Jerusalem24 – Shaden Hazeem and Noelle Mafarjeh – “No one was able to reach us, no one was able to help us. It’s by the power of God that I was able to do all this, because the people in charge, they abandoned us.”
This is the testimony of Um Qassem Al-Saadi the morning after the Israeli army retreated from Jenin, ending the family’s 40-hour ordeal serving as human shields for the army in their own home in Mahyoub Street in Jenin refugee camp.
Three generations of her family remained trapped in their own home, but Um Qassem is the only one who is able to speak about the events. Her husband, 73-year-old Abdel Latif, is “in very poor condition”; her chronically ill 23-year-old daughter-in-law passed in and out of consciousness over the course of their forced confinement; her previously healthy four-year-old granddaughter suffered multiple seizures; and her three-year-old and 18-month-old grandsons, despite their young age, are deeply traumatized.
“The children got sick, my granddaughter was having seizures, my husband couldn’t move,” she describes. “We went through all of this.”
“This is my voice, and I want everyone to hear it.”
Monday, 1 AM
What woke up her up was the sound of sirens. Armed groups in Jenin installed them last year as Israeli raids on the camp were becoming a near-nightly event.
As the large-scale Israeli ground- and air-invasion that Jenin residents had been anticipating for over two weeks began to unfold shortly after midnight, Um Qassem’s first and foremost thought was to get her ailing husband out of the house and out of the camp.
She immediately began collecting everyone’s IDs, should they be stopped on the road by soldiers.
Organizing the household, waking the sleeping children, and helping Abdul Latif down the stairs from their first-floor bedroom took some time. Too much time.
All at once, there were soldiers and army dogs inside. They ushered the family of six into one room, while storming the two upper floors of the house and searching every room with sniffer dogs. A while later, the family were made to leave the room while soldiers searched it too. “I screamed at them to get their dogs away from me and the children,” Um Qassem recalls.
The family were then forced back into the room that would become their prison for the next 30 hours.
Monday, 4 AM
Um Qassem doesn’t remember exactly what time the soldiers broke into the house – just that by Al-Fajr prayer at 4.15 AM, they had already been there for a while.
They were allowed to leave the room to access the bathroom, to wash before prayer and tend to theirs and the children’s needs.
Meanwhile, the soldiers “made themselves at home”. They moved the furniture around and threw the spare mattresses on the floor. “Everything was a target for them,” she says. “From the moment they came in, they acted as though they owned the house.”
For what seemed like an eternity, the regular sound of explosions accompanied the soldiers as they worked their way through the house.
“They would aim their weapons at us through the open door,” describes Um Qassem. “Every 15 minutes or so they would come in and tell us that there’s going to be an explosion, cover your ears. The boy would start screaming and crying and I would have to cover his ears for him. They bombed every room in the house.”
Um Qassem didn’t know it at the time, but the Al-Saadis were one of the numerous families in the camp and city whose homes were taken over by Israeli soldiers in order to establish a base for snipers. Footage released by the Israeli army itself documents the soldiers’ practice of drilling, hammering, or blowing holes through the houses’ external walls for snipers to shoot from.
But unlike the other families who reported being forced to leave their homes by the intruding soldiers, the Al-Saadis were kept in the same room at gunpoint. They had become human shields for the Israeli army.
The practice of using human shields, or coercing legally protected persons (ie civilians, and particularly civilians under occupation) to act as a deterrent to enemy attacks by standing between both enemy parties, is strictly against international law and a war crime under the Rome Statute. It is also against domestic Israeli law.
According to the Israeli military, it discontinued the practice of using Palestinian civilians as human shields in 2002. In 2005, the Israeli High Court of Justice cemented the illegality of the practice by ruling that “any use of Palestinian civilians during military actions is forbidden”.
In practice however, the Israeli military regularly uses Palestinian civilians and especially Palestinian children as human shields. Between January and May 2023 alone, Defense for Children International—Palestine documented five cases of soldiers using children as human shields, including two-year-old twins Mohammad and Ahmad Shloun.
“When you break into a house and you shoot from inside this house, you put everyone inside the house in danger,” explains Al-Haq general director Shawan Jabarin. “You are taking civilians and civilian homes as shelter. Normally, if there is a military necessity, you must provide shelter for civilians in another place. This is a war crime according to the Geneva Convention and international human rights law.”
Monday, 1 PM
“My only thought since the beginning of the invasion was just to get my husband out,” says Um Qassem. She never describes the nature of his illness, but it is clear her concern for his health is only matched by her devotion to him.
A few hours into their captivity, however, Um Qassem had to contend in addition with her daughter-in-law’s fragilized state as well as the worrisome realization that her four-year-old granddaughter had never once opened her eyes since they had been forced into the room several hours earlier.
“At first I thought she was asleep,” she recounts. “But then I realized she was just petrified.”
She tried walking the child to the bathroom, cradling her, and spoon fed her tiny bites of food that were mostly rejected. And then the fever came. “She’s usually never sick,” her grandmother says. “I kept washing her hands and feet with a wet cloth because she was just burning up.”
The child’s own mother was unable to care for her, her chronic ill health compounded by fear, says Um Qassem. Every once in a while, the young woman would become dizzy and lose consciousness.
After the little girl’s fever ran so high that she began convulsing into what Um Qassem suspects were seizures, the soldiers allowed her to bring medicine from elsewhere inside the house. They remained deaf, however, to her concerns about Abdel Latif’s and her daughter-in-law’s own worrying symptoms.
“They were there the whole time, they could see what was going on,” she says. “They asked me if we needed more food or water. I said no, we need medical treatment for my 73-year-old husband, he’s very sick. They denied us that.”
Um Qassem’s futile pleas and the child’s suspected seizures all unfolded against the backdrop of heavy gunfire, sporadic airstrikes, and the crunching of tarmac and stone as Israeli military-grade bulldozers tore through the camp’s alleyways.
“I can’t describe the scenes that happened in that room.”
Monday, 10 PM
When the army launched their invasion on Monday, they immediately cut off the camp’s electricity supply. Access to water also abruptly stopped a few hours later as Israeli bulldozers wrecked the camp and city’s infrastructure, including several water mains.
By Monday evening, the camp’s 15,000 residents had already been without water or electricity for over 12 hours. Worried they might run out of food, infant formula and medicines, and seeing the neighborhoods around them slowly reduced to rubble by airstrikes or heavy machinery, thousands elected to leave their homes on foot and seek shelter elsewhere in the city.
“I had no idea what was going on outside,” she says. “I discovered later most of the people had gone.”
One key fact Um Qassem was aware of, now that it was dark outside, was being the only house in the neighborhood – quite possibly, in the camp – with uninterrupted access to electricity.
A civil engineer who preferred to remain anonymous confirmed to Jerusalem24 that even though power had been cut to the Al-Saadi’s entire area, it is common practice for the soldiers to bring generators for use at a specific location.
The Al-Saadi house being the only one with illuminated windows, the neighborhood residents knew exactly where to find the army. Um Qassem heard the soldiers being shouted for from outside, with residents asking through an open window to be allowed to leave the neighborhood. One of the officers in the Al-Saadi house, or perhaps one contacted via radio, gave their approval and the exodus from Mahyoub Street began.
The family’s relatives (almost the whole neighborhood belongs to the extended Al-Saadi family) pleaded with the soldiers through the window to allow Abu and Um Qassem and the children to leave.
“That’s when the soldier lowered his hand beneath the window and signaled to me by waving that I wasn’t allowed to leave,” Um Qassem recounts. “They all left, everyone was evacuated. Except us. The human shields.”
As the matriarch’s despair grew through the night, so did her disgust. “They were comfortable, the soldiers. They were sleeping on our mattresses, on our furniture. And they had the air conditioning on the whole time.”
Tuesday, 8 AM
Just after 8 AM on Tuesday, approximately 30 hours after they broke in, the soldiers suddenly left the house.
Um Qassem dared to peek outside and found the army was still surrounding them, blocking their exit.
By now, the sound of armed confrontations between the army and Palestinian fighters in the camp was growing rare. The renewed airstrikes the army had threatened the night before only materialized a handful of times. Of far more concern to the Al-Saadis was the sound of nearby bulldozer activity and occasional explosions – and securing the medical assistance they needed.
Blessed with the privilege of electricity and a phone charger, and out of the soldiers’ immediate view, Um Qassem was able to spend the day communicating with family members and local organizations.
The children’s father, who works for the Palestinian Civil Defense, had already been desperately working to secure his family’s safe passage out of the camp. But every time the Civil Defense called the army, they were simply told the family had already left the house.
An increasingly frustrated Um Qassem tried to grab the soldiers’ attention to ask them to stop interfering. “I stood at the window and waved, but they didn’t pay attention. I went to another window, and it was the same. And then my husband begged me to stop, he said khallas, I’m scared for you.”
Tuesday, 2 PM
The first time we spoke on the telephone to Um Qassem, just after noon on Tuesday, she was clearly frightened and pleading with anyone to help.
The Israeli military bulldozers were continuing their rampage nearer and nearer the house, and she was worried her family might have been forgotten in the middle of all the destruction.
“They’re destroying the neighborhood and no one can get us out,” she cried. “What should we do? Where can we go? I have the children with me, my daughter-in-law is very ill, and my husband is so sick… I don’t know what to do.”
In the late afternoon, the Civil Defense finally managed to dispatch a crew to the house itself. They were turned around by the army who once again claimed the Al-Saadis had gone. Um Qassem said the soldiers came to the house and closed all the doors so they wouldn’t be able to hear if anyone came for them.
The Red Crescent tried next, dispatching an ambulance and begging the soldiers to at least release the family members who required medical attention. Head of the Red Crescent emergency department, Ahmad Jibril, confirmed to Jerusalem24 that the army told the paramedics that the Al-Saadis were no longer in the house.
The soldiers also trained their weapons on the paramedics, says Jibril, and waited for them to leave at gunpoint.
Um Qassem may not have been aware at the time that the medical crew were threatened by the soldiers; but even two days after the end of their ordeal, she remains bitter that they didn’t fight harder to come to their aid.
“They turned around and left,” she says. “They shouldn’t have done that. They should have asked to open the door and see for themselves. They didn’t help, not even one child, because our house was a military base.”
“No one even called us on the phone. Six people in one room, three children, their mother, and us – and no one even asked about us.”
The sun hadn’t yet set on Tuesday evening when the bulldozer finally reached the street above their house, and Um Qassem finally saw it with her own eyes.
As the machine began razing the tarmac off the street and knocking the walls off her neighbors’ houses, she suddenly came to a decision.
“I wasn’t scared by any military jeep or soldier or bulldozer,” she remembers. “The only thought driving me was to get the children and my husband out. I grabbed a white cloth and went to stand in the middle of the street, waving at the bulldozer.”
When there was no reaction from either the bulldozer or any of the nearby soldiers, and she estimated it would take less than two to three minutes for the bulldozer to reach their house, Um Qassem ran back inside and grabbed her entire family.
“I decided enough was enough,” she says. “If they were going to shoot me, kill me – kill us, all of us together – so be it. But it was going to be outside the house.”
She grabbed essentials such as diapers and medicines, the three-year-old boy in her arms, and managed to half-carry, half-drag her husband along on his cane. Her daughter-in-law gathered what was left of her strength and followed behind with her young daughter and baby.
And then they ran.
“I yelled at them to keep running,” says Um Qassem. “I would rather be shot or bombed than buried under the rubble of our house.”
None of them would be able to go far, Um Qassem knew, so they went up to the first house they saw with signs of life inside. This ended up being the home of Um Al-Abed Jaradat, a neighbor down the road.
“I’m so thankful to them,” Um Qassem says and repeats, as she recounts how they stayed the night, a safe enough distance away from the soldiers and bulldozers, and even after the army had finished fully retreating from the camp and city. “I’m so thankful.”
For many of Jenin refugee camp’s displaced residents, returning home on Wednesday morning was not the relief it was meant to be.
A preliminary report estimates the damage to infrastructure at some $16 million. There is of course the economic cost to individual families, whose flattened cars will not be replaced by insurance. There is also sometimes a more personal (but no less significant) cost, such as for the little girl who came home to find her aluminium piggy bank ripped open.
For the Al-Saadis, there is no telling exactly yet how this personal cost will manifest.
“When we went back to the house, it was a disaster,” says Um Qassem. “It was unbearable. The [army] dogs defecated everywhere. We’re not going to be able to stay there, not until it’s cleaned and everything is repaired.”
The whole family, with the exception of Um Qassem, is currently staying with an aunt in a nearby village because they “couldn’t stand being there”. What should feel like safety no longer does.
Human rights organization Al-Haq is currently investigating reports of abuses, such as the taking of human shields, on the ground in Jenin.
“The Israelis use human shields in two ways,” says Al-Haq general director Shawan Jabarin. “One is they center the civilians in front of the military jeeps. [The other way] is they gather the family in one room and use the house and windows – and this time they made holes – in order to fire, kill, shoot at people. This endangers the civilians – in addition to the terror that they go through, especially the children.”
For the Al-Saadi children, the healing can’t begin until the house has at least been cleaned and repaired, all evidence of their torment erased from the rooms and halls.
A seasoned and resilient Jeniniyeh who has witnessed even greater destruction unleashed upon the camp, Um Qassem waits patiently inside the house for younger, stronger arms to come help place the furniture back where it belongs. A first step for the Al-Saadis, even as out in the street, municipality crews and residents begin clearing paths through the rubble.
Working to make home, home again.