JERUSALEM - The Israeli military has defended the actions of its troops in an incident last month that resulted in the deaths of three daughters of a Palestinian doctor in Gaza.
A niece of Dr. Ezzeldeen Abu al-Aish was also killed.
The tragedy unfolded on Israeli television Jan. 16 as the doctor was being interviewed via cellphone by an Israeli reporter. The 55-year-old physician related the deaths of the children moments after his house was bombed.
Abu al-Aish's story deeply touched the Israeli audience: even Prime Minister Ehud Olmert acknowledged crying as he heard the doctor speak.
After what it called an extensive investigation, the Israel Defense Forces acknowledged the deaths were caused by two Israeli tank shells fired at the gynecologist's third-storey apartment north of Gaza City, but it said the shooting was "reasonable" in the circumstances. The Israeli military expressed "sadness" at the deaths but also laid much of the blame on Abu al-Aish and his family.
The Israeli military said its personnel contacted the doctor by phone "several times" in the days before the incident, urging him to evacuate his home because of fighting in the area, as many of his neighbours had done. But Abu al-Aish insisted on remaining.
"The IDF is saddened by the harm caused to the (Abu al-Aish) family, but at the same time states that considering the constraints of the battle scene, the amount of threats that endangered the force, and the intensity of fighting in the area, the forces' action and the decision to fire towards the building were reasonable."
Contacted by phone yesterday, Abu al-Aish said he was pleased the Israeli military is taking responsibility for what happened, but he flatly refuted the force's claim its troops were responding to fire from Hamas militants near his home at the time.
"I am telling you 100 per cent no," said Abu al-Aish. "There is no need for them to falsify."
He said the Israeli military action was unprovoked.
The Israeli military said its forces in the area on Jan. 16 came under mortar and sniper fire from Hamas gunmen located in a building "adjacent" to the one occupied by the Abu al-Aish family.
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"During the counter-fire opened by the IDF forces, suspicious figures were identified in the upper level of (Abu al-Aish's) house and were thought to be spotters who directed the Hamas sniper and mortar fire," the Israeli military said.
The military said its field commander assessed the situation under the pressure of combat and gave the order to open fire on the suspicious figures. Shortly afterward, two tank shells slammed into a bedroom occupied by four of the physician's daughters and a niece.
Killed were daughters Bisan, 20, Mayar, 15, and Aya, 13, as well as niece Noor, 14. Another daughter, Shatha, 16, was injured but survived.
Abu al-Aish, who has five remaining children, has received an offer to take up a two-year teaching fellowship at the University of Toronto medical school, an offer he means to accept.
The Israeli military said the report of its investigation into the shooting was personally approved by Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, chief of the general staff and Israel's top soldier.
Meanwhile, the UN relief agency in Gaza yesterday accused Hamas police of commandeering more than 3,500 blankets and 406 food parcels from a distribution centre near Gaza City.
The agency said its personnel refused when the Hamas-run Ministry of Social Affairs had earlier demanded the supplies be handed over to them.
Later, armed police broke into a warehouse and took the goods by force, the agency said.
The UN is demanding the material be returned.
Most of Gaza's 1.5-million people are dependent on international assistance in order to survive, and their circumstances have worsened dramatically in the wake of last month's Israeli offensive.