Several months ago, the IDF announced publicly that it had begun investigations into two senior commanders for decisions they made during Operation Cast Lead which had been specifically singled out by the Goldstone Report as potential war crimes. The Haaretz article reporting this, specifically mentioned one inquiry involved the use of white phosphorus against military rules in a civilian area. That report, it turns out was incomplete.
In the past days, the IDF revealed that the second officer, Givati brigade commander Col. Ilan Malka, was responsible for the sector in which the al-Samouni clan was massacred on January 5, 2009, resulting in the deaths of nearly 30 family members taking refuse in a building to which they had been directed by Molko’s troops. Molko specifically approved the IAF missile attack on their compound. Before he approved the strike, several air force officers warned him that the target site might contain civilians, a warning he ignored. Malka himself denied he had received such a warning.
For this, he is being investigated by the military prosecutor general, who has not yet decided whether to pursue any charges against him. It should be noted that there have already been two military investigations of the al-Samouni incident in which the IDF found nothing remiss in its troops actions. The first cleared troops of any wrongdoing. But after the Goldstone Report singled out this assault as one of the three worst potential breaches of the laws of war that occurred during the Operation, the IDF tried again. This time the second investigation suggested that the prosecutor take a further look at the matter. No guarantee that anything will come of this. But at least there is some accountability in the sense that an officer has been publicly named as being responsible for the carnage, even if he is never officially penalized for it.
An Amira Hass article in yesterday’s Haaretz described the events that transpired to put the Samouni in the target sites of an Israeli jet. Her account makes clear that there are officers even higher up the chain of command who bear responsibility for the grievous errors of judgment that precipitated the attack.
The day before the incident the IDF had directed 100 members of the family to evacuate a large home in which they had congregated and instead to transfer to another family residence it had already searched and cleared. The Givati troops turned the first home into an outpost that was located some 90 feet from the second building. After they moved, the Samounis presumed they would be safe from attack since the IDF would know their whereabouts and spare them.
Here is what led to the series of fateful blunders ending in the family’s massacre:
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…
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 struck. They ran into the home, which was then struck twice. The structure was not destroyed, but because it was so crowded inside, dozens were killed and wounded.
Hass analyzes the technical failures that led to the decision to fire missiles on a house packed with civilians whom IDF troops had ordered there to begin with:
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…
In this case, Malka was essentially warned by air force personnel that what they were seeing on the drone screens might not be what the commander thought it was. It is a clear case of a commander in the field who is unaware of the deficiencies of the technology on which he is basing his judgments (or aware of them and proceeding anyway), placing too much trust in blurry pictures viewed by someone in a remote war room. Further, it is crystal clear that Malka’s own troops had placed the family in the target location and somehow this intelligence was not passed to him. No matter how this happened, whether it was Malka’s fault or that of the troops who moved the family, it is the commander’s ultimate responsibility and a grievous one. In an army that was serious about accountability, such an officer would be relieved of his command.
Making matters worse, Malka explicitly ordered that no ambulances would be allowed in his zone of operations. He feared they might be exploited by Hamas to capture his troops. Testimony from veterans of Cast Lead to Breaking the Silence reveal at least four Gaza civilians bled to death after being shot by Givati soldiers under Malka’s command. One family testified that a week after a member was injured they finally managed to walk the two miles to a rendezvous point where they met an ambulance (since none were allowed in the Givati sector).
And further testimony on this score:
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.
Haaretz reports that Malka’s boss and the IDF chief of staff-designate, Gen. Yoav Galant, lobbied against the current investigation, which certainly raises questions about his integrity and desire to sweep the matter under the rug.
We will see whether there is impunity or accountability in the ranks of the IDF over this incident. No doubt the IDF wishes to do just enough but no more to mollify its international critics. The prosecutor will make a big show of examining the evidence, may even call Malka and others to testify. But in the end it will undoubtedly find insufficient evidence to bring a prosecution. And so another crime of the Occupation will be swept under the rug, at least as far as Israel is concerned. But the problem is that this method works less and less successfully. The world tends not to forget these incidents and places declining faith in the IDF’s word that it has done its best to ensure these things don’t happen. That’s why Goldstone has had remarkable resonance and why there have been as many serious investigations by the IDF as there have.
The Independent is also worth a read on this.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.