Picking up the pieces of broken lives one year after war in Gaza
THE three women already sensed danger but there was no warning shot or loud explosion to signal the fatal moment was at hand.
Instead a roaring, howling wind followed by billowing white smoke was all that told the Abu Adwan sisters that their lives were in imminent peril.
The Palestinian Bedouin women were walking away from their ramshackle farm along a lonely dirt track beside an orchard in broad daylight when their bucolic surroundings were transformed into a killing zone during last summer's Gaza conflict.
Moments later, two of them were dead after being identified by Israeli commanders as "terrorists" in an episode that highlights question marks over the army's targeting rules in a 50-day conflict that saw more than 2,200 Palestinians killed, along with 73 on Israel's side.
"There was a hot wind, like a storm or a whirlwind," recalled Nada Abu Adwan (35). "I thought something had happened. I looked back at my two sisters, Hakema and Nadjah, who were about 30 yards behind me, and they seemed OK.
"I told them that if the Israelis hit once, they will for sure hit again, so I said, let's get on the ground and move. We moved crawling along the ground and stopped next to a big white rose bush. A few moments later, I heard something and saw my leg was bleeding.
"Then I looked back again at my sisters and told them to follow me.
"But they said no, just go and get us an ambulance. Nadjah was hurt. But both were still alive." Not for long - although exactly what happened next is unclear.
Whatever the details, Hakema and Nadjah - aged 45 and 30 according to Nada, although their death certificates indicate they may have been older - were found dead hours later, just yards from where their sister left them, crawling under a wire mesh fence, in a vain effort to find help.
By the time other family members and the Red Crescent were able to reach the scene - sealed off for two hours by Israeli tanks - it was too late.
Hakema's body had been blown to pieces while Nadjah's had several wounds, according to their nephew Ezzat, 21, who discovered them close to a locked gate. The gate and a nearby wall show at least 30 small holes apparently caused by bullets or shrapnel. The bodies of two brothers, Khairy and Khaleel Abu Snaima, 18 and 22, were found nearby - killed after they tried to help Hakema and Nadjah, the family believe.
The two women, who were unmarried, eked out a living breeding chickens, sheep and pigeons and growing olives, grapes and figs at an impoverished family farm where they lived a traditional Bedouin pastoral lifestyle along with Nada, another sister, Masua (39), and their mother Mansura (79).
They were implicated as "terrorists" after Israeli forces - stationed in the remote area south-east of Rafah in a search for Hamas tunnels - suspected they were military scouts after expressing astonishment at the presence of human beings in an area that had been designated a combat zone and cleared of its inhabitants days earlier.
In fact, the women had returned to the farm close to the Israeli border from a temporary shelter west of Salaheddin Street, Gaza's main north-south road, to feed livestock and collect belongings after mistakenly believing a ceasefire was under way. They were leaving after realising that Israeli forces were still in the area when the missile strike occurred. As the first anniversary of last summer's bloody 50-day conflict approaches, the July 22 incident - four days after Israel launched a ground invasion - shines a light on military rules of engagement that have already been questioned in a United Nations report and by several Israeli human rights groups. Last month's UN human rights commission report - which accused both Israel and the Palestinian factions of multiple breaches of international law - specifically urges Israel to provide more details of its "targeting decisions", noting the often lethal targeting of residential homes and the heavy shelling of civilian areas.
The Abu Adwan case is different because it happened in remote countryside, far from population centres.
The women were initially spotted by Israeli look-out teams stationed in three different locations, one of them on the roof of a requisitioned house more than half a mile away.
Commanders ordered an air force strike after first sending a drone to carry out surveillance. The drone operatives "implicated" the sisters after reporting that the footage showed them "with phones, talking, walking", according to testimony revealed in a recent report published by Breaking the Silence, an Israeli veterans soldiers' organisation that scrutinises Israel's military practices.
An army report listed the women as "terrorists", even though soldiers sent to check on the bodies afterwards found that they were unarmed and not carrying mobile phones or other possible scouting equipment such as binoculars. The Israeli Defence force says it is "looking into" the incident.
(© Daily Telegraph London)