'Under the rubble, we found arms, legs, and half a head'
THE SMALL dead bodies were laid next to one another on the tiled floor of the morgue corridor, the blood drained from their cheeks. One had a bandage still wrapped around his head, another lay with his mouth half-open in his oversized, bloodstained clothes.
For a week, the Samouni family had taken shelter in their small, single-storey home in Zeitoun, southeast of Gaza city, and there they survived wave after wave of Israeli bombing and artillery strikes. Then came Israel's ground offensive, the next phase in what Israel argues is a necessary and justified battle against Palestinian militants firing rockets out of Gaza.
The Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert promised an "iron fist" for Hamas and said he would treat the civilian citizens of Gaza with "silk gloves", although the Palestinians of Gaza know perhaps better than most that there are few silk gloves in war.
The Samouni family woke on Sunday morning surrounded by camouflaged Israeli troops with dozens of tanks, who had set up a position in the rubble of what was once the large Jewish settlement of Netzarim. As dawn broke, the soldiers seized control of the highest buildings in the district and ordered several of the neighbours into the Samouni home where a dozen waited, without food and without water.
"All day Sunday, there was shooting and bombing. We didn't have anything to eat, we didn't have water to drink - our water tanks had been damaged in the fighting," said Wael Samouni (32), who on a normal day would be manning his stall at the vegetable market. "We couldn't sleep."
He stepped out of the house briefly and saw a man shooting an M16 assault rifle. Mistaking him for a Palestinian militant. Samouni shouted: "Please don't come here. They'll kill us. Go away." But as the gunman turned round, it became clear he was an Israeli soldier. The soldier shouted back in Arabic: "Bring me your ID." Samouni disappeared back into his house and decided not to venture out again.
They passed another night under the bombing and artillery strikes, grateful to have made it through to morning. Samouni remembered sitting in the crowded living room yesterday, surrounded by his neighbours, wondering how much longer they had to endure. It was 6.30am.
"We were sitting and suddenly there was bombing on our house and everyone started to run. There were three rockets. I have no idea where they came from," said Samouni. The rockets, believed now to be tank shells, struck the building and brought it crashing down.
"I looked to my side, took hold of my boy, Mohammad, and I started to run. As I ran, I looked back and saw on the floor my mother, two cousins and three of my children. All dead," he said.
Samouni and the others ran out of the house, some raised white cloths as flags and they made it to a patch of safe ground where they were taken to hospital by car.
Yesterday, as three of his children were laid out dead on the Shifa hospital floor, Samouni was in a bed there upstairs, recovering from wounds to his legs and shoulder and comforting Mohammad (5), who had suffered a broken arm in the shelling and had just woken after his operation. He was still unsure exactly how many of his 10 children had died.
"It's a massacre," Samouni said. "I'm 32-years-old and I've never seen such things as this. I couldn't help myself or any of those around me. We just want to live in peace." At his bedside was his brother Nael (36), who lives in a house close by. His wife and daughter had been in Wael's house yesterday at the time of the shelling: both were killed.
"I wanted to go and join them the night before, but it was too dangerous to go out. If anyone moved, he would be shot," Nael said. "Then when I heard the bombing this morning, I saw people running. I saw an injured man fall to the ground. I ran to help, but there was an Israeli sniper in the house next door who shouted: 'Leave him alone.' We couldn't rescue anyone."
As he ran, Israeli troops fired over their heads and then ordered them to lift up their shirts to show they carried no weapons under their clothes.
"We just made it out and here to the hospital," Nael said. Then, in a moment of anger, he pointed the blame. "Hamas is responsible for this. They are starving us, now they are killing us," he said. "They asked the Israelis to enter but where is the resistance? They are hiding. All the leaders of Hamas are underground. It's just the civilians confronting the Israeli army. I don't like Hamas and I don't want them ruling Gaza."
Hospital officials believe nine people were killed in the Samouni house, including at least four children. But they were not the only civilians to die at the hand of the Israeli offensive yesterday.
Just north of Gaza city in the Shamali district, a missile struck a three-storey apartment block in the middle of the night - home to three brothers, their families and their father.
It hit the roof and dropped down to the basement, destroying half the building and killing Amer Abu Asha (47) along with his two wives, three sons and one daughter.
Yesterday, his brother Samer Abu Asha (50) sat outside on a plastic chair under a green awning. Neighbours came to shake his hand and offer their sympathy before slipping away quickly to avoid the next missile strike.
The family were not asleep at 1.30am yesterday when the Israeli missile struck - the noise of the bombing had been too much. In the moments after the attack, there was such confusion no one knew who or how many had died.
"We started searching but it was hard with the dust, the darkness and the smoke," said Abu Asha.
Neighbours told them bodies had been taken to the hospital, so they rushed to the Shifa in Gaza city, only to be told no one from their family had been admitted.
"We went back home and searched everywhere," he said.
"We started to search ... under the rubble. We found arms, legs, half a head," he said. "We didn't find a complete body."
Abu Asha admitted another brother in the family - who did not live in the building - was in the Hamas military wing but said he could not account for the bombing.
"They want to crack down on Hamas, but Hamas is not in the houses. It's on the front line. Go there and kill them. Not us." - ( Guardianservice)