John Lyons, Middle East correspondent | January 31, 2009
THREE witnesses have claimed that Israeli soldiers shot in cold blood two civilians who had their hands in the air on the second day of the Israeli offensive in Gaza.
In an investigation by The Weekend Australian in Gaza, the three people making the claim were on a tractor that was stopped by Israeli soldiers about 4 o'clock in the afternoon of January 4 in northern Gaza - the second day of Israel's ground operation.
Two of the witnesses were on a trailer being pulled by the tractor and the third was sitting on one of the wheel coverings.
They say Israeli soldiers who had taken over a house they were driving past shouted from a balcony for them to pull over.
When two of the men, Matar Abu Halima, 18, and Mohammed Abu Halima, also 18, got off the tractor with their hands in the air, they were shot several times in the chest. One died instantly, the other shortly after. A few minutes later, two others on the tractor, Nabeela Abu Halima and Omar Abu Halima, were also shot, but did not die - a woman says she was shot in the arm because she refused to leave the scene, saying she wanted to help the injured, and a man says he was shot through the arm because he refused to strip naked.
Israeli Defence Forces are investigating the allegations, but said the two people shot dead had been terrorists.
The tractor was taking to hospital two injured people and the body of a 15-month-old girl who had died shortly before in a fire following an attack by an Israeli rocket.
The witnesses say following the incident with the tractor, the charred body of the girl lay by the side of the road for eight days. Her legs and stomach were eaten by dogs.
The Weekend Australian has seen a picture of the girl taken by medics who finally picked her up - her head and torso are recognisable, although black with burns, while her legs are stumps with only the bones remaining.
Her brother is keeping a copy of the photograph in his mobile phone.
The incident occurred outside a primary school in the northern village of Beit Lahiya, which the IDF had taken over as a base for tanks.
The woman, Nabeela Abu Halima, says soldiers also violated her house, defecating in her pots and pans by cutting the seats out of furniture and placing pans underneath.
She says they wrote graffiti on the walls, including, in Hebrew, "Next time it's going to be harder" and "You have chosen Hamas!!!", a map of Israel with a fist next to Gaza and the drawing of a naked woman.
Twenty-four hours after The Weekend Australian put the allegations to the IDF, spokesman Captain Benjamin Rutland said the IDF was investigating the matters raised. "They are working on this .. issue. It is more important to the IDF to conduct a very thorough investigation than to complete it speedily."
Captain Rutland added: "The IDF trains its soldiers to minimise injuries to civilians and to respect all civilians on the battlefront."
Later, the IDF issued a statement saying: "In this incident, two armed militants were spotted riding a tractor along with an infant's body. The militants opened fire on IDF troops, and both the terrorists were killed in the following exchange of fire."
An IDF spokesman would not provide an answer to why, if there were two armed militants on the tractor, four people were shot - two shot dead initially and two shot through the arms later - and why the body of an infant was left by the side of the road for eight days.
And he would not say what the preliminary investigation found about whether the soldiers had defecated in Nabeela Abu
Halima's kitchen utensils, drawn graffiti and stolen her money.
Human rights investigators have begun working on the incident, which they say fits the definition of a war crime.
The two who survived both say they would give evidence about the incident to any official inquiry.
Nabeela Abu Halima is the mother of Matar. She said that as well as watching her son shot dead, her other son, Ali, 15, who was in the tractor, also saw his brother killed.
She said they had been travelling to the hospital when Israeli soldiers shouted from a balcony, "Stop! stop!"
"So we stopped," she said. "We raised our hands. Mohammed and Matar raised their hands too and got off the tractor, but Israeli soldiers shot them."
She said most of the bullets were in the chest of the two men; Matar appeared to die immediately but Mohammed was still alive.
He died some time later.
"An Israeli soldier shouted 'Leave! leave!' and I said 'Just let me take Mohammed and Matar.' They kept telling me 'Leave! leave!' and I said again, 'Just let me take Matar and Mohammed.'
"After that, they ordered Mohammed (a second Mohammed on the tractor, the brother of Omar Abu Halima) to take off his clothes. He tore his clothes off and was completely naked."
Nabeela Abu Halima said they then ordered Omar Abu Halima to strip naked and he refused. She said they then shot him through the arm. When she again refused to leave, she says they then shot her in the arm.
She said other people in the village said after they left, a tank turned the tractor on its side then ran over it, crushing it.
She said the incident and what she said Israeli soldiers did in her house have turned her from opposing Hamas to supporting them.
Apart from the graffiti, she says Israeli soldiers broke a cupboard and stole her life savings - about 30,000 Israeli Shekels (about $12,000).
She said she kept the money at home because "we don't know how to deal with banks or investments".
She said only a year ago she confronted Hamas fighters in her street who wanted to fire rockets into southern Israel, saying they should not because it would bring retribution upon her neighbourhood and that it would be people like her who suffered the consequences, not the fighters who would leave the area.
She said Hamas had threatened her when she had said this.
She added: "Now if Hamas members come back, I swear to god I will help them fire rockets into Israel."