A number of NGOs, including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and Al Mezan have accused Israel of “war crimes” for an incident involving the Abed Rabbo family of Jabaliya, Gaza. This incident was the first and primary case presented in HRW’s “White Flags” indictment of Israel (see Pathological politics: HRW’s “white flags” report , NGO Monitor, August 18, 2009), which was followed by a formal request filed by Al Mezan, Al Haq, and Adalah, to the Israeli military advocate general. In response, the IDF announced that it is opening an investigation “into Palestinian allegations that soldiers opened fire and killed two children who were waving a white flag during Operation Cast Lead” (Jerusalem Post , January 2009). HRW then issued a statement (Israel: Gaza ‘White Flag´ Deaths Inquiry a Step Forward , September 10 2009) repeating these allegations. The language and timing of the HRW report coincides with the completion of the Goldstone report, with which HRW is closely linked .

Such highly-charged moral accusations, and the repeated use of terms like “war crimes”, are largely based on Palestinian “testimony”, while the ability to verify these allegations is very limited or impossible. Although HRW repeated the misleading claim (in its Sept 10 statement) that its “on-the-ground investigations found no evidence of Palestinian fighters in the area at the time”, HRW had no researchers in Gaza until weeks after the fighting. Their entirely non-transparent, “investigations” apparently consisted of recording Palestinian statements in an interview process that is readily subject to manipulation, conducted by HRW officials who lack professional credentials and have a clear bias, (in this report, Joe Stork ) and are therefore impossible to evaluate.

As in numerous other examples of highly flawed HRW “investigations” (Gaza Beach, the 2006 Lebanon War, etc.), as documented in detail in NGO Monitor’s report “Experts or Ideologues ”, the evidence shows major inconsistencies and contradictions in the Abed Rabbo incident. NGO Monitor,CAMERA , and other researchers have documented at least 14 significantly different versions of the story. NGOs have published 6 distinct accounts, and 8 others are from the media. The evolution of these accounts also suggests motivations for promoting allegations that may be far from the truth.

Versions of the Story

1) Human Rights Watch, “White Flag Deaths ,” August 2009:

“In one case documented in the report, on January 7 in eastern Jabalya, two women and three children from the ‘Abd Rabbo family were standing for a few minutes outside their home—at least three of them holding pieces of white cloth—when an Israeli soldier opened fire, killing two girls, aged two and seven, and wounding the grandmother and third girl. “We spent seven to nine minutes waving the flags and our faces were looking at them [the soldiers],” said the girls’ grandmother, who was shot twice. “And suddenly they opened fire and the girls fell to the ground.” Eyewitness accounts, tank tracks, an ammunition box and bullet casings found at the scene, and an examination of the grandmother by forensic experts indicate that an Israeli soldier fired upon identifiable and unarmed women and children.”

(Writing and research – Fred Abrahams, Bill Van Esveld, and Fares Akram. Edited by Joe Stork, James Ross and Iain Levine)

In a press conference, HRW officials acknowledged the existence of other versions of this incident. However, they could not convincingly explain why they had chosen to print the one that they did. The HRW report did not mention alternative versions from the media and other NGOs.

2) Amnesty International, “Operation ‘Cast Lead’: 22 days of Death and Destruction ,” July 2, 2009:

“On 7 January 2009 three little girls and their grandmother were shot outside their home in the ‘Izbet Abed Rabbo area, east of Jabalia, northern Gaza. Two of the girls, Amal and Souad Abed Rabbo, aged two and seven respectively, were killed and their sister Samar, aged four, and their grandmother Souad, aged 54, were injured. The girl’s father, Khaled Abed Rabbo, a member of the Palestinian Authority (PA) security force in charge of liaison with the Israeli army, 40 told Amnesty International:

“In the evening of 3 January 2009, when Israeli forces invaded Gaza, Israeli tanks took position in the area, including near my home. I lived in a five-storey house with my wife and our five children and my parents, seven of my brothers and their wives and children and my unmarried sisters. Several other relatives came to stay at my house when the Israeli forces came into the area and we sheltered on the ground floor because we know from past incursions that when there are Israeli forces around it is dangerous to go to the upper floors, because they could consider this a danger to them and shoot.

“On 7 January the shelling around the house increased and at 12.50pm we heard the soldiers calling with a megaphone in Arabic on everybody to leave their houses.

“My wife and our three daughters (Amal, two, Samar, four, and Souad, seven), my mother, (Souad, aged 54) and I went out. My mother was holding a white cloth tied to a broom handle and we were holding white cloths. Two of my brothers were also behind us. Outside there was a tank parked about 10m from the front door of our house, in our garden, which by then had been destroyed. Two other tanks were nearby. We stood still outside the door waiting for the soldiers to tell us or signal to us what to do next. Two soldiers stood outside the tank in our garden, eating chips and chocolate and ignored us. We stood still for several minutes. Then suddenly a soldier emerged from the middle of the tank. He was out of the tank from the waist up, and he took aim at us and shot many bullets. My daughter Amal had nine bullets in the chest area. She was holding a teddy bear against her chest and it got ripped by the bullets, my daughter Souad got some 11 or 12 bullets also in the chest area, and my daughter Samar got several bullets in the chest and tummy, and my mother was shot in the arm and buttock. We ran back into the house and stayed lying on the floor for two hours. There was shooting outside. Then my father went out and the family followed and a soldier by the tank signalled to us to leave. He didn’t say anything, and just motioned to us to go. As we were leaving the soldiers were shooting around us. We walked for almost 2km, carrying my daughters and my mother. When got to the intersection with Salaheddine Road (Duwar Zemmo) a man with a horse cart who I later learned was called Adham Meqbel stopped to help us, but soldiers shot and killed him and the horse. Amal and Souad were dead, and we took Samar to Kamal ‘Adwan hospital, which was the nearest hospital, and she was later moved to the main Shifa hospital and then to Cairo and from there on to Belgium.

She is completely paralyzed. She is the only daughter I have left and I have not seen her since that day. My wife is now with her in the hospital in Belgium.”

Khaled’s mother, 54-year-old Souad, recounted the same incident to Amnesty International delegates. A delegation of international medical doctors who visited Gaza in January on behalf of the Israeli NGO Physicians for Human Rights – Israel examined her and certified that her injuries were consistent with her description of having been shot in the left arm and buttock.

3) Adalah, Al-Haq and Al-Mezan, “Adalah, Al-Mezan and Al-Haq Demand Investigation into Killing of Two Girls, Suad and Amal Abed Rabbo, at Close Range by Israeli Soldiers During Operation “Cast Lead” in the Gaza Strip ,” June 14, 2009:

“Upon leaving their home, the family members saw a military tank standing a few meters away with two soldiers in it. There was no barrier between the soldiers and the family that could have obscured the soldiers’ vision. The family members stood still for a short period, waving white flags, so that the soldiers would allow them to pass by the tank on their way to the center of Jabaliya. Suddenly, a third soldier exited the tank and aimed his machine gun at the family and opened fire. The shooting continued for several minutes, and resulted in the injury of the grandmother and the three girls. The grandmother retreated inside the house, while the father and mother moved the injured girls, who were bleeding, into the house. The parents then discovered that two of their daughters had been killed and that the third had life-threatening injuries. The parents screamed for help, but none arrived.”

4) Physicians for Human Rights-Israel (PHR-I) “Final report: Independent fact-finding mission into violations of human rights in the Gaza Strip during the period 27.12.2008-18.01.2009 ,” April 2009:

“Feb 2 2009. Souad Abed Rabbo told the team that on 7 Jan 2009 there were 30-40 people in the house in Jebel al Kashif. On the first day of the “ground invasion”, 4 Jan 2009, the Israeli tanks had already passed the house. Now they experienced tank shelling around the house and Israeli soldiers shouting that they should all come out of their houses. She, her daughter in law (married to her son Khaled) and her three granddaughters went out of the house, Souad and the daughter in law and her 7-year old girl each holding a white flag above their heads. The girls were Souad, 7, Samar, 4 and Amal, 2. Outside the house there was an Israeli tank. It had come from the west towards the house that was facing north. It was 11.30 – 12.00. The tank was in the garden about ten meters from her, when she stopped to receive permission to leave unharmed. On her right side were the three girls, behind her was the daughter in law close to the door of the house. The soldier on the tank never replied. They were looking into each others´ eyes for 7-10 minutes, when suddenly a soldier opened fire and shot the granddaughter of the witness, Souad, in the neck and chest. She died immediately. They also shot Amal. She was hit in the chest and abdomen, and the interviewee saw her intestines come out. Amal died a little later. The daughter in law ran immediately into the house and was not hurt. The witness Souad Abed Rabbo was hit twice, as she turned around in a clockwise movement. She was hit in the left arm and in the left buttock. She did not see who shot. She assumed that the shots were fired from gun(s) not from the tank, but she was not certain46. She saw three soldiers on top of the tanks holding weapons. She felt, as if her left hand fingers were frozen, but she did not at the time feel the gunshot lesion in the buttock and flank”.

(Written by Sebastian Van As, Alicia Vacas Moro, Ralf Syring, Jorgen Lange Thomson and Shabbir Ahmed Wadee)

5) B’Tselem, quoted in PHR-I report, note 46:

“In a testimony given to Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem the same witness claimed she saw a third soldier get out of the tank and shoot with his rifle. He was ‘most likely Religious.’”

6) Al-Mezan (second version, see above), quoted in Ma’an News “Israel opens probe into Gaza ‘White Flag’ Killing,” September 6, 2009:

“According to the investigation conducted by Adalah, Al-Haq and Al Mezan into the incident, on 7 January 2009 Israeli soldiers operating in the Ezbet Abed-Rabbo neighborhood, located east of Jabalia town in the north of the Gaza Strip, used loudspeakers to order local residents to evacuate their houses. Mr. Khalid Abed-Rabbo, who lived with his extended family in a four-story house in the neighborhood, left his house with his mother, his wife and his three daughters. The family was carrying white flags. They stood in front of the door of the house for about ten minutes. There were two Israeli tanks stationed nearby, one of which was about 15 meters away from the family. Two Israeli soldiers were sitting on top of the tank eating snacks. A third soldier appeared from the tank´s hatch and opened fire directly at the family. The shooting lasted for about one minute. Khalid Abed Rabbo initially thought that the soldier was aiming at the ground and firing warning shots. However, he then saw that his mother, Su´ad, and his three daughters, Amal, Su´ad and Samar (two and a half, four, and nine respectively) were injured. The family managed to pull the girls inside the house. Su´ad had ran back to the house and fallen in the entrance of the house.”

Other versions

7) Asharq Al-Awsat [Arabic], “Khalid Abed Rabo to “Shark Al Awsat”: They killed my daughters in front of my eyes and I could not help them,” January 21, 2009:.

English Translation (Translated by NGO Monitor staff): “Khaled Abed-Rabo, 32 years old, who was trapped with members of his family for 15 days in his house, said to “Al-Shark Alawsat (the Middle East):”We decided, my wife and I and my 3 kids, after Israel announced “cease fire” (Tahadia) for 3 hours, to leave the house specially for food and water, in addition to the lack of communications means to the external surrounding. We were about to step out, and our children were ahead of us, and the soldiers of the occupation met us with live bullets while we were stepping over the threshold of our house, and they killed two of my daughters, and the third of them was severally wounded”. And he added “My wife and I couldn´t continue leaving the house in front of our daughters even to offer help to them and they died in front of our eyes due to the heavy fire…and therefore my elderly mother, 65 years old, could not bear to see that, and she burst and led us outside of the house, carrying a white flag, positive that her old age would make my wife and I not targeted by the occupation [forces]. But only when she got close to the three girls who were on the floor, covered (drowned may be better) with their own blood, and a soldier shot and wounded her foot [?] and she also drowned in her blood side to side of the three girls”.

8) Common Dreams , “What we found in Gaza,” February 8, 2009:

“We spoke to Khaled Abed Rabbo, who witnessed an Israeli soldier execute his 2-year-old and 7-year-old daughters, and critically injure a third daughter, Samar, 4-years old, on a sunny afternoon outside his home. Two other Israeli soldiers were standing nearby eating chips and chocolates at the time on January 7, 2009. Abed Rabbo recounts standing in front of the Israeli soldiers with his mother, wife and daughters for 5 – 7 minutes before one of the soldiers opened fire on his family”.

9) Irishtimes , “Father says children were carrying white flags when shot dead by Israelis,” January 26, 2009:

“If any of us had belonged to any faction, we could not have stayed in our homes so close to the border.” Though unemployed, Khaled still receives a salary for his former job as a bodyguard to the western-backed president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas.”

“Amal’s insides poured out. Little Souad was cut across the middle by bullets.”

“I wouldn’t wish what happened to us on anyone,” she said. “Not even Jews.”

10) Donald Macintyre, The Independent , “Gaza: ´I watched an Israeli soldier shoot dead my two little girls,´” January 21, 2009:

“He said his 60-year-old mother had also been shot at as she left waving her white headscarf with her son, daughter in law and her three grandchildren.”

“The soldier who fired the rifle had what Mr Abed Rabbo thought were ringlets visible below his helmet, he said. The small minority of ultra-Orthodox Jews who serve in the army are in a unit which did not take part in the Gaza offensive and only a very small number of settlers who also favour that hairstyle serve in other units. It has so far been impossible independently to verify Mr Abed Rabbo´s claim and the military said last night Israeli Defence Forces “does not target civilians, only Hamas terrorists and infrastructure”.

11) BBC , January 22, 2009:

“Then he said that a soldier came out of the tank, carrying an M-16 rifle, and he started to shoot at the children”.

“The Israeli Soldier shot us deliberately, she insists, slowly slowly”.

12) Al-Jazeera , January 13, 2009:

“My Three daughters went out with their Grandmother, suddenly the Israeli forces opened fire on them from a very close distance. My eldest daughter was 8 years old, she was hit by 17 bullets, they ripped apart her chest. My other daughter was 2 years old, she was hit by 12 bullets. Both of them died”.

13) Janet Zimmerman and Sameh A. Habeeb, “windowIntoPalestine ” blog February 7, 2009:

“He explains how they invaded his home and investigated him and his family. “They found nothing. I am a police officer in the Ramallah government; I have nothing to do with Hamas.”

“And then the tanks came. One of them was based only meters away from my house. There were twenty-five of us, and we were all told to leave,” he said as his voice trembled and he began to cry. “The soldiers were eating chips and chocolate, and they were smiling when they killed my daughters. ”My mother, my wife, and my three daughters all held white flags when they tried to leave the house. We saw two of the soldiers get out of their tank, and we told them how we wanted to leave. We waited and waited for their response but were given no answer. Then, to our own surprise, a third soldier emerged and he opened fire on the children with insanity.

“Souad was only seven years old, Summer was three, and Amal was of only two years. My mother was shot as well, and I watched all that I loved fall to the ground. I screamed for them to stop! I ran into the house to call civil defense, ambulances, anyone who could help.”

“We asked him why he thought they would kill his children. He replied, “I am certain they were drunk, or were given orders to kill everyone including the children. This was on Harets a couple of days ago, that many Israeli rabbis were giving orders to leave no one alive,” he explained. “I don’t know why my daughters were killed. They never committed any crimes, they were children! They did not fire rockets at Israel, although Israel claims to only aim at those who have first fired at them.”

14) Dion Nissenbaum, McClatchy Newspapers , “Israeli troops killed Gaza children carrying white flag, witnesses say,” January 27, 2009:

“More than 70 members of his family crowded into one apartment for days. On Jan. 7, Abed Rabbo said, the shelling intensified, and they heard an Israeli solider calling for people to come out of their homes.Abed Rabbo said he gathered his wife, their three daughters and his mother, Souad. Souad Abed Rabbo said that she tied a white robe around a mop handle and two of her granddaughters waved white headscarves as they walked outside.

When they opened the door, they saw an Israeli tank parked in their garden about 10 yards away.

“We were waiting for them to give us an order,” Khaled said last week as he stood in the ruins of his home. “Then one came out of the tank and started to shoot.”

Souad Abed Rabbo said she was shot as she pushed her son back inside and her granddaughters fell on the stairs. When the shooting was over, she said, 2-year-old Amal and 7-year-old Souad were dead”.

See CAMERA’s report for other versions and inconsistencies in media accounts.