A Schoolgirl Riddled with Bullets and No One is to Blame
By Chris McGreal
The undisputed facts are these: it was broad daylight, 13-year-old Iman al-Hams was wearing her school uniform, and when she walked into the Israeli army’s “forbidden zone” at the bottom of her street she was carrying her satchel. A few minutes later the short, slight child was pumped with bullets. Doctors counted at least 17 wounds and said much of her head was destroyed.
Beyond that there is little agreement between the army top brass and Palestinian witnesses as to how Iman came to die last week, or even among members of the military unit responsible for killing the child in Gaza’s Rafah refugee camp.
Palestinian witnesses described the shooting as cold-blooded. They say soldiers could not have failed to see they were firing at a child, and she was killed as she already lay wounded and helpless.
“Some soldiers were lying on the ground and shooting very heavily toward her,” said Basim Breaka, who saw the killing from her living room. “Then one of the soldiers walked to her and emptied his clip into her. For sure she died on the second or third bullet. I could see her lying on the ground, not moving. I can’t imagine why that soldier wanted to shoot her after she was dead.”
This week an army investigation cleared the unit’s commander after some of his own soldiers accused him of giving the order to shoot knowing the target was a young girl, and of then emptying the clip of his automatic rifle into her.
On the day she died, Iman left home shortly before 7am for the short walk to school in Rafah’s Tal al-Sultan neighborhood. The school, facing the heavily militarized border with Egypt, is under the shadow of a towering camouflaged Israeli gun post.
Like almost every other building in the area, Iman’s school is pockmarked by bullets. Last year, a 13-year-old boy was shot dead by the army outside the school. This year, two pupils and a teacher were wounded by bullets inside the grounds.
Iman walked past her school with her satchel over her shoulder, crossed the road and climbed down a small sandy bank to an area that was an olive and citrus orchard until the army’s bulldozers flattened it in April. She had entered the “forbidden zone” next to the watchtower where any Palestinian risks being shot.
The schoolgirl kept on walking toward the tower but was still several hundred meters away when two shots caught her in the leg. She dropped her bag, turned, tried to hobble away, and fell.
Four or five soldiers emerged from the army post and shot at her from a distance. Palestinian witnesses and some Israeli soldiers say that the platoon commander moved in closer to put two bullets in the child’s head. They say that he then walked away, turned back and fired a stream of bullets into her body.
Iman’s corpse was taken to Rafah’s hospital and inspected by Dr Mohammed al-Hams. “She has at least 17 bullets in several parts of the body, all along the chest, hands, arms, legs,” he said. “The bullets were large and shot from a close distance. The most serious injuries were to her head. She had three bullets in the head. One bullet was shot from the right side of the face beside the ear. It had a big impact on the whole face. Another bullet went from the neck to the face and damaged the area under the mouth.”
The doctor said that the nature of the wounds suggested that Iman was already dead when some of the bullets hit her. The army swiftly blamed Iman for her own death by entering the forbidden zone. At first, the military said soldiers suspected the girl was carrying a bomb in her satchel. When it turned out there was no bomb, it said she was being used by Palestinian combatants to lure troops from their post.
But some soldiers in the unit responsible, the Shaked battalion, were outraged at what they saw as a cover-up. One told Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper that a soldier in the watchtower had told the company commander that he was about to shoot a child: “Don’t shoot, it’s a little girl.”
“The company commander approached her, shot two bullets into her, walked back towards the force, turned back to her, switched his weapon to automatic and emptied his entire magazine into her. We were in shock. We couldn’t believe what he was doing. Our hearts ached for her. Just a girl of 13,” a soldier told the newspaper.
Other soldiers said that if the company commander was not dismissed they would refuse to serve under him: “It is a disgrace that he is still in his position. We want him kicked out.”
The accounts of Palestinian witnesses back the claims of the protesting soldiers.
Fuad Zourob was working at a small brick factory overlooking the area where Iman was shot. “The girl was walking in the sand. She was shot from the army post. She was hit in the leg and she was crawling.
“Then she stood up and started to try and run and then she fell. The shooting went on. The soldiers arrived by foot. One came close to the girl and started to shoot. He walked away, turned back and then shot her some more,” he said.
Yousef Breaka watched from the balcony of his second floor flat. He owns the 12 acres of bulldozed land beside the building which Iman crossed minutes before she was shot.
“The first shot came from the army post. It hit her in the leg. She was starting to walk on and then fell. She dropped her bag. They were firing, heavy shooting. I am sure she died before the two soldiers came and shot her bag and then her,” he said.
Mr. Breaka’s living room wall is decorated with the holes of nine bullets fired from the Israeli army watchtower two years ago. A tenth bullet killed his 80-year-old mother, Jindiya.
Neither Iman’s father, Samir al-Hams, nor the witnesses know why the girl walked into the forbidden zone.
“I can’t explain why she was there. I’ve asked everyone and no one can explain it. Perhaps she just wanted to walk on the sand. Perhaps she was confused. I don’t know,” said Mr. al-Hams.
Mr. Zourob was surprised to see Iman walking at the back of his factory. “I was astonished. I didn’t know why she was there. No one goes toward that area. She was alone but some of the schoolchildren were calling her: Iman, why are you there?” he said.
The watchtower sits atop a large hill of sand. It is surrounded by barbed wire and other defenses. Even before she was hit in the leg, it would have taken Iman 10 minutes or more to scramble up the hill. Once she was wounded, there was little chance she could have got to the watchtower.
If she was carrying a bomb, it could have harmed Israeli troops had she got close enough to them. But after Iman was shot in the leg she dropped her school bag.
Palestinian witnesses say soldiers pumped it full of bullets, establishing that it was not a bomb, but still went on to shoot the girl.
The Israeli army’s rules of engagement permit soldiers to wound a person who enters a security zone and does not heed warning shots to leave. But once the person is wounded, soldiers are only permitted to kill if there is an imminent threat to their lives. Witnesses say Iman was helpless and posed no such threat.
Her father is a teacher at a primary school neighboring his daughter’s. “The day Iman was killed, the headmistress of her school called me at 8:15 and asked why she wasn’t at school. I said I had no idea.,” he said.
“I ran to the school. The teachers and headmistress told me the army shot toward a small girl but she was fine, don’t worry. I calmed down a bit when I heard that and thought maybe they shot toward her to make her afraid and arrested her for interrogation and they will release her. But then they declared her dead. That was the worst moment in my life.”
This week, the officer responsible for the Gaza strip, Major General Dan Harel, completed his investigation and pronounced that the company commander had not acted unethically in the shooting of Iman but was being suspended for losing the confidence of his soldiers.
The speed of the investigation has revealed once again the cursory nature of the army’s inquiries into such shootings. A more thorough investigation usually only follows if there is external pressure, such as in the case of three Britons shot dead by Israeli soldiers over the past two years.
The military has quietly dropped an investigation into the killing by an Israeli sniper of a brother and sister, both teenagers, in Rafah in May. The army falsely claimed that the pair were killed by a Palestinian bomb and only began the investigation after journalists found the bodies of the children and reported that both had a single shot to the head.
Under pressure from the revelations of the Shaked battalion soldiers, the military police has launched a separate investigation into the death of Iman al-Hams. The soldiers say they will insist that it is completed.
—Guardian (UK) October 21, 2004