There were 14 of them huddled under the stairs. Israeli shells and airstrikes had long since shattered every window of the Helw family’s three-story home. But underneath the concrete staircase, they said, they felt relatively safe -- until the soldiers came early in the morning on Jan. 4.
There was pounding on the courtyard door, they recalled last week, and voices in accented Arabic shouted, “Who’s in there?”
As the troops burst inside, family members said Fuad Helw, 55, jumped up with his arms in the air.
“We all put our hands up and yelled, ‘We’re women and children. We’re not the resistance,’ ” recalled Sherine Helw, Fuad’s daughter-in-law.
The soldiers opened fire on Fuad, said Sherine, and he died in front of his family.
There are no independent accounts of what happened that day, when Israeli tanks rolled into the Zeitoun neighborhood on the outskirts of Gaza City at the beginning of the land offensive. The Israeli army, which staged its offensive after years of rocket attacks against southern Israel emanating from the Gaza Strip, refuses to discuss individual charges in detail.
“As a matter of policy, we do not target civilians,” an army spokesman said on condition that his name not be published. “These situations are very complex and our soldiers do the best they can.”
But interviews across this devastated neighborhood in the aftermath of Israel’s 22-day offensive reveal a stream of accounts of violence, anger, loss and defiance. One of those stories is that of the Helw family, who say the Israeli tank columns charged in from the border fence between 7 and 8 a.m. Jan. 4.
Zeitoun is where the Palestinian coastal enclave shrinks to just about four miles across, from the beach to the Israeli border. Residents believe that’s why Israeli tanks and soldiers chose this natural choke point as a staging area and forward operating base.
The tanks left a clear trail of churned earth still visible from the Helw family’s roof. By the time the troops began withdrawing after a cease-fire took effect Jan. 18, Zeitoun was unrecognizable.
A short walk from the family’s house, only six structures are left standing in a mile-long strip of demolished homes and chicken farms and the rubble of a mosque.
Twenty-nine members of one clan, the Samounis, died in this neighborhood, and residents say 27 homes were demolished.
Helw family members described a harrowing day of confusion and fear, recounting interactions with Israeli soldiers that swung between cruelty and compassion.
Fuad Helw died almost immediately in the courtyard of the family home, relatives said. But then the Arabic-speaking Israeli soldier seemed to take pity. Sherine said he told them, “Don’t be afraid. We don’t target women and children.”
She described how the soldier talked on his radio, and then announced that the 13 remaining family members could walk to safety together. They left the soldiers and headed up a dirt road, seven women, four children and two adult males, Ammar Helw, 29, and his brother Abdullah, 18.
As the group walked, Sherine said, they were taunted in vulgar Arabic by an Israeli soldier hiding in a nearby house.
Then, farther down the road, shots began to rain upon them from a home across the road to the east, family members said. Farah Helw, Sherine and Ammar’s 1-year-old daughter, was struck in the abdomen, family members said, and Abdullah was shot in the hand. The family believes the shooters were Israeli soldiers.
Dragging their wounded, they said, they crawled to shelter behind one of the 8-foot-high hills created by Israeli bulldozers on the edge of a lemon grove.
Ammar Helw, a light-skinned man with brownish green eyes, told his family’s story with almost alarming calmness as he chain-smoked and fingered a string of prayer beads.
Retracing the route he said his family took, Ammar’s voice broke only once: when he reached the spot where he said his daughter died. There on the ground lay Farah’s fuzzy purple pants; Ammar picked them up and poked his finger through the bullet hole, then tucked the clothing under his jacket.
The Helw family members say they took shelter there from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sherine said she cradled her injured daughter to her chest and tried to breast-feed her but that she died in her arms.
When the other young children grew hungry, Ammar says he fed them lemons from the nearby trees.
After sunset, an Israeli soldier approached. Ammar and his brother spoke to them in English and broken Hebrew. The soldier offered medical help for the wounded, but Ammar was in no mood for Israeli charity.
“I yelled at him, ‘You told us it would be safe to leave the house! Is this your safety?’ He didn’t answer but he acted like he was upset and said he’d get an ambulance,” Ammar said. “I told him, ‘You just killed my father and daughter. Now you’re going to treat us?’ ”
More soldiers came. They handcuffed and blindfolded Ammar and put his injured brother on a stretcher. The soldiers, they said, took the wounded away and turned them over to the Red Cross a day later. The uninjured were finally permitted to walk out of the conflict zone.
Red Cross spokesman Iyad Nasr said he couldn’t immediately confirm the Israeli transfer of Helw family members. He noted that Israeli forces prevented ambulances from approaching Zeitoun for several days after the Jan. 4 ground incursion.
Ammar said he spent five days in Israeli custody, most of it blindfolded and without food or water.
After reuniting with his family, who were staying with relatives, they returned to their home Jan. 19, he said, but found it in ruins. Ammar alleges that Israeli soldiers smashed the computer and stole the family jewelry.
He said he also found his father’s body, 30 feet from the house, haphazardly buried under dirt and chunks of cactus plants.
“These aren’t human beings, I swear to God,” Ammar said.