The Israel Defense Forces military advocate general is expected to close its investigation into the killing of four Palestinians carrying white flags during Operation Cast Lead.
The probable closure of the probe came to light yesterday during Military Advocate General Brig. Gen. Avichai Mendelblit's testimony before the Turkel committee, which is examining the naval raid last May on a Gaza-bound flotilla.
As the panel is authorized to conduct more general examinations of how the IDF probes incidents that show a divergence from orders during combat, Mendelblit was testifying about the procedures for launching criminal investigations following combat-related incidents.
He described the case in which Muhammad Hajji (37 ), Mahmad Hajji (15 ), Ola Arafat (27 ) and 3-year-old Shahd Hajji were killed, during the early phases of the ground incursion during Operation Cast Lead. Nine members of their family, including a 9-month-old baby, were wounded in the same incident, which took place on January 5, 2009 in the Zeitoun neighborhood of Gaza City.
The case was mentioned in the Goldstone Report, and was brought to the attention of the military advocate general by the Red Cross before the Goldstone Report was published.
According to information gathered by the human rights group B'Tselem, the Hajji family was attempting to flee their home during the early hours of January 5. The father, Muhammad Hajji, was killed and two other family members were wounded when a tank shell struck their house.
Soldiers who took over the house shortly thereafter ordered the family to move to a nearby home where 30 people had been placed in a single room, with the men bound and blindfolded. The soldiers subsequently ordered the family to leave that second house in the afternoon and head for Rafah. They were joined by the Arafat family along the way. All together, some 50 Palestinians were walking, holding white flags.
As the group was walking it was reportedly fired on by Israeli troops; Ola Arafat was killed and seven others were wounded. They contacted the Red Cross, which told them that it was unable to reach the area. Mahmad Hajji and Shahd Hajji subsequently died of their injuries.
The group eventually took shelter in another house in the neighborhood, which was also shelled, wounding some occupants.
About six months after Operation Cast Lead, following queries by the Red Cross and the publication of the Goldstone Report, the IDF opened its own criminal investigation of the case.
Mendelblit - who was testifying yesterday for the second time before the Turkel committee - said that because of the nature of the incident, which had occurred in stages, it had taken two years to question the soldiers, officers and Palestinian civilians involved, and that the investigation was about to end.
Sources in the military advocate general's office said that after collecting all the testimonies, no evidence was found that IDF soldiers had fired against orders, and therefore the file was to be closed without any charges being brought forward.
Before Mendelblit's testimony, attorney Michael Sfard, legal counsel to the human rights group Yesh Din, told the committee: "Complaints by Palestinians against the security forces must undergo immediate criminal investigation. Operational investigation is no less than a disaster. It is not only bankrupt, it causes major damage to both the State of Israel and the victims."
Mendelblit told the panel that criminal investigations had been launched in 30 out of 267 probes by the military advocate general's office involving cases in which Palestinian civilians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip were harmed.
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