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An Israel Defense Forces committee concluded that the deaths of seven members of a Palestinian family at a Gaza beach last Friday were not caused by an errant IDF artillery shell.

Defense Minister Amir Peretz, IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz and Major General Meir Kalifi, who headed the committee, held a press conference in Tel Aviv on Tuesday evening to present the probe's findings.

"We have enough findings to back up the suspicion that the intention to describe this as an Israeli event is simply not correct," Peretz said, continuing, "The accumulating evidence proves that this incident was not due to Israeli forces."

The committee found that the Palestinians were not killed by an Israeli artillery shell, as had been assumed by the foreign press and much of the Israeli media. The probe concludes that the blast was probably caused by an explosive device buried in the sand, but does not determine categorically whether it was planted by Palestinians or was an old IDF dud.

"We can say, surely, that the IDF is not responsible for the incident," Halutz told reporters.

"We checked each and every shell that was fired from the sea, the air and from the artillery on the land and we found out that we can track each and every one according to a timetable and according to the accuracy of where they hit the ground.

"We are very sorry for the deaths of the seven Palestinians, but that does not mean that we are responsible," he said.

A spokesman for the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority Interior Ministry described Israel's denial of responsibility as a fabrication.

"This is an Israeli lie and an attempt to escape moral responsibility for the massacre of a completely innocent family," Khalid Abu Hilal told Reuters.

"The Israeli denial is an additional crime."

No clear explanation was provided for what caused the explosion, but Kalifi suggested Palestinian militants might have been responsible.

"It can be that a terror operative placed something in this area in order to prevent operations by our forces... these are things we are not saying for certain," he said.

Halutz said there was no possibility of an international investigation into the explosion.

IDF gradually moved away from accepting responsibilityShortly after the incident occurred, the army was leaning toward accepting the assumption that the disaster was caused by an errant Israeli artillery shell. While the IDF spokesman's initial announcement did not formally accept responsibility, it expressed deep regret for the deaths and announced an end to the artillery fire on Gaza until the incident had been investigated. The foreign media unequivocally blamed Israel for the deaths, and the Israel media (including Haaretz) tended to do the same.

But as time passed, and more data was amassed, the IDF's assessment changed: Some pieces of data seemed to rule out the possibility that an Israeli shell was responsible, while others bolstered the theory that a Palestinian mine was to blame.

The importance of the committee's findings are obviously mitigated by the fact that ultimately, the IDF is being cleared by an IDF investigation. This is not an international inquiry, or even an external, civilian inquiry. Thus the next step will be leveraging these findings to affect public opinion - Israeli (where the battle is already largely won; even human rights organizations cast doubt on the Palestinian claims on Monday), international and even Palestinian.

Kalifi's committee examined a great deal of material, including film footage shot by Arab television stations at the scene. Some of the findings have already been reported: that five of the shells definitely landed some 250 meters from the beach, and that the explosion occurred at least eight minutes after the missing sixth shell was fired. However, this evidence has now been bolstered by three new findings:

* The shrapnel. Three people wounded in the blast are now hospitalized in Israel. Shrapnel was apparently removed from their bodies, and this is likely to reinforce the conclusion that the explosion was caused by a bomb rather than a shell.

* The crater. Based on photographs, the crater left on the beach by the blast seems to have been made by an explosion from below (a mine), not a hit from above (a shell).

* Intelligence. Israel has amassed considerable information indicating that over the past few weeks, ever since Israeli commandos infiltrated Gaza and killed a rocket-launching cell, Hamas has been systematically mining the northern Gaza beach in an attempt to keep Israeli commandos from landing there again.

The main hole in the army's evidence is the missing sixth shell, the first to be fired whose landing site has not been determined. From an examination of the cannon, the army is convinced that the shell could not have fallen on the beach, almost half a kilometer from its intended target. But there is no firm proof of this, only an educated guess.

Moreover, the Palestinians will have their own experts analyzing the shrapnel removed from the wounded treated in Gaza, and they will doubtless present conclusions contrary to those of the Israeli experts.

In the past, Israel has occasionally succeeded in refuting responsibility for casualties. A good example is the now discredited claim that Israel massacred Palestinians in Jenin in April 2002. This time, however, the game may already be lost.

Nevertheless, the IDF intends to appeal to Palestinian public opinion as well, hoping that doubts about the cause of the blast will undermine public support for Hamas, and specifically for its resumption of attacks on Israel. This method worked last September, when Hamas weaponry exploded during a rally in Jabalya and killed 20 bystanders. Hamas accused Israel and launched a rocket barrage, but the Palestinian public did not buy that explanation and Palestinian doubts, combined with the IDF's harsh response, caused Hamas to cease its fire two days later.