On January 4, 2009, at the start of the ground phase of Operation Cast Lead,
about 100 members of the extended al-Samouni family were huddled inside one
house in the a-Zeitun neighborhood of Gaza City. The next morning, an Israeli
airstrike killed 21 people inside the house, including nine children and 10
women, and injured dozens of other family members.
During the next two
days, the army refused access to medical teams, in spite of being informed of
the terrible outcome by family members who managed to escape the bombed home and
human rights and humanitarian organizations, including B’Tselem.
medics managed to get to site, they found four small children next to their dead
mothers in one of the houses, and evacuated several wounded people. The army
refused permission to evacuate the bodies and they remained in the rubble for a
further two weeks.
These chilling facts are not in dispute. Yet last week
the Military Advocate General (MAG) of the IDF informed B’Tselem that he had
decided to close the Military Police investigation into this incident without
taking any measures. According to the MAG, there are no grounds for criminal or
disciplinary measures against any of those involved in the shelling of the
A “command sanction” was imposed on the Givati Brigade
Commander, preventing him from future promotion to a command position in an
The military’s response does not detail the
findings of the investigation, nor does it provide the reasons behind the
decision to close the file. Contrary to several coherent accounts given
separately, in real time, by surviving al-Samouni family members, the MAG found
“no grounds to the allegation that IDF forces directed civilians to gather in
the house which was later struck,” but did not explain why he completely
disregarded their credible testimonies.
By way of explaining this
decision, the MAG Corps website states that the investigation disproved the
allegations that strikes were directly and intentionally aimed at uninvolved
civilians. The MAG’s statement also ruled out recklessness regarding possible
harm to civilians, or criminal negligence, noting the serious challenges and
complex operational circumstances of the Gaza operation.
laconic response does not begin to provide satisfactory answers – neither an
explanation for the past, nor an assurance that lessons have been learned to
prevent such a tragedy in the future.
In fact, B’Tselem never alleged
that this was a case of willful killing, but this is far from the only standard
against which to judge our military’s behavior. The military is also obligated
to take all feasible precautions to avoid harm to the civilian
Was this the case in the al-Samouni incident? Such is the
implication of the MAG’s response – yet it is a very difficult conclusion to
reconcile with all the facts of the case.
The lack of accountability for
the al-Samouni family is no aberration. Some 50 military police investigations
were opened into harm to Palestinian civilians in Operation Cast Lead, yet the
overwhelming majority appear to be gathering dust.
The MAG Corps has
created a haze around these investigations, preventing any possibility of
examining their effectiveness.
It appears that three indictments have
been filed against soldiers who took part in Cast Lead: for theft of a credit
card from a Palestinian civilian, for use of a nine-year-old Palestinian child
as a human shield, and for “manslaughter of an anonymous person.” In three other
cases, disciplinary action alone was taken. The fate of the rest of the cases is
There has never been an investigation meeting
international standards into the suspicions raised by B’Tselem and other
organizations regarding breaches of international humanitarian law by the
military during the operation. Most of B’Tselem’s demands for investigation were
not met. The investigations that were opened did not, to B’Tselem’s knowledge,
address issues of policy, but rather focused on the individual
The al-Samouni case only illustrates the broader problem
regarding the military’s ability to examine itself. Shirking responsibility for
the deaths of hundreds of civilians and the widespread devastation caused by
Cast Lead demonstrates yet again the need for an Israeli investigation mechanism
that is external to the army.
Over three years later, the scars have
barely begun to heal for the al-Samouni family. I cannot even imagine the
traumas this family endured and the challenge of rebuilding their lives after
this horrific tragedy. It is intolerable that we as a society can treat this
incident as a sad but inevitable part of military operations. The al-Samouni
family deserves answers and Israeli society deserves them as well.
writer is the executive director of B’Tselem.