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Imam survives bombardment only to be stripped naked in front of family, humiliated and used as human shield
KHUZA'A, southern Gaza Strip - Khalil al-Najjar sat in his brother's home with his mother, siblings, in-laws, and children - 15 family members in all. They were under constant Israeli-artillery fire all night, not knowing what would happen with each passing second, apart from bombs raining around them.
"A tank shell hit, and there was heavy black smoke in the building, so we ran under the staircase to hide and rest for a few minutes," Najjar said.
As the bombing continued, automatic gunfire was heard outside. "We shouted out that we were civilians. But more bullets were fired after we declared ourselves as civilians," said Najjar who, at 55-years-old, is a well-known and highly respected imam in his community.
A few minutes later, a military dog rushed into the home, terrifying the children - the imam shouted out in Hebrew to the soldiers behind a wall riddled with bullet-holes: "We are civilians, we have children and babies with no medicine or milk."
The soldiers shouted back, in Hebrew, ordering him and the family to: "Get out, one by one".
Outside, the soldiers ordered everyone to get down on the ground - women and children on one side, men on the other - as more neighborhood women were brought to the street corner.
"In front of all these women, I was forced to undress until I was naked, at gunpoint," recalls the imam, while walking through the destruction in his neighbourhood.
"Making a well-respected man stand, completely naked, in front of everyone, was the most humiliating thing of my life,” he added as tears began to swell in his normally proud, dark eyes.
The situation would have been embarrassing for any man, but for a deeply religious and conservative Muslim, who is seen as a pillar of the community, the act was particularly shameful.
Adding to the humiliation, Najjar said that him and the other men were ordered to stand naked with their arms stretched up, until their arms hurt. When he could take no more Najjar told one soldier in Hebrew, "my arms hurt" at which point he was ordered to sit. "This was the only time they listened to me as they brought a chair to sit on," he added.
The imam and his family had already been denied sleep by the pandemonium of Israel's attacks, but that fateful morning was the fiercest attack they saw. Najjar now calls it "the Black Tuesday of 22 July".
While still naked, he was told to "take the women and children somewhere else". The only option he could think of was brother's home, two streets away, which he hoped would be safer.
"The bombs and bulldozers left massive holes in the streets, so I carried my elderly mother on my shoulders, to my brother's home," he said.
But when the family arrived there, there they found that the house was filled with Israeli soldiers, lying on their backs, some asleep on mattresses and beds belonging to the family.
"These soldiers were angry that someone had allowed us to come," Najjar said, as if there was a lack of communication and coordination between the different Israeli units in Khuza'a.
The men were then rounded up while the Israelis decided who would be arrested and who they would let go.
Najjar, however, was singled out and marched to the Kuuza Mosque, which had been badly damaged and defaced by Israeli soldier. Its here that he was interrogated by the Israeli officer in charge of the men inside his brother's home and repeatedly asked about particular individuals from the Abu Rida family, a very large extended family which is well known in Gaza.
"Yes, I know him from the mosque where Abu Rida gives Friday prayers," the imam said.
Still held at gunpoint, he was then questioned further about "where the rockets come from". The imam replied that the "only rockets I know of are the Israeli missiles from the F16s and drones." But this did not save him.
The officer soon became angry with Najjar, demanding to know about the "tunnels" which Israel had used as a pretext for expanding its military campaign in Gaza.
Najjar stayed firm. "You are Israeli intelligence with all your technology, drones, F16s, and you don't know where the tunnels are," he said. "Do you think those building tunnels are going to come and tell me where they are?"
This continued for a while but eventually one of Najjar's brothers was brought to the mosque. He caught a soldier looking at some of the wall-graffiti citing Islamic Jihad's term for Operation Protective Edge, "al-Bunian al-Marsoos" - a Quranic term known as Hard-packed structure - and asked the soldier if it needed erasing. But the soldier dismissed Najjar's brother, simply stating that he would "deal with that". Soon after, a bulldozer came to demolish the whole mosque wall that had born the graffiti.
In retrospect, the bulldozers should have acted as a warning sign that Najjar's troubles were far from over.
The imam was soon ordered to dress and was ushered outside at gunpoint along with his brother. Najjar was then told to walk ahead of the soldiers down the center of the street, while calling on all young residents to come outside and surrender.
The Israeli troops seem to have selected a well-respected resident, the imam, knowing that the local residents would trust his words and be more confident about their safety although they also harboured deadlier intentions if this plan failed.
The imam's brother heard the officer tell his soldiers behind them in Hebrew that "if people didn't come out, my brother and I were to be shot".
The soldiers behind them had warned: "You are being observed, our guns are pointed at your heads, so watch out. If you move from the centre of the street, you will be shot."
While walking ahead of the soldiers, people saw the imam. Another brother shouted from a window: "Brother Khalil, brother Khalil". The imam told his brother and everyone around him to come outside and that they would be safe.
The young people came out, seeing the imam, but not the troops which stayed out of sight until the majority of the residents walked outside. It’s only then that the soldiers appeared and shouted at them to put their arms above their heads.
Some of the people, however, stayed inside. One soldier told the imam that "there are over 1,000 people still in their homes". The Israelis then marched him back to the mosque, where an officer raised his gun and ordered Najjar to start the electricity generator to the mosque and use the loudspeaker to call all young people out of their homes, insisting that they would be safe.
"I was having problems giving the call to prayer anyway from exhaustion and fasting, my voice was dry, but the soldier put his gun to my head and ordered me to tell everyone to come out," he said.
When the imam finished his message, he was led outside the mosque, to see more people arrive, trusting his words that they would be safe.
The soldier then ordered him to: "Take your mother and go. If I hear any of these women speak, I'll bomb your home immediately."
All the young men who surrendered were arrested, leaving just the women, children and elderly behind. The imam was allowed to carry his mother home, finding a way between numerous Israeli tanks parked around the area.
When he reached his brother's house, the same soldiers were still lying around on the floor and furniture. The soldiers locked the family in one room while they kept the rest of the house for themselves.
"I heard an Israeli soldier discussing on a mobile with someone else, what they had done in Gaza. The soldier responded that they had 'turned Gaza upside down'", said the imam.
Najjar now mourns the nearly 2,000 lives lost and the hundreds of thousands who have been made homeless, but the damage and the brutality have not necessarily hurt him the most. Instead it is his shame that Najjar insists will stay with him the longest.
"I will never live this down. I will never forget," he said.