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Did Israel whitewash a massacre in Jabaliya?

Jan. 6, 2010 8:42 A.M. (Updated: Jan. 11, 2010 5:02 A.M.)
Part 11 of a series recounting the findings of South African jurist Richard Goldstone's UN Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict.

Bethlehem – Ma'an – On the afternoon of 6 January 2009, at least four mortar bombs fired by Israeli forces exploded near the Al-Fakhura junction in the Jabaliya refugee camp in northern Gaza, killing as many as 43 people.

Witnesses described the scene of chaos and carnage caused by the bombs. UNRWA's director of operations in Gaza, John Ging, stated: "There is nowhere safe in Gaza. Everyone here is terrorized and traumatized."

One shell landed directly in the courtyard outside the Ad-Deeb family's house, where most of its immediate relatives were gathered. Nine members of the family were killed instantly, 11 in total, including four women and four girls.

Apart from the shell that landed in the Ad-Deebs' courtyard, three others hit the street outside an UNRWA elementary school, which was being used as a shelter for displaced civilians, damaging part of it. Those three shells killed at least 24 people. Witnesses estimate that up to another 40 were injured by the blasts.

The UNRWA shelter's director confirmed that no shell had directly hit the United Nations premises either inside or outside. No one inside the school died. One boy of 16, who was sheltering in the elementary school but was in the street at the time, was killed.

About 16 hours prior to the shelling, Israeli forces had already carried out at least one strike, destroying the house of Muhammed Fouad Abu Askar, a Hamas member who denies any involvement in armed militant activities. At around 1:45am on 6 January 2009, he received a personal telephone call from Israeli forces advising him that he should evacuate.

"I was informed with a telephone call to evacuate my house 'cause it would be targeted," he told Richard Goldstone's UN fact-finding mission. "I do not [think it was] because I work with the [Gaza] government or even with Hamas, because my activity with Hamas is a peaceful, not military activity."

In any case, he responded quickly, evacuating not only his own extended family but also advising neighbors of the imminent strike. "People were asleep, so I called on everybody and said, 'Come out of the house.' I did not want my neighbors to die in their bed. I asked my father, my children to go and knock on the doors and get people out, and I told the neighbors that they have to leave. We went out to the western wall of the Fakhoura School," he said, "and we waited in the street, awaiting the strike."

According to the Goldstone report, Israeli forces "did not seek to kill Mr. Abu Askar or the members of his family with this strike." Thanks to the army's telephone call, Abu Askar was able to save himself and his family, the report said.

His house was struck by a missile from an F-16, according to Abu Askar, several minutes after the call was received. "This house that we had suffered for years to pay for, this house became just rubble. It was totally destroyed." The building housed not only his immediate family but a large number of his extended family, about 40 in all, who suddenly needed a new place to stay.

The same day that his house was targeted, UNRWA opened the elementary school on Al-Fakhura Street to provide shelter to civilians fleeing the areas where Israeli forces had entered. According to the director of the shelter, about 90 percent of those inside had come from outside Jabaliya camp, largely from the Al-Atatra area. He explained that the shelter was guarded by security staff at its entry points and that all people coming in were registered by name and searched to ensure no weapons were being taken into the premises.

"This school became a safe haven for many of those who fled other parts [of Gaza] influenced by the war," Abu Askar explained. "It is in the middle of the Jabaliya camp, this school, [in a] very densely-populated neighborhood. Many believed it to be a safe place for two reasons: firstly because it is in the middle of the camp and the center of the camp, and secondly because it has the UNRWA flag."

UNRWA has stated that Israeli forces were fully aware that the school was being used as a shelter from 5 January on. UNRWA materials indicate that there were 1,368 people in the shelter at the time of the shelling, which came about 4pm on 6 January. The street outside the school was busy. It had become busier than usual due to the large influx of people looking for shelter, such as Abu Askar. Some were coming to the school to visit relatives who had recently arrived and new people were arriving to seek shelter.

According to Hussein Al-Deeb, who lived nearby: "The neighborhood was safe and very far from the presence of the occupation army. It is also a neighborhood that had a school of UNRWA. And everybody who fled their homes went to that school, to the UNRWA school. There were thousands of people who fled and took refuge in that school. It was expected to be the safest area. In the neighborhood there are no military buildings or facilities of any factions or of any military faction."

Abu Askar noted that due to the destruction in nearby towns and villages, the square outside the school was full of hundreds of people seeking shelter, "since in some neighborhoods there is not even one house still standing, [or] that can be inhabited. Therefore these people fled to the school." According to Abu Askar, "it was believed to be a place far from being targeted by the enemy. However, and very unfortunately, this was not a safe place at all. It became a battleground, in fact."

He was in the street when several mortars landed near the school. He believes that there were about 150 people there at the time. "At 4pm, when the street was crowded with people, the shells started falling barbarically," he explained. "[While] we were awaiting the keys, the shells started to fall. We could distinguish nothing but the sound, the smoke, and people taking refuge on the floor."

Abu Askar said "the first strike was on the western corner of the school," but he and others were on the eastern corner, "so there was only a wall separating us from the place of impact. We took refuge in a house in that area and we were watching what was happening with our own eyes, the missiles hitting and the people falling on the floor, on the ground. ..."

"I went to the parallel street, next to my house. There were at least eight corpses on the ground. I went to help transport the martyrs. The first martyr to be lifted from the ground, and I carried him with my own hands, was my eldest son, Khaled. Next to him was my brother-in-law, and he carried my second son, Imad. Next to them was also my brother, Arafat. There were bodies everywhere, about 30 martyrs, just from my own neighbors, in addition to passers-by, who just happened to be in that street."

Witnesses indicated that all of the explosions were over within around two minutes. As the dust cleared near the school, and "after we cleared bodies and injured by [the use of] the ambulances," Abu Askar learned that his neighbors had also been targeted. "We did not know about the shelling of the Al-Deeb family house because of the confusion. And when we were told about the Al-Deeb house shelling, we went and we found bodies strewn on the ground, and as I said, it was only two minutes during which all the shelling finished."

One shell landed directly in the courtyard outside the Ad-Deeb house, where most of the family was gathered. Surviving relatives explained that nine family members were killed immediately. Ziyad Ad-Deeb lost both legs as a result of the blast. Other survivors and neighbors carried the dead and injured one after another to the hospital. Ambulances came, but most casualties were transported in private cars. Alaa, a daughter of Mo'in Al-Deeb, was taken to Egypt, where she died of her injuries. In total, 11 members of the family were killed.

Ziyad, in his testimony to the mission, recalled that there were about 16 family members inside his house when it was struck. "We were together, including my father, the women, and the children and my grandma. And everybody was actually in a joyful mood."

Audibly, "there was a bombardment near us. So we were trying to solace each other and to support each other. And at that moment we felt, somehow, relative security because of the togetherness of the family. Also we felt security because we were just near the UNRWA school," he said. "We felt more secure being closer to the school. ... Had there been any warning, we would have left the place."

Ziyad added: "And all of a sudden we heard the explosion, and that was the impact [of] an explosion very close to the wall of our house. Panic gripped us all, because of the closeness of the explosion. And at that time there was no time for us to think. And before we could think what happened, another shell fell, just in the midst of our gathering. And that led to 11 martyrs that were killed instantly. And I was with them. ...

"When the fallout rested, I started looking around. I looked at my own self. I found that I lost my legs and my legs were exploded away and I was sprawled over the body of my own brother. I looked for my father and the rest of my relatives. I found them motionless and most of them were killed, except for the crying of two small children and I was waiting for the ambulance to come."

According to Hussein Al-Deeb, who survived but was seriously injured: "The second day, when I awoke from anesthesia, that's when I received the major shock. Most of my family members had disappeared in a second. Our family, my mother, the other members of the family, was 21 people. The house was full of women, of children, – it was full of life. And within seconds everything disappears. You lose your mother, your children, your little boys and girls."

Speaking publicly in Gaza City to Goldstone's mission, he added: "I don't know if you can put yourselves in my shoes and imagine what you would feel. The most precious people you have in the world you lose within seconds and for no reason. This is why we come here today to speak before you. Why? Why did I lose my family? Why? What's the reason? I don't know what else I can add, but the shock is tremendous. And whenever I even think about it, I relive it."

Explanations 'either profound confusion or obfuscation'

Almost immediately, contradictory accounts emerged from official Israeli statements.

The initial position accepted that Israeli forces had struck inside the UNRWA school, claiming to be in response to Hamas fire. A later response accepted that Hamas had not been in the school but had allegedly fired from 80 meters away from the school. Finally, Israel claimed that in fact Hamas operatives were launching mortars at Israeli forces for around one hour, firing every few minutes until they identified them and returned fire, killing a number of them.

On the day of the attack near the school, Israel's military distributed the following statement:

An initial inquiry by forces on operating in the area of the incident indicates that a number of mortar shells were fired at IDF forces from within the Jebaliya school. In response to the incoming enemy fire, the forces returned mortar fire to the source. This is not the first time that Hamas has fired mortars and rockets from schools, in such a way deliberately using civilians as human shields in their acts of terror against Israel. ...

After an investigation that took place over the past hour it has been found that among the dead at the Jebaliya school were Hamas terror operatives and a mortar battery squad who were firing on IDF forces in the area. Hamas operatives Immad Abu Iskar and Hassan Abu Iskar were among terrorists identified killed."

Further statements from spokespersons for the Israeli prime minister, as well as the country's Foreign Ministry and the Israeli military, all adhered to the position set out in the same statement.

In two interviews, the prime minister's spokesman, Mark Regev, emphasized that he considered Hamas was mounting a cover-up in relation to the fact that senior operatives had been killed by Israeli forces in its strike and in particular that two persons, Imad and Hassan Abu Askar, were "well-known members of the Hamas military machine – part of the rocket network."

On 7 January, one day after the attack, in a television interview on the British Broadcasting Corporation's program Newsnight, Regev indicated that he believed Israeli forces attacked the school because they came under fire, that the school was occupied by Hamas operatives and that those supposed Hamas operatives had committed a war crime by using the premises for the purpose of launching mortars.

In another interview, Regev indicated that Israeli forces returned fire after having received mortar fire, that he assumed the school had been taken by force by Hamas "with guns," and that the movement's fighters held the civilians in the school as "hostages."

On the same day, Major Avital Leibovich, an Israeli military spokeswoman, in an interview with Channel 4 news, said that Hamas had fired from "the vicinity of the school," but later asserted that the two Hamas militants were actually inside the school firing at Israeli forces.

[In her interview with Channel 4, the report points out, Major Leibovich in fact appears to say "Amr Abu Askar" after some hesitation but in the light of the other statements considers this to have been an error on her part and that in all likelihood she intended to say "Imad."]

Also on the same day, Captain Benjamin Rutland, another Israeli military spokesman, made a presentation posted on YouTube. He indicated that it had transpired later that the mortar fire had come from within a United Nations school, that this was a crime on the part of Hamas, and that civilians had been killed. He noted, however, that Hamas terror operatives had been killed including the well-known Abu Askar brothers.

Muhammed Abu Askar dismissed the allegations as ludicrous, particularly because one of the two supposed brothers, "Hassan Abu Askar," was unknown to anyone in the family or town, and likely never existed. "The spokesman of the army said that two wanted activists of Hamas who launched rockets were targeted. And he gave the names: Imad Abu Askar and Hassan Abu Askar. And he insisted on that for three consecutive days. He was trying to [justify] this large number of casualties," Muhammad alleged.

As for his young son Imad, who really was killed, Muhammad said that when contacted by foreign journalists for background on his son, "I showed him a picture of Imad. He was named as the wanted person. And [the journalist] was surprised to find out that Imad is a 13-year-old boy. He's not linked to any faction, he's not linked to any rockets. The other name that was mentioned, Hassan, I asked him to look into the civil registry, the population census in Gaza. In the Abu Askar family there is no Hassan at all."

"There is no indication that anyone of the name of Hassan Abu Askar was killed in the attacks," Goldstone's report determined. It neither denies the possibility of children being recruited by Palestinian armed groups.

However, in the case of Imad Abu Askar, "the Mission is satisfied that he was not a Hamas operative. Apart from his father's vehement and, in the Mission's view, credible rejection of any such claim, two other factors appear relevant.

"Firstly, since it has become clear that Imad was a 13-year-old boy it is noticeable that Israel has not commented further on the allegation of his alleged Hamas activity in general or the allegation in particular that on the day in question he had launched mortars at Israel."

Secondly, Israeli forces directly called Abu Askar early in the morning of 6 January notifying him that his house would be attacked imminently. "If Imad Abu Askar was as notorious and important as alleged, despite his young age, the Mission presumes that the Israeli authorities would have known where he lived and, in particular, that he lived in the very house they were about to destroy.

"It is extremely doubtful that the Israeli armed forces, having identified the house where alleged Hamas militants of some significance lived, would warn them so that they may escape and then bomb the house."

These justifications for attacking the school were contradicted, as well, by UN officials who said the UN school was not attacked. In light of those contradictory statements, Goldstone's report emphasized that, in its view, "Israel’s Government developed a position justifying the striking of an UNRWA school as a result of the immediate outcry generated by initial erroneous reports that the school had been hit. That effort included a number of statements, in particular those by Mr. Regev and Major Leibovich, which turned out to be erroneous."

Among those statements were the allegations about the young brothers. According to Goldstone's report, "It would appear that shortly after the attack the Israeli armed forces received some information that two Abu Askar brothers had been killed. That much is indeed true. However, the use made of that information appears to the Mission to have been knowingly distorted. The brothers were Imad and Khaled, not Imad and Hassan as asserted. One was a 13-year-old boy, the other was a recently married 19-year-old. The certainty and specificity with which the Israeli authorities spoke at the time make it very difficult for them to suggest now that they had simply mixed up the names."

According to Muhammad, Israeli forces did not mix up the names. He recalled a journalist asking an army spokesman if Imad, 13, could have really been the target, and the spokesman said, "'We are sure that Imad was killed,' and he insisted that he was the one targeted."

As for his elder son, "He got married 15 days before the war, and such grooms, as you know, happily spend their days as newlyweds, and they do not really have time to go to war or to be wanted," according to Muhammad, noting that his eldest son was not old anyway. "He's also quite young. He was only 18 years old. Again I say that what was being targeted was a child," Abu Askar added.

Nevertheless, an Israeli military spokesperson confirmed on 12 January that the army was adhering to the same positions as had been expressed on 6 and 7 January. The position set out on 6 January was repeated in comments to the press on 12 January by an Israeli military spokesman.

On 15 and 19 February 2009, The Jerusalem Post, an English-language Israeli newspaper, published reports quoting Colonel Moshe Levi of Israel's Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT). He indicated in the first report that the stories of 40 or more dying as a result of the attack were the result of distortions and that in fact Israeli forces killed 12 people, including nine Hamas operatives and three non-combatants. The later report of 19 February lists seven of the 12 he said were killed. He also pointed out that Israeli surveillance footage showed only a "few stretchers were brought in to evacuate people."

Goldstone rejected this statement outright, noting: "If Israel had that capacity of surveillance in the immediate aftermath of the shelling, it must have been able to see that the shells had hit on the street outside the school and not inside the school.

"Furthermore, if such surveillance was recorded, in the face of serious allegations levelled against the Israeli armed forces by several sources after the military operation in Gaza, the Government could have made this footage public in order to establish the truth of its claims regarding this incident."

Additionally, highlighted by Abu Askar and others, news footage showed many injured. "The wounded and the martyrs were carried to the hospital, and that was captured by cameramen," he said, citing videos that proved "most of the casualties were children. About 60 percent were children. The cameras did not take any pictures of any military people or combatants, as is alleged by the occupation army."

As for The Jerusalem Post's reports, Goldstone notes that COGAT "did not provide any information to explain where the information on the dead came from. None of the seven names corresponds with any the Mission has so far established died in the attack."

The position assumed by Colonel Levi is problematic, the report adds, "in the light of the relatively uncomplicated case of the al-Deeb family, of whom nine members died immediately and two died later. Four of these were women and four were children." Given these figures alone, and the relative ease with which the victims could be identified, the report considers the COGAT assertions as to the total numbers and identities of those killed in the mortar strikes to be unreliable. "Even if the Israeli authorities were to be correct in saying that nine combatants were killed, they are, in the considered view of the Mission, incorrect in stating that only three non-combatants were killed."

Months later, Israel's military backtracks

On 22 April 2009, the Israeli military published the results of its preliminary investigations, stating a completely different position from that previously expressed:

Regarding the UNRWA school in Jabaliya, the Fahoura school, the investigation concluded that the IDF used minimal and proportionate retaliatory fire, using the most precise weapons available to them. Hamas made this necessary, as it fired mortar shells at Israeli forces 80 metres from the school. Additionally, it was concluded that all of the shells fired by IDF forces landed outside of the school grounds.

In July 2009, the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated:

Soon after the source of fire was detected, a scouting unit was dispatched to confirm the location. Approximately 50 minutes after the mortar attack had begun, two independent sources cross-verified the location of the mortars. Only subsequent to this, and after verification of a safety margin of at least 50 metres between the target (i.e. the identified source of the mortar fire) and the UNRWA school, did the force respond to the ongoing barrage, by using the most accurate weapon available to it – 120-mm mortars. [para. 388].

Abu Askar also dismissed the updated explanation. Now, he noted, "after we showed that Imad was only a little boy, the occupation started to say that that area was used to launch rockets. Whoever visits Al-Fakhoura neighborhood has no doubt whatsoever that this place could not be used to launch rockets, and that [is] for several reasons: Firstly, it's a public street, a street where there's a lot of circular traffic. You cannot put a platform there to launch a rocket. It is also an open area that can be seen by the enemy's aircraft.

"Also, it is an overcrowded area, and those from Beit Lahiya and Al-Atatra also fled to the school. And therefore there are contradicting stories regarding the targeting of Imad, the little boy, or targeting those launching rockets from that area. These are false stories. These are lies, especially [since] from the casualties we did not find any combatant, any military person, or even any piece of weaponry."

Goldstone notes that the altered explanation did not indicate where the "Hamas fire" came from, only stating it was 80 meters away. "The Mission finds it difficult to understand how the Israeli armed forces could have come to this view without having the information at the same time that Hamas operatives had been firing mortars for almost one hour. It regards these new allegations as lacking credibility.

"A further assertion made several times by Israeli spokespersons on 6 and 7 January and confirmed again on 12 January was that the strikes had not only managed to hit the militant rocket launchers but had also killed two senior Hamas militants, namely Imad Abu Askar and Hassan Abu Askar. Again, for the most part these early assertions indicated that both had been killed in the UNRWA school. It is noticeable that the Israeli armed forces' summary of their own preliminary investigations does not repeat this claim."

In its analysis of Israel's explanations for the fire, the Goldstone report concludes: "What is now clear is that, if any Hamas operatives were killed by the Israeli strike, they were not killed in the school premises. It is difficult for the Mission to understand how the Israeli authorities could establish with such certainty within a matter of hours the identities of two of the Hamas operatives it had killed but could not establish within a week that the alleged firing had not come from the school and that the Israeli armed forces had not hit the school."

While Goldstone's report notes that of nine interviews the team conducted, no witness ever stated that he had heard any firing prior to the attack, his mission accepted, to analyze the allegations of disproportionality "for the purposes of this report, that some firing may have occurred that gave rise to the Israeli armed forces' response."

The team conceded that it was aware of at least two news reports that indicate local residents had heard such fire in the area. One report comes from The Associated Press, whose sources insisted on anonymity. The other is by Jonathan Miller, a correspondent of the British Channel 4 news program, who reported that locals told him "militants had been firing rockets" at Israeli forces and were running down the street to get away.

"The Mission notes that the attack may have been in response to a mortar attack from an armed Palestinian group but considers the credibility of Israel's position damaged by the series of inconsistencies and factual inaccuracies," the report states. "The confusion as to what was hit, the erroneous allegations of who was specifically hit and where the armed groups were firing from, the indication that Israeli surveillance watched the scene but nonetheless could not detect where the strikes occurred, all combine to give the impression of either profound confusion or obfuscation."

Despite some of Israel's more over-the-top explanations, the report does not allege that its military's attack on the UNRWA school, which killed dozens of civilians, was intentional, as other incidents were deemed elsewhere. But the report does allege that it was disproportionate to any hypothetical projectile fire in the area, itself never positively established.

"The Mission recognizes that for all armies proportionality decisions will present very genuine dilemmas in certain cases. The Mission does not consider this to be such a case."
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