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Israel's army yet to name target of al-Dalou family attack

Dec. 9, 2012 7:23 A.M. (Updated: Dec. 12, 2012 10:24 A.M.)
BETHLEHEM (Ma'an) -- Accused of committing a war crime by a leading human rights group, Israel's army will still not identify the target of an airstrike on Gaza City that killed 10 relatives and two neighbors.

Israeli planes bombed the al-Dalou family home on Nov. 18, crushing to death two men, six women and four children, whose ages ranged from one to 83.

Human Rights Watch said Friday the strike "was a clear violation of the laws of war."

"The Israeli claim that the attack on the al-Dalou home was justified is unsupported by the facts," said HRW's Fred Abrahams, who investigated the case in Gaza.

HRW noted "different explanations" from army officials over the attack, which is supported by a Ma'an review of available records and interviews with an army representative.

Yehiya Rabia or Muhammad al-Dalou?

On the day of the attack, Israel's military named the target as Yehiya Rabia, described as the head of Hamas’ rocket launching unit. "There were civilians harmed by this," army spokesman Yoav Mordechai told Israeli TV, saying he didn’t know the outcome of the strike on Rabia.

An Israeli military spokeswoman later told Ma'an that Rabia was not targeted during the eight-day war on Gaza, and his name never appeared on Israel's list of militants it had killed.

Later that Sunday, army spokeswoman Avital Leibovich told the New York Times the strike had been an "accident."

A day after the strike, Israeli newspaper Haaretz quoted an Israeli army report saying the mistaken attack was likely a technical failure: either a bomb misfired or the target was not identified correctly.

But ten days on, Leibovich told AFP that the army had in fact targeted a family member, Muhammad al-Dalou, describing him as a Hamas militant.

"There was no mistake from the IDF. It's tragic when a terror operative is hiding among civilians but unfortunately it is part of Hamas and Islamic Jihad tactics," she said on Nov. 28.

Human Rights Watch, noting that Muhammad al-Dalou is described by his commander and a police spokesman as a member of a civilian force protecting VIPs, does not find the shifting rationales convincing.

"Israel’s belated effort, once it could scour the list of victims, to defend the attack by naming a civilian police officer found among the dead suggests an after-the-fact attempt to justify the unjustifiable," Abrahams said.

'Not everything is known'

Questioned by Ma’an twice in the past week about the strike, Leibovich denied she had identified Muhammad al-Dalou as the target.

"What I said is that the targets we picked were not innocent civilians," she said last Sunday.

Declining to comment on whether the intended target was killed, or the target’s name, she explained: "In this large scale operation there are many sites targeted, sometimes you can't know ahead or you don't know the result."

Asked again for the target's name after Friday's HRW report, Leibovich told Ma'an: "Not everything is known at this point."

Meanwhile, she continued to describe the target as a Hamas militant "who used the house as a hiding place."

Leibovich said an army investigation was ongoing, and noted the al-Dalou family home was just one of over 1,500 sites hit during the war.

When asked if the al-Dalou strike might be prioritized as an incident for investigation due to the high civilian casualties, she said "we are looking at the operation as a whole, there are different types of investigations, different areas ... with the airforce, intelligence."

Army investigations

Investigation procedures by Israel's army have been criticized by human rights groups in the country.

In May this year, the army closed an investigation into an airstrike on the al-Samouni home in Gaza that killed 21 civilians over three years earlier, during Israel’s Operation Cast Lead.

The Military Advocate General said there was no evidence of wrongdoing and declined to pursue disciplinary or criminal measures, a response described by Israeli group B’Tselem as "unacceptable."

B’Tselem director Jessica Montell wrote at the time: "The al-Samouni case only illustrates the broader problem regarding the military's ability to examine itself."

After the al-Dalou family killing, three human rights groups, one based in Israel and two in Gaza, wrote to the Military Advocate General demanding a criminal investigation be opened. They have yet to receive a response.

Human Rights Watch said Friday the "onus is on Israel to explain why it bombed a home full of civilians killing 12 people."

"Even if al-Dalou, a low-ranking police officer, was a legitimate military target under the laws of war, the likelihood that the attack on a civilian home would have killed large numbers of civilians made it unlawfully disproportionate," the group said.

Avoiding civilian casualties

Leibovich insists that civilians were not the target of the strike, and blamed militants for hiding amongst civilians, but would not specify what measures were taken to avoid casualties in the al-Dalou airstrike.

In general, she said, the army drops leaflets, sends messages, and drops warning devices to avoid harming civilians.

"Even if we didn't call them, and I'm not saying we didn't, we conveyed messages to Gaza through Palestinian media channels," she said.

Israel’s army took over broadcast frequencies in Gaza during the assault, describing the measure as a way to communicate to the people of Gaza.

Meanwhile, the sole survivor of the airstrike, 16-year-old Nasser Saluha, told Human Rights Watch that "he had gone to the house to play with the other children and they were about to eat lunch in an upstairs room when the house was struck without any warning."

Nasser, whose brother Samah was killed in the strike, described the strike to HRW: "I felt a shock and pressure and something was pulling me into the ground. I found myself lying on my back with dust and sand all over my body. I managed to get out of the rubble and run into the street."

Eight of his relatives and two neighbors were pulled out of the rubble dead that day. It took another five days to retrieve the bodies of the final two casualties, 17-year-old Yara al-Dalou, and 29-year-old Muhammad.
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