The MAG (Military Advocate's General) Corps informed B'Tselem today that it has closed the Military Police investigation file in the complaint submitted by B'Tselem into the killing of 21 members of the a-Samuni family in the Gaza Strip. The file was closed without taking any measures against those responsible. In a letter sent to B'Tselem and the Palestinian Center for Human Rights in Gaza (PCHR) that filed a complaint into the matter as well, major Dorit Tuval, from the MAG Corps for operational matters wrote that the investigation completely disproved any claim about deliberate harm to civilians, as well as haste and recklessness regarding possible harm to civilians, or criminal negligence. The military's response does not detail the findings of the investigation, nor does it provide the reasons behind the decision to close the file or any new information about the circumstances.
In response, Adv. Yael Stein, B'Tselem's head of research, said: it is unacceptable that no one is found responsible for an action of the army that led to the killing of 21 uninvolved civilians, inside the building they entered under soldiers' orders, even if this was not done deliberately. The way the army has exempted itself of responsibility for this event, even if only to acknowledge its severity and clarify its circumstances, is intolerable. Shirking the responsibility for the deaths of hundreds of other civilians and the immense damage caused by operation Cast Lead demonstrates yet again the need for an Israeli investigation mechanism that is external to the army.
Removal of bodies from the house of Wa'el a-Samuni, in Gaza City. Photo: B'Tselem, 18 Jan. '09.
The a-Samuni Family
On 4 January 2009, soldiers gathered about 100 members of the extended a-Samuni family in the house of Wael a-Samuni, in the a-Zeitun neighborhood of Gaza City. The next morning, at 6:30 A.M., when a few members of the family tried to leave the house, the military fired a missile or shell at them, killing one person and wounding two other persons. A few seconds later, the military fired two more shells or missiles that hit the house directly. The house collapsed on its occupants, killing 21 persons, including 9 children and many women, and injuring dozens of other family members. Despite repeated requests by the Red Cross, B'Tselem, and other human rights organization, the army prevented removal of the injured people for two days, until 7 January. After the wounded persons were evacuated, the army demolished the house with the dead bodies inside. It was only possible to remove them from under the debris after the army withdrew, about two weeks later.
No accountability for the military’s actions during Operation Cast Lead
Three years after the end of the operation, the dozens of MPIU investigations opened into cases of harm to civilians have yet to yield results. The Military Advocate General Corps has created a haze around them, preventing any possibility of examining their effectiveness. The Corps' responses to B'Tselem, combined with media reports, indicate that three indictments have been filed against soldiers who took part in the operation: for theft of a credit card from a Palestinian civilian, for use of a nine-year-old Palestinian child as a human shield, and for “manslaughter of an anonymous person.” In three other cases, disciplinary action alone was taken. Two officers were disciplined for firing explosive shells that struck an UNRWA facility; three officers were disciplined for shelling the al-Maqadmeh Mosque, in which 15 Palestinians were killed, nine of them civilians; and one officer was disciplined for the use of Palestinian civilian as a human shield,
These meager results are not surprising. The investigations were all opened at a very late stage – the first, to B'Tselem knowledge, in October 2009, a full ten months after the operation had ended. At present, three years after the operation, there is hardly a chance that investigations will lead to further indictments.
There has never been a serious investigation into the suspicions raised by B'Tselem and additional Israeli, Palestinian and international organizations regarding breaches of international humanitarian law by the military during the operation. Most of B'Tselem’s demands for investigation were not met. The investigations that were opened did not, to B'Tselem's knowledge, address the responsibility of high-ranking commanders, but rather focused on the conduct of individual soldiers.