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HRW: “Israeli artillery fire was to blame” in Gaza Beach Massacre

UPDATED, 18th June: A follow-up report from HRW and an investigation by the Guardian, that cast further doubt on the Israeli military’s “investigation” of itself, can both be found at the end of this report.

Human Rights Watch report: “Israel: Investigate Gaza Beach Killings”

Artillery Strike Probably Killed Palestinian Family

(Gaza City, June 13, 2006) – Israel should immediately launch an independent, impartial investigation of a June 9 Israeli artillery strike on a beach north of Gaza City, Human Rights Watch said today. Seven Palestinian civilians picnicking on the beach were killed that day and dozens of others were wounded.

Human Rights Watch researchers have visited the site to examine the fatal crater and have interviewed victims, witnesses, security and medical staff.

“There has been much speculation about the cause of the beach killings, but the evidence we have gathered strongly suggests Israeli artillery fire was to blame,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, director of the Middle East and Africa division at Human Rights Watch. “It is crucial that an independent investigative team, with the necessary expertise, verify the facts in a transparent manner.”

The independent investigation should involve the use of external, international experts. Human Rights Watch called on the Palestinian Authority to permit such an investigation, including allowing access to the site by the investigative team. Israel has carried out an internal army probe into the incident and released its findings this evening, saying the explosion was not caused by an Israeli artillery shell. However, such internal investigations by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have generally fallen short of international standards for thorough and impartial investigations and have rarely uncovered the truth or held to account the perpetrators of violations, as documented in a 2005 Human Rights Watch report, Promoting Impunity: The Israeli Military’s Failure to Investigate Wrongdoing.

The head of the IDF’s southern command, General Yoav Galant, has said that IDF forces fired six artillery shells at an area described as approximately 250 meters away from the fatal incident between 4:32 p.m. and 4:51 p.m. on Friday, June 9. Human Rights Watch investigations indicate that the evidence overwhelmingly supports the allegations that the civilians were killed by artillery shells fired by the IDF.

The attack at the beach comes amidst an intensified Israeli response to Qassam rocket attacks by Palestinian armed groups operating in the area. Human Rights Watch, which is also investigating the use of Qassams against Israeli civilians, has previously called on Palestinian armed groups to cease such unlawful attacks. The Qassam attacks violate international law because they fail to discriminate between military targets and civilians. Qassam rockets are highly imprecise, homemade weapons that are incapable of being targeted at specific objects.

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.

Since its September 2005 pullout from Gaza, the IDF has regularly struck northern Gaza with artillery shelling, in response to Qassam rocket attacks from the area by Palestinian armed groups. In the last 10 months, Israel has admitted to firing more than 5,000 artillery shells into the area. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs puts the number at 5,700 IDF shells fired since the end of March 2005.

According to the Palestinian Ministry of Health, IDF artillery fire has killed 47 Palestinians, including 11 children and five women, and injured 192 others since September 2005. It has also damaged dozens of homes in northern Gaza.

Human Rights Watch researchers visiting the area say almost every house on the periphery of areas of Beit Hanoun and Beit Lahia in northern Gaza has holes in it indicative of Israeli artillery shrapnel. In a June 10 interview with the New York Times, General Aviv Kochavi, the Israeli commander for the south, indicated that the purpose of the artillery shelling is to deter future attacks and punish area residents: “The message we are trying to convey, you can call it deterrence, but it’s ‘Ladies and gentlemen, there is an equivalence: so long as you shoot qassams at us, we’ll shoot at you.’”

International law requires attacking forces to distinguish between soldiers and civilians, targeting only the former. It prohibits indiscriminate attacks, which use a method or means of warfare that cannot distinguish between the two groups. It also prohibits disproportionate attacks in which the civilian harm outweighs military necessity.

“The IDF has a legal duty to do everything feasible to verify that targets are military objectives and to avoid civilian deaths,” Whitson said. “The investigation should determine how the beach picnickers died and whether international law was violated. If that’s the case, it must consider how best to compensate the victims and how to prevent future deaths.”

Human Rights Watch researchers have been in Sderot and Gaza on a fact-finding mission documenting the impact of Palestinian Qassam fire from Gaza into Israel and Israeli artillery shelling into northern Gaza. In Israel, the team was in Sderot when the town was hit by two Palestinian Qassams on Thursday, June 8, and also witnessed two more Qassams hitting Nativ Ha’asara the same day; there were no apparent injuries as a result of those attacks. Since Human Rights Watch’s visit to the Western Negev, the Israeli media has reported that 54 Qassam rockets have been fired at Sderot. According to news reports, on Sunday one rocket seriously wounded Yonatan Engel, a 60-year-old resident of Sderot.

Eyewitness Accounts

According to witnesses, the Ghalya family went to the beach on June 9 for a family outing. After shells fell nearby, the father, `Ali, hurriedly gathered his family together and called for a car. An explosion then occurred in the middle of the family group.

“Their legs I could see inside. Their intestines I could see spilling out,” said Mohammed Sawarka, 28, who rushed to the scene to help. “A 1-month-old child was dead inside its carriage.” He also found a hand in the sand. Doctors at the Shifa Hospital corroborated this testimony.

Amani Ghalya, 22, suffered severe abdominal injuries and lost her arm. Her sister, Latifa, 7, has brain damage. Both were still in the intensive care unit on Sunday, June 11. Their mother Hamdia, 40, `Ali’s second wife, suffered a compound fracture and lost a chunk of flesh in her arm. She also pointed to shrapnel wounds to her abdomen and upper leg.

The family members killed in the attack, and their ages, were: `Ali `Isa Ghalya, 49; Ra’issa Ghalya, 35; Haitham Ghalya, 1; Hanadi Ghalya, 2; Sabrin Ghalya, 4; Ilham Ghalya, 15; and `Alia Ghalya, 17.

Shrapnel from the blast also pierced a nearby car where Hani Radwan Azanin’s daughters Nagham, 4, and Dima, 7, were hiding. They suffered serious injuries to their backs and arms. Human Rights Watch visited the car and found multiple shrapnel holes and a piece of shrapnel.

“All of the patients are suffering from multiple injuries. There was massive destruction of bone, muscle, skin,” said Dr. Nabil Al-Shawa of Gaza’s Shifa Hospital, who treated some of the victims. The research team took photographs of some of the survivors, available on the Human Rights Watch website.


Israel: More Evidence on Beach Killings Implicates IDF

Palestinians Agree to Independent Inquiry

(Gaza, June 15, 2006) – A digitally dated and time-stamped blood test report of a victim treated at a Palestinian hospital that admitted wounded from the June 9 killings on a Gaza beach suggests that the attack took place during the time period of an Israeli artillery attack, Human Rights Watch said today. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have denied responsibility for the killings, saying that although they fired six artillery shells onto the beach between 4:32 p.m. and 4:51 p.m., the fatal incident must have occurred after that.

Human Rights Watch first challenged this conclusion, concluding that the IDF most likely caused the killings, in a press release based on an investigation by its researchers in Gaza.

Human Rights Watch researchers examined the computer-generated record from the Kamal Adwan hospital, which documents the blood test of a victim from the beach incident being taken at 5:12 p.m. on June 9. Furthermore, hand-written hospital records log patients from the incident as having been admitted starting at 5:05 p.m. If the records are accurate, based on the time needed to dispatch an ambulance and drive from the hospital to the beach and back, this suggests that the fatal explosion took place at a time when the IDF said it was firing artillery rounds. Both sets of records also directly call into question the account of the IDF that ambulances did not reach the beach until 5:15 p.m. that day.

Altering the records would require re-setting the computer’s clock and re-writing pages of the hospital’s admissions log. Human Rights Watch researchers said that the pages they saw documented patients un-related to the beach incident, followed by two pages of victims from the beach. The first of those were admitted at 5:05 p.m. The researchers saw no evidence that the times might have been altered.

Israeli military officials have also suggested the explosion, which killed seven members of the Ghalya family and wounded many others, might have been caused by a mine. But Human Rights Watch researchers also examined blood-crusted shrapnel given to them by the father of a 19-year-old male who suffered abdominal wounds in the beach explosion. They determined that the shrapnel is a piece of fuse from an artillery shell.

“The likelihood that the Ghalya family was killed by an explosive other than one of the shells fired by the IDF is remote,” said Marc Garlasco, senior military analyst at Human Rights Watch. “This new evidence highlights the urgent need for Israel to permit an independent, transparent investigation into the beach killings.”

Human Rights Watch received a fax today from the office of Palestinian Authority President, Mahmoud Abbas, saying that the president’s office, which is holding much of the shrapnel removed from the blast victims, would cooperate and share evidence with an independent inquiry team.


Who really killed Huda Ghalia’s family?

Guardian investigation undermines military claim that Israeli shells could not have been responsible for death of girl’s family

Chris McGreal in Beit Lahia, Friday June 16, 2006, The Guardian

Heartrending pictures of 10-year-old Huda Ghalia running wildly along a Gaza beach crying “father, father, father” and then falling weeping beside his body turned the distraught girl into an instant icon of the Palestinian struggle even before she fully grasped that much of her family was dead.

But the images of the young girl who lost her father, step-mother and five of her siblings as picnicking families fled a barrage of Israeli shells a week ago have become their own battleground.

Who and what killed the Ghalia family, and badly maimed a score of other people, has been the subject of an increasingly bitter struggle for truth all week amid accusations that a military investigation clearing the army was a cover-up, that Hamas was really responsible and even that the pictures of Huda’s grief were all an act.

However, a Guardian investigation into the sequence of events raises new and so far unanswered questions about the Israeli military probe that cleared the army of responsibility. Evidence from hospital records, doctors’ testimony and witness accounts challenges the military’s central assertion that it had stopped shelling by the time seven members of the Ghalia family were killed.

In addition, fresh evidence from the US group Human Rights Watch, which offered the first forensic questioning of the army’s account, casts doubt on another key claim – that shrapnel taken from the wounded was not from the kind of artillery used to shell Gaza.

The pictures of Huda’s traumatic hunt for her father garnered instant sympathy around the world and focused unwelcome attention for Israel on its tactic of firing thousands of shells into Gaza over recent weeks, killing more than 20 civilians, to deter Palestinian rocket attacks on Israeli towns.

The Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, initially apologised for the killings but the military swiftly realised it was confronting another PR disaster to rival that of the killing of Mohammed al-Dura, the 12-year-old boy who died in his father’s arms amid a barrage of gunfire six years ago and became the first iconic victim of the intifada.

Conflicting accounts

The army quickly convened a committee to investigate the deaths on the beach and almost as swiftly absolved itself of responsibility.

The committee acknowledged the army fired six shells on and around Beit Lahia beach from artillery inside Israel. But it said that by coincidence a separate explosion – probably a mine planted by Hamas or a buried old shell ó occurred in the same area at about the same time, killing the family.

The army admitted that one of the six shells was unaccounted for but said it was “impossible”, based on location and timings, for the sixth shell to have done the killing. The investigation also concluded that shrapnel taken from some of the wounded was not from artillery used that day.

The military declared its version of events definitive and an end to the matter. Others went further and saw a Palestinian conspiracy. An American pro-Israel pressure group, Camera, which seeks to influence media coverage, went so far as to suggest that the film of Huda Ghalia’s trauma was faked: “Were the bodies moved, was the girl asked to re-enact her discovery for the camera, was the video staged?”

But the army’s account quickly came in for criticism, led by a former Pentagon battlefield analyst, Marc Garlasco, investigating the deaths for Human Rights Watch.

“You have the crater size, the shrapnel, the types of injuries, their location on the bodies. That all points to a shell dropping from the sky, not explosives under the sand,” he said. “I’ve been to hospital and seen the injuries. The doctors say they are primarily to the head and torso. That is consistent with a shell exploding above the ground, not a mine under it.”

Mr Garlasco produced shrapnel from the site apparently marked as a 155mm shell used by the army that day.

Timing a key issue

The key part of the military’s defence hinged on timings. It says it fired the six 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 military 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 the first 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 admissions records, testimony from doctors and ambulance men and eyewitness accounts suggest that the military has got 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 undisturbed just before 5pm if the army, by its own admission, was dropping shells close by in the previous half an hour.

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 gathered 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. I carried my girls and put them in the car but I forgot my mobile phone and I ran back to get it,” 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. I looked at my car and my girls were screaming.”

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 on my mobile phone.”

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 badly 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.

A second Beit Lahia hospital, the Alwada, also received a call for ambulances. Doctors say records were completed after treating the patients so they have no written account of timings.

But the first ambulance man to leave the hospital, and a doctor summoned to work, say they have a clear recollection of the time. The ambulance driver, Khaled Abu Sada, said he received a call from the emergency control room between 4.45 and 4.50pm.

“I went to look for a nurse to come with me but he couldn’t because there had been a shooting in a family feud and he was treating people,” 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. Dr Nasser couldn’t tell me what was going on so I called Abu Jihad [Mr Abu Sada] and asked him. He said he didn’t know but I should get to the hospital quickly as it sounded bad,” he said.

Mr Abu Sada remembers receiving the call while driving to the beach. 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.

From the number of shells counted beforehand by the survivors, Mr Garlasco, the former Pentagon analyst, believes the killer shell was one the army records as being fired at 4.34pm.

A military spokesman, Captain Jacob Dalal, said the army stood by its interpretation of timings.

Military investigators said shrapnel taken from wounded Palestinians treated in Israeli hospitals was not from 155mm shells fired that day.

“We know it’s not artillery,” said Capt Dalal. “We donít know what it is. It could be a shell of another sort or some other device.”

The military has suggested that the explosion was rigged by Hamas against possible army landings but Palestinian officials say that would only be an effective strategy if there were a series of mines or Hamas knew exactly where the Israelis would land.

Mr Garlasco said the metal taken from the victims may be detritus thrown up by the explosion or shards from cars torn apart by shrapnel. He said shrapnel collected at the site of the explosion by Human Rights Watch and the Palestinian police was fresh and from artillery shells.

The former Pentagon analyst said that after examining a blood-encrusted piece of shrapnel given to him by the father of a 19-year-old man wounded in the beach explosion, he determined it was a piece of fuse from an artillery shell.

“The likelihood that the Ghalia family was killed by an explosive other than one of the shells fired by the Israeli army is remote,” he said.

Capt Dalal defended the army’s investigation.

“We’re not trying to cover-up anything. We didn’t do the investigation to exonerate ourselves. If it was our fire, we’ll say it,” he said.

Military account

4.30 to 4.48pm: Six shells fired at beach
4.57pm: Video drone records calm on beach
4.57 to 5.10pm: Explosion kills Ghalia family
5.15pm: Drone records arrival of first ambulance

Eyewitness account

4.30 to 4.40pm: Two shells hit the beach
4.40 to 4.45pm: Explosion kills Ghalia family
4.45 to 4.50pm: Ambulance man receives emergency call
4.50pm: Ambulance leaves hospital for beach
4.55pm: Palestinian doctor called to hospital
5.05pm; First casualties arrive at hospital
5.12pm: Hospital computer records blood test of beach casualty