'The soldier shouted, kill them, kill them'

Inside Jenin: As a UN fact-finding mission sets out, a Palestinian tells how he played dead to survive, lying by the body of his son
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The Independent Online

Fathi Shalabi watched his son die. The two men were standing side by side with their hands up when Israeli soldiers opened fire on them. Mr Shalabi's son, Wadh, and another man who was with them died instantly, but the 63-year-old Mr Shalabi survived. He lay on the ground pretending to be dead for more than an hour while his son's blood gathered around him.

Wadh Shalabi was one of the corpses of Jenin refugee camp whose stories are still slowly uncoiling from the evil-smelling ruins, as Palestinians rummage through them for bodies. Yesterday his father described how Israeli soldiers searching the camp had ordered the men to come to them and raise their shirts to prove they were not wearing suicide bomb belts and how suddenly the officer in charge shouted "Kill them, kill them!" and the soldiers had opened fire on them from three yards.

The old man led us to the spot where it happened, and before we could stop him he lay down in the mud and filth to show us where he played dead. The Palestinians now returning to Jenin refugee camp have begun to document the dead. They distinguish between those killed who were militants, but they say Wadh Shalabi and the man who died beside him, Abdel Karim Al-Sadi, were civilians.

The younger Mr Shalabi was studying at university and working as an office boy in a school to pay his way.

"This is a clear case where civilians were killed by the Israeli soldiers," said Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch. "We're coming across more and more such cases in Jenin. This is why there is a need for an impartial investigation into the events in Jenin. It shows that civilians were some of the main victims."

Mr Shalabi believes his son and Mr Al-Sadi were killed because nervous, trigger-happy Israeli soldiers mistook some sticking plaster on Mr Al-Sadi's back for a suicide bomber's belt and panicked. His version of events is largely corroborated by Mr Al-Sadi's sister, who witnessed much of what happened.

Mr Shalabi described what took place. Soldiers ordered his family and Mr Al-Sadi down a narrow alley. "In cover behind the corner were four soldiers. The two young men with me were carrying baby children, and the soldiers did not shoot at them."

Wadh Shalabi was carrying his four-month-old son, Mahmoud. The soldiers ordered the men to hand the children over to their mothers and told the women and children to go into the next-door house. Then they ordered the men to raise their shirts and show they were not wearing suicide belts.

"The soldiers were about three metres away. I heard the names of two of them; they were Gaby and David." He said that the soldier called Gaby appeared to be in command. "They saw Abdul Karim had a plaster on his back. Suddenly Gaby shouted 'Kill them, kill them!'."

He is hard of hearing but says those inside the neighbour's house told him they also heard someone shout "kill them". "Two of the soldiers started shooting and we fell to the ground." Somehow Mr Shalabi was not hit. "The ground slopes slightly. The blood of the other guy ran between my legs. The other two were higher up so the blood soaked into my clothes and the soldiers thought I was dead too. They stayed with us for more than an hour. One of them walked over my back. They shone a torch in my eyes to see if I was dead but I didn't open my eyes until they had gone."

Eventually the soldiers left and Mr Shalabi decided it was safe to move. "I checked my son's pulse and then I knew he was dead." He went back to his own house and took off his clothes which were soaking with blood. Eventually at around 4am Mr Al-Sadi's father came to the house. "He told me 'they have killed my son and yours'. I said 'I know. I was with them when they were killed'." At 6am the men covered the bodies with blankets. They left them in the street for eight days until the soldiers ordered all the camp residents to leave and the men were taken into custody while their identity was checked.

Mr Al-Sadi said Wadh's sister Fathia, who was in the Al-Sadi house throughout, confirmed much of Mr Shalabi's story while her brother's 15-year-old widow sat beside her. She confirmed that the soldiers told the others to come round from Mr Shalabi's house and ordered the women and children inside. She said those inside heard shooting. When the families got back to the refugee camp this week the bodies had been buried. On Friday the families dug them up and gave them a proper funeral.

It is accounts such as these that international human rights and humanitarian groups ­ not to mention the Palestinians ­ hope will be heard by a group of UN fact-finders. On Friday the UN Security Council voted 15-0 to send the fact-finders to Jenin, backing a US-drafted resolution after Washington threatened to veto a measure put forward by Arab states that had called for a formal UN "investigation" of "massacres" in the camp. Israel has said that it will co-operate. Its Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres, has stated that Israel has nothing to hide, and that the fact-finders will not be prevented from visiting Jenin.

The Israeli army's refusal to allow the Red Cross and others into the camp for six days will be central to the investigations. The aid agencies and UN will be pressing the case that, even there is ultimately no evidence of a massacre, severe atrocities undoubtedly occurred.

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