EZBT ABED RABBO, Gaza Strip -- Nasser Abu Freeh was one of the first to see the Israeli soldiers as they entered this pastoral Gaza neighborhood overlooking the Israeli border on Jan. 3, hours after the Israeli government ordered the first ground forces into Gaza.
Abu Freeh's two-story hilltop home is a favorite spot for Israeli soldiers, who used it as a command post during three previous attempts to deter Gaza militants from firing crude rockets into Israel from the surrounding cattle farms, orange groves and dirt alleys.
Scouts from the militant Islamist group Hamas also favored the hilltop as a place to watch for approaching Israeli soldiers, and the fighters tried to lure the Israelis into a trap by planting land mines outside Abu Freeh’s home.
As the Israelis moved in, neighbors said, the Hamas scouts put up little resistance and quickly fell back into the more densely populated part of the neighborhood.
Within hours, the Israeli soldiers took over Abu Freeh's house, moved the seven people living there into one room and began interrogating the adults. The questioners were angry because one of their soldiers had been killed nearby in the early hours of the ground offensive, and they wanted to know what traps Hamas had set for the Israeli forces.
"Where are the tunnels?" Abu Freeh said the soldiers asked in Arabic. "I will kill you if you don't tell me."Israeli tanks and bulldozers soon took up hilltop positions around Abu Freeh's home, and Khaled Abed Rabbo’s five-story house in the valley below was one of those in the line of fire.
More than 70 members of his family crowded into one apartment for days. On Jan. 7, Abed Rabbo said, the shelling intensified, and they heard an Israeli solider calling for people to come out of their homes.
Abed Rabbo said he gathered his wife, their three daughters and his mother, Souad. Souad Abed Rabbo said that she tied a white robe around a mop handle and two of her granddaughters waved white headscarves as they walked outside.
When they opened the door, they saw an Israeli tank parked in their garden about 10 yards away.
"We were waiting for them to give us an order," Khaled said last week as he stood in the ruins of his home. "Then one came out of the tank and started to shoot."
Souad Abed Rabbo said she was shot as she pushed her son back inside and her granddaughters fell on the stairs. When the shooting was over, she said, 2-year-old Amal and 7-year-old Souad were dead.
The allegation is one of at least five such white flag incidents that human rights investigators are looking into across the Gaza Strip. It’s part of a growing pattern of alleged abuses that have raised concerns that some Israeli soldiers may have committed war crimes during their 22-day military campaign in Gaza.
"The evidence we've gathered in two of the cases so far is exceedingly strong," said Fred Abrahams, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch working in the Gaza Strip. "All the research so far suggests they shot civilians that were leaving their homes with white flags."