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December 3, 2002

Family Tells How Israelis Buried Deaf Father Alive

From: lndependent/UK - 3 Dec 2002

by Justin Huggler in Beit Lahiya, Gaza Strip

Beside the pile of flattened concrete, all that was left of his home, Maher Salem described yesterday how his 68-year-old father was killed when the Israeli army demolished the house on top of him. When he found his father, Mr Salem said, the old man's head was "like a bar of chocolate, it was only two centimetres thick".

The Israeli army swept into Beit Lahiya, a sandy town in the north of the Gaza Strip, late on Saturday night. The man they came for was Mr Salem's brother, Hisham, a senior Islamic Jihad militant and the man who ordered a suicide bombing on Tel Aviv's Dizengoff Street in 1996 that killed 20 Israelis.

The wanted man was at the wake for his father yesterday – the Israeli army would love to get as close to him as we did. A couple of Apache helicopters hovered on the horizon; given the Israeli policy of assassinating militants, waiting around was not a good idea.

The army did not catch Mr Salem – the Israeli newspapers gave his name as Hisham Thab, the family told us it was Salem – on Saturday night. Instead, they demolished his family home. It was a six-storey house: three generations of the family lived here. Yesterday all you could see was a huge, layered mound of smashed concrete, family possessions poking out in places: a bed, a chair, a rug.

"They came at around 10.50 that night," said Maher Salem. "There were more than 25 tanks. All the men, we escaped from the house minutes before they got to it. We were in my car about 100 metres from here.

"They shot at us. We got out of the car and ran. We could hear them shouting over a loudspeaker, telling all the people inside the house to come out in the next three minutes."

Inside the house, he said, were only the women and children of the family and his father, Ashur.

The old man lived on the sixth floor, where he was alone, sleeping, on the night the army arrived. He was deaf, Mr Salem said, and could not hear the soldiers shouting for everyone to come out.

Fathiye Salem, the old man's niece, was one of the women in the house at the time. She told how when they heard the soldiers, the women and children ran out of the house. "I shouted at the soldiers, 'My uncle is sleeping on the sixth floor, he's deaf'," Ms Salem said. "They pointed their guns at us and shouted, 'Go! Go! Go!'"

Then the soldiers put dynamite inside the house and blew it up, the women said. There was no time for them to remove any goods.

"We got back at 2.20am," resumed Mr Salem. "We were asking what happened to my father but no one knew. We started looking for him in the rubble. At 9.20am we found his hand." The old man's head had been crushed under a beam.

There has been controversy in the past over Palestinian claims that people have been buried alive when the Israeli army demolished their houses. In one case, in Jenin, Palestinians said their relative had been buried. He later turned up alive. But this time there was a body. It had been buried when we arrived. We saw the freshly dug grave. And hundreds had turned up for the wake. This was not a show for the media: there were no other journalists in sight.

It would not be the first time claims of this sort turned out to be true: in Nablus in April, eight members of a single family died when a soldier bulldozed their house on top of them. Their bodies were found, and the case has been well documented by international human rights groups.

"My children keep asking, 'Where is our house?'" Mr Salem said. He and the rest of the extended family are now living rough, on the streets next to the ruins of their home. United Nations relief workers have given them a couple of large white tents to stay in.

The Israeli army has a policy of demolishing the family homes of militants, even those of suicide bombers who are already dead.

Human rights groups have condemned the practice as "collective punishment", where the families are punished for the crimes of relatives. The Israelis say the tactic acts as a deterrent.

On the sidelines of the wake yesterday, the wanted man, Hisham Salem, spoke to us. Did the demolition of the house deter him from further attacks on Israelis? "On the contrary," he said. "These acts give us new momentum to resist the occupation, and fight till we liberate our holy land." The helicopters were still on the horizon.

© 2002 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd