Middle East

Israeli military closes Gaza shelling investigation

Aftermath of the shelling of al-Zaytoun, where the Samouni clan lived (20 January 2009)
Image caption B'Tselem says the lack of charges highlights the need for an independent Israeli investigation mechanism

The Israeli military has closed an investigation into the killing of 21 members of a Palestinian family during its offensive on Gaza in 2009.

Witnesses said Israeli troops had told the Samouni clan to stay in a house, out of their way, and later shelled it.

But the military advocate general found the claims of war crimes "groundless".

Israeli rights group B'Tselem said it was "unacceptable" no-one was found responsible for an action that led to the killing of "uninvolved civilians".

Israel says the three-week offensive was launched in response to repeated rocket attacks on Israeli territory. Some 1,400 Palestinians were killed, including hundreds of civilians, as well as 13 Israelis.


On 4 January 2009, infantry soldiers from the Israeli army's Givati Brigade ordered about 100 members of the Samouni clan to gather inside one of their houses in the al-Zaytoun district of Gaza City.

The next morning, when a few members of the family tried to leave the house, the military fired a missile or shell at them, killing one person and wounding two others, according to B'Tselem.

A few seconds later, the military fired two more shells or missiles which hit the house directly, causing it to collapse on its occupants, the group said. Twenty further people died, including nine children and many women.

According to testimony given to the Haaretz newspaper by soldiers who were present, the Givati Brigade's commander called in missile strikes on the house after concluding from aerial photographs that armed combatants were inside.

Despite repeated requests by the Red Cross and other humanitarian and human rights groups, the army prevented the removal of the injured people from the house for two days.

After the wounded persons were finally evacuated on 7 January, troops demolished the house with the dead bodies inside, B'Tselem said. The bodies were only recovered from under the debris after the army withdrew from Gaza about two weeks later.

B'Tselem subsequently filed a complaint with the Israeli authorities about the incident, but on Monday evening it received a letter from the military advocate general's office saying its investigation had been closed.

'God will punish killers'

The attack on the civilians, "who did not take part in the fighting", was not done knowingly and directly, or out of haste and negligence "in a manner that would indicate criminal responsibility", the letter said.

A military statement issued at the same time did, however, say it was making changes to "ensure that such events will not happen again".

B'Tselem said the letter did not detail the findings of the investigation or provide reasons behind the decision to close it .

"It is unacceptable that no one is found responsible for an action of the army that led to the killing of 21 uninvolved civilians, inside the building they entered under soldiers' orders, even if this was not done deliberately," said Yael Stein, B'Tselem's head of research.

"The way the army has exempted itself of responsibility for this event, even if only to acknowledge its severity and clarify its circumstances, is intolerable.

"Shirking the responsibility for the deaths of hundreds of other civilians and the immense damage caused by Operation Cast Lead demonstrates yet again the need for an Israeli investigation mechanism that is external to the army," Mr Stein added.

Salah Samouni, a survivor whose two-year-old daughter was among those killed, told the Associated Press: "We are talking about a crime against civilians.

"We know that God above will punish the killers. If they escaped trial, they can't escape God's punishment," she added.

B'Tselem said only three indictments had so far been filed against Israeli soldiers who took part in the Gaza offensive - for theft of a credit card from a civilian, for use of a nine-year-old child as a human shield, and for "manslaughter of an anonymous person".

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