Peretz to reevaluate IDF policy of shelling northern Gaza Strip
Olmert calls for immediate meeting with Abbas; IDF inquiry: Technical failure in artillery radar caused botched shelling.
Defense Minister Amir Peretz decided Thursday to reevaluate the policy of directing IDF artillery fire at the Gaza Strip, following the killing of 19 Palestinian civilians by errant Israel Defence Forces shelling in Beit Hanun on Wednesday.
Peretz also decided that from now on all artillery fire must be approved by GOC Southern Command Yoav Galant, or his superior officers.
The IDF has halted the artillery fire until the completion of an inquiry into Wednesday's incident.
Major General Meir Kalifi, who is heading the IDF inquiry, met Thursday evening with Peretz and presented him with the inquiry's findings.
The inquiry found that a malfunctioning electronic card in the artillery battery's guidance system, which was replaced five days ago, was the cause of the errant fire.
The card fed the battery's guidance system with wrong coordinates, as a result of which the battery errantly fired seven shells into Palestinian homes, instead of open areas from which Qassam rockets were being fired at Israeli communities.
The Israeli-developed "Shilem" guidance system has been in use by the IDF for roughly 30 years. It is considered reliable, and IDF inquiries into the matter found that this is the first time this particular malfunction has occured in the system or similar systems used abroad.
According to military sources, it would be worthwhile to look into whether the artillery battery team could have nonetheless avoided the incident through more proper performance, and careful monitoring of the equipment.
The Kalifi inquiry has yet to complete its work, but as yet has found that the replacement card was examined in a professional manner by the proper technicians.
The inquiry is considering recommending two changes to IDF regulations: requiring a live-fire test of artillery batteries following parts replacement, and requiring human tracking of where shells are falling in addition to the radar.
The inquiry will also examine the standard operating regulations in IDF artillery batteries and in the Gaza division, as well as how well they are upheld in practice.
Peretz also ordered an examination of IDF regulations regarding the minimum required distance between where artillery fire can be directed and the nearest populated area.
In the past year the IDF reduced this minimum required distance from 300 meters to 100 meters, before raising it back to 200 meters. Some IDF generals believe this minimum distance is too small.
Nonetheless, IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz and Galant are convinced the IDF should not rule out entirely the use of artillery shelling to combat rocket fire.
Following the presentation of the inquiry's findings, Halutz said the incident in Beit Hanun was "difficult and saddening" due to the deaths of "uninvolved civilians."
Halutz added that the inquiry was thoroughly conducted and announced that he is adopting its findings, conclusions, and recommendations.
"The IDF takes care to avoid harming the civilian population and acts solely against the terror infrastructure," Halutz said.
Olmert calls for immediate meeting with AbbasPrime Minister Ehud Olmert on Thursday said the IDF shelling was caused by a "technical failure" and called for an immediate meeting with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas.
"He will be surprised, when he will sit with me, by how far we are prepared to go. I can offer him a lot," Olmert said, without elaborating.
In his comments, Olmert said he is ready to meet with Abbas "any time, any place, without preconditions." He said Abbas has prevented a meeting from taking place.
Olmert, speaking in English at a business conference, expressed regret for Wednesday's bloodshed. "I'm very uncomfortable with this event. I'm very distressed," he said, adding he had personally looked into the cause of the pre-dawn artillery strike.
"This particular case ... was a mistake," he said. "It was not a planned attack."
"It was a technical failure of the Israeli artillery. I checked it, and I verified it."
He added, however, that Israel will continue its military operations in Gaza as long as Palestinian rocket attacks persist. He said Israel will do everything it can to avoid similar mistakes, but warned that further tragedies are possible. "It may happen," he said.
Olmert said Wednesday's artillery strike was aimed at an orange grove used by rocket squads in northern Gaza to attack Israel.
At Beit Hanun funerals, Fatah official vows revengeTens of thousands of Palestinians joined mass funeral processions in Gaza on Thursday as the bodies of 19 people killed by the botched IDF shelling the day before were buried to the accompaniment of gunfire and vows of revenge.
Groups of militants, some masked and firing their weapons in the air, flanked the processions as they snaked through the streets of Beit Hanun, where Wednesday's attack took place, before the dead were laid to rest in a new cemetery.
The bodies, including six children and seven women, were each wrapped in a yellow flag, the symbol of the Fatah movement of Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, and borne aloft on stretchers among a vast chanting crowd of mourners.
Cries of "Allahu Akbar" (God is Greatest) filled the air as the bodies were placed in their graves, and more gunfire sounded before a Fatah official, addressing the crowds through a loudspeaker, pledged vengeance against Israel.
"The killers in Israel, you will never be able to defeat one Palestinian child," said Abdul Hakim Awad.
"The Zionist enemy understands only the language of force and therefore I say, an eye for an eye and a soul for a soul. There will be no security in Ashkelon, no security in Tel Aviv or Haifa, until our people in Beit Hanun are secured."
All activity in Beit Hanun was focused on the funerals. Ordinarily, on a Thursday morning, the town's streets are teeming with people. In the hours before the funeral, the streets were all but deserted.
A three-day mourning period declared by Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas kept shops shuttered. Schools, as is the custom in Gaza and the West Bank, were closed Thursday.
Khadra Abu Shabat, 55, said sadness mingled with worry on an emotionally charged day.
"All of us are feeling sad, and worried, too," said Abu Shabat, tears streaming down her face. "We are going to bury this family and ask ourselves, 'Who's next? Me? My grandchildren? My neighbor?"'
Hamas' military wing also called for attacks against American targets on the grounds of U.S support for Isrsael. President George W. Bush called for restraint on all sides Wednesday.
Israel was placed on high security alert following the shelling in Beit Hanun. Hamas swore to avenge the deaths, and called on all Palestinian groups to renew attacks inside Israel.
The errant artillery barrage provoked Palestinian threats of a new wave of violence. Khaled Mashaal, the supreme leader of the Palestinians' ruling Hamas movement, canceled a cease-fire with Israel that has largely held since February 2005, raising the specter of renewed suicide bombings.
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni expressed regret for the deaths, saying that Israel did not set out to harm innocent civilians.
At this stage it is unclear whether the incident was caused by a technical or human error. Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Dan Halutz has appointed Major General Meir Kalifi to head an investigation into the shelling.