JERUSALEM -- After initially finding no grounds for disciplinary action, the Israeli military later opened an investigation into an artillery bombardment that killed six Palestinian civilians, including an infant, in the Gaza Strip in May.
To date, no soldiers or senior officers have been punished for the errant fire, which witnesses say came without warning. Human rights groups have long accused the Israeli military of having a poor record of investigating the conduct of its troops, and the Haaretz daily last week accused the army of covering up the incident.
The shelling during the latest war between Israel and Hamas militants in Gaza took place in the night of May 13. It came ahead of an Israeli bombardment targeting Hamas’s underground tunnel network. Ahead of the tunnel strikes, Israeli artillery bombarded the northern Gaza Strip and struck near a cluster of dilapidated homes belonging to a Bedouin community outside the town of Beit Lahia.
Nasser Abu Fares, 50, a local resident, said relatives were visiting to mark the Eid al-Fitr holiday, and he was standing in the street near his home when the shelling began.
“The first shell fell on my house in this area, and the dust rose, and we ran until we were 100 meters away,” he said.
While the Israeli military often issues warnings or evacuation orders to residents ahead of large-scale operations, Abu Fares said: “No one warned us.”
The barrage killed six people, including three of his daughters and his 9-month-old grandson.
In a statement, the army said an “operational inquiry” was immediately conducted. It declined to provide details, but acknowledged the probe found no signs of criminal negligence.
However, it said “relevant takeaways from the review were used to inform several changes” and that the matter was now in the hands of a high-level investigative body known as the “General Staff Fact-Finding Assessment Mechanism.”
“When an initial allegation or suspicion of misconduct does not by itself reach the level of criminal suspicion, the Military Advocate General’s Corps (MAG) requires additional factual information in order to make a decision whether to open a criminal investigation,” it said.
Comprised of senior military officials and legal experts and headed by a major general, the fact-finding mechanism was formed during Israel's 2014 war against Hamas militants.
It holds broad investigative powers and is meant to assist the military advocate general when deciding whether to open criminal investigations. It also issues recommendations “that will help mitigate the risk of irregular incidents occurring in the future,” the army said.
The army has said the establishment of this mechanism reflects its serious commitment to respecting international legal norms. But critics say the army has a poor record of investigating itself.
"We give little faith to the investigations that the army is conducting and I don’t think it will be different this time,” said Yael Stein, chief researcher of the Israeli rights group B'Tselem.
Her group stopped a longstanding practice of assisting military investigations in 2016 after concluding the probes were not serious and amounted to cover-ups.
She said the main problem is that the investigations typically focus on decisions by low-ranking soldiers while ignoring the broader roles of top commanders or political and legal officials behind these practices. “The policy itself is never investigated,” she said.
The Haaretz daily last week accused the army of hiding the actions it had taken in the aftermath of the shelling. It reported that several low-ranking soldiers involved in the shelling were suspended, but later returned to their positions, and that a battalion commander was transferred to a non-combat position. No senior officers were punished or removed, the paper reported. It did not give the source for its information.
The military's ability to investigate itself is a key issue in an investigation by the International Criminal Court into possible Israeli war crimes in Gaza. Although Israel does not recognize the ICC's authority, the court can try to pursue cases if it concludes that Israel is unwilling or incapable of carrying out a credible investigation.
New York-based Human Rights Watch has accused Israel of carrying out actions that “apparently amount to war crimes ” during the May war. It said Israel's “consistent unwillingness to seriously investigate alleged war crimes” underscored the need for the ICC probe. It has also accused Hamas of war crimes due to its indiscriminate rocket fire at Israeli cities.
The May war between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza began after Hamas launched rockets toward Jerusalem in solidarity with stone-throwing Palestinian protesters following heavy-handed police actions against them at a flashpoint holy site.
Israeli airstrikes killed nearly 260 Palestinians, including dozens of militants and 67 children, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. Hamas fired over 4,300 rockets and missiles into Israel, killing 13, including one soldier and two children.
It was the fourth major round of fighting between Israel and Hamas since the Islamic militant group seized control of Gaza in 2007, a year after winning Palestinian elections.
A day after the deadly shelling near Beit Lahia, the Israeli military reported the destruction of Hamas attack tunnels but made no mention of the artillery fire toward the homes.
Abu Fares said he didn't want money or a house in compensation, only to see those responsible for the bloodshed to be held accountable. “I demand justice,” he said.
Rashid reported from Beit Lahia, Gaza Strip.