And What of All the Other Deaths?

Published on
by
Haaretz (Israel)

And What of All the Other Deaths?

The decision to indict Staff Sgt. S. for killing two women during Cast Lead has caused a stir. But his lawyer will rightly ask, 'Why him, and not all the others who killed civilians?'

by
Amira Hass

Why was Staff Sgt. S., out of all the Israel Defense Forces' soldiers and officers, chosen to stand trial for killing two women in the Gaza Strip on January 4, 2009, the first day of Israel's ground incursion there? The IDF killed 34 armed men that same day. Was S. chosen because he was the only one who killed civilians?

Should his lawyer argue that he is being scapegoated, he can safely rely on the following statistics: The IDF also killed 80 other civilians that day - by close-range shooting, artillery fire, aerial fire and naval fire. Among them were six women and 29 children under the age of 16. Just go to B'Tselem's website and read the list: a 7-year-old boy, a 1-year-old girl, another 1-year-old girl, a 3-year-old boy, a 13-year-old girl.

B'Tselem is careful to differentiate between Palestinians who "took part in the hostilities" and Palestinians who "did not take part in the hostilities." Its list of fatalities states: "Farah Amar Fuad al-Hilu, 1-year-old resident of Gaza City, killed on 04.01.2009 in Gaza City, by live ammunition. Did not participate in hostilities. Additional information: Killed while she fled from her house with her family after her grandfather (Fuad al-Hilu, 62 ) was shot by soldiers who entered the house." The grandfather also did not participate in hostilities.

Or perhaps S. was chosen because Riyeh Abu Hajaj, 64, and Majda Abu Hajaj, 37, a mother and daughter, were the only ones killed while carrying a white flag that January 4? No. Matar, 17, and Mohammed, 16, were also killed. They were shot from an IDF position in a nearby house as they pushed a cart carrying the wounded and dead of the Abu Halima family, who were hit by a white phosphorous bomb that penetrated their home in northern Beit Lahiya. Five members of the family were killed on the spot, including a 1-year-old girl. Another young woman would die of her injuries a few weeks later.

The news that Staff Sgt. S. would stand trial created something of a stir - for a day. The military advocate general was praised. So was B'Tselem, and rightly so, for giving the army testimony about the Abu Hajaj killings that its field investigators, Palestinian residents of Gaza, had gathered. Palestinian organizations gathered similar material, while Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch both published detailed reports about slain civilians. Everything is accessible on their websites. But we in Israel do not believe the gentiles, so let us focus only on B'Tselem.

B'Tselem also gave the army dozens of statements about the killing of other civilians who "did not take part in the hostilities." So why was Staff Sgt. S. chosen, rather than any of the others? Did someone from his unit violate the code of solidarity among soldiers for the sake of a higher code? This is indeed most likely to happen in the ground forces: All the witnesses who spoke to Breaking the Silence activists - i.e., those who were shaken by something that happened - came from the ground troops; they were the ones who saw the destruction, and the human beings, with their own eyes.

"The amount of destruction there was incomprehensible," said one soldier. "You go through the neighborhoods there and you can't identify anything. No stone is left unturned. You see rows of fields, hothouses, orchards, and it's all in ruins. Everything is completely destroyed. You see a pink room with a poster of Barbie, and a shell that went through a meter and a half below it."

But the breakdown of casualties shows that those killed by direct fire - where the soldier who shoots sees those he is shooting with his own eyes - are a tiny minority. At the request of Haaretz, the Al Mezan Center for Human Rights in Gaza analyzed the breakdown of casualties according to the type of fire. It found that 80 were killed by rifle fire, 13 by machine guns and 134 by artillery fire. It is unclear whether the 11 killed by flechette shells (shells filled with metal darts ) are or are not included in the latter figure.

Undoubtedly, these are estimates, with margins of error. Around 1,400 Palestinians were killed in Operation Cast Lead; at least 1,000 - most of them civilians - were killed from the air, by bombs dropped from planes or missiles fired from other airborne vehicles. To the soldiers responsible for the launches, they looked like characters prancing around on a computer screen.

B'Tselem and Haaretz, as well as the gentile organizations that need not be considered, all documented incidents of aerial killing. The IDF acknowledged two errors (the killing of 22 members of the a-Diya family in Zeitun with a single bomb, and the killing of seven people who were removing oxygen tanks from a metalworking shop, which on the computer screens looked like Grad missiles ).

"One characteristic of the recent IDF attack on Gaza is the large number of families that lost many members at one stroke, most of them in their homes, during Israeli bombings: Ba'alousha, Bannar, Sultan, Abu Halima, Salha, Barbakh, Shurrab, Abu Eisha, Ghayan, al-Najjar, Abed-Rabo, Azzam, Jebara, El Astel, Haddad, Quran, Nasser, al-Alul, Dib, Samouni," Haaretz wrote in February 2009. Are there no sergeants involved in those cases who ought to be investigated? Or is it that in these cases, an investigation would have to target people of higher rank than a mere staff sergeant?

The disclosure that Staff Sgt. S. will be tried created something of a stir. The military advocate general won praise. But S.'s attorney will rightly ask: Out of all the testimonies and reports, he is the only one you found?

And what of the commanders' attitudes, as described by those interviewed by Breaking the Silence: "When the company commander and the battalion commander tell you 'yalla, shoot,' soldiers will not restrain themselves. They wait for this day - to have the fun of shooting and feeling the power in your hands." What of the battalion commander's speech "the night before the ground incursion": "He said that it's not going to be easy. He defined the goals of the operation: 2,000 dead terrorists."

And if this was the operation's objective, perhaps we should investigate the supreme commander - Defense Minister Ehud Barak - about the gap between the objective and the result?

--Amira Hass

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