Soldier Faces Charges in Cast Lead Deaths

The Military Advocate General is expected to file an indictment against the soldier suspected of fatally shooting two women in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead in January 2009. It is the third indictment since the campaign's end and the most severe so far.

Next week Military Advocate General Avichai Mendelblit is scheduled to hold a hearing on the conduct of the Givati Brigade soldier, after which a decision will be made over the charges to be laid.

A year and a half after the Gaza offensive, investigators from the Military Advocate General and Military Police Detective Unit have reached the consensus that the staff sergeant identified only as S. shot Riyeh and Majda Abu Hajaj, a mother and daughter ages 64 and 27 respectively, in violation of army procedures.

Palestinian eyewitnesses said at the time that the two women were part of a group of some 30 civilians waving white flags. Israel Defense Forces officials, however, have said that those reports are unfounded. During questioning, the soldier said he felt the civilians could have been providing cover to militants, and therefore posed a potential threat to him and his comrades.

The incident in question occurred on January 4, 2009 near Gaza City. According to the IDF investigation, S. was deployed in a built-up area with a mixed force of Givati and Armored Corps troops led by a tank battalion deputy commander. The soldiers spotted some 30 Palestinians moving toward them, following IDF orders that residents of a nearby neighborhood evacuate their homes. Residents told the human-rights group B'Tselem that a tank shell had struck their homes before they were able to leave.

As the army had prohibited civilian traffic in the area, the deputy tank battalion commander ordered troops to open deterrent fire in the direction of a wall or fence at a safe distance from the civilians. Shortly thereafter, two Givati soldiers joined the force. One of them, the soldier now facing charges, opened fire and killed the two women.

S. did not take part in the briefing given by the commanding officer ahead of the operation, the investigation found. During the subsequent operational inquiry into the incident, a decision was reached that S.'s conduct had been in violation of army guidelines, and he was removed from his combat position. He was transferred to a non-combat role on the home front, where he fulfilled the remainder of his service until his release several months ago.

Military Police launched an investigation into the affair after receiving witness testimony by B'Tselem, and after the incident was cited by the UN fact-finding mission into the conflict headed by Richard Goldstone.

After the Goldstone report's release, IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi ordered the creation of a special committee to examine the UN panel's conclusions. That committee recommended that an investigation be conducted into some of the report's findings.

Military authorities said yesterday that the probe now in question had been initiated even before the release of the Goldstone report.

In an unusual step, the hearing on Tuesday will use the word "killing" to describe the offense of which the soldier is suspected. The phrasing will allow prosecutors leeway to charge the soldier with manslaughter, murder or causing death by negligence.

The central question is how much information the soldier had at the time of the incident, and what he understood his commander's instructions to be. The Military Advocate General has thus far found no wrongdoing on the part of the force commander, whose orders corresponded with army regulations for opening fire during an operation.

The IDF Spokesman's Office commented, "The findings of the Military Police Detective Unit relating to the incident in question were submitted for examination by the Military Advocate General. After examining the findings, a decision will be made over beginning legal proceedings. In accordance with regulations, the soldier was informed that he is suspected of having committed a violation."