Relatives of Hala Khreis, a Palestinian woman killed by an Israeli sniper in northern Gaza, say the soldier shot her deliberately and in “cold blood” even though she was holding the hand of her small grandson who was waving a white flag and was walking along an evacuation route which had been declared safe.
Khreis was at the front of a group of Palestinians who had been ordered to leave their homes by Israeli forces. They were told by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) that the route would be safe and that it had been “cleared” by the Israeli army.
But people among the group who fled said they were re-routed at the last moment by Israeli soldiers towards another road, rather than the one they were initially instructed to take.
Khreis and her small grandson, Taim, 5, were slightly ahead of the group and did not see the soldiers indicating that they should change course; they continued along the original route. In a matter of seconds, a soldier had opened fire on Khreis before she could turn back.
In a verified and widely circulated video, Khreis was seen holding her grandson’s hand. The small child was waving a white flag when the soldier opened fire.
In the video, Khreis can be seen suddenly collapsing to the ground before Taim runs back towards the group of people who had been re-routed and is swept up with the group moving towards the south.
His family were left behind as they tried to provide his grandmother with urgent medical care and he has yet to be reunited with them. Despite their attempts to give Khreis first aid, family members were unable to help her and she bled to death.
Taim’s mother – Khreis’s daughter – Heba, told Al Jazeera that she had desperately tried to find her son in the confusion after the shooting. “I pleaded, ‘Where is my son’,” Heba recalled. “I couldn’t even go look for him, fearing that I would be shot.”
It wasn’t until several hours later that they were informed of his whereabouts – he had reached Rafah with the people in the rest of the convoy, none of whom he knew.
‘I don’t know how we are still alive’
Speaking about the moment her aunt was shot, Khreis’s niece, Malak al-Khateeb, said she never imagined she would ever witness such a horrific scene. She said she was “overcome with fear and confusion”.
After leaving their home that day, she told Al Jazeera they came across Israeli soldiers in two separate tanks. The first group of soldiers did nothing, she said, but a soldier with the second group indicated that they should turn off the route they were on to another road to the “left”.
At this point, the soldier was out of Khreis’s line of vision, al-Khateeb said, so she was not aware of the gestures ordering them to bear left. In the video, it appears that she was just about to turn and look back towards the rest of the convoy when she was suddenly shot.
“I stood still in the street, unsure of what to do … If I continued to walk straight ahead, then I would meet the same destiny as my aunt,” al-Khateeb said.
According to her, Israeli soldiers continued to take shots at the group of displaced people after Khreis was shot.
“I still can’t comprehend how we’re still alive,” she added.
Khreis’s daughter, Heba, only realised her mother was killed when she saw one of her neighbours carrying her body.
“It was a complete shock,” Heba told Al Jazeera. “We couldn’t even give my mother a proper burial because we couldn’t leave – the area is under siege,” she said.
Northern Gaza has been cut off from the rest of the Strip by the Israeli bombardment which began on October 7, making it near-impossible for the people still trapped there to escape. The resulting humanitarian situation there has been described as “beyond catastrophic” by the World Health Organization (WHO).
None of its hospitals are functioning because of the blockade on fuel, water and supplies. There are also very few staff left, the WHO said. Israeli forces have besieged medical facilities and bombed or shot at doctors, nurses, ambulances and first aid responders throughout the three-month assault.
The bodies of victims from recent Israeli attacks have been lined up in the courtyards of abandoned hospitals because they cannot be given safe and dignified burials, the WHO said.
Khreis’s family was forced to hurriedly bury her at the entrance of their home. Now, they are focused on trying to find five-year-old Taim.
Heba said she is very fearful for her son. Rafah governorate has become overcrowded with people and the health ministry has warned that disease is spreading fast amid a lack of supplies, medicine, clean water and fuel.
Taim’s parents are pleading for help from the international community to ensure Taim’s safe return to his family in northern Gaza. “I want my son Taim to come back home to me,” Heba said.
The family is hesitant to make the trip to southern Gaza, saying no one can guarantee their safety.
In previous evacuations, Palestinians fleeing parts of northern Gaza have been arrested, shot at and even killed – despite routes being declared “safe” by the Israeli army.
“We ask human rights organisations, and the Red Cross, to provide a safe passage for Taim so that he can return safely to his mother and father,” al-Khateeb said.
The family is also calling on the international community and the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to investigate the circumstances of Khreis’s “execution”.
On Thursday, the ICJ commenced a hearing for a case brought by South Africa against Israel. South Africa accuses Israel of committing genocidal acts against Palestinians in Gaza.
Targeting civilians waving white flags is a war crime, rights groups including Human Rights Watch have said.
Last month, Israeli soldiers mistakenly killed three Israeli hostages in Gaza who were waving white flags. At the time, the Israeli army said it is “unlawful” to open fire on those waving flags.
It nevertheless justified the actions of the soldiers in that case, saying the shooting was carried out “during fighting and under pressure”.
More than 23,000 Palestinians, mostly children and women, have been killed in Israel’s war on Gaza.
The vast majority of Gaza’s population of 2.3 million have been displaced and an Israeli blockade severely limiting food, fuel and medicine has caused a humanitarian “catastrophe”, the UN says.
Source: Al Jazeera