The June 9 Gaza Beach Explosion: Charge and Countercharge

The videotape of a Palestinian girl running helplessly around a Gaza beach after the rest of her family was annihilated in an unclaimed explosion got the world’s attention three weeks ago. Horror like this is rarely captured so freshly (even in Iraq!), and the blast has resulted in an international forensic/PR battle, a politicized whodunnit with advocates for Israelis and Palestinians pointing fingers at the other side.

The Israeli army had been shelling targets near the beach that afternoon, and at the start even Israel’s advocates accepted the possibility that Israelis had killed the family. Neocon David Frum wrote in Canadian papers, “It may well prove in the end that it was a stray Israeli shell that killed the Ghalia family. If so, the killing was an unhappy accident, for which Israel has expressed regret.”

But the Israeli army maintained that it had stopped shelling some minutes before the family was killed, and the Israeli Prime Minister suggested that a Palestinian shell may have killed the family. The Guardian investigated the incident with some care and disputed the Israeli government, citing hospital records in Gaza to show that it was likely the family was killed during the shelling interval.

A few days passed, then the Israeli army released a fuller report that it said proved on the basis of shrapnel evidence that a missile had not caused the deaths; indeed, The Jerusalem Post put the odds at 1 in a billion that an Israeli shell was responsible. This report fueled the counter-theory that a Hamas mine on the beach, intended to kill Israelis, had killed the family. Now Frum did an about face and said the “most likely” cause of the deaths was a Hamas mine, and added on his blog that the initial coverage of the case was a “miserable story of Palestinian duplicity and Western media credulity.” Ah, those duplicitous Arabs.

Human Rights Watch demurred. Having looked into the incident, it questioned some of the Israeli government’s conclusions and called for just what Rachel Corrie’s family has sought since the skimpy Israeli report on her killing in Gaza in 2003: an independent international investigation. Here is a portion of HRW’s latest report:

[T]he IDF [Israeli Defense Forces] agreed with Human Rights Watch that it is possible that unexploded ordnance from a 155mm artillery shell fired earlier in the day could have caused the fatal injuries. The IDF fired more than 80 155mm shells in the area of the beach on the morning of the incident. Sand would increase the possibility of a fuse malfunction leading to a dud shell that may have sat in the sand waiting to be set off. The shelling between 4:31 p.m. and 4:50 p.m. could have triggered a dud shell, as could the human traffic on the beach that afternoon.

The IDF has fired more than 7,700 shells at northern Gaza since the Israeli withdrawal in September 2005, creating a problem of unexploded ordnance in heavily populated areas.

As Richard Silverstein commented on The Jerusalem Post website:

[T]o say that the IDF shell had lain unexploded on the beach & then exploded killing them…is a whole lot less grotesque than an IDF shell being fired upon them and killing them. But it nevertheless leaves the IDF culpable for their deaths. I’d like to hear the IDF say explicitly that one of their shells killed the Gazans. That would be an improvement over previous statements.

Myself, I’m too far away to take a position on whose ordnance killed the family. What is obvious to me is that that the Palestinians are shelling the Israelis, the Israelis are shelling the Palestinians. As Henry Siegman has pointed out, a lot of innocent people get hurt as a consequence of both sides’ policies. Anyone who thinks the two sides are making progress is ignoring the bloody evidence of 60 years. Two brutalized sides, in a cycle of violence. The idea that Americans should be supporting one over the other, privileging one side’s security claims over the other, is nuts.