The Israeli military announced Thursday it has exonerated itself for killing four children on a beach in Gaza during last summer's seven-week military assault on the besieged strip, prompting expressions of outrage and demands for justice from family members and international journalists who witnessed the attack.
"There is no justice in the internal investigation," declared Mohammed Bakr, father of 11-year-old Mohammad Ramiz Bakr, who was slain in the bombing along with his cousins Ahed Atef Bakr (10), Zakariya Ahed Bakr (10), and Ismail Mahmoud Bakr (9).
"We are counting on the [International Criminal Court] and human rights," added the bereaved father. "We are not afraid and we are confident we will win because the world is with us."
On July 16 of last year, the children were struck and killed by Israeli explosives while they played soccer on Gaza City's beach. In addition to the four who were slain, three people aged 11 to 21 were severely wounded.
Tragically, the attack was not unique. The Israeli air war and ground invasion, politically and financially backed by the United States, was waged against one of the most densely-populated areas in the world, where roughly half of residents are children and Palestinians are not able to leave due to a military blockade and siege. At least 2,145 Palestinians were killed in 50 days, the vast majority of them civilians and at least 578 of them children.
However, because the beach attack was waged in plain view of a hotel patronized by international journalists, it was thrust into the global media spotlight, with many prominent reporters serving as direct eye-witnesses and some even aiding the wounded.
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Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times photographer Tyler Hicks was one of the witnesses. "There is no safe place in Gaza right now," he wrote soon after the attack. "Bombs can land at any time, anywhere."
"Children, maybe four feet tall, dressed in summer clothes, running from an explosion, don’t fit the description of Hamas fighters," he added.
However, after the subsequent internal investigation of the killing, the Israeli military cleared itself of wrongdoing, declaring the killings an accident. In a statement released Thursday, Israeli Army spokesperson Lt Col Peter Lerner said that "the Military Advocate General found that the attack process in question accorded with Israeli domestic law and international law requirements."
The statement went on to claim that the attacks were justified because Israeli forces had reason to believe the children were Hamas "militants." However, investigators admitted that the probe only included testimony from Israeli soldiers and officers.
The military's version of events were quickly called into question by witnesses, including The Guardian's Peter Beaumont, who pointed out the following discrepancies:
- Beaumont was never contacted for a statement despite being a willing witness.
- The numerous journalists in the area found no evidence of Hamas combatants near the site at the time of the attack.
- The bombing occurred at a crowded civilian beach often frequented by workers as well as sunbathers and swimmers.
- It is not clear from the investigation how the military failed to recognize that the victims were clearly children.
Moreover, the military's proclamation of its innocence contradicts the recent testimony of its own soldiers. Last month, 60 Israeli officers and soldiers who took part in the war said that the "massive and unprecedented harm" inflicted on the population of Gaza stemmed from the top of the chain of command, which gave orders to shoot indiscriminately at civilians.
Josh Ruebner, policy director for the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, told Common Dreams, "The killing that occurred on the beach that day was magnified a hundred fold [during last summer's war]. Yet there have been no cases in which Israel has held itself accountable for any of these horrific war crimes in Gaza, either from last summer or Operation Cast Lead in 2009. The U.S. is complicit."
The results of Israel's inquiry were announced just days after UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon removed the Israeli military from an official list of groups that violate children's rights, following heavy pressure from the United States and Israel. Israel, backed by the U.S., has vigorously opposed UN investigations into war crimes.
"Israel behaves as if it’s a country above international law,” declared Zakariya Bakr, the uncle of the killed Bakr cousins, on Friday. “We urge the international community to act seriously to stop this farce."