Israel blames “errant shells” for massacre

The Israeli military brass is investigating whether human error or computer malfunction resulted in killing 19 Palestinians in their apartment block in Beit Hanoun, Gaza on Nov. 8. According to Ha’aretz, Nov. 9:

According to the IDF, the “normal” margin of error for an artillery shell under these conditions is about 200 meters, which is why IDF regulations for Gaza state that artillery targets must be at least 200 to 300 meters from civilian houses. But a 450-meter deviation would require only a three-degree deviation in the gun barrel, which is “undetectable by the human eye,” said Brigadier General (reserves) Zvi Fogel, a former senior artillery officer.

Fogel told Haaretz that there are two possible explanations for the error: a problem with the radar, which resulted in the gun’s range being wrongly adjusted Tuesday evening, or a problem with the battery’s computer, which wrongly implemented the correct range settings obtained from the radar.

All this might sound reasonable, but consider the fact that last summer the IDF reduced its “safety” range for firing at densely populated civilian areas from 300 to a mere 100 meters away from civilian targets. Several Israeli human rights organizations petitioned the government to change it back, according to YNet on Nov. 9:

The organizations said “the reduced security range is insufficient, and leads to the death and injury of many civilians uninvolved in the fighting. Thus, this (IDF) order is clearly illegal, and a black flag flies over it.”

A “black flag” means a clearly immoral order, which is illegal to obey.

Gideon Levy reported in Ha’aretz last April 16, when Israel had stepped up its shelling of Gaza to 400 shells a day, after Hamas’ election:

The scenes from Gaza are heartbreaking. Heartbreaking? That’s not for certain. The sight of the Aben family from Beit Lahiya mourning its 12-year-old daughter Hadil last week did not stir any particular shock in Israel. Nor did anyone take to the streets and protest over the sight of her wounded mother and little brother lying in shock on the floor of their shanty in Gaza.

On the day Hadil Aben was killed, Yedioth Aharonoth carried a story about Nelly, the dog from Kibbutz Zikim that died of heart failure from the booming noise of the Israeli artillery firing into Gaza.

Instead of expressions of sorrow at the death of children, the upper echelons of the defense establishment came out with a stream of strident statements. The defense minister said that the only thing to do was step up the pressure on the Palestinians. The deputy chief of staff spoke about a possible invasion of Gaza and the head of army operations added, “what we’ve seen so far are only the previews.” The IDF announced it would further reduce the “safety range” that is designed to avoid shells hitting the civilian population.

It was a chilling, united chorus. Israel is dropping thousands of bombs on towns and villages, on the “the launching pads” of the Qassams – another dubious term created by the defense establishment and blindly adopted by the press – and only the Palestinians, whose Qassam rockets haven’t killed anyone since the disengagement, are called “terrorists.”

Nor was there any substantive debate after a possible slip of the tongue by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, in an interview to the BBC, in which she said that there was a difference between attacking civilians and attacking soldiers. Even though she did not resolutely stand by her own words in an interview with Channel 10, Livni dared to speak the truth: If harming civilians is a measure of terror, then Israel is a terror state. With 18 killed in Gaza alone in 12 days, three of them children, the absence of intent cannot suffice for us. Someone who uses artillery to shell population centers and says with horrific indifference that this is “just a preview,” as if it were another reality show on TV, cannot claim that he does not intend to kill children.

Those responsible for such bombings around the world are rightfully considered war criminals. That’s terror – just ask Livni. And when it is done in the name of a state, it is much worse than in those cases when the perpetrators are from rogue organizations.

On Nov. 3, 2005, shortly after artillery started being used to shell Gaza, an Israeli artilleryman issued the following plea:

We must stop the madness! This time you won’t be able to say “I didn’t know”.

This time you would not be able to say that it was a mistake by the gunlayer, the aimer, the battery commander or the Central Fire Control. Mistakes, disasters and murders by the Artillery are facts of the past and a danger for the future!

The Artillery Corps is not an effective tool for the task now imposed on it. At such a thickly-populated area as Gaza, artillery pieces are nothing but a danger to the population – and also a danger to us, to our international image.

Setting an artillery battery to shell targets in the heart of a civilian population will inevitably, sooner or later, lead to a terrible disaster which will hand an enormous victory to the Hamas and Jihad.

Sooner or later, a shell will go off course and kill dozens or even hundreds of Palestinian civilians, most of them completely innocent. Israel will be placed at the pillory and possibly be even subjected to international sanctions.

The Israeli Human Rights group B’tselem has labeled the incident a war crime.

See last posts on Israel/Palestine and Gaza.

  1. “Qassam rockets haven’t
    “Qassam rockets haven’t killed anyone since the disengagement”
    Are you suggesting the rockets are not meant or aimed at civilian areas, left unchecked there would would be larger and hundreds of rockets falling on southern Israel. Why not meantion that Barak wanted to give back most of the west bank and parts of Israel to reach 100% land area, but that was not enough for Arafat. Israel is not interested in keeping Gaza, most of the population seeks peace and is ready to give back land, while most of the Palestinians do not support co-existance with a two-state solution. These are just facts.

    1. rockets
      You are quoting Gideon Levy, not me. Obviously the rockets are aimed at civilian areas. As for “left unchecked,” Israel has bombarded Gaza almost ceaselessly since shortly after disengagement, and increased its bombardment after Hamas was elected. Have Qassams lessened? No, they’ve increased. As for what to do about it, here’s a suggestion from Levy:

      The continuing imprisonment of besieged Gaza is precisely the opposite policy that should be applied to serve Israeli interests. The current policy only strengthens support for the Hamas, just like the terror attacks within Israel always strengthen the Israeli right. A nation under siege, its leadership boycotted, will have far more determination and resolve to fight to its last drop of blood. It is impossible to break the spirit of a desperate people. Only a nation that sees a light at the end of its desperation will change its ways.

      What would happen if Israel were to turn to the world and call upon it to enlist in the cause of support for the residents of Gaza, to donate and invest money to help them out of their utter poverty? If an Israeli prime minister did such a thing and at the same time called for a meeting with his elected Palestinian counterpart, it would create far more effective and positive pressure than any cannon fire.

      If the Palestinians only saw for the first time in their lives that Israel also had their well-being in mind, which is not necessarily bad for Israel, they would have a lot more to lose and they would expel the Qassam launchers themselves. Only the Palestinians can do that, and sowing the seeds of hope is the only way to do so. And if, in the current situation, the artillery fire were to end, and they were to stop the Qassams, would Israel ease the siege, enable freedom of movement from Gaza to the West Bank, allow Palestinians to work in Israel, agree to the construction of a seaport and airport in besieged Gaza? Israel’s declarations prove that the answer to all these questions is an unequivocal no. Its current policy and the policies we have seen it adopt lead only to intensification of the violence on the part of the Palestinians.

      No Qassam justifies the killing and terror that the shells sow in Gaza. Cannons are meant for war against an army. Using them against a helpless civilian population is supposed to be beyond the realm of the legitimate, without any ifs or buts about it. A state does not shell towns. Period. Just like in the war against crime that is also deadly and endangers state security, no end justifies all the means. Would it ever occur to the Israeli police to evacuate an entire neighborhood from which some murderers came? Would anyone decide to shell such a neighborhood, even if it would mean minimizing the crime coming out of it?

      Those who really want to end the Qassam launches from Gaza, should turn Israeli policy upside down. To show restraint in the face of the Qassams, to lift the siege, to immediately meet with the elected Palestinian leadership and call on the world to stop withholding the funds from the Palestinian Authority. Only a free and secure and thriving Gaza will stop launching Qassams. Have we ever tried that?

      Most of the Israeli population seeks peace and is ready to give back land, you say. But Olmert’s re-alignment plan would leave all but 40,000 settlers in place, and take at least ten percent of the West Bank, including E. Jerusalem. That ten percent includes the West Bank’s most arable land and all its water resources. That alone would prevent a viable Palestinian state from being created. How would this result in a peaceful outcome? It’s a plan for perpetuating the occupation. Most Palestinians do support two states and co-existence: in 2002, at the height of the intifada,
      this poll
      revealed that 73% of Palestinians supported reconciliation after separating into two states. Find me a poll that contradicts that. These are just facts.

  2. Haaretz editorial: Israel is to blame
    A cease-fire in Gaza (2)
    Nov 9

    By Haaretz Editorial

    Yesterday, we wrote here that “Israel should declare a complete cease-fire in the Gaza Strip for a predetermined period, during which it will not engage in any violent actions, neither assassinations nor incursions. Simultaneously, it should call on the Palestinians to hold their fire as well.”

    What we feared has come to pass – and for the Palestinians, even worse: At least 19 Palestinians were killed yesterday during a sustained Israel Defense Forces artillery attack on the town of Beit Hanun. Of these, 11 were members of a single family, including women and children.

    No excuse can justify this atrocity. When artillery batteries aim their shells near a residential neighborhood, such a disaster is inevitable, even if it is unintentional.

    Anyone who fired shells in the direction of civilian houses knows very well that he is liable to kill indiscriminately with them.

    None of Israel’s responses to this catastrophe – expressions of regret by the prime minister and defense minister, offers of humanitarian assistance to the wounded, the establishment of an inquiry committee headed by Major General Meir Kalifi, cessation of the shelling and the opening of the Rafah border crossing for a day – can paper over Israel’s sole responsibility for this fearsome and senseless killing. Therefore, it is no longer enough to express regret; it is also necessary to draw conclusions.

    It has now become conclusively clear that the campaign against the Qassam rocket launchers in Gaza can no longer be entrusted solely to the IDF. The chief of staff, the chief of command, the divisional commander, and the other officers who bear moral and operational responsibility for yesterday’s disaster had failed even before this, during Operation Autumn Clouds, which ostensibly ended on Tuesday. That operation sowed only death and destruction, without bringing an end to the Qassam fire. On the contrary, it only increased it.

    Yesterday’s shelling therefore seems, above all, like an act of revenge by the IDF for the continued Qassam fire.

    The prime minister, as the person who bears overall responsibility, must order the IDF to halt the fire on Gaza – immediately, in all cases and with every type of weapon.

    If Israel does not want to find itself embroiled soon in a new bloodbath, including suicide bombings in its cities, it must launch a dramatic, unequivocal move, as only such a move might prevent the outbreak of a new intifada. Such a move must begin with a total cease-fire, even a unilateral one, in the context of which Israel will commit itself to total restraint for a predetermined period, even if Qassams continue to fall here and there.

    Instead of more and more pointless military operations, which will not lead to anything except to kindling more hatred, we must try a completely different path. Instead of military operations with attractive names, we must immediately embark on a diplomatic operation.

    The cannons must be replaced with calls for dialogue, the economic boycott must be replaced with an opening of the taps, and the cruel siege of Gaza must be replaced with a supervised opening of the border crossings.

    Only in this way can we perhaps change the dangerous atmosphere that now prevails, and even more so following the bloodbath in Beit Hanun. The responsibility for this rests entirely on the prime minister’s shoulders.