Four mortar shells fired by the IDF 'at a military target' in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead landed on a busy Al-Fakhoura Street and killed dozens of civilians. An investigation by Haaretz finds that the army's answers are not consistent with its own reports about the day of the shelling and that there are also major contradictions with facts made public here for the first time.
Looking at the photographs of the children who were killed on Al-Fakhoura Street in the Jabalya refugee camp during Operation Cast Lead just over two years ago, one is particularly struck by the face of Lina Hasan. All the children are innocent in the photos - some smiling, others offering a shy gaze. That's the way children are. But there is something about the look on Lina's face that makes you stop and look hard at the few photos that remain of her life. She was 10 years old when she died.
She seems to be brimming with self-confidence. In all the photos her big black eyes peer directly into the camera. Her hair is always pulled back and tidy. She is always neatly dressed. In one picture, taken at a family celebration when she was about 5, she is wearing a white skirt decorated with floral embroidery and gold ribbons. She has colorful plastic butterfly hair clips. Lina is obviously posing for the camera; with her left hand on her hip she thrusts her shoulder forward and looks into the lens with a slight tilt of the head. Her eyes sparkle. Signs of red polish are visible on one of her fingernails. The volley of mortar shells that killed Lina, along with dozens of other Palestinians, was fired on Tuesday, January 6, 2009, at about 3:45 in the afternoon. In the space of less than two minutes, four 120 mm mortars slammed into the heart of a busy street in the Jabalya refugee camp, north of Gaza City. They landed close to Al-Fakhoura School, where Lina, her family and hundreds of other civilians had taken shelter from the ravages of Israel's Operation Cast Lead. A few days after the incident, Lina's father, Abdul Hasan, told a reporter from The Guardian that she had asked him for a shekel to buy something for herself and her sisters. Lina was the eldest of his six children. He described how he had parted with her when she left the school on her way to a nearby grocery store. The next person who saw Lina was Wael Baroud, 37, who had just concluded his prayers when powerful explosions were heard from outside the school compound. He said he ran to look for his three children, who were playing on the next street at the time. According to testimony taken by human rights groups in Gaza, he said he found one of the children, Abdullah, 11, standing in the middle of the street amid dozens of bodies. He picked up the terrified boy and discovered that he was wounded: his stomach was perforated. He lay the bleeding boy on the street, which he said looked like a "slaughterhouse," and went to look for his two other sons, Saif, 8, and Jihad, 14. Baroud relates how he rushed madly among the dead, turning over body after body - they were all lying face down. "I suddenly saw a little girl near the Abu Dayer store. It was Lina Hasan. She was on the ground. I ran to her because I saw her moving her mouth. She was opening and closing her mouth. She was holding candies in her hand. Though she was injured, she was sucking the candies between her lips. Her face was not injured. When I grabbed the back of her head, I was surprised to see that her skull was cut off. After that, she closed her lips and died." (quote from www.dci-pal.org)
Baroud, who did not find his two other sons there, took Abdullah to nearby Kamal Radwan Hospital. The other two boys were there; Saif was unscathed, but Jihad was wounded. Lina's father also remembers the thunder of the mortar shells. "I heard the shell and I ran outside. I saw her body lying on the ground - part of her head was missing," he relates laconically, sparing the details.
The first reports
In many senses, the mortars fired by the Israel Defense Forces into Fakhoura Street reversed the flow of the hourglass for Operation Cast Lead. Although the fighting continued for another two weeks, until January 18, the event diluted the operation's legitimacy in the eyes of both international public opinion and most of the world's leaders. The shelling triggered large-scale demonstrations and vigorous diplomatic protests, and led to the convening of the United Nations Security Council, where Israel suffered a debacle.
Even though the attack occurred on the tenth day of the operation, which had already claimed more than 1,000 Palestinian casualties, the scenes broadcast from the site minutes after the shells landed were exceptionally horrifying. The first video segments show dozens of civilians scurrying helpless amid the dead and the wounded. Some are screaming; others, seized by hysteria, are slapping the faces of the dead and hitting them on the head. A few adults are seen running with bleeding children in their arms.
Later, some of them testified that they reached the hospital on foot after being rejected by the few ambulances that got to the site, too few to deal with the large number of casualties. Lina, too, is seen in one of these clips for a few seconds. She is being carried, cradled like an infant, by her father. Her body is limp. Her ponytail dangles in the air.
Initial reports from the event were contradictory and confusing. Witnesses reported that they understood the target of the attack to have been the Fakhoura School. It is now known that the target was not the school, but the general area, and that the killing was caused by a volley of mortar shells, none of which struck the school. The closest shell landed 30 meters from the school, two others a few dozen meters from it, and the fourth shell some distance away. Shrapnel from one of the shells did hit the compound's perimeter fence, but caused little damage. Of the hundreds of those who sought shelter in the building, who fled to it in the belief that they would find relief from the shelling and bombing, Lina Hasan was apparently the only person killed; three others were wounded.
IDF Spokesman's response
Nevertheless, the fact that the mortars fell close to the school generated shock and outrage. John Ging, the director of operations in Gaza for UNRWA, the UN relief agency, who was interviewed a short time after the attack on leading news channels, said emotionally that the school was marked clearly as a UN site and that 280 families, consisting of 1,674 people, were sheltering in it. His main allegation was that exact GPS coordinates of buildings had been conveyed to the Israeli army.
The IDF Spokesman's response was issued at 7:20 P.M. It stated, "An initial inquiry by forces operating in the area of the incident indicates that a number of mortar shells were fired at IDF forces from within the Jabalya school. In response to the incoming enemy fire, the forces returned mortar fire to the source." To reinforce this account, the IDF Spokesman added, "This is not the first time that Hamas has fired mortars and rockets from schools, in such a way deliberately using civilians as human shields in their acts of terror against Israel." The announcement was accompanied by a link to video footage taken by an air force drone showing rockets being fired from a UNRWA school in Beit Hanun in Gaza. That footage was taken more than a year before Operation Cast Lead, but the facts did not stop a number of Israeli commentators and news broadcasters from associating it with the events of that day and specifically to the Fakhoura School.
Udi Segal, the diplomatic correspondent of Channel 2 News, reported that explosions of combat materiel had definitely originated in the school. The station's military correspondent, Roni Daniel, broadcasting from the border of the Gaza Strip but not from within, added, "The crowd was not made up entirely of innocent people. They fired mortars from the site at Israeli forces and therefore sustained mortar fire from the IDF."
As Daniel spoke, the bottom-screen banner stated, "IDF: UNRWA schools often used as hiding places for terrorists and weapons." Yoav Limor, the military analyst for Channel 1 News (state TV ), broadcast a similar report: "The IDF has carried out a preliminary check, showing that mortars were fired from this UNRWA school at a unit of paratroopers. The force returned fire, including mortars, which hit the school - and this was the result."
A former senior officer in the IDF Spokesman's Unit confirmed that "from the first minute it was clear that we had not fired at the school and that no Hamas people were operating from within the school." The source is not willing to term it "spin" but agrees that the public discussion that was set in motion with the encouragement of representatives of the IDF Spokesman over the school's involvement in the event "diverted criticism from the fact that so many civilians were killed."
The spin worked well in Israel. But newscasts around the world opened with images from the event and bottom-screen banners used terms such as "massacre," "genocide" and "slaughterhouse." The next day's newspaper headlines were equally unambiguous. The Guardian headlined its story "Gaza's day of carnage," and The Independent ran a one-word front-page headline, below a photograph from the scene of the event: "Why?"
Field workers from Palestinian and international human rights organizations collected dozens of testimonies from local residents and UNRWA employees. The foreign media published extensive reports and articles about the event. Judge Richard Goldstone also addressed the incident at length in his report about Operation Cast Lead, summing up the subject in the following words: "The firing of at least four mortar shells to attempt to kill a small number of specified individuals in a setting where large numbers of civilians were going about their daily business and 1,368 people were sheltering nearby cannot meet the test of what a reasonable commander would have determined to be an acceptable loss of civilian life for the military advantage sought." That convoluted sentence is based on two articles from the Fourth Geneva Conference Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War (1949 ). Article 50 (from an additional protocol in 1977 ) states, "The civilian population comprises all persons who are civilians" and, "The presence within the civilian population of individuals who do not come within the definition of civilians does not deprive the population of its civilian character." Article 57 (also from 1977 ) stipulates, in part, "In the conduct of military operations, constant care shall be taken to spare the civilian population." Under the convention, to which Israel is a signatory and therefore bound by its rules, those who plan or decide on attacks must "do everything feasible to verify that the objectives to be attacked are neither civilians nor civilian objects" and to "take all feasible precautions in the choice of means and methods of attack with a view to avoiding, and in any event to minimizing, incidental loss of civilian life." In addition, they must "refrain from deciding to launch any attack which may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life ... which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated." An attack is to be canceled or suspended if it is likely to produce the outcome described above. Under the fierce international criticism, the IDF was compelled to launch an investigation of its own. It was headed by an officer with the rank of colonel, who submitted his findings and conclusions to the chief of staff. Today, more than two years after the incident, most of the facts about the events on Fakhoura Street remain unclear or in dispute. There is disagreement over questions of principle, such as the legitimacy of the target and hence of the attack, but also over basic factual details, such as exactly where the Israeli shells landed and the number of Palestinian civilians killed in the incident. However, the most serious question was and remains the issue of balance: Was the IDF's action proportional? The state's response to the Goldstone Report was given in a series of documents that describe the inquiries and investigations conducted into those events in which the IDF was alleged to have violated the laws of armed conflict. In regard to the Fakhoura Street incident, Israel wrote that the results of its inquiry had led the military advocate general, Major General Avichai Mendelblit, to conclude that the attack was aimed at a legitimate military target and that Israel had not breached the principle of proportionality based on "the test of [the] reasonable commander." Accordingly, Mendelblit decided not to order a full-scale investigation into the incident. Israel noted that in other cases, too, the army had investigated itself and had filed indictments. The conclusion in the Fakhoura Street case was based on the results of the military inquiry that was submitted to the chief of staff and which "seemed to be comprehensive, adequate and full," as a source in the Military Advocate General's Unit continued to maintain as recently as February. However, an examination by Haaretz Magazine raises many serious questions concerning the behavior of the paratroopers on the ground, led by the chief paratroops officer at the time, Colonel Herzl Levy, and Mendelblit's decision not to recommend a full investigation.
The officer's version
The inquiries into the Fakhoura Street event confirm that there had been Palestinian gunfire from the area before the Israeli attack. It is important to emphasize that in contrast to other incidents in Operation Cast Lead, in this case a number of Palestinian civilians who had been present in the area admitted to both foreign news media and to members of various inquiry commissions that there had been firing from their side. All the witnesses described individual sounds of firing, but no eye-witnesses came forward who could pinpoint the exact source. According to most of the testimonies, the weapons were probably mortars or Qassam rockets.
According to the report produced on the military inquiry, the firing of the four mortar shells at the street by the mortar unit of the auxiliary company followed the firing of mortar shells by Hamas at the paratroopers who were in the Al-Atatra neighborhood, which is about two kilometers north of Jabalya (see diagram ). The Palestinian attack, the report continues, went on for 50 minutes to an hour; between 10 and 20 shells were fired. The report adds, as does the military advocate general's opinion, that the IDF fired in response to a situation of "clear and immediate threat."
A senior officer in the ground forces who was directly involved in the decision-making process in the event, offers a similar account: "On Tuesday morning we started to come under accurate mortar fire. It was not the first time we had been attacked with mortars there, but the fifth or eighth time. This time the shells landed very close. The shells land in the neighborhood [Al-Atatra], they land on the houses and it's only a matter of time before a shell like this will land in the midst of a group of fighters. When you are called upon as a commander to deal with something like this, if you know where it is [coming from] you will fire back at it."
In regard to the location of the Palestinian mortar unit, the officer says, "We know that it is outside the school, at a distance of 80-100 meters from it, in an orchard. If someone had said to me, 'Listen, there is a crowd there, all the schoolchildren are standing next to that place,' and mortar fire against me had continued, I would not have opened fire at the place. By the way, it's not certain that that would be the right thing from the military viewpoint, but that's what I would have decided. You know what, if that's what I would have had to decide and afterward go to the families of two [Israeli soldiers] who were killed, that's no simple matter. They would have asked me, 'Why didn't you protect the soldiers?' I would have been able to protect them if I knew where the [Palestinians] were shooting from. Because we understood that this was not the case, and because we understood that it was far enough from the school and that this barrel was firing repeatedly - not one or two shells - authorization was given to return fire."
The soldiers' account
However, a very different picture emerges from many testimonies given by paratroopers who took part in the incident and from a large number of previously unpublished documents obtained by Haaretz Magazine. None of the soldiers who were interviewed for this article and none of those who gave testimony to Breaking the Silence - an organization of veteran soldiers seeking to raise awareness of the reality of life in the occupied territories - described similar feelings of mortal danger. Many of them do not even remember coming under mortar fire. Moreover, some of the operational logs and military reports summing up the Gaza operation also make no mention of Palestinian mortar fire at the paratroopers in Al-Atatra.
A previously unpublished report drawn up by the fire coordination unit of Southern Command, based on the spotting of mortar and missile fire from the Gaza Strip, indicates that all the shells fired by Palestinians from the area of Jabalya refugee camp landed inside Israel, far from where the paratroopers were located. One landed near Sapir College in Sderot, the report states, another in Begin Square in Sderot and the others in open areas, mainly around nearby Kibbutz Gevim.
Another document obtained by Haaretz - "Summary of Major Events," a routine daily report drawn up by the operations section of the Gaza Division detailing all the incidents of the past day - lists all the cases in which the paratroopers in Al-Atatra came under fire on January 6, not only from mortar shells. According to this report, only four cases of firing took place in the hours that preceded the mortar attack by the IDF (which took place at about 3:45 P.M. ) - at 8:41 A.M., 9:06 A.M., 11:59 A.M. and 12:38 P.M. True, five soldiers were wounded lightly in the first of the four instances, and the division's log states, "Light arms and mortar shells fired at our forces." But later it turned out that all five soldiers were wounded by the light-arms fire, not by a mortar shell, as all the later summaries for that day also note.
Another daily summary, drawn up by the operations branch of the Gaza Division, also states that during the whole of that day, a total of four mortar shells were fired at Israeli forces in the northern sector of the Gaza Strip. Furthermore, the shells landed near a Golani Brigade force that was operating in the sector, and not near the paratroopers. In sum, none of the reports and events logs obtained by Haaretz states that mortar shells were fired that day from Jabalya at the paratroopers in Al-Atatra. Incidentally, the senior officer, who made it clear at the start of the interview (which was arranged through the IDF Spokesman's Unit ) that he is well informed about the details and that he witnessed "the event from end to end," insisted on two different occasions that it occurred in the morning. Even when he was shown army documents stating that the Israeli mortar shells landed in the street close to 4 P.M., along with soldiers' testimonies to the same effect, he continued to insist: "Morning. Near midday." It is also noteworthy that on the January day on which the incident occurred, sunset was at 4:52 P.M., meaning that the mortars were fired toward the onset of twilight. War, as every combat soldier knows, is the kingdom of uncertainty, and the two-year interim since Operation Cast Lead might also have a contributing effect in regard to the apparent contradictions between the officer's account of the event and the versions that appear in the official reports and in his soldiers' testimonies. Nor are these merely technical disagreements. The assertion that Israeli soldiers returned fire after their lives were endangered in an intensive attack determined the character of the event; this was meant to justify the very steep price that was exacted - the killing of a large number of civilians, including children. A situation in which soldiers are felt to be in mortal danger is effectively the first element in a complex and multivariable equation in which the commander in the field must try to maintain a balance during combat in a populated area. On the one side there is the enemy and the danger he poses to our forces; on the other, a civilian population and the danger it will face in an attack. In certain cases, opening fire in a situation of concrete risk to soldiers' lives might be considered legitimate, even at the price of the lives of innocent civilians. This in fact was the approach taken by the military advocate general in regard to the Fakhoura Street incident. According to the state's response to the Goldstone report, Mendelblit "found that Hamas mortar fire posed a clear and immediate threat to Israeli forces." But the soldiers' testimonies, the reports and the documents tell a different story.
Where the IDF fired
The facts relating to the second part of the equation - the damage done to the civilian population - and their interpretation are also in dispute. Disagreement exists even about where the Israeli mortar shells were aimed and where they landed. The senior officer who was involved in the incident says his soldiers located the Palestinian mortar squad on farmland west of the Fakhoura School. He does not remember the squad's exact location, but when shown an aerial map indicates two possible sites. In part, the IDF mortar shells landed there, he says, but he is far less decisive about the others. Although at first insisting that the shells hit their target, later in the conversation he agrees to admit, partially and reservedly, that shells also landed on Fakhoura Street. "Four landed. Two in an open area [the farming area he indicated] and two on the road, if I remember correctly," the officer said.
It is possible that a Hamas mortar squad operated at the place indicated by the officer on the aerial photo. Speaking by phone, a journalist from Jabalya said that mortar shells and missiles were frequently fired into Israel from the farmland in question. But according to the many testimonies collected in Gaza and the investigations carried out by the Goldstone Commission and by human rights groups, the Israeli shells did not land in the farming area. Taken as a whole, the testimonies and other evidence show that the first three mortar shells landed in the middle of Fakhoura Street, just meters from the UNRWA school. The fourth shell hit the porch of the home of the Deeb family - at least 50 meters away from the place where the Palestinian mortar squad could have been operating.
Photographs that were taken in the course of a classified internal investigation conducted by a highly regarded international human rights organization whose reports are generally reliable, show shrapnel and the tail ends of shells that were found on the street and in the home of the Deeb family. The report of the investigation, which was obtained by Haaretz Magazine, also locates the places where the Israeli shells fell according to map coordinates based on GPS technology. The findings closely match the Goldstone Report and the testimonies taken from Gaza residents for this article. They show that the four IDF mortar shells fell a few dozen meters apart, across a total distance of 160 meters. The "aiming point" - the average strike point of the shells - is about 150 meters from the site of the Palestinian mortar squad according to both the senior officer and the report of the General Staff.
Video footage shot within seconds of the incident on Fakhoura Street leaves no room for doubt about where three of the shells struck. The footage shows a busy street with buildings all around.
According to the senior officer, the IDF has a film that was taken at the site seconds after the event by an Israeli unpiloted aircraft. Such a film could answer many questions, not least about the exact place the shells struck. Representatives of the IDF Spokesman's Unit promised to make every effort to locate the film and use it to present their account. At first they said this would not be a problem and that there were no field-security restrictions on the footage. However, in the course of more than a month, our request to see it was rejected time after time for a variety of reasons. As of the writing of this article, the IDF Spokesman's Unit says the film has not been found.
Making the decision
According to Israel's official response to the Goldstone Report, "The MAG [military advocate general] also found that the commander was aware that the mortar attacks were being carried out from a populated area in the vicinity of an UNRWA school. For this reason, the commander took many precautions, including cross-verification of the source of fire by two independent means." The two means that enabled the identification of the Palestinian mortar squad in the Fakhoura Street area are not specified. The investigation by Haaretz Magazine reveals that one of the two was an observation point manned by paratroopers in the southeast part of the Atatra neighborhood. This was confirmed by the senior officer who was interviewed for this article. The implication is that the paratroopers apparently had direct eye contact with the area of the Fakhoura School, at a distance of only 1,600 meters, and in that case could see that the area was bustling with people. With binoculars, they could also identify relatively easily the armed individuals and distinguish them from the dozens of civilians on the street. This raises serious questions about the decision to use mortar fire.
Most of the missiles and shells fired by Hamas during Operation Cast Lead were detected by a number of radar systems operated by the Artillery Corps. These can locate within seconds the source of fire, within a range of accuracy of 10 meters, and estimate with considerable accuracy where the missile or shell will land. The exact coordinates that are received from the sighting systems are transmitted via coded networks to the combat forces. Normally, mortar fire is the quickest and most effective response to an attack of this kind, but only in a case where there is an open area. If that is the source, eye contact with the target is not necessary, nor do ground forces have to get to the site. Israeli troops fired thousands of mortar shells in Operation Cast Lead under those circumstances.
According to the military advocate general, mortars were "the most accurate weapon available" to the Israeli forces at that time. The Israeli response stated, "Air support was not available to the unit under attack at that moment, and the Law of Armed Conflict does not require commanders to await air support and prolong soldiers' exposure to enemy fire." Haaretz correspondent Amos Harel quoted an army source to similar effect in an article he wrote about the incident: "The original intention was to fire a missile from the air, but this did not work out."
However, a number of pilots who took part that day in Operation Cast Lead and were interviewed for the article vehemently rejected the allegation that the air force was unavailable for the mission. According to one of them, "We maintained a constant presence in all the combat sectors. And even if there was a technical hitch with one of the [aircraft], or someone left the area in order to rearm, there were always backups."
Moreover, the combat logs from that day describe a number of events in which paratroopers on the ground guided helicopters and aircraft to targets, sometimes even to eliminate a wall or other barrier, certainly against armed individuals. The senior officer also relates that he recalls no event in which aircraft were unavailable to him that day. He says that aircraft were not used against the Palestinian mortar squad, because "a helicopter arrives at an altitude of 3,000 feet, is very high, is positioned at a great distance and sees a very diagonal and distorted picture. There is little chance of finding [the squad]. They will also see the helicopter and run off, and you end up not hitting them like that. This might actually be something that might not be pleasant for a journalist based in Tel Aviv to hear, but I am in the field and I want to kill whoever is shooting at me. Not make him escape, not frighten him, not threaten him. I want to kill him."
The military advocate general's view
There is no doubt that the time-consuming process of guiding an aircraft to a target can allow the enemy to escape. However, the Paratroops Brigade had other means at its disposal as well. Having eye contact with the target made possible the use of a large range of weapons, most of which could have been far more accurate and effective than mortar shells, and even faster and more available than what the air force could offer. Specifically, this refers to two armored companies operating Merkava Mk-3 tanks that were assisting the Paratroops Brigade. Their effectiveness against such a target, at that range, is indisputable. The soldiers also had guided ground missiles, which are considered optimal in terms of accuracy and response speed against targets at these ranges. They were utilized with great success throughout the Gaza operation.
Of all the options, a mortar, which in combat doctrine is categorized as a "static weapon," is probably the least accurate. A mortar shell has a lengthy arched ballistic flight, creating a large scatter area upon landing, which even in the most advanced systems can cover dozens of meters. The IDF Spokesman declined to reveal the scatter area of the mortars that were in use during the Fakhoura Street incident, but various announcements by the spokesman's unit noted a range of between 30 and 70 meters. In open areas, widely dispersed shells fired in large numbers will, owing to the killing range of shrapnel, almost certainly produce a hit against the intended target. In built-up areas, this is a recipe for disaster.
Mortars are also considered outdated weapons, with a lengthy response time. From the moment the order is given to fire a mortar shell, even the most experienced team - which is already in the firing position - will need 40 seconds to get off the first shell. The paratroops' mortars were positioned about four kilometers from Fakhoura Street. The flight time of a mortar shell at this distance lasts many seconds. Given the Hamas doctrine of mortar fire, which was well-known to the IDF, it was clear that the Hamas combatants would have ample time to flee the launch site between the time the squad was located until the Israeli mortars landed.
The Israeli response to the Goldstone Report stated that the military advocate general had "also found that the IDF's choice of weapons was appropriate under the circumstances. The Israeli forces employed a burst of four Keshet 120 mm mortar rounds, fired in quick succession. The Keshet mortar contains advanced target acquisition and navigation systems." This description of mortar shells is hardly consistent with reality. As anyone who has ever fired a mortal shell knows, the shell plummets like a stone from the sky and cannot navigate itself to the target. No evidence exists either in the professional military literature or in the catalogs of the leading manufacturers of mortar shells that these weapons "contain advanced target acquisition and navigation systems."
The second unknown in the equation that a military commander must maintain during fighting in a built-up area is the civilian population and the danger posed to it by an attack. The state's response to the Goldstone Report asserts, "Ultimately, the MAG determined that the anticipated collateral damage prior to initiating IDF mortar fire was not excessive when weighed against the expected military benefit." A similar claim was made by the senior officer who was involved in the event. According to the officer, the film taken by the unmanned aircraft shortly after the Israeli attack shows "only 12 to 15 casualties, apparently both wounded and dead. That indicates how Goldstone was deceived." He also maintains that in retrospect he learned from intelligence sources that "all told, five to seven people were killed in the event, of whom five were definitely Hamas activists." The Goldstone Commission estimated that 34 people were killed in the attack, but was qualified about its ability to come up with a definitive final figure. The other investigations cited higher numbers, generally 42 or 43 dead. There were probably only two combatants among them. Most of the investigations also noted the names of 14 children below the age of 17 who were killed on the spot. According to the Goldstone Report, one shell, apparently the final one in the volley, killed 11 of the 16 members of the Deeb family, all of whom were on the porch of their home at the time. The dead included four women and four children. Ziad Deeb, 22, one of the survivors, related afterward that "everyone was sitting on the porch around the taboun" - a stone oven in which his mother was baking potatoes. When Ziad heard the first explosions he ran to the house "in order to make sure no one had been hurt," in his words. The shell landed just as he reached the porch. His brother Mohammed, who was standing in front of him, took most of the shrapnel and died on the spot. Ziad was seriously wounded and both his legs were amputated, the right leg above the knee, the left above the ankle. The others who were killed in the incident probably died from the three additional mortars that struck Fakhoura Street, although it is difficult to determine their exact number. About 10 bodies are visible in the video taken shortly after the event, but that is not an adequate source. That footage covers a relatively small section of the street and from a very narrow angle. None of the members of the Deeb family who were killed are seen in the video footage. Some 40 bodies can be made out in the videos shot the following day, during the mass funeral in the camp's cemetery. However, that day was one of the bloodiest ever in Gaza, and a number of Israeli military sources allege that the Palestinians "foisted" people killed in other incidents onto the Fakhoura deaths.
The list of Palestinians killed in Operation Cast Lead compiled by the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, which is considered the most comprehensive and accurate, cites the names of 53 people who were killed that day in Jabalya refugee camp. Of these, only 19 are explicitly noted as having been killed in the event close to the Fakhoura School. One of them is 10-year-old Lina. However, the category of "circumstances of death" on the list is only partially completed and insufficiently detailed. For example, Mohammed Deeb is said to have been "killed in Jabalya," without specifying the circumstances. The same holds for the family's father, Samir, though it is known for certain that he was killed in the Fakhoura Street incident.
The international community could not remain indifferent to the sight of so many civilian casualties. World public opinion perceived the Fakhoura Street attack to be an unjustified and illegal assault on a civilian population. In cases of preceding mass-casualty events, official Israeli spokesmen maintained that these had been legitimate military targets or that civilians had been hurt because they were close to Hamas forces; but everyone understood that this was not the case on Fakhoura Street. In the wake of the attack, UN Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay, who served for four years as president of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and as a judge on the International Criminal Court in The Hague, proposed the establishment of a committee to examine whether war crimes were being perpetrated in Gaza. Speaking at a meeting of the Security Council, she said, "I remind this council that violations of international humanitarian law may constitute war crimes for which individual criminal responsibility may be invoked." The incident sparked stormy demonstrations in several European capitals, across the Arab world and elsewhere. In Toronto, Israeli representatives were attacked by demonstrators. In Ankara, an international basketball game between a local team and a team from Israel was canceled when 2,500 fans of the local team charged at the Israelis. The next day, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez expelled the Israeli ambassador.
The Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem had been apprehensive about just such a scenario. According to a former senior official of the ministry, "In all the briefings that preceded the event, we avoided dealing with how we would respond to what we called 'the Kafr Kana curse.' It lay deep within the consciousness of each of us, but no one was capable of predicting when it would come or how we would cope when it did." The "curse," he explains, was engraved in the memory of the Foreign Ministry's information unit in the wake of two tragic incidents that occurred in Israeli actions in southern Lebanon, the first in Operation Grapes of Wrath in 1996, the second in the war in Lebanon 10 years later, both of them in the village of Kana. In each case, dozens of Lebanese civilians were killed by Israeli artillery and aircraft fire and the sickening images that were subsequently broadcast around the world generated fierce international criticism and significantly hastened the conclusion of the military operation. "It was only a matter of time until an event we would not be able to explain occurred in Gaza, too," the former Foreign Ministry official noted.
The confusion and embarrassment that the Fakhoura Street incident caused the Foreign Ministry was documented in a report on Channel 2 News. The item shows Lior Hayat, the ministry's deputy spokesman, declaring a few minutes after the first reports from Fakhoura Street began to arrive, "Okay, here we go again ... everything we worked on. In the end, what will determine the success or failure of this operation ... is this isolated event, which will spoil the whole picture for us." The Channel 2 report goes on to show the daily conference call with a number of Israeli ambassadors, in which Foreign Ministry personnel inform them that "new messages are needed" in the wake of the incident. Later, they are told that it is no longer possible to deny that a humanitarian crisis exists in Gaza.
According to the former Foreign Ministry official, it was the "gloomy results," in his words, of the Fakhoura Street attack that led to the decision to open a "humanitarian corridor" for the first time the next day, allowing Gaza residents three hours to stock up on food and other basic commodities following 10 days of total siege. That same day, Israel also announced the establishment of a humanitarian coordination center, headed by a reserve brigadier general, Baruch Spiegel.
The Security Council, which convened for an emergency session on the day after the event, adopted Resolution 1860, which "stresses the urgency of and calls for an immediate, durable and fully respected cease-fire, leading to the full withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza." Fourteen of the council's 15 members voted in favor; the United States departed from custom by abstaining rather than backing Israel by casting a veto.
Hamas activist(s) killed
The mortar squad of Jabalya refugee camp was part of the northern defense battalion of Iz al-Din al-Qassam, the military wing of Hamas. According to a senior Israeli intelligence source, the squad was "proficient and well-trained." Similarly, the senior officer who was interviewed for this article related, "In the months preceding [Operation] Cast Lead, Hamas displayed very accurate capabilities with 120 mm mortars. We also knew that after firing, they cover the mortar with canvas, and then an unmanned aircraft cannot find it."
About four and a half hours after the event, the IDF Spokesman stated, "After an investigation that took place over the past hour it has been found that among the dead at the Jebaliya [i.e., Jabalya] school were Hamas terror operatives and a mortar battery squad who were firing on IDF forces in the area. Hamas operatives Immad Abu Iskar and Hassan Abu Iskar were among terrorists identified killed [sic]." The spokesman was inaccurate. Immad Iskar was 14 years old at the time of his death and certainly was not part of the mortar squad. Rather, it was the boy's brother, Khaled Iskar, 20, the regional commander of the mortar force of Iz al-Din al-Qassam in Jabalya. Also killed in the IDF shelling, though this was not mentioned by the spokesman, was Rifat, another brother of Khaled's. The Iskar family's home is very close to that of the Deeb family, 11 of whose members were killed in the Israeli shelling.
Israeli military sources told the media that most of the casualties in the incident were Hamas combatants who were members of the Jabalya mortar squad. The same claim is made by the senior officer who was interviewed for the article and by Military Intelligence personnel, who in response to our request provided the names of seven Palestinian combatants whom they say were killed in the event.
A senior journalist in Gaza last month denied the list's credibility. "It is inconceivable that those people took part in joint action with Hamas," he said. "For example, the two members of the Madhoun family [who are named in the list] are the brother and father of Hassam Madhoun, who was a senior commander in Fatah and was murdered by a Hamas lynch mob during the organization's takeover of Gaza. That family is known for its hostility to Hamas, and they did not take part in any belligerent act during the operation in Gaza." According to the journalist, the members of the Madhoun family who were killed happened to be on the street at the time.
However, despite the testimonies about a large number of civilian dead, the IDF is trying to play down the event's significance. Thus, the senior officer: "I do not agree that the event is a turning point in Cast Lead and that afterward there was some sort of [IDF] restraint. No directive was issued by Southern Command or by the General Staff to change the policy in the wake of this event."
The officer also insists on describing the incident as a military success, asserting, "It was the last time that mortars were fired at the Paratroops Brigade in the operation." (The events logs compiled by the history department of the Doctrine and Guidance Brigade cites at least two additional instances in which mortar shells were fired at the paratroops from the Jabalya area during Operation Cast Lead, on January 13 and 17. )
The military advocate general found that the IDF response had been "measured" and "proportional," a finding that is difficult to accept given the result in practice: the death of dozens of civilians. Israel's response to the Goldstone report stated, "Israel acknowledges that, while the strike was effective in removing the threat to Israeli forces, it also resulted in the regrettable loss of civilian lives ... [T]he MAG reiterated the recommendation of the special command investigation to formulate more stringent definitions in military orders to govern the use of mortars in populated areas and in close proximity to sensitive facilities."
The IDF does not elaborate about the "more stringent definitions" that were drawn up concerning the use of mortars in populated areas in the wake of the Fakhoura Street incident. It's a pity that many civilians had to die to prompt the IDF to redefine what should have been self-evident. Beyond this, it might have been expected that the paratroopers who fired the mortars would be more cautious in choosing the mode of response, target and weapon, even without a formal order. True, they fired at Hamas combatants who were operating in the area, and hit a few of them, but what effort did they make to avoid harming innocent civilians? In response to a query from Haaretz Magazine, the IDF Spokesman chose not to address specific claims and not to reply to questions about the seeming contradictions between the comments of the senior officer and those of the military advocate general. Instead, the spokesman conveyed the responses to the Fakhoura Street event as they appear in the official Israeli response to the Goldstone report - the responses that are quoted in this article. Beyond them, the IDF Spokesman added no additional information.
Roni Efrat and Rayad Zuabi assisted in the investigative work for this article.
In the past few weeks, a political and media storm has raged over the Goldstone report. An op-ed by Judge Richard Goldstone in the Washington Post published earlier this month was interpreted in Israel as an almost sweeping recantation of the findings of the committee of inquiry he headed.
Columnists and politicians emphasized a number of statements from the article, notably, “If I had known then what I know now, the Goldstone Report would have been a different document.”
They also quoted with satisfaction his comment that Israel did not have a policy of killing civilians and the fact that Goldstone singled out Israel favorably for investigating excesses and prima facie violations of the rules of war, in contrast to Hamas, which did not carry out one investigation and did not respond to the allegations against it in the report.
The investigation of the event on Al-Fakhoura Street shows that Israel did not have a deliberate policy of killing civilians. That is also suggested by a large number of inquiries about Operation Cast Lead carried out in the past two years. From this point of view, Goldstone’s mea culpa did not tell us anything we did not already know. Similarly, the fact that Hamas did not respond to the report is not surprising, but does not say anything about Israel’s morality.
Mostly due to international pressure, but also thanks to an investigatory culture and a well-developed system of learning from past mistakes, the Israel Defense Forces investigated a large number of events in which Israel was alleged to have been guilty of war crimes. Soldiers were tried in only a very few instances.
However, the international pressure also pushed Israel to the wall. Feeling threatened and persecuted, Israel avoided carrying out a comprehensive investigation of the morality of using certain types of weapons and addressing questions that arise during combat in densely populated areas.
Goldstone expressed reservations about how people interpreted his report, and he did not retract the facts that were put forward by the team of investigators he headed. The Haaretz investigation corroborates a great many of the facts in the report and also the reservations put forward in the Washington Post op-ed.
It should further be noted that the IDF did not take action against senior commanders after examining events in Operation Cast Lead, but made do with taking measures against soldiers of lower rank. (Shay Fogelman)