So now there are two opposing forensic accounts of who was directly responsible for last Friday's killings on the Gaza beach.
On the one hand, the official Israeli enquiry, led by an IDF major-general, concludes that the explosions which killed the family could not have come directly from Israeli artillery operating at that time because:
"We have records of every shell fired and we can say that all shells hit their targets," he said. "We investigated the possibility that a shell went astray. We checked all bombardment during the past month and there were no stray shells. Now I can reject with certainty the suggestion that IDF fire was to blame for this damage. In light of the findings I can?t say certainly what did cause the damage. That's the thing that we are continuing to review, and I hope that in the near future we will succeed in reaching some sort of definite conclusion."
"The incident occurred 150 meters north of a machine we call 'The Casino'," he continued. "This is based on intelligence research, on information we received from the Palestinians themselves, basically according to videos and professional documentation of the matter. According to images from one of the instruments that photographs strips of the beach, we are able to say that the incident occurred between 16:57 and 17:10. The ambulances can also be clearly seen by our cameras, and they come at 17:15. This brings us to the conclusion that the incident happened not before 16:57 and not after 17:10. From here we examined the bombardment conducted by the IDF that day, and I can unequivocally refute that any IDF munitions fired during that period of time was the cause of the incident previously described."
Additional evidence cited asserted that:
One IAF strike on the Gaza Strip that day....occurred 2.5 kilometers from the scene of the explosion and two other strikes took place hours earlier. Ruling out Navy fire, Klifi said that "every 76-mm. shell fired from the navy boats can be accounted for since they all hit their targets successfully." In fact, Klifi said, "the ones that fell closest to the location of the incident were fired four hours earlier."
and additionally, IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz said:
Artillery shelling, he added, could also not have been responsible for the explosion. A piece of shrapnel taken from one of the wounded being treated in an Israeli hospital and cross-checked with 155-mm shells used by the IDF proved that the explosion was not caused by Israeli artillery fire. "The fragment taken out of the wounded showed absolutely that it is not connected to any [type of] Israeli ammunition used that day," Halutz said.
The army, Klifi said, has also accounted for five of the six shells that were fired in the area Friday evening before the beach explosion.
None of them exploded nearby, he said, adding that the one shell that was not accounted for was fired before the five others and more than 10 minutes before the blast.
Human Rights Watch researchers currently in Gaza interviewed victims, witnesses, Palestinian security officers and doctors who treated the wounded after the incident. They also visited the site of the explosion, where they found a large piece of unoxidized jagged shrapnel, stamped “155mm,” which would be consistent with an artillery shell fired by the IDF’s M-109 Self-Propelled Artillery.
Human Rights Watch spoke to the Palestinian explosive ordnance disposal unit who investigated three craters on the beach, including the one where the civilians were killed. According to General Salah Abu `Azzo, head of the Palestinian unit, they also gathered and removed shrapnel fragments consistent with 155mm artillery shells.
Eyewitnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch described between five and six explosions on the beach between 4:30 p.m. to 5 p.m., the time frame when the IDF fired artillery onto the beach and when the seven civilians were killed. Two survivors said they heard the sound of an incoming projectile and saw a blur of motion in the sky before the explosion that killed the seven civilians. Residents of northern Gaza are familiar with the sounds of regular artillery fire.
Doctors also confirmed to Human Rights Watch researchers that the injuries from the attack, which were primarily to the head and torso, are consistent with the heavy shrapnel of artillery shells used by the IDF. Doctors said the shrapnel they removed from Palestinian patients in Gaza was of a type that comes from an artillery shell.
According to readings from a Global Positioning Satellite taken by Human Rights Watch, the crater where the victims were killed was within the vicinity of the other artillery craters created by the IDF’s June 9 artillery attack and was the same shape and size. One crater was 100 meters away from the fatal crater, and the rest were 250 to 300 meters away.
Some Israeli officials have suggested the explosion may have been caused by a mine placed by Palestinian militants, rather than one of their artillery shells, despite the fact that they cannot account for the final landing place of one of their six shells.
However, according to on-site investigations by Human Rights Watch, the size of the craters and the type of injuries to the victims are not consistent with the theory that a mine caused the explosion. The craters are too large to be made by bounding mines, the only type of landmines capable of producing head and torso injuries of the type suffered by the victims on June 9. Additionally, Palestinian armed groups are not known to have, or to have used, bounding mines; the Palestinian government bomb squad said it has never uncovered a bounding mine in any explosive incident.
How to weigh these competing claims?
I'm no military forensics expert, so my first thought was to contact Don, who has done a fantastic job of taking apart the misleading statistics about Israeli and Palestinian conflict casualties issued by supposedly disinterested human rights organizations, and all too often quoted uncritically as authoritative by the BBC. His response was:
I haven't seen the IDF's physical evidence, so I have no idea how convincing it is. While I would certainly judge the IDF's record of truthfulness as being far better than the Palestinians', I wouldn't go so far as to say that it's unblemished. So I wouldn't accept *either* version of the story on an ad hominem basis.In my opinion, the only way to come to any resolution of this issue is for there to be an international inquiry. Of course, such enterprises have their own problems, including the virtual impossibility of eliminating bias. But I can't think of any better way of determining what happened - certainly no IDF investigation is going to convince anyone who isn't very willing to be convinced.
Just going on what I've read, I'd say that Israel needs to put the issue in the hands of an independent body. By 'independent', I mean of mind as well as of connections: not, therefore, a body composed of people who start with a fixedly one-sided view about the distribution of rights and wrongs in that region.
Yet again coincidentally, an email correspondent's comments on that helped me formulate what I am so exercised by.
Norm's been writing excellent posts over the last years dealing with the fight against terrorism worldwide. He's taken on those who use tragic accidents like US and British bombing hits unintentionally killing large numbers of civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq to demonize and call for a halt to their intervention against the terrorist groups there. He's written about the abuses by US soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison. I've read almost every post he's written over the last two years and more.
I don't recall him arguing that any independent body should be set up to investigate those particular tragedies, bearing as this would the implication that US, British or Russian authorities cannot be relied on to conduct an impartial enquiry.
And I have certainly no recall of him invoking an implied rejection of enquiries by US and British forces needing to be given over to a independent body with an outlook unhampered by any fixedly one-sided view, for example, that terrorism needs to be eliminated so that democracy and the rule of law can be established.
It looks uncomfortably as if Norm is singling out Israel here in a way that he has not done, as far as I'm aware, in comparable situations, the very thing he has so repeatedly argued against in other contexts.
There are other voices calling for independent enquiry commissions from Israel as well as outside it, of which Hillel Shencker, who seems to be aligned to the far-left Peace Now movement, provides a typical example in The Guardian today.
And I just don't think there is such a body or group of people. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of such high politics that there aren't in my view groups or bodies that would be unaffected by the politics inherent in evaluating the beach explosions.
It's significant that neither Norm nor Hillel Schenker actually name any agency which could credibly be cited to fill such an Olympian role. To be fair to Schenker, he does doubt that any agency could. The UN? Their envoy joined in the chorus which claimed there was a massacre at Jenin. Amnesty International? I don't think so.The Red Cross? Remember their role in World War II?
Gerald Steinberg of Bar-Ilan University has done what I think is a virtually unanswerable job of demonstrating that, far from being disinterested neutral organizations, non-governmental organizations such as Human Rights Watch typically adopt highly charged political positions and language, particularly tending to be disproportionately hostile to Israel and sympathetic to Palestinian terrorist organizations. They are singularly unaccountable, and they lack accountability mechanisms, the checks and balances which exist for investigative bodies such as police forces and investigating magistrates in democratic states, particularly in Israel.
Looking at the track record of Mark Garlasco, the writer of the HRW report, it seems he has something of a record of making snap judgements, hostile to the US or to Israel without the degree of involvement with the evidence you'd expect of an accredited battle damage specialist.
"What happened at Haditha appears to be outright murder. The Haditha massacre will go down as Iraq’s My Lai."
When Garlasco appeared on Sean Hannity’s radio show to discuss his views with Hannity and retired Marine colonel Oliver North, Garlasco immediately back-pedaled, admitting under questioning that he had "no idea of the facts" in the situation. Like his fellows he steadfastly refused to allow his ignorance to prevent him from judging the Marines
Garlasco was a member of the group of disaffected ex-CIA and Pentagon insiders who set up a campaign against the US war on Iraq. He resigned the very job that gave him his credibility as a battle damage assessor on that basis.
His work for HRW has seemed to me to reflect a political agenda, both anti-US in Iraq, and anti Israel in the context of the Palestinian territories.
I heard him talking about his investigation of the Gaza beach killings on BBC' s Radio 4 the day the HRW press release was issued. What was striking was how his position on how sure he could be of what he was saying seemed to shift. At one point, he appeared to be saying that it was beyond all reasonable doubt that the deaths were caused by Israeli shelling, and then moments later, he was accepting that there was room for doubt. He suggested that the Israeli authorities were suppressing evidence, then when questioned agreed that they had been willing to have his findings sent as evidence. This seemed to chime with the reports above which indicate he tends to over-claim on whatever evidence basis he has.
What's now particularly interesting is that it is the "quality" British press which continues to make the running in rejecting the findings of the Israeli investigation and in uncritically accepting the Human Rights Watch version, together with Palestinian claims. The Guardian, the Independent and the Times have all run such stories. Those three are also the newspapers which ran the most egregious assertions of a "massacre" by Israeli troops in Jenin in 2002.
It's perhaps not surprising that the Jewish Chronicle this week supports the Israeli account whilst reporting the HRW account and documenting its success in casting doubt on the Israeli investigation. They seem to be unique in consulting two British defence specialists, neither of whom have investigated the incident directly. But both the experts support the Israeli account. One of them, Colonel "Mad Mike" Dewar is a veteran of the futile campaign by the British to hold onto Aden, before it was ceded to Yemen. The other is an anonymous source who appears to have some knowledge of the Gaza terrain in question. He makes the point that the Gaza beach is anyway littered with the ordnance of many conflicts, including the 1967 and earlier conflicts, and it is highly likely that the fatal explosion was the result of some of this ordnance being set off.
Dewar points to the track record of the Israeli forces in documenting orders given and co-ordinates of targets fired on. There is also satellite and other aerial survelliance evidence which must still be available.
The Palestinian claims are interesting, because they have shifted from claiming that the fatal shots were fired by gunboats, and the beach witness statements originally supported this. The PA TV channel put out a video which appeared to support this, but was subsequently demonstrated to be an edit job which spliced unrelated footage of gunboats firing with the shots of the wounded and dying on the beach.
Subsequently, they have claimed the shots were fired by 155mm shells from Israeli artillery, matching the claims by Garlasco for HRW. They claim to have shrapnel from victims in Gaza hospitals confirming this, but have yet to produce it.
One of the elements that really seems to me to be stretching credibility in the latest British press accounts is the report by a Palestinian ambulance driver whose story is there to cast doubt on the Israeli claims about the timing of the fatal explosions:
Another testimony which backs this version was provided by ambulance driver Khaled Abu Sada, who said he received a telephone confirmation of an emergency at 4:45 p.m. or 4:46 p.m., set off at 4:50 p.m., arrived at the scene at around 5 p.m. and returned to the hospital after picking up one dead child and three women, two of close to death, at 5:10 p.m.
Abu Sada estimated that the round trip, including picking up the dead and the wounded and driving to the hospital, took him about 20 minutes. He added that he had reached speeds of up to 130kph (80mph).
"I flew," he said.
I'm not directly familiar with the roads around there, but the claims about reaching 80mph and "flying" seem to me to be curious in relation to everything I've read about the state of the roads. Perhaps someone familiar with the roads in that part of Gaza can comment.
Now a German newspaper claims to have evidence pointing to elements of Palestinian staging of the incidents, particularly of the use of Huda, the girl orphaned by the explosions.
While I think it more than possible that evidence was tampered with by Palestinian factions after the explosions, it seems most unlikely to me that the girl's grief was in any way staged.
But I don't conclude from this farrago of conflicting accounts that there's no way we will ever get to the bottom of this story, or that only the supposed neutrality of an international enquiry will come out with pristine truth.
There is a huge wealth of evidence available, from the Israeli sources and from Palestinian sources. That's no different from the task historians face in any task where they are trying to reconstruct the outcome of any battle or military action. Let's see the evidence made open to researchers, scholars, journalists via the internet. The nearer the evidence is to the moments of the explosions, the more credible it's likely to be. The discussion already taking place in the blogosphere makes it clear what some of the questions and doubts are.
No doubt there are those who are never going to waver from whatever fixed view they have for who is responsible for this tragedy. And there's the stance which says it's not worth even enquiring, because the real issue is the unresolved conflict itself, and resolving it is what we should focus on.
But a major component in the unresolved conflict is the attempt to delegitimize Israel, redefine it as a pariah state and its forces as being no more than the instruments of state terrorism. And this particular event has now become the latest piece of case history in that particular scenario.
That's why opening up the evidence to all comers is the most effective way to deal with it.
And the evidence includes opening up the track records and the agendas of all the players, including the non-governmental organizations and the newspapers with agendas about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict