(Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting) ZEITOUN, Gaza Strip — A month ago, when Abdel Al-Arkan looked out of his living room window, he saw groves of olive and orange trees stretching toward the Israeli border, their branches sagging with fruit.
Al-Arkan’s window is gone now, shattered by an Israeli air strike. The trees are gone, too, torn up by tank treads, replaced by fields of reddish dirt. When he peers through the shards, Al-Arkan, 31, sees the post-apocalyptic wreckage of his neighbors’ homes, reduced to tangled heaps of concrete and re-bar.
And he realizes that his neighbors lost even more than he did. They lost everything.
Twenty-nine members of the Samouni family were killed during the three-week Israeli offensive. Most of them died in the wreckage of their home which, Al-Arkan, several neighbors and two surviving Samouni family members said, was hit with repeated Israeli air strikes in the first part of the offensive which ended with a tenuous truce between Israel and Hamas.
“I never imagined they would do this here,” he said, working a set of worry beads through his fingers.
According to a statement from the Office of the Israeli Defense Forces, Israel acted aggressively in Gaza to “strike a hard blow against Hamas, by controlling areas from which rockets were launched.”
“This was also the purpose of the fighting in Zeitoun,” the statement continued.
IDF officials declined to respond when asked whether the Al-Arkan or the Samouni family homes were a military target, but are reportedly looking into the incident. International Red Cross officials and members of the Israeli human rights organization B'Tselem have also been looking into the reports and gathering first-person accounts of the killing at Zeitoun.
Subhi Samouni, 55, described the events that led to the air strikes in which he lost 29 members of his extended family during the three-week conflict. He said after decades of enduring the endless cycles of fighting ,that he was stunned by the brutality of the recent Israel assault.
“In past invasions, the tanks came to the Zeitoun area and stopped. There were no soldiers or bombs, just the threat," he said. "This time they killed and destroyed the land. I don’t know why.”
Al-Arkan and the other neighbors say they are supporters of Fatah, the political rival to Hamas, and thus disputes the presumed Israeli justification for the destruction to not only his property, but hundreds of civilian homes, farms and businesses, especially in areas like Zeitoun, where Hamas had little support before the conflict.
IDF officials refused to give details about the operation in Zeitoun, or the widespread destruction of livestock, farmland, and civilian structures attributed to Israeli soldiers and aircraft. The IDF website confirms that a cache of weapons was found in a mosque in Zeitoun, but few details of the Isareli military operation are provided.
During the three-week Israeli offensive, 1,300 Palestinians, including hundreds of civilians, were killed, according to UN officials and medical personnel on the ground. Reportedly, 13 Israelis, including 10 soldiers, were killed.
For Rania Samouni, 29, who lost her husband, Eyad, 30, during the offensive, the evidence of the destruction by Israelis remains written on the wall — literally.
After their ground offensive, she said, retreating IDF troops carved into the concrete walls of the family home the words "Death to Arabs," in Hebrew. Puzzlingly one of the soldiers also scrawled, "I am Russian," in English.
They also left the house littered with Israeli candy wrappers and empty bottles of Kosher wine. On the house next door (which also belonged to the Samouni family), they left a cartoon dragon shooting a missile out of its mouth.
A hole was knocked out of the center of each wall, at the joint between the floor and the wall, to serve as a fighting position for a rifleman. On the roof there were sandbags and empty cans of sardines. Pots for cooking had been used as latrines.
As for her husband, Rania left it to her mother, Etidal, 50, to tell of the events of Jan. 5, when a helicopter landed on the roof and Israeli soldiers rushed in, yelling "‘Sheket!” which means “silence” in Hebrew.
Etidal claims IDF soldiers forced 45 cowering Samounis into a cramped room, blindfolded eight of the men, zip-tied their wrists and ordered them to their knees while an Arabic-speaking soldier yelled, “What is your name? Are you with Hamas?”
Rania cuts in, saying the soldiers then ordered the family out into the cold darkness, separating Eyad and two of his cousins from the group and telling them, “Walk to Gaza City, and don’t come back.”
As the wives of the retreating men pleaded frantically with the Israelis, a soldier opened fire, wounding Eyad in the leg, Rania said, while her 3-year-old, Azat, buried his head in her shawl. “Azat saw everything happen," she continued. "He saw his father’s blood in the street. How can I raise my children now? Who will provide for them?”
As the uneasy truce settles over Gaza, attention has turned to the reported recriminations by Hamas loyalists against Fatah supporters in Gaza. Fatah is accused of conspiring with Israel to bring down Hamas.
“I have heard from friends who are with Fatah that Hamas told them to stay at home,” said Salah Sakka, 62, director of a U.S.-based aid organization in Gaza.
Hatim Al-Ghoul, 26, said he fears a strong Hamas backlash against Fatah in Gaza because “Hamas thinks Abu Mazen,” the nickname of Palestinian president and Fatah party leader Mahmoud Abbas, “agreed with Israel to make the war in Gaza.”
Yousri Al-Ghoul, 28, scoffed at his younger brother as he described the recent arrest and suspected execution of a neighbor by Hamas. “Hamas doesn’t care about Fatah now,” he said. “Many people from Al-Aqsa Brigade (Fatah’s paramilitary wing) fought alongside Hamas in this war, and they died as martyrs.”
Yousri Al-Ghoul serves the Hamas government in the Ministry of Culture, one of the few to escape Israeli bombing. “Most of the people who have been arrested were already in jail before the war,” he said. “They escaped when Israel blew up Sariyah prison, and now they are being arrested again.”
Despite the cease-fire, and the human misery enveloping Gaza, neither side in the conflict appears ready to cede fully.
On Sunday, at the mass funeral held for the 29 members of the Samounis clan, a rocket whooshed overhead toward Israel from behind the cemetery as the family began unloading its dead, shrouded in white bodybags.
Subhi Samouni rested on a tomb, exhaustion and sorrow written across his weathered face.
“It would be better to be dead like them than to see this,” he said.
(Elliott D. Woods is reporting from Gaza on a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.)