A technical malfunction in the radar of the Israel Defense Forces artillery battery that carried out an attack against Beit Hanun was the cause for the mistaken shelling of civilians on Wednesday, which resulted in the deaths of 19 Palestinian civilians, IDF sources said yesterday.
Defense Minister Amir Peretz ordered the IDF yesterday to reevaluate its policy on the use of artillery in the Gaza Strip. For now, the IDF has ceased to use artillery fire in Gaza.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said yesterday that the killing of the civilians was the result of a "technical failure" and called for an immediate meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
"He will be surprised when he will sit with me of how far we are prepared to go. I can offer him a lot," Olmert said about Abbas, without elaborating.
In his comments, Olmert said he is ready to meet with Abbas "any time, any place." He said that Abbas has prevented a meeting from taking place.
Meanwhile, in line with the defense minister's order, the IDF presented Peretz with findings from an investigation into the incident, 24 hours after the probe was initiated by Major General Meir Klifi.
According to the findings, a component in the targeting radar of the artillery battery - an electronic card that was replaced five days earlier - turned out to be faulty and fed the battery with incorrect target data.
As a result, even though the battery received the correct target coordinates, in practice, the average distortion in the radar stood at 200 meters.
While the gunners were certain they were shelling a specific location, seven of the 11 shells fired in a salvo landed inside a built-up area, 450 meters south of the original target.
The system, known as Shilem, is Israeli-made, has been in service for the past 30 years and is considered to be reliable.
The probe carried out yesterday by the IDF revealed that this is not a previously known malfunction in the Shilem system, nor in similar systems used in other parts of the world.
Klifi's investigation is not yet over, and until the full report is available, the firing of artillery in the Gaza Strip has been suspended to avoid similar mistakes.
According to the investigating team, the replacement part was handled by authorized personnel properly.
The IDF is now considering changes to procedure in two ways: require that a live fire test be carried out every time the component is replaced; and use a human observer on every target, who will operate alongside the radar system.
The investigation is also examining whether the battery crew and their commanders operated in line with the necesary requirements.
In discussions with Klifi and IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz, Peretz said the policy of using artillery fire in the Gaza Strip needs to be reevaluated, especially the distance limits set for the shelling of civilian areas.
In the past year these limits were dropped from 300 meters to 100 meters, and then raised again to 200 meters. Some generals believe this is an insufficient safety limit.
While Halutz believes that artillery is an important tool in countering the Qassam rocket attacks, Peretz ordered that, once the investigation is completed, the use of artillery will only be allowed with the authorization of GOC Southern Command or officers of even higher rank.
Up to this point, the Gaza Division commander was authorized to order the use of artillery.
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