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Map 6 : Tel al-Sultan 2004

Map Six
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Tel al-Sultan (May 18-May 24)

Tel al-Sultan is a newer neighborhood, a few kilometers west of Rafah’s center.  More than one kilometer from the Egyptian border and abutting the Gush Katif settlement bloc, it is now home to approximately twenty-five thousand people.  The IDF’s stated emphasis on tunnel-hunting made the choice of Tel al-Sultan, approximately one kilometer from the border and where no tunnels have been known to have been found, a surprising choice to residents.

Palestinian armed groups said they had lookouts in the neighborhood during the incursion but few fighters.  Hostilities had been rare in the area because of its distance from the border, and they did not expect the IDF to invade there.  Israeli forces had never entered the neighborhood en masse until May.

During the operation, IDF forces destroyed ten homes and damaged 156 others, affecting 1,826 people, according to UNRWA.  One of the houses was apparently bulldozed in a botched punitive demolition.  D9 bulldozers and tanks destroyed 75.8% of the roads and caused extensive damage to water and sewage pipes in the area, cutting off water for six days.220  According to the Rafah Municipality, seventeen of thirty kilometers of water pipes were destroyed and fifteen of twenty kilometers of sewage pipes were destroyed.  The cost to repair the systems, the municipality said, was U.S.$ 713,900.221  Two large agricultural areas with greenhouses were completely razed—in total 298 donums of land (29.8 hectares).222

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).

Sabir image 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.
(c) 2004 Fred Abrahams/ Human Rights Watch

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 4:00 a.m. 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.

sandbag image
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. (c) 2004 Fred Abrahams/Human Rights Watch

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.

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. 

Sultan image
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.
(c) 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-Mezan Center 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 District Coordinating 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-Mezan Center 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 Abu Yousef al-Najjar Hospital, 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

[220] Rafah Municipality, Damage Assessment, June 9, 2004.

[221] Ibid.

[222] Human Rights Watch saw both these large tracts of land but the precise figure of 298 donums comes from the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, Weekly Report No 20/2004, 20-26 May, 2004.

[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,”, available at; 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,” Palestinian Information Center, May 22, 2004.  Available at

[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,”, available at, (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] Mezan Center 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.

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