Khuza’a, Gaza Strip – An Israeli bulldozer crushed the outside of Mohammed Khalil al-Najjar’s home, pushing rubble through his kitchen. Dozens of Israeli soldiers then entered his home, many of them masked, moving from room to room, weapons in-hand.
“We are 14 family members inside this home, all civilian women and children, in addition to my two boys,” al-Najjar screamed to the army commanders in Hebrew, a language he mastered over 30 years as a construction worker in Israel.
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“I have built in Israel more than you,” he added, as the soldiers ignored his pleas.
“I want safe haven for my 14 family members,” the 57-year-old eventually told the soldiers, four hours after they first entered his home. Moments later, al-Najjar told Al Jazeera, the Israeli soldiers used the family as human shields – walking behind them through the streets of Khuza’a, a small town in southern Gaza.
inquiry committees… will easily find verification that not [only] war crimes, but crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing [were] committed.”]
The soldiers, al-Najjar said, told him to “take the women and go to Khan Younis, Rafah, or anywhere”.
Al-Najjar returned to his home during a short-lived ceasefire in Gaza between Israel and Hamas that expired on Friday. Israeli troops had ransacked his home, and destroyed all the family’s furniture and possessions.
According to the United Nations, at least 1,922 Palestinians have been killed, and 9,806 others injured since Israel’s military operation in the Gaza Strip began on July 8. Sixty-four Israeli soldiers have also been killed, along with two Israeli civilians and a Thai worker.
The Israeli military launched a ground invasion into Khuza’a, a town of about 10,000 residents near the city of Khan Younis, not far from the border with Israel, on July 23.
The Israeli army fired on and killed dozens of civilians in Khuza’a during the ground offensive, human rights groups have reported, with some calling the attacks that were launched between July 23 and 25 “apparent violations of the laws of war“.
The Israeli army reportedly warned Khuza’a residents to leave the area, but many residents were trapped in the town as it was under heavy Israeli shelling. Israeli air strikes hit many civilian homes, and destroyed the local mosque.
A parademic attempting to evacuate wounded Palestinians and remove dead bodies from Khuza’a was also killed, according to the Red Cross.
“Warning families to flee fighting doesn’t make them fair targets… because they’re unable to do so, and deliberately attacking them is a war crime,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.
The Israeli army spokesperson’s office told Al Jazeera via email that it could not comment on specific events that occurred during its current operation in Gaza.
The army said, however, that it “undertakes all possible measures in order to prevent civilian casualties” in Gaza, and would “look into all cases following the close of the operation”.
“Without addressing specific events, it is important to note that the [Israeli army’s] policy regarding fighting in urban areas goes to great lengths in order to avoid hurting civilians, while Hamas cynically uses its own population as human shields,” the army said.
|Mohammed Khalil al-Najjar, left, said his home was destroyed by Israeli soldiers [Mohammed Omer/Al Jazeera]|
Jaber Wishah, deputy director of the Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR) in Gaza, visited Khuza’a after the Israeli ground invasion, and spoke with three families from the neighbourhood.
He said that according to PCHR’s findings, Israeli soldiers ordered residents of Khuza’a to leave their homes, and forced them to pass through an army-operated checkpoint before allowing them to leave the area.
Between 70-100 residents were arrested at this checkpoint, Wishah said, and transferred to a makeshift interrogation centre on the Israeli side of the Gaza-Israel border. For many, the detention lasted at least three days.
“I think the aim of this huge destruction was to make some sort of deterrence to the whole Khan Younis area,” Wishah told Al Jazeera, explaining that control of the Khuza’a area would divide the Gaza Strip into two parts, one north and one south.
“[Future] inquiry committees and investigation committees will easily find verification that not [only] war crimes, but crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing [were] committed. It was committed indiscriminately,” Wishah said.
Israeli soldiers arrested two of al-Najjar’s children, Baker and Saad, along with two of their cousins. HRW estimated that about 100 Palestinians from Khuza’a were arrested on July 23, most of them boys and men over the age of 15.
Israeli troops reportedly forced the imam of the town’s main mosque at gunpoint to announce via loudspeakers – “Surrender yourself to the Israeli army and you will be safe” – to draw the men out of their homes.
“They forced us to sit on the ground under the hot sun for about an hour,” recalled Baker, 29. “All of us, together, from the same neighbourhood, have nothing to do with the resistance.”
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The soldiers took the men to an unknown destination, and made them strip down to their underwear, Baker said. They were then handcuffed and blindfolded for five days, he added.
Baker told Al Jazeera that one of the soldiers shouted, “Sit on your ass or I’ll shoot you”, and he was forced to sit on hot sand against his bare backside.
His brother, Saad, was forced to sit on hot pavement. “The night was freezing cold, and we were naked except for our underwear,” Saad, 23, said.
“Every night, after sitting for the past five nights, we slept in a sitting position. They woke us up two to three times each night. We were handcuffed for 24 hours,” Saad added.
The brothers were released from Israeli detention and dropped off at the Erez crossing, in the northern Gaza Strip. From there, they said they were picked up by the International Committee of the Red Cross, and driven back to Khan Younis. Their two cousins remain missing, and the family hasn’t received any information on their whereabouts.
Baker, who is soon to be married, said he lost everything from his now-destroyed home in Khuza’a. “Even the $2,000 I kept in the safe for our wedding expenses was stolen by the Israeli troops,” he said, adding that Israeli soldiers left only a stack of plastic handcuffs behind.
“We had no phone, water, electricity – no way of connecting [to] anyone,” Baker, who is traumatised by his experience and speaks very little, told Al Jazeera. “My [skin] is still burning from that hot sun.”
Ed. Note: This article was updated on August 11 to reflect that the International Committee of the Red Cross never specified how a Palestinian paramedic was killed in Khuza’a.
Ed. Note: This article was updated on August 10 to include the Israeli army’s response to the accusations.