Originally Published: 26 JAN 24 09:01 ET
Social media videos show Palestinians in Gaza being shot while waving white flags and trying to flee. One grandmother named Hala Khreis was shot and killed while holding her grandson’s hand. The killings have sparked outrage and raised questions about the IDF’s tactics in Gaza. The IDF declined to meet with CNN and has not issued a statement about CNN’s investigation.
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Updated: 26 JAN 24 10:20 ET
By Clarissa Ward, Brent Swails, Kareem Khadder and Eliza Mackintosh, CNN
Editor’s note: CNN’s Scott McWhinnie and Gianluca Mezzofiore contributed to this report.
Istanbul (CNN) — Sara Khreis replays the last day she spent with her mother over and over in her mind.
Their family had spent weeks agonizing over whether to flee as Israeli troops moved into Gaza City’s al-Rimal neighborhood, tanks rolling past their front door and a terrifying cacophony of bombs, quadcopter drones and gunfire thundering all around them.
After two nights of bombardment so intense they thought it might blow their home apart, they were resolved: they had to go.
“We woke up on November 12, the day that I will never forget my whole life. I remember every detail in it, minutes, hours, seconds,” Sara, 18, told CNN in a recent interview, holding back tears.
That morning was messy, she said. More than 20 people, relatives and neighbors, had holed up at their house as the war worsened. Sara’s 57-year-old mother, Hala, always so focused on taking care of everyone but herself, cooked a quick breakfast amid a flurry of packing up bags and made time to pray. Suddenly, they heard their neighbors outside screaming that an evacuation route had been organized: “Come on, get out, come on, get out!”
The next thing Sara knew, they were throwing on shoes, and rushing out the door. She had a brief argument with her mother – now agonizing to recount – over whether she could help to carry her bag. Then they were on the street outside, joining a wave of other people holding white flags aloft: a universal symbol of surrender.
Out in front, a few paces ahead of the others, Hala was walking with her grandson, Tayem, then 4, holding hands as they navigated a street littered with debris, a white flag in his other hand. Seconds later, a shot rang out and Hala slumped to the ground.
That unthinkable moment was captured on camera. The video surfaced earlier this month in a report by UK-based news website Middle East Eye. Watching it makes Sara and her siblings feel sick.
The clip of Hala’s killing is one of a growing number that show unarmed civilians holding white flags being shot dead in Gaza. The Geneva-based Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor has said that they are investigating nine such incidents. CNN has examined four cases, including that of Hala Khreis.
CNN made multiple attempts to sit down with the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) to share its findings. They have yet to provide a comment.
Among the most widely reported of the incidents CNN looked at was the shooting of three Israeli hostages, whom the IDF admitted to killing, mistakenly believing their surrender was a trap. The IDF has repeatedly claimed that it is doing everything in its power to avoid harming civilians, but its soldiers shot hostages waving a white flag, violating its rules of engagement and raising questions about those efforts.
Another video, previously reported by CNN, shows a young man on the ground after being shot while trying to evacuate Gaza City. His father, holding a white flag, could be seen crying over his body. The footage doesn’t show the moment he was shot, and the IDF did not reply to CNN’s request for comment.
The most recent incident, just this week, took place in al-Mawasi, a coastal town in southern Gaza previously designated a “safe zone” by the IDF. Ramzi Abu Sahloul, 51, was among a group of five men, their hands raised and brandishing a white flag. He told Ahmed Hijazi, a Palestinian journalist, that they were trying to get back to a house where his brother was being held back by Israeli soldiers to plead for his release. Moments after interviewing him, Hijazi filmed two Israeli tanks in the distance, beyond a raised bank, and then Sahloul being fatally shot in the chest. The impact of the first round is visible in the footage and appears to come from the direction of the tanks.
That the footage of Hala’s killing exists at all is a mixed blessing, say her children, who spoke with CNN from Gaza and Turkey. They hope that it could serve as evidence in a possible future investigation into her death. But, on the other hand, they say it has forced them to relive the devastating day their mother was stolen from them over and over again, searching for clues to questions they fear will never be answered.
“My mother was going to be 58 years old on December 30, and had her grandson with her. So why would you shoot her? What’s between you and her? You made us feel like it’s safe to leave, we had white flags in our hands as instructed,” Sara told CNN in an interview from Istanbul, where she has joined her Turkish fiancée after fleeing through Rafah Crossing. “Nobody knows. Nobody knows.”
Sara and the rest of her family say that Hala was shot by Israeli forces despite what they described as an agreement to provide them with safe passage out of the besieged neighborhood.
The IDF has not commented on the family’s claim, but satellite imagery and photos from the same period reviewed by CNN show that Israeli troops were stationed in the area, including at a school just 200 meters (about 650 feet) down the road, to the west of where Hala was killed. Hala’s family said tanks were also positioned on the road in front of her, to the south.
The Khreis family say they were told that the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) had organized an evacuation route on a road running south, but as they fled, the message changed to go east. Hala didn’t hear the shouts calling for her to turn until it was too late.
The ICRC said it had never agreed to help with the evacuation, underlining the challenges families face in getting clear information about how to escape. “Given how dangerous and unsafe the situation was and continues to be, it’s not within the ICRC’s role to give instructions on evacuation, as we would not be able to guarantee their safety,” the humanitarian organization said in a statement. “According to international humanitarian law (IHL), it is the responsibility of the warring parties to ensure safe passage to civilians irrespective of the arrangements for evacuations, safe zones, or humanitarian pauses. Even if people chose to stay, they remain protected.”
The story of how the Khreis family decided to flee sheds light on the confusion shrouding evacuation plans and the impossible choices that hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have had to make as fighting has drawn closer to their homes, shattering lives, breaking up families and destroying dreams for the future.
‘My mother was all my life; she was my friend and my everything’
The months before the war broke out were happy ones for Hala and her family. Having retired four years earlier as an Arabic teacher after over 35 years working at a local school, Hala and her husband had bought a new home and were settling into the joys of watching their children and grandchildren grow up.
Sara had just gotten engaged to her boyfriend, Faisel, and was beginning to plan their wedding, organizing details with her mother for the extended family to travel to Turkey for the ceremony. Hala’s 22-year-old son, Mohammad, had graduated from university, and the family held a big party at one of their favorite restaurants to mark the occasion. Hala had been intent on helping Mohammad, her only son, find his life partner. They had planned to announce his engagement on October 7. Then everything changed.
“My mother was all my life; she was my friend and my everything. I didn’t do anything without consulting her or taking her opinion, she was with me in every step,” Sara said, swiping through family photos and holding back tears. “We all had plans, dreams, goals and it all included my mother. They stole our mom from us, all these dreams are now gone.”
Nour, another of Hala’s daughters, who is in Rafah, said that she had begged her mother for weeks to flee, but she refused, worried about how she and the rest of the family might survive the journey south amid reports that evacuation areas were being hit. Nour had fled after the Israeli military dropped leaflets urging Gaza City residents to evacuate to the south in mid-October.
By the time the rest of the family decided to evacuate on November 12, the fighting had become relentless. But Sara said her mother seemed calm. As everyone prepared to leave, packing up their belongings, she was quietly reading the Quran. “She said if we are lucky to be part of this world, we would live. And if we die, we are martyrs,” Mohammad recalled.
When they walked out onto the street, there was uncertainty about which direction they should go, with Israeli forces positioned around the neighborhood. At the intersection, some members of the group said a soldier had waved them towards Palestine Stadium, but Mohammad wasn’t sure. “So I started calling on my mother, ‘come over here, come over here,’ but she didn’t hear, and she was walking to her fate,” Mohammad said, pausing to take a deep breath. “There were sounds of gunshots and she fell to the ground. I was shocked. I stood in place, frozen, and didn’t understand what had happened.”
He ran to Hala, a gaping gunshot wound in her chest, and called for others to help him carry her from the street. But they were terrified of the Israeli tanks, which Mohammad said he saw directly in front of the group, to the south; Israeli troops were also located to the west, satellite imagery showed. His father and a neighbor rushed to join him, dragging Hala back to their house where they tried in vain to resuscitate her.
In the turmoil, Hala’s grandson, Tayem, went missing. At first, his mother, Heba, who was in the back of the crowd, thought that her son had been shot alongside Hala. But then, when he wasn’t on the ground, and they couldn’t find him, she panicked. Heba and her husband, Youssuf Abdel A’atti, raced up and down the street asking people if they had seen Tayem, if they had seen a small child.
“His mother started asking me, ‘Where is Tayem, where is Tayem?’ And no one knows where Tayem is. We tried everything and called everyone, at this time my mother-in-law was a martyr, so we wanted to calm ourselves down at least to know where Tayem is,” Abdel A’atti said.
It wasn’t until hours later, as the family was at home grieving Hala, that someone called to say Tayem had continued south with a group of acquaintances – a small comfort amid the horror. Heba and her husband are still waiting to be reunited with their son, who recently celebrated his fifth birthday without them. He is now in Rafah, southern Gaza, with his uncle, Mohammad.
“I am worried about him. Imagine the continuous shelling, and they claim these areas are safe. And now he is supposed to be in the safest area and every day we hear that there are strikes and shelling and targeting in Rafah,” Heba said. “His birthday came during the war, and he turned 5 years, and I didn’t see him … his younger brother every day is asking about Tayem, ‘Where is Tayem? Where is Teta?’” using a nickname for his grandmother.
The family later buried Hala outside their house, in a small sandy alleyway. They hope to go back to be able to give her a proper burial when the war is over and are calling for an investigation into her killing.
“I felt like I was in a nightmare, until now I feel like I am still in denial from the whole thing, I am still waiting for my mom to send a message in the group chat to check on us, ‘How are you girls? What’s new? What did you do today?’” Sara said.
She wants the world to know who her mother was: a devoted grandmother, a mother who still made Sara sandwiches to take to university for lunch, a retired teacher beloved by her students. “My mother was very loving, caring and giving… she had many amazing traits. I want to be exactly like her.”
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