Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Gaza Beach investigation problems

From Democracy Now!:

AMY GOODMAN: Chris McGreal -- what is your understanding of what happened on the beach on Friday?

CHRIS MCGREAL: Well, that's becoming a highly politically contentious point. The -- as you said, the Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert initially apologized, said he regretted it. But he's in Europe at the moment, in Britain yesterday and today, going to France later today, and then on to the European Parliament. And those pictures that you were describing, the scene from the family being killed, have proved a severe embarrassment to him in Europe. He's been asked about it a lot. It seems that this panel has been quickly convened to absolve the army and to raise sufficient doubt for Ehud Olmert and his foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, who's also in Europe at the moment, to be able to say, “well, we're still investigating, we're looking into this, we can't say for certain.”

This has happened with previous extremely high-profile killings, perhaps the most memorable of which was Mohammed al-Dura, where the military set about trying to raise doubts. But the report that they’ve come up with, it has to be said -- it's full of holes. It's based on the idea that, in fact, they were blown up by a Hamas landmine planted under the sand to try and deter Israeli commanders from landing. A part of the flaw in that is, it would probably be very difficult for Hamas to know where Israeli commanders might land, and the idea would be that they would have several of them, and yet there are no other mines. Perhaps more interesting is that at the time this family was hit by shells -- a shell, which it undoubtedly was -- the Israeli army admits to having fired six shells. Three of them, you can see, landed on the beach, very close by. Probably no more than the closest -- 100 yards away. And essentially the army is then asking people to believe that the -- a sixth shell didn’t land on the family. That by pure coincidence, even though the beach was being shelled at the time, a Hamas mine happened to go off as well in the same area and at the same time.

Compounding this is the fact that the army admits it cannot account for the last of those six shells -- where it landed. And there is a military expert, an ex-Pentagon official from Human Rights Watch, New York-based human rights group, here at the moment. He's been looking into this. And he's come to his own conclusion: that it's almost undoubtedly an Israeli shell, based on, firstly the shrapnel, which he – he found a piece of shrapnel that says 155 millimeter on it, which is precisely the size of shrapnel shell that the Israelis use in their Howitzers, and also if you look at the size and the nature of the crater, it’s identical to those on the beach that -- from the other shells, including being lined with a white powder. So I think all of -- on the whole, the evidence points much more to Israeli responsibility.

From Human Rights Watch:
Israel should immediately launch an independent, impartial investigation of a June 9 Israeli artillery strike on a beach north of Gaza City, Human Rights Watch said today. Seven Palestinian civilians picnicking on the beach were killed that day and dozens of others were wounded.

Human Rights Watch researchers have visited the site to examine the fatal crater and have interviewed victims, witnesses, security and medical staff.

“There has been much speculation about the cause of the beach killings, but the evidence we have gathered strongly suggests Israeli artillery fire was to blame,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, director of the Middle East and Africa division at Human Rights Watch. “It is crucial that an independent investigative team, with the necessary expertise, verify the facts in a transparent manner.”

The independent investigation should involve the use of external, international experts. Human Rights Watch called on the Palestinian Authority to permit such an investigation, including allowing access to the site by the investigative team. Israel has carried out an internal army probe into the incident and released its findings this evening, saying the explosion was not caused by an Israeli artillery shell. However, such internal investigations by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have generally fallen short of international standards for thorough and impartial investigations and have rarely uncovered the truth or held to account the perpetrators of violations, as documented in a 2005 Human Rights Watch report, Promoting Impunity: The Israeli Military’s Failure to Investigate Wrongdoing.

The head of the IDF’s southern command, General Yoav Galant, has said that IDF forces fired six artillery shells at an area described as approximately 250 meters away from the fatal incident between 4:32 p.m. and 4:51 p.m. on Friday, June 9. Human Rights Watch investigations indicate that the evidence overwhelmingly supports the allegations that the civilians were killed by artillery shells fired by the IDF.

The attack at the beach comes amidst an intensified Israeli response to Qassam rocket attacks by Palestinian armed groups operating in the area. Human Rights Watch, which is also investigating the use of Qassams against Israeli civilians, has previously called on Palestinian armed groups to cease such unlawful attacks. The Qassam attacks violate international law because they fail to discriminate between military targets and civilians. Qassam rockets are highly imprecise, homemade weapons that are incapable of being targeted at specific objects.

Human Rights Watch researchers currently in Gaza interviewed victims, witnesses, Palestinian security officers and doctors who treated the wounded after the incident. They also visited the site of the explosion, where they found a large piece of unoxidized jagged shrapnel, saatamped “155mm,” which would be consistent with an artillery shell fired by the IDF’s M-109 Self-Propelled Artillery.

Human Rights Watch spoke to the Palestinian explosive ordnance disposal unit who investigated three craters on the beach, including the one where the civilians were killed. According to General Salah Abu `Azzo, head of the Palestinian unit, they also gathered and removed shrapnel fragments consistent with 155mm artillery shells.

Eyewitnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch described between five and six explosions on the beach between 4:30 p.m. to 5 p.m., the time frame when the IDF fired artillery onto the beach and when the seven civilians were killed. Two survivors said they heard the sound of an incoming projectile and saw a blur of motion in the sky before the explosion that killed the seven civilians. Residents of northern Gaza are familiar with the sounds of regular artillery fire.

Doctors also confirmed to Human Rights Watch researchers that the injuries from the attack, which were primarily to the head and torso, are consistent with the heavy shrapnel of artillery shells used by the IDF. Doctors said the shrapnel they removed from Palestinian patients in Gaza was of a type that comes from an artillery shell.

According to readings from a Global Positioning Satellite taken by Human Rights Watch, the crater where the victims were killed was within the vicinity of the other artillery craters created by the IDF’s June 9 artillery attack and was the same shape and size. One crater was 100 meters away from the fatal crater, and the rest were 250 to 300 meters away.

Some Israeli officials have suggested the explosion may have been caused by a mine placed by Palestinian militants, rather than one of their artillery shells, despite the fact that they cannot account for the final landing place of one of their six shells.

However, according to on-site investigations by Human Rights Watch, the size of the craters and the type of injuries to the victims are not consistent with the theory that a mine caused the explosion. The craters are too large to be made by bounding mines, the only type of landmines capable of producing head and torso injuries of the type suffered by the victims on June 9. Additionally, Palestinian armed groups are not known to have, or to have used, bounding mines; the Palestinian government bomb squad said it has never uncovered a bounding mine in any explosive incident.

Since its September 2005 pullout from Gaza, the IDF has regularly struck northern Gaza with artillery shelling, in response to Qassam rocket attacks from the area by Palestinian armed groups. In the last 10 months, Israel has admitted to firing more than 5,000 artillery shells into the area. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs puts the number at 5,700 IDF shells fired since the end of March 2005.

According to the Palestinian Ministry of Health, IDF artillery fire has killed 47 Palestinians, including 11 children and five women, and injured 192 others since September 2005. It has also damaged dozens of homes in northern Gaza.

Human Rights Watch researchers visiting the area say almost every house on the periphery of areas of Beit Hanoun and Beit Lahia in northern Gaza has holes in it indicative of Israeli artillery shrapnel. In a June 10 interview with the New York Times, General Aviv Kochavi, the Israeli commander for the south, indicated that the purpose of the artillery shelling is to deter future attacks and punish area residents: “The message we are trying to convey, you can call it deterrence, but it’s ‘Ladies and gentlemen, there is an equivalence: so long as you shoot qassams at us, we’ll shoot at you.’”

International law requires attacking forces to distinguish between soldiers and civilians, targeting only the former. It prohibits indiscriminate attacks, which use a method or means of warfare that cannot distinguish between the two groups. It also prohibits disproportionate attacks in which the civilian harm outweighs military necessity.

“The IDF has a legal duty to do everything feasible to verify that targets are military objectives and to avoid civilian deaths,” Whitson said. “The investigation should determine how the beach picnickers died and whether international law was violated. If that’s the case, it must consider how best to compensate the victims and how to prevent future deaths.”

Human Rights Watch researchers have been in Sderot and Gaza on a fact-finding mission documenting the impact of Palestinian Qassam fire from Gaza into Israel and Israeli artillery shelling into northern Gaza. In Israel, the team was in Sderot when the town was hit by two Palestinian Qassams on Thursday, June 8, and also witnessed two more Qassams hitting Nativ Ha’asara the same day; there were no apparent injuries as a result of those attacks. Since Human Rights Watch’s visit to the Western Negev, the Israeli media has reported that 54 Qassam rockets have been fired at Sderot. According to news reports, on Sunday one rocket seriously wounded Yonatan Engel, a 60-year-old resident of Sderot.

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