June 17, 2006

Gaza beach killings: who do you believe?

The Guardian examines Israel's disclaimer of responsibility for almost wiping out a whole Palestinian family.

The key part of the military's defence hinged on timings. It says it fired shells toward the beach between 4.30pm and 4.48pm, and that the artillery barrage stopped nine minutes before the explosion that killed the Ghalia family.

The army concluded that the deadly explosion occurred between 4.57pm and 5.10pm based on surveillance of the beach by a drone that shows people relaxing until just before 5pm and the arrival of an ambulance at 5.15pm.

Major General Meir Kalifi, who headed the army's investigation committee, said the nine-minute gap is too wide for Israel to have been responsible for the deaths. "I can without doubt say that no means used by the Israeli defence force during this time period caused the incident," he said.

But hospital records, testimony from doctors and ambulance men and eyewitness accounts suggest that the military has the timing of the explosion wrong, and that it occurred while the army was still shelling the beach.

Palestinian officials also question the timing of video showing people relaxing on the beach just before 5pm if the army, by its own admission, was dropping shells close by.

Several of those who survived the explosion say it came shortly after two or three other blasts consistent with a pattern of shells falling on the beach.

Among the survivors was Hani Asania. When the shelling began, he grabbed his daughters - Nagham, 4, and Dima, 7 - and moved toward his car on the edge of the beach. The Ghalia family was on the sand nearby awaiting a taxi.

"There was an explosion, maybe 500 metres away. Then there was a second, much closer, about two minutes later. People were running from the beach," said Mr Asania. "Maybe two minutes later there was a third shell. I could feel the pressure of the blast on my face it was so strong. I saw pieces of people."

This sequence is backed by others including Huda's brother, Eyham, 20. Annan Ghalia, Huda's uncle, called an ambulance. "We were sitting on the sand waiting for the taxis, the men on one side and the women on the other. The shell landed closer to the girls," he said. "I was screaming for people to help us. No one was coming. After about two minutes I called the ambulance."

The first ambulance took children to the Kamal Odwan hospital. Its registration book records that five children wounded in the blast were admitted at 5.05pm. The book contains entries before and after the casualties from the beach, all of whom are named, and shows no sign of tampering. The hospital's computer records a blood test taken from a victim at 5.12pm. Human Rights Watch said altering the records would require re-setting the computer's clock.

The distance from the beach to the hospital is 6km. Even at speed, the drive through Beit Lahia's crowded back streets and rough roads would not take less than five minutes and would be slower with wounded patients on board.

Dr Bassam al-Masri, who treated the first wounded at Kamal Odwan, said allowing for a round trip of at least 10 minutes and time to load them, the ambulance would have left the hospital no later than 4.50pm - just two minutes after the Israelis say they stopped shelling.

Factoring in additional time for emergency calls and the ambulances to be dispatched, the timings undermine the military's claim that the killer explosion occurred after the shelling stopped.

The first ambulance man to leave another Beid Lahia hospital, the Alwada, and a doctor summoned to work there say they clearly recall the time.

The ambulance driver, Khaled Abu Sada, said he received a call from the emergency control room between 4.45pm and 4.50pm. "I went to look for a nurse to come with me," he said. "I left the hospital at 4.50pm and was at the beach by 5pm."

The Alwada's anaesthetist, Dr Ahmed Mouhana, was woken by a call from a fellow doctor calling him to the hospital. "I looked at the time. That's what you do when someone wakes you up. It was 4.55pm," he said.

Dr Mouhana left for the hospital immediately. "It only takes 10 minutes from my house so I was there by 5.10pm or 5.15pm at the latest. I went to reception and they had already done triage on the children," he said.

If the hospital records and medical professionals are right, then the emergency call from the beach could not have come in much later than 4.45pm, still during the Israeli shelling.
while the Jewish Chronicle's Eric Silver, for the most part, supports Israel's claims. Eric Silver used to be the resident zionist at the Guardian.
An internal Israeli army investigation concluded on Tuesday that Israeli shelling did not cause last Friday’s explosion which killed a family of seven Palestinians picnicking on a Gaza beach. But the findings were dismissed by Marc Garlasco, a former Pentagon official now with Human Rights Watch, who said it was “highly likely” that the deaths were caused by 155mm artillery shells whose shrapnel he had seen.

TV footage of a 12-year-old survivor, Huda Ghalia, searching desperately among the corpses of her family shocked Israeli and world opinion. It was widely assumed that a stray 155-mm artillery shell was responsible.

However, Major-General Meir Kalifi, who conducted the investigation, reported four days later that “all possibilities that the cause of the explosion was an artillery shell fired on that Friday have been disproved.”

Israel had fired six shells into the Northern Gaza Strip, he said. To make sure they do not hit civilian areas, the army monitors all artillery fire. “We can precisely account for all the places where five of the six shells landed,” the general insisted. “The first shell was not identified by the system, yet the possibility of the first shell causing the incident is close to zero.”

The missing shell was launched at 4.30pm, he explained. Examination of three films indicated that the explosion occurred between 4.47pm and 5.10pm.

General Kalifi also rejected the possibility that the tragedy was caused by shelling from the sea or the air.

In London, Colonel Mike Dewar, a respected military expert and managing director of One Defence, told the JC that he accepted the Israeli explanation. “This is not a case of the IDF trying to pull the wool over our eyes,” he said. Colonel Dewar, who noted that he himself had been involved in similar investigations of mis-aimed artillery fire, said that the Israelis were “professional. They checked their systems, they check their fire missions and check the co-ordinates of each salvo fired. You have to take them at their word. I would criticise the Israeli army for many things, but they are not liars.”

Another independent expert, speaking to the JC on condition of anonymity, said: “The Israeli conclusion is plausible. I’ve spent a lot of time down there. That part of Gaza is littered with old munitions, some dating back to the 1967 war.”
The Guardian tries to settle the "dispute" here:
Thank the Lord that in Gaza, where rules of the war on terror plainly apply, a hero has emerged to separate desperation from asymmetry when all you could see for miles was mud obscuring truth. Seven members of a picnicking Palestinian family, including three small children, were killed on a beach that Israel had been shelling from gunboats and land-based artillery. Images from the scene of seven-year-old Hadeel Ghalia's grief at the sight of her dead and injured family were haunting. Israel regretted the incident.

Footage from the funeral appeared around the world to increase international revulsion at the incident. There was the same distraught small girl, now an icon of Palestinian suffering. Imagine my surprise. An Israeli internal military investigation immediately found it wasn't responsible for the blast after all. Perhaps a Hamas-planted landmine had been. Desperate? Asymmetrical? You choose.

But in stepped Marc Garlasco, a former Pentagon battle damage expert who knew what he was talking about after years in Iraq and Kosovo. The evidence, he said, pointed to the explosion being caused by a 155mm Israeli land-based shell, as did the injuries to the victims. Mr Garlasco is now the senior military analyst for Human Rights Watch and, because he served with the US Department of Defence for seven years, his credentials, under the circumstances, were impeccable.
Tell that to Lyn Julius.

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