayman Kurazoon, whom they had taken from his house with his hands tied behind his back.
They took my son to the third floor and they spent a lot of time up there and we got worried.I saw one of the soldiers, a lieutenant, and I asked him where my son was.He said "he'll be right back."When my son finally came down I asked what he had done.He said the soldiers had made him break up the floor, take sand and put it in bags, which were used for protection.[228]

Human Rights Watch saw the spot on the third floor where Abu Ghali said his son had been forced to dig for sand beneath the tiles.The spot on the roof where Abu Ghali said the snipers had been commanded a strategic view over a square and playground in front of the Association of General Services-Canada Camp.According to local residents, IDF troops were also positioned in another house on the opposite corner of the square.Human Rights Watch also saw the destroyed front wall of Abu Ghali's house, where the tank had backed in.

IDF soldiers in the Tel al-Sultan neighborhood forced Wa'el Abu Ghali to make sandbags for their protection on the top floor of his home, which they occupied on May 18. His father, Abdul Sattar Abu Ghali, inspects the spot. 2004 Fred Abrahams/Human Rights Watch

Also on the morning of May 18, IDF armored bulldozers destroyed a one-story house belonging to the Mehsin family in order to reach a three-story house owned by Sameer Barud without requiring soldiers to walk in the open.The Barud house has views over the square to the north of the Bilal Mosque.Approximately thirty family members were huddled on the first floor of Barud's building, where they thought it was safer, when the soldiers arrived, breaking down the back door.One of the men present at the time, who did not want to give his name, explained to Human Rights Watch how his family members were held in one room for four days:

They blew open our door and we were all in one room.They searched all of us and the rooms and put us in one room on the second floor.They only let us go to the bathroom with a guard. We were there for four days, just sitting.[229]

Human Rights Watch saw the small room on the second floor in which the family - six men, five women and nineteen children - was held.Behind the house, to the west, were the mangled remains of the Mehsin family house that the IDF had destroyed to avoid approaching Sameer Barud's building from the front.The family was not aware what the IDF was doing in their house for four days, but they learned later that snipers had been positioned on their roof, with a view over the mosque and the open space to its north.According to one media report, soldiers used Sameer Barud as a human shield, forcing him to go downstairs to check for Palestinian militants.[230]When the soldiers left the house after four days, the family discovered broken windows, doors and furniture.


The IDF destroyed the Mehsin family home, rubble in foreground, to clear a path to the three-story building owned by Sameer Barud. They stayed for four days, holding thirty family members in one room. 2004 Fred Abrahams/Human Rights Watch

With Tel al-Sultan secured, the IDF declared a twenty-four hour curfew and began house-to-house searches.IDF soldiers on loudspeakers ordered men over the age of sixteen to gather at a school.Policemen from the PNA were told to come into the street with their weapons above their heads for reasons that are unclear.

Box 4

The Demonstration in Tel al-Sultan: Nine Killed and Forty-Three Wounded

On March 19, several thousand demonstrators gathered in Rafah near the al-Awda Mosque to protest the IDF's siege of Tel al-Sultan.Around 2:00 p.m. they set out along the main street toward the neighborhood demanding to enter Tel al-Sultan.Approximately 500 meters from the entrance to the neighborhood, an Israeli tank and helicopter opened fire, killing nine Palestinians, including three people under age eighteen. Fifty others were wounded.The IDF alleged there were gunmen in the crowd, although it did not claim to have come under fire.At first, "four to five" of the victims were "armed terrorists," the government said.[231]The IDF later reduced the number to one.[232]After further questioning by Human Rights Watch, an IDF spokesman said that one of those killed, Alaa' Musalam al-Sheikh 'Eid, was listed in IDF records as a "Hamas activist" but he did not reiterate the claim that 'Eid had been armed at the time.[233]Eyewitnesses and Palestinian human rights groups said all the victims were civilians.

According to a five minute, fifty-three second video provided by the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights and viewed by Human Rights Watch, a crowd of men and boys was marching down the street shouting "Allahu Akhbar!" (God is Great!)In the crowd, no weapons can be seen.A helicopter is seen overhead shooting flares; such flares, however, are designed to divert heat-seeking missiles rather than to deter protesters and were likely not to have been noticed by many people in the crowd.Suddenly, there is gunfire and people head for cover.A few seconds later, with an edit in the video, there is a large boom from a tank shell.Men are seen carrying off bloody bodies, some of them children.One minute and fifty seconds of uncut video later, there is a second boom.Ambulances arrive shortly thereafter to remove the wounded.

The IDF said a helicopter gunship launched a missile at a nearby open area to deter the protesters, which included armed men, and tanks subsequently fired at an abandoned structure near the crowd.The IDF also claimed that it used flares to warn the protestors against proceeding toward Tel al-Sultan.[234]In contrast, eyewitnesses told Human Rights Watch that the killings were not preceded by any warning fire, and that the shelling continued as protestors sought to evacuate the wounded.Even if warning shots had been fired, the use of a helicopter missile and four tank shells without pause in a populated area constituted an excessive and unnecessary use of force.

A Dutch photographer present at the demonstration said there were two armed Palestinians in the crowd but they left as the protest approached Israeli troops.He told the al-MezanCenter for Human Rights:

I heard and saw no firing at the Israelis from within the demonstration.The first explosion I heard was huge, and it targeted the front of the demonstration.There were numerous casualties.I heard flares of gunfire from Israeli troops as the mass of civilians continued to march.The Israelis fired no warning missiles near the demonstration before this.Then I heard several explosions and saw people running everywhere.I saw what looked to be about fifty casualties; many of them children.[235]

IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Moshe Ya'alon admitted an error, but claimed that armed men were using civilians as a human shield."Unfortunately, a mistake was made this week when gunfire was directed for deterrence purposes against a demonstration and this incident ended with Palestinian fatalities and wounded," he told Israeli Television."We certainly regret this incident, but we did not create this situation. This is a situation with which we have to deal. It is not us who turned civilians into human shields for the terrorists; it is not us who are sending civilians against our soldiers with armed men hiding behind them."[236]

When asked why the demonstrators were fired upon, Col. Pinhas Zuaretz, the Israeli commander for the Southern Gaza Strip did not claim that the troops were fired upon or threatened by gunmen.Instead, he told a journalist: "there is no way on earth that you can allow [protesters] to climb on a tank.Photographs of Palestinians climbing on an Israeli tank will be seen all over the world."

Zuaretz also claimed that his troops had attempted to deter the protesters using various means."They asked them nicely to stop through the DCO [Israeli-Palestinian DistrictCoordinating Office].It had no effect.A reconnaissance helicopter came in.No effect.They fired shots.No effect.Then the helicopter fired at an open field.Nothing.The commander fired his machine gun.Nothing.The procession stopped for a moment and then continued.The tank commander did not see the demonstrators, but he identified an empty building that he believed was far away from them and fired. One shell four shells."

The journalist asked why it was necessary to fire four shells, especially when the tank could not see the demonstrators."I still say that he did not intend to hurt anyone," Col. Zuaretz replied."As far as he was concerned, he did everything he could to avoid causing harm.Still, I must say that had I been in his place, I would have waited after the first shell.After it happened, I told him myself that he should have waited and determined what happened after firing each shell, especially considering that his view of the demonstration was blocked."[237]

After international and domestic condemnation, the IDF conducted an internal investigation, which found no wrong-doing by the soldiers involved or their commander. The details of the investigation were not made public.

Even in a context of belligerent occupation, the control of crowds and demonstrations falls squarely under the purview of law and order activities governed by international human rights law.The shelling of the demonstration contravenes important principles of human rights law about the use of force and the dispersal of assemblies, irrespective of whether they are lawful.The U.N. Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, which applies to militaries when they police demonstrations, sets out those essential principles.The Principles require that security forces, in carrying out their duty, shall as far as possible apply non-violent means before resorting to the use of force. Whenever the lawful use of force is unavoidable, law enforcement officials must use restraint and restrict such force to the minimum extent necessary.The legitimate objective should be achieved with minimal damage and injury, and with respect for the preservation of human life.Lethal firearms can intentionally be used only when strictly unavoidable in order life.[238]

Over the next two days, May 18 and 19, the IDF killed fifteen Palestinian civilians according to both the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights and the al-MezanCenter for Human Rights.

The local hospital and ambulance drivers reported IDF restrictions on the movement of medical staff.Due to the siege on Rafah and the minimum capacity of the local AbuYousefal-NajjarHospital, bodies were stored for five days in shops and a vegetable refrigerator.

In one case investigated by Human Rights Watch, three brothers from the Abu Libda family were shot by snipers on May 19 while trying to get water, and one of them was killed.According to family members, the water in Tel al-Sultan was cut off from the beginning of the incursion, and the family's water tank on the roof had been damaged by gunfire or shrapnel.To get water, Ayub, aged twenty-five, Yusuf, aged sixteen, and Sabir, aged thirteen, went with bottles to another brother's house a few meters away, despite the curfew.They were shot when they stepped out the door.A fifth brother, Ibrahim Abu Libda, told Human Rights Watch what he saw:

Sabir was the first one.They were on the street next to our house and the first bullet hit Sabir in the heart.Yusuf was second and he got three bullets: in the abdomen, right arm and back.Third was Ayub.He was hit in the right arm. I was with them but I entered the house first.I got in and the shooting started.I first heard the shooting and then Sabir screaming.He ran inside the house and died there.Ayub ran inside too but Yusuf fell in the street.He was near the door and I pulled him in.[239]

Human Rights Watch inspected the site of the shooting, a few meters from the Abu Libda's front door, northeast of the Bilal Mosque.To the west, across the square, in clear view, was the three-story house of Sameer Barud (see above) that the IDF had occupied the day before the shooting.The snipers on the roof would have had a clear shot down the alley to the Abu Libda house.An Israeli army spokesman told the Washington Post that the IDF was "likely responsible" for the shooting.[240]According to media reports and human rights groups, IDF tanks delayed the ambulance holding the three brothers, and Sabir died before reaching the hospital.In apparent recognition of fault, the wounded Yusuf Abu Libda was taken for treatment to a hospital in Jerusalem.

Over the next few days, the most extensive property destruction was at two large agricultural areas full of greenhouses, both more than one kilometer from the border and not near any settlements.According to Mezan, the fields were razed starting on May 22, after the IDF pulled out of the center of Tel al-Sultan and continued through May 23.[241]

'Ala al-Din Faiz Buraika watched the destruction from his home adjacent to the western-most agricultural area when it began, he said, on May 20."No one could get out or in, tanks were surrounding the area," he told Human Rights Watch."They surrounded Tel al-Sultan and cut it from the town.They used bulldozers and tanks, with Apaches protecting them from above.They spent three days destroying the greenhouses, which grew onions, melons and flowers."The land, more than 250 donums (25 hectares), was owned by five families, Buraika said.[242]His family alone lost fifteen donums (1.5 hectares) of greenhouses, with a total value of U.S. $150,000.[243]

Human Rights Watch heard a similar story from residents near the other large agricultural area to the east, who witnessed the destruction by D9 bulldozer over two days.According to Ayman Dahliz:

It was the third day of the invasion.I was at home.The bulldozers came without reason and started to destroy everything.Three of them were supported by three tanks.It took two days to destroy the fields.The owners were the Agla and Dahliz families.They grew tomatoes, flowers and cucumbers in the greenhouses.In total there were 250 donums of greenhouses.[244]

Human Rights Watch inspected both agricultural areas in Tel al-Sultan.Both were devoid of any greenhouses, only ruptured earth littered with metal and glass remains.When asked why the agricultural land had been destroyed, the IDF responded that military vehicles had traveled through fields to avoid booby-traps on the main roads.[245]This does not explain why bulldozers with helicopter cover deliberately and systematically destroyed agricultural areas over a period of approximately two days.According to all witness testimonies, the IDF faced no resistance at the time and Human Rights Watch could not identify any discernable military purpose for the destruction.

Israeli troops pulled back from the center of Tel al-Sultan on May 21, allowing residents to emerge from their houses for food and water but continuing to control the perimeter.Families of the injured and killed went to the hospital in Rafah for news.A funeral for victims was held on May 24 after the IDF had withdrawn from Rafah completely.

During the incursion, the IDF announced that it had demolished the family home of Ibrahim Hamaad, a Palestinian militant who had killed five Israeli settlers, including four children, before being killed by the IDF on May 2.But when the operation ended, it became clear that the army had destroyed the wrong house.

"People here left because they knew the Israelis would come destroy the Hamaad house [and] the Hamaad family left their house the day after the operation because they knew that it would be destroyed," said Mahmoud Abu Arab, who lived across a narrow street from the Hamaad family. When Mr. Abu Arab's family returned, however, they found that the Hamaad house had been spared and theirs had been destroyed.Human Rights Watch researchers visited the Abu Arab house, whose front walls were torn away, with much of the bottom floor bulldozed.Mr. Abu Arab believes the IDF mistook his house for that of the Hamaad family because "the two houses look similar and both were empty at the time and it was a dark street."[246]Mr. Abu Arab has filed for compensation with Israeli authorities and is awaiting a response.[247]

Brazil and Salam (evening May 19-morning May 24)

Despite the international outcry after the killing of the demonstrators outside of Tel al-Sultan, the IDF accelerated its operations by launching an offensive deep into Brazil and the neighboring Salam area for the first time in the uprising.According to UNRWA, the IDF demolished 154 houses in Brazil and Salam.Four Palestinian civilians were reportedly killed, including a three-year-old girl shot near her home and a three-year-old boy who died of shock from a house demolition.Four armed fighters were also killed by helicopter-launched missiles.Most of the dead were killed in the initial hours of the incursion, except a three-year-old girl reportedly shot by IDF snipers near her home in Brazil on May 22.The IDF said that the reason for its incursion was to search for tunnels and eliminate or arrest militants.Although Brazil and Salam are located near the border, much of the initial destruction occurred in areas deep inside Brazil, closer to the center of the camp, up to one kilometer from the border.

Two patterns of house demolition are evident in Brazil.In the interior of the camp, the IDF bulldozed paths through blocks of one-story houses.An IDF officer confirmed to Human Rights Watch that there was a general directive for the Brazil incursion to stay off of main roads whenever possible in order to avoid potential bombs, irrespective of any specific threats.Approaching the border, destruction seems to have been progressively more indiscriminate, leveling wider swathes of housing.

The assault on Brazil began before on May 19.Tanks and Caterpillar D9s quickly moved into Brazil from the north and east while Apache helicopter gunships fired missiles into the camp.

The Rafah zoo marked the deepest point of penetration into Rafah, where Israeli forces set up a perimeter to isolate Brazil nearly eight hundred meters from the border.En route to the zoo, IDF D9s plowed through several fields, homes, and a factory.Sami Qishta's one-story house was one of those destroyed near the zoo:

I was sitting in the house and suddenly I saw the bulldozer next to me in the house.I heard them but I didn't think they were coming to destroy my house.I was inside for fifteen minutes while they hit it from different sides.Then they stopped and I left.I couldn't leave before then.When I tried to leave the house they said to me in Arabic, "Don't leave!We'll destroy it on your head!"[248]

Mohammed Juma', one of the owners of the zoo, saw an armored bulldozer breach the outer wall of the compound around , crushing an ostrich in its cage:

[223] The death of the boy getting water, Sabir Abu Libda, is documented in this report.For information on the two siblings shot while feeding pigeons on the roof, Asma and Ahmed Mughayar, see Chris McGreal, "Palestinian Doctors Despair at Rising Toll of Children Shot Dead by Army Snipers," Guardian, May 20, 2004; Donald Macintyre, "A Brother, a Sister and a Morgue too Full for Them Both," Independent, May 20, 2004; James Bennet, "Children Fill Ledger of Death, No Matter How, Or How Many," New York Times, May 21, 2004; and "Killing of Children Must be Investigated," Amnesty International press release, May 25, 2004.The IDF originally claimed that the Mughayer siblings were killed by a Palestinian bomb, only to later retract the statement.

[224] Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, "Weekly Report 19/2004," May 13-19, 2004; Mezan, Operation Rainbow: A Report on Human Rights Violations Perpetrated by the Israeli Occupation Forces in Rafah From 18-24 May, July 2004; Laila El-Haddad, "Rafah Counts Cost of Israeli Onslaught," al-Jazeera.net, available at http://english.aljazeera.net/NR/exeres/3FC0B866-BC06-43C7-856F-B6C6401EAB17.htm; and Chris McGreal, "Children Among 20 Dead as Israeli Army Begins Huge Crackdown on Rafah," Guardian, May 19, 2004.

[225]BBC Monitoring Newsfile of Israeli Radio, May 18, 2004.

[226] "Qassam Brigades Affirm Intention to Fight in Rafah to the End," PalestinianInformationCenter, May 22, 2004.Available at http://www.palestine-info.co.uk/am/publish/article_5715.shtml.

[227] Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, "Weekly Report 19/2004," May 13-19, 2004.

[228] Human Rights Watch interview with Abdul Sattar Abu Ghali, Rafah, July 15, 2004.

[229] Human Rights Watch interview, Rafah, July 16, 2004.

[230] Laila El-Haddad, "Rafah Counts Cost of Israeli Onslaught," al-Jazeera.net, available at http://english.aljazeera.net/NR/exeres/3FC0B866-BC06-43C7-856F-B6C6401EAB17.htm, (accessed August 5, 2004).

[231] Statement by Israeli Ambassador Dan Gillerman to the UN Security Council, May 19, 2004.

[232]"A summary of the briefing held today by the GOC southern command, Maj. Gen. Dan Harel, regarding the operation in Rafah," IDF Spokesperson's Unit, May 25, 2004.

[233] Letter from Major Sam Wiedermann, Head of International Organizations Desk, IDF Spokesperson's Unit, to Human Rights Watch, August 22, 2004.

[234] "Rafah Incident," IDF Spokesperson's Unit, May 19, 2004.

[235]MezanCenter for Human Rights, "Operation Rainbow": A Report on Human Rights Violations Perpetrated by Israeli Occupation Forces in Rafah From 18 to 24 May, July 2004.

[236] BBC Monitoring Middle East, "Army Head: Israel Would be 'Forced to Hit' Protesters Marching on Settlements, Israel TV, May 21, 2004.

[237]Tsadok Yehezkeli, "Regards from Hell," Yediot Ahronoth, June 11, 2004 (Hebrew).

[238] U.N. Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials (1990), especially principles 4, 5(b), 9, and 13.

[239] Human Rights Watch interview with Ibrahim Abu Libda, Rafah, July 16, 2004.

[240] Robin Shulman, "Emerging from Fear to Bury a Son," Washington Post, May 25, 2004.

[241] Mezan, "Operation Rainbow": A Report on Human Rights Violations Perpetrated by the Israeli Occupation Forces in Rafah From 18-24 May, July 2004.

[242] According to Buraika, the five families were Dahliz, Zo'rob, Buraika, Fouju and Abu Zuhri.

[243] Human Rights Watch interview with Alledin Faiz Buraika, Tel al-Sultan, Rafah, July 16, 2004.

[244] Human Rights Watch interview with Ayman Dahliz, Tel al-Sultan, Rafah, July 16, 2004.

[245] Letter from Major Sam Wiedermann, Head of International Organizations Desk, IDF Spokesperson's Unit, to Human Rights Watch, August 22, 2004.

[246] Human Rights Watch interview with Mahmoud Abu Arab, aged forty-six, Rafah, July 21, 2004.

[247] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Mahmoud Abu Arab, Rafah, September 19, 2004.

[248] Human Rights Watch interview with Sami Qishta, aged forty, Rafah, July 13, 2004.