Yesterday, the IDF informed B’Tselem that it intended to close the investigation of the massacre death of 21 members of the al-Samouni clan in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead. You’ll recall this was one of the three most egregious incidents of the war which the Goldstone inquiry focussed on in its Report. During the fighting, scores of family members were forced to leave their home by the IDF and told they could shelter in a nearby building. The officer who who directed them never reported what he’d done and an air strike was later ordered on their new refuge by a separate IDF unit which had no intelligence about who was sheltering there.
In the attack, 21 family members including mostly women and children were savagely killed. Here is B’Tselem’s summary of the events that led to the massacre:
On 4 January 2009, soldiers gathered about 100 members of the extended a-Samuni family in the house of Wael a-Samuni, in the a-Zeitun neighborhood of Gaza City. The next morning, at 6:30 A.M., when a few members of the family tried to leave the house, the military fired a missile or shell at them, killing Muhammad a-Samuni and wounding two other persons. A few seconds later, the military fired two more shells or missiles that hit the house directly. The house collapsed on its occupants, killing 21 persons, including many women and children, and injuring dozens of other family members.
Despite repeated requests by the Red Cross, B’Tselem, and other human rights organization, the army prevented removal of the injured people for two days, until 7 January. After the wounded persons were evacuated, the army demolished the house with the dead bodies inside. It was only possible to remove them from under the debris after the army withdrew, about two weeks later.
Among those killed were nine children: Muhammad, 6 months old, Mu’atasem, 1, ‘Azzah, 2, Nassar, 5, Fares, 12, Ishaq, 13, Razaqeh, 14, Isma’il, 15, and Huda, 16.
Breaking the Silence testimony reveals that the two-day delay in allowing ambulances into the location of the massacre caused four wounded family members to bleed to death.
The IDF did little more than express crocodile tears and promise an investigation. Now, it has washed its hands of the matter and given itself a clean bill of health. The military says that mistakes were made that led to unfortunate consequences, but that the mistakes were inadvertent and therefore not culpable:
The Military Advocate General informed B’Tselem today that it has closed the Police investigation in the complaint submitted by B’Tselem into the killing of 21 members of the a-Samuni family in the Gaza Strip. The file was closed without taking any measures against those responsible. In a letter sent to B’Tselem and the Palestinian Center for Human Rights in Gaza (PCHR)…Major Dorit Tuval…wrote that the investigation completely disproved any claim about deliberate harm to civilians, as well as haste and recklessness regarding possible harm to civilians, or criminal negligence. 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 or any new information about the circumstances.
This is eyewitness testimony from surviving family members.
As a result of the whitewash, Col. Ilan Malka gets off with a clean bill of health. You see, he’s the officer who pulled the trigger and killed these innocent people. Here’s what I wrote about this in 2010:
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.
…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.
In light of of John Brennan’s boasting the other day about the “wise” and “just” U.S. use of drones to combat terrorism, it’s instructive that only one of many grievous errors that brought about this tragedy involved drone video that erroneously led an IDF operator to conclude that al-Samouni men, who were in reality searching for firewood in the cold morning air, were terrorists preparing an attack.
Here is how Amira Hass reported on this subject:
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.
And here is my follow-up commentary from the same post, which is quite relevant in light of the Brennan speech:
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.
Judge Goldstone can pat himself on the back over all this because his later renunciation of his own Report let the IDF off the hook. Now that a suitable interval has passed between the Report, the tragedy and now, the army can abscond from any responsibility, as it always does.
Here is a listing of all the tragic Cast Lead incidents for which B’Tselem has filed formal complaints. In none of them, has the IDF disciplined anyone (though it has disciplined three unnamed officers and charged three others with various infractions).
I’m experiencing a bitter laugh as one of the IDF’s cracker-jack hasbara flack, Capt. Barak Raz has been regaling his Twitter followers with a special ethics workshop conducted by Prof. Moshe Halbertal for IDF officers. It allows Raz to crow about the purity of arms and all the other bulls(&t that passes for sincerity when it comes to the IDF. You can be sure Raz and Halbertal offered the al-Samouni as a model of the IDF’s probity and accountability when it comes to ethics.
Though the Israeli military thinks it can slip the dismissal of the al-Samouni case past people without noticing, I don’t feel like letting that happen. The massacre and cover-up reminds me of the little puppy who’s yet to be house-trained. The way they used to do it in the old days was to rub the dog’s nose in it (happily, most dog owners don’t do that anymore). Though the IDF is not a wayward puppy, it does need to have its nose rubbed in the dog shit it’s created, whether it likes it or not.
The message must be that you can’t kill innocent civilians with impunity. And that if you do, and after your investigation you hold no one accountable, then the world and international justice will eventually hold you accountable (even if Richard Goldstone won’t). As the name of the Israeli NGO holds: Yesh Din (“there IS justice”).
Let’s close with my summary of the al-Samouni case as it stood at the time I wrote my 2010 post, which appears almost prescient in hindsight:
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.
For Hebrew readers, I commend to you Idan Landau’s blog post, which is the most comprehensive account of the massacre and rebuttal of the IDF’s defense of its actions.
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.