A Military Police investigation into an air strike that killed 21 Palestinian civilians during Operation Cast Lead, according to a recent Haaretz report, indicates senior air force officers had approved the attack. The report, published on Friday by Amos Harel and Anshel Pfeffer ("IDF probes top officers on Gaza war strike that killed 21 family members" ), alleges senior officers authorized the bombing despite being warned by more junior officers that civilians were likely located at or nearby the target site.
One officer involved in approving the attack is then-Givati Brigade commander Col. Ilan Malka. To date it has not yet been determined whether he will stand trial as an officer involved in the affair.
The incident took place on January 5, 2009, in the Zeitun neighborhood of Gaza City. During Givati Brigade activity in Zeitun, a house there - home to the Al-Samouni family - was identified as harboring armed Palestinians. The Israel Air Force hit the house twice with missiles, killing 21 civilians, including women and children, and wounding 19 others.
While some Givati soldiers agreed to testify to Breaking the Silence (an organization of veteran combatants who served during the second intifada and have taken it upon themselves to expose the Israeli public to everyday life in the occupied territories ) about their part in Operation Cast Lead, notably absent are the soldiers who manned the position nearest the house that was bombed on Malka's orders.
On the morning of January 4, the commanders of this force ordered the dozens of members of the extended Samouni family to leave the three-story house (the home of Talal Samouni ), which they then turned into their outpost. The soldiers told them to gather in the one-story home of Wail Samouni, on the other side of the road and about 30 meters southeast. The Samounis took the fact that the soldiers themselves concentrated the family in one building, and saw that there were infants, children, women, elderly people and unarmed men, as insurance that they would not be harmed.
Despite the intense firing heard all around them that entire evening, the family's fears were mitigated by the proximity of the soldiers who had assembled them into the one home. Several of the Samouni men even left the house on Monday morning (January 5 ) to collect wood for a fire, hoping to bake pita and heat up tea. They also called out to a relative who had remained in his home, a few meters east of them, and suggested he join them because their house was safe.
Shortly before that, one of the women of the house ventured outside with a child to draw water from a nearby well, as the water tanks on the roof had been riddled by the soldiers' bullets a day earlier. The woman and the child were within view of the soldiers, a fact which the Samounis reported to Haaretz, in Gaza, over a year and a half ago. Their testimony received extensive coverage in Haaretz, in world media outlets, and in reports filed by Palestinian and Israeli human rights organizations.
Straight from the war room
A small wooden structure stood next to the house, and several of the men apparently began climbing onto it to take apart the boards. This activity was seen in drone photographs shown on the screen in the war room headquarters, which according to testimony obtained by Breaking the Silence is of poorer quality than the screen before the person operating the aircraft.
In the war room the poles the men were holding were taken to be RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades ) and the people carrying them were marked as a squad of terrorists who should be shot immediately. First the group of men outside the house was shelled. They ran into the home, which was then shelled twice. The structure was not destroyed, but because it was so crowded inside, dozens were killed and wounded.
One soldier who had testified to Breaking the Silence told Haaretz about two months ago that soldiers at another outpost, east of the Samouni compound, received information from the war room on the two-way radio that an RPG squad was walking around in the area.
On the morning of Monday, January 5, a group of stunned Palestinian civilians, including a woman and her baby daughter whose fingers had been lopped off, arrived at that soldier's outpost. The soldiers managed to understand that the woman's husband had just been killed. The woman's husband, the soldier confidently told Haaretz, had been killed by a Palestinian RPG that was aimed at the other soldiers' outpost but by mistake had hit the adjacent Samouni home.
Most of the Givati soldiers who gave testimony to Breaking the Silence didn't even know 21 civilians had been killed in a shelling carried out under war-room orders, based on drone photographs. They didn't know in real time, nor did they know a year and a half later, when they spoke to Haaretz. They hadn't heard of the "Samouni" family, despite the extensive media coverage as well as the space devoted to this family's history in the Goldstone report.
On January 4, 2009, the Sunday after the ground incursion had begun, a Givati force set up outposts and bases in at least six houses in the Samouni compound at the southeast end of Zeitun - as revealed upon matching the testimony of local Palestinians with that of the soldiers. Immediately after the ground incursion, IDF soldiers had already killed five Palestinian civilians, most of them from the Samouni family, in separate incidents that took place late at night and in the morning. One child who was seriously wounded when forces broke into his home, bled there to death until the next day - 24 hours after his father was killed at short range.
These details were also unknown to the soldiers that Haaretz found with the help of Breaking the Silence. They agreed to the organization's request to testify because they were horrified by two other incidents they witnessed, when their comrades killed civilians at close range. The soldiers were upset by the destructive actions of the IDF, the trigger-happy atmosphere and the virtual reality, as they described it, created by IDF spokesmen inside Israel, to the effect that there was serious fighting in the Gaza Strip. The soldiers soon understood that they were not actually confronting the dangerous Hamas resistance for which they had been prepared on the eve of the attack.
Until now the order to bomb a house full of civilians has been explained and understood as an ostensibly legitimate interpretation on the part of the brigade commander of drone photographs displayed on the screen in the war room. According to the findings of human rights organizations and Haaretz investigations, during the course of Cast Lead many other civilians were killed and wounded by aerial strikes, in a similar process: based on how drone photos on war-room screens were interpreted.
The many incidents described in the human rights organizations' reports indicate that the drone photographs are not as precise or clear as they are said to be, or that the technology considered "objective" also depends on commanders' interpretation: Children playing on the roof are liable to be regarded as "scouts," people trying to speak to their relatives over the phone are liable to be "signal operators for a terrorist brigade," and families that went to the garden to feed the goats, squads of Qassam launchers.
In the case of the Samounis, the possibility of cross-referencing sophisticated technological information with human information from the field was available 24 hours before the "RPG squad" ostensibly appeared on the war room screens.
The Givati Brigade commander, fearing Hamas attempts to kidnap IDF soldiers, insisted that not a single ambulance enter the sector under his control. That was also learned from soldiers who spoke to Breaking the Silence. Testimony from the Zeitun area, which was reported by Haaretz in real time based on conversations with neighborhood residents, told of at least two children and two adults who bled to death after being shot by Givati soldiers, because the Red Cross and the Red Crescent were unable to coordinate with the IDF the approach of ambulances to the area.
According to the testimony of the family of Hussein Ayedi, who lived in eastern Zeitun, only a week after he was injured and after daily coordination efforts by Physicians for Human Rights, were they allowed to leave on foot, under various conditions, and to meet up with ambulances at a distance of over three kilometers.
According to one soldier who spoke with Breaking the Silence, brigade commander Malka insisted that if there were wounded, they should be taken on foot. But according to many reports from the field, sometimes even convoys of civilians were not allowed to progress on foot and the soldiers fired at them.