More on Israeli war crimes: preventing ambulances from reaching wounded civilians violates Fourth Geneva Convention

January 23, 2009

In News

Part II: Palestinian US College Grad Loses 2 Brothers in Israeli Shooting;

Father Watched Son Bleed to Death After Israeli Troops Blocked Ambulances

01.22.2009 | Democracy NOW!
By Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez

We return to the heart-wrenching tale of Amer Shurrab, who lost two of his brothers on the same day in an Israeli attack in Gaza. Amer is a Palestinian from Khan Yunis living in the United States. He recently graduated from Middlebury College. On Friday, his father and two brothers were fleeing their village when their vehicle came under Israeli fire. Twenty-eight-year-old Kassab died in a hail of bullets trying to flee the vehicle. Eighteen-year-old Ibrahim survived the initial attack, but Israeli troops refused to allow an ambulance to reach them until twenty hours later. [includes rush transcript]

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Amer Shurrab, Palestinian from Khan Yunis in the Gaza Strip. Two of his brothers were killed in an Israeli attack on Friday. He can be reached at

Phyllis Bennis, fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C., specializing in Middle East and United Nations issues. Her books include Challenging Empire: How People, Governments, and the UN Defy US Power and Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer.

AMY GOODMAN: We return to a story we first heard yesterday on Democracy Now! It’s the heart-wrenching tale of Amer Shurrab. He lost two of his brothers on the same day in an Israeli attack in Gaza. Amer is a Palestinian from Khan Yunis living in the United States. He just graduated from Middlebury College in Vermont.

On Friday, his dad and two brothers were fleeing their village when their vehicle came under Israeli fire. His brother, twenty-eight-year-old Kassab, died in a hail of bullets trying to flee the vehicle. His other brother, eighteen years old, Ibrahim, survived the initial attack, but Israeli troops refused to allow an ambulance to reach him and his father until twenty hours later. By then, it was too late. Ibrahim had bled to death in front of his father.

Amer Shurrab joins us today again from Washington, D.C. to continue with the story he began yesterday. Juan and I welcome you to Democracy Now!, Amer.

AMER SHURRAB: Thank you for having me, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Amer, for those who didn’t hear yesterday, if you could briefly tell us again your understanding. It was Friday, is that right? That was when Tzipi Livni was actually in Washington, D.C., meeting with Condoleezza Rice.


AMY GOODMAN: And you got the call from your dad?

AMER SHURRAB: I got the call from my big brother, who lives in Saudi Arabia. He watched my dad’s plea on air on Al Jazeera.

AMY GOODMAN: And this was still when your father was on the ground with, Ibrahim, your eighteen-year-old brother, who was wounded in the leg, not—should not have been a fatal wound.

AMER SHURRAB: No, absolutely not.

AMY GOODMAN: And what did you do at that moment when you heard they were there? What was your dad trying to do at that point, and what did you do?

AMER SHURRAB: Well, my dad was asking for help from everyone who could help. What I did with a group of friends, we started contacting everyone we could know who could—might be able to provide them help. I contacted the Seeds of Peace, whom I am a member of. I contacted Middlebury College. I contacted my host parents. I contacted the International Red Cross. I tried to contact the media, the BBC, the CNN. I contacted the Israeli journalist, Amira Hass. And I tried to get in touch with everyone I could think of.

And my network, we contacted my fellow UW—United World College students, who also tried to contact everyone they could think of who could influence the Israeli army or send the word out. Maybe it will influence the Israeli army, and they will allow help.

And throughout the night, we were in contact with Al-Haq, which is an NGO based in Ramallah, who were following the story. We were talking with a Middlebury alumni. She’s interning with Al-Haq, and she was following the story with us.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And from what you have heard from your family there, what kind of response from the pressure on the Israeli army or the Israeli government—what was the reaction of the Israeli army to all the people that were trying to contact them to let them let an ambulance get through?

AMER SHURRAB: Well, they didn’t get any positive response, and the army said, “We can’t. We have to fully explore the situation. We have to evaluate the situation and see how it will affect the operations in the area.” And at some point, they informed Physicians for Human Rights, another aid group that was contacting them, that there’s an explanation for not sending the ambulance, but they said they wouldn’t provide the explanation.

AMY GOODMAN: Amer, your father and brother Ibrahim are on one side of the road on one side of the car that was shot at, and Ibrahim is lying there, your father calling on the cell phone, trying to get help. On the other side of the car, the passenger side, was your other brother, Kassab, who had been shot dead at the beginning of this attack, Israeli forces from a house. Was your father able to get to his body just on the other side of the car?

AMER SHURRAB: He wasn’t able to get to his body until about seven hours later, because any—

AMY GOODMAN: What was stopping him?

AMER SHURRAB: If he tries to move, the troops would tell him, “Don’t move, or we are going to shoot you.” And if he actually attempts to move, they fire in the air or around him. But around 8:00 p.m. or so on Friday, he saw some cats, some wild cats, starting to circle around Kassab’s body, so he couldn’t take it anymore. And he moved the two or three feet that separated him from Kassab’s body just to make sure the cats wouldn’t get to his body.

JUAN GONZALEZ: But he wasn’t able to actually bring the body back to where he was or move it in any way.

AMER SHURRAB: No, all he could do is just turn him on his back and cover his face with his coat.

AMY GOODMAN: Amer, Ibrahim—tell us what was happening with him through the day, your eighteen-year-old brother, who your father was with. Where was he shot?

AMER SHURRAB: He was shot in his leg just under the knee. And while he was getting out of the car, upon the orders of the soldiers, he got shot, and he screamed, “I have been injured!” And he tried to call the ambulance, but the soldiers ordered him to drop the phone, or they would shoot him.

But they would allow my father to use a cell phone. My father tried to call the emergency number several times. And Ibrahim would tell him, every five minutes, “I’m hurt. I’m injured. I’m in pain. Call an ambulance.” And he was bleeding all the time. And after sunset, he started shivering and trembling, telling my dad he was cold.

And after my dad found out that Kassab was dead, Ibrahim asked my dad, “Were you pleased with him, Daddy?” And he said, “Yes, I’m pleased with him.” And then Ibrahim, around 9:00, Ibrahim told my dad he was still shivering from cold, and he told my dad, “I’m so cold.” So my dad told him, “OK, stand up, and I will help you to get in the car. Maybe it will be warmer there.”

So, as they stood up, the soldier said, “Don’t move, or we will shoot you.” But my dad screamed back. He was like, “You killed my son! If you want to shoot us, shoot us! I don’t care!” And he helped him into the car. He—my dad took off his coat and covered Ibrahim with it. And they had some laundry piled in the back of the car, so he covered Ibrahim with it, trying to—just trying to provide him with some warmth. And he asked him, “Ibrahim, are you warm?” He said, “I’m warm, Daddy, but I’m in pain. Call an ambulance. Call 101.” And he would repeat that every five minutes. “Call an ambulance. Call 101.”

And all that time, my dad was receiving calls from the media, from human rights groups, and he was repeating his appeal and telling them, “My son was killed, and the other one is bleeding, and he’s in pain. Send us help.” And help was nowhere to be seen.

And around midnight, he got a call from Al Jazeera, and they told him, “You are on air. Please tell us where you are. What’s happening?” So he broadcasted his plea on air. And once he was done, he couldn’t hear the breath of Ibrahim. He thought he fell asleep. He talked to him; he wouldn’t respond. He placed his hand on his forehead. It was still warm, but he wasn’t breathing anymore, and he had no pulse.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Amer, could you tell—in all of the twenty hours that your father was there, those soldiers who did the shooting never came out to even come near them or to try to, in one way or another, find out the results of what they had done?

AMER SHURRAB: No, no. He asked them for help several times, but they didn’t care.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, Amer, your father, your family, you, are all well known there. You have a farm on the border. Did you know Israeli soldiers as you were growing up? Your farm right in the suburb of Khan Yunis.

AMER SHURRAB: Well, our farm is about 500 meters away from the borders. In several occasions, when there are incursions, the troops would come by, like, pass him, storm by him and continue. They wouldn’t come near him. They knew he has nothing to do with anything. He has no political or military affiliations.

One time, they detained Ibrahim for pointing a flashlight he was carrying at night. They came to the farm. They searched everything. And they kick and destroyed around the house and the farm. They took my dad’s cell phones. They shot the tires, took Ibrahim, questioned him and informed him with so many details about our family, about our cell phone numbers, about our nicknames, about what we do, and they asked him several other questions. And then they let him go.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, were any of these soldiers who were there—did your dad know any of them? Did he see any of them? Where were they shooting from?

AMER SHURRAB: They were shooting from a house that was about thirty or forty yards away from the car. He doesn’t know any one of them in person.

But the soldiers took a group of the residents and other citizens. They took them as hostages or human shields in that house. And some of these hostages actually understood Hebrew. They spoke and understood Hebrew, and they overheard the conversation between the soldiers. The soldiers told the officer, when they saw the car, that this car, they know the car, and they know that the passengers are civilians, but the officer ordered them to shoot and shoot to kill.

Later on, as part of this unit, there were two army medics, two army doctors, who asked the officer for permission to go help the victims, to go help the injured, but the officer refused, because he knew they were civilians, and he didn’t want to get exposed. He didn’t want the story to get out, because he thought he might get in trouble for that.

AMY GOODMAN: They actually heard him say that?


AMY GOODMAN: The people in the house who spoke Hebrew?


AMY GOODMAN: And how do you know this?

AMER SHURRAB: Because one of the hostages is a man who works for my dad in the family, and the man who understood Hebrew told this worker about the conversation, and when the worker visited my dad in hospital, he informed him of this conversation.

JUAN GONZALEZ: So that would mean that if there is an investigation, an impartial investigation of what happened, there were actually witnesses, civilian witnesses in the house, to what these Israeli soldiers did?


AMY GOODMAN: And your dad was able to contact his brother, and his brother tried to get an ambulance to them as they lay in the street and as he was in the car?

AMER SHURRAB: Yes. So, around—the attack happened at about 1:00. So, around 2:00, after the Red Crescent said, “We can’t send an ambulance without coordination with the army,” my uncle, who was called by my dad, managed to get an ambulance and get it going there on his own responsibility.

As they approached the area, they were stopped by a row of tanks, and the soldiers on the tanks informed them with loudspeakers, they told them, “You go back. You leave, or we will start firing at you.” So they were left with no choice but to leave without reaching the victims.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Your brother Kassab was twenty-eight. Ibrahim was eighteen. Could you tell us a little bit about them? Were they working on the farm with your father? Or, what their aspirations were for the future?

AMER SHURRAB: Kassab was an architect. He graduated from the Islamic University and finally graduated in 2007. He had so much trouble in college, because it was very hard to get to college because of the checkpoints and the troubles on the roads. So he missed so many classes and lectures, and he had to extend his period of study. But he graduated from the Islamic University in 2007 with a bachelor as an architect.

Ibrahim was a freshman in college, in Al-Azhar University. He started studying commerce, and he was about to finish his first semester.

They regularly go to the farm to help my father around with work, to just get some fresh air and to enjoy nature there.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Amer, how did you end up coming to the United States and going to Middlebury College?

AMER SHURRAB: Well, in 2001, I joined a program called United World College. So I went to the United World College of the Adriatic in Italy. It’s in a town called Duino in the province of Trieste. It’s on the Adriatic Sea. So I studied there, and I received my international baccalaureate program. And after that, I received—I applied for some US colleges, and I received a full scholarship from Middlebury College as a Davis United World College Scholar in 2004.

AMY GOODMAN: And you graduated with an economics degree?


AMY GOODMAN: And now you’re in Washington.


AMY GOODMAN: Have you spoken to your dad in the hospital? And how is he? How far is that hospital from where they lay in the road?

AMER SHURRAB: The hospital was about one kilometer away from where they were. So even if they were allowed to walk there, they probably would have made it.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And your father, how’s he doing?

AMER SHURRAB: I was informed he was dispatched from hospital yesterday. His injury is not life-threatening, but the experience he has gone through is just horrific. I can’t even begin to imagine how he feels.

And I managed to talk—to have only one long conversation with him. And he’s dying inside every minute of every day. And his only hope in life, to see justice being served and to know that those who murdered his sons and who committed this atrocity will not get away with it.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And if you could express to the American people and to the incoming administration of Barack Obama what you would hope our country would do about this situation and the continued killing there?

AMER SHURRAB: I lived in this country for over four years now. I know the people in this country are peace-loving and good-natured. And I know they’re not aware of these atrocities. I urge the people, I urge the President Obama, and I urge the Congress to look at the fact, to look at what is going and to make sure is stops, make sure no more innocent—no more innocent lives are being—no more innocents are being killed anymore. I urge them to stop this madness.

They can be friends of Israel, but a friend or a good friend—a good friend will tell their friends when they make a mistake. They will never give them a carte blanche to do whatever they want, because, at the end of the day, what Israel is doing today is harming it more than anyone else.

AMY GOODMAN: Amer Shurrab, I want to thank you for joining us. It’s very brave of you to come on the air in so much pain to tell the story of your brothers and your dad, and we very much appreciate it. We will also post on our website at, in addition to the transcript and the video, the photographs of your family.

Amer Shurrab is now in Washington, D.C. He just graduated from Middlebury College in economics. He’s there in Washington looking for a job. His two brothers, Kassab, twenty-eight, and Ibrahim, died in an Israeli attack in Khan Yunis on Friday, his dad just released from the hospital.

This is Democracy Now!,, the War and Peace Report. We’ll be back in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: During that break, for our TV audience and online video, we showed the photographs of Amer’s older brother Kassab before the attack, and we showed the pictures of his father in the hospital. You can go to our website to view the video and the photos.

I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan Gonzalez, as we’re continuing in Washington right now, in the studio right next to Amer’s, by Phyllis Bennis, the fellow at Institute for Policy Studies specializing in the Middle East and United Nations issues. Her books include Challenging Empire: How People, Governments, and the UN Defy US Power, as well as Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer.

Phyllis, to start, as you listen to Amer’s story, where does international law fit in, not to mention local law, in Israel and the Occupied Territories?

PHYLLIS BENNIS: Yeah, it’s very difficult, of course, Amy, to listen, to hear firsthand the horrific character of these attacks. But it is very important that we understand the legal basis and the question of the role of the United States. The United States, of course, has provided an average of $3 billion a year in military aid to Israel. The F-16s, the Apache helicopters, the TOW missiles, a huge amount, the fuel, the fossil fuels that are fueling the Israeli military right now, all are coming from the United States. And that makes us complicit in a very direct way when those weapons are used illegally. And according to US law, the Arms Export Control Act, it is prohibited for Israel or for any country receiving US military equipment—but in this case Israel—it is prohibited to use that equipment, that military equipment, that ammunition, those weapons, outside of very narrow constraints. All of this violates those narrow constraints.

Beyond that, the question of international law is impacted very directly. The Israelis have a very particular obligation in Gaza and the West Bank and occupied East Jerusalem as the occupying power. Under the Geneva Conventions, as the occupying power, Israel has the obligation to protect the civilian population. And that has a whole range of specific obligations, starting with no collective punishment, no use of prohibited weapons. The whole range of attacks that we have seen during this period of the three-week war in Gaza constituted a whole host of violations of different articles of the Geneva Conventions, starting with Article 33, that prohibits as an absolute any collective punishment, meaning that the siege of Gaza, which was creating a humanitarian disaster in Gaza even before the military assault began, was itself a violation of the prohibition that says Israel cannot punish anyone in Gaza, let alone the entire population of a million-and-a-half people, half of whom are children under seventeen, cannot punish them for any act they were not personally responsible for.

So the notion that they could fire on a civilian car, in this case with a father and his two sons, knowing they were civilians who were guilty of nothing, who were accused of nothing, that they could fire on that car, because they felt threatened or for any other reason, is absolutely a violation. Then there’s another violation inherent in the refusal of allowing medical care, refusing to protect the wounded. So the fact that there were medics on the scene who asked, maybe begged, the Israeli commander to treat the wounded, as they are obligated to do under international law, those medics were trying to do what international law says they must do, and they were prevented from doing so by their commander. That makes their commander guilty of another separate war crime, a crime of the violation of international humanitarian law, that requires them to provide aid and medical help to the wounded. So there’s a host of violations here.

The kind of weapons that we’re seeing being used, the use of white phosphorus, for instance, which was used not only in civilian areas, which is all of the Gaza Strip, is one giant civilian area. There is nowhere to hide. That’s been the conclusion of Amnesty International, that when Israeli notifications to people in Gaza said, “You should flee, because we are going to bomb your home, we are going to attack your neighborhood, there is a Hamas person who lives next door,” there is nowhere in Gaza to flee in this most densely populated area.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Phyllis, in this particular case, the issue of who would actually follow up this case, because there are witnesses, clearly, and they did not even taken into custody the father, so they didn’t—they weren’t possibly claiming he did anything illegal—


JUAN GONZALEZ: —who would pursue this case?

PHYLLIS BENNIS: Well, I assume that because of the level of publicity on this case, the fact that the father’s pleas were broadcast while there were going on on Al Jazeera, perhaps other networks as well, in these kinds of cases, historically, the Israeli military, the IDF, has claimed over and over again, “We are investigating.” Besides that, I would assume that the humanitarian organizations on the ground—Physicians for Human Rights in Israel; the Palestinian organizations, like Al-Haq, the Palestinian Center for Human Rights in Gaza; the United Nations human rights—the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights— I’m sure, will take an interest in this.

AMY GOODMAN: Phyllis Bennis, I want to thank you very much for being with us, fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. Her latest book, Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer.