Will Israel Charge Soldiers In Gaza Civilian Deaths?
By the end of July during last summer's war in the Gaza Strip, more than 3,000 Palestinians crowded into a United Nations-run elementary school in Jabaliya, a northern Gaza town. They had moved there for temporary shelter after the Israeli military warned them to leave their homes.
An hour before dawn on July 30, explosions shook the classrooms and the courtyard, all packed with people.
Mahmoud Jaser was camped outside with his sons.
"We were sleeping when the attack started. As we woke up, it got worse," he said.
Shrapnel hit Jaser in the back. Three of his sons were also hurt. About 100 people were injured overall. Almost 20 were killed.
Jaser still plays those minutes over in his mind.
"My neighbor told me his children were killed," he remembers. "I saw people without legs or heads. Then I lost consciousness. I woke up in the hospital."
An investigation commissioned by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon recently concluded that Israeli soldiers hit the Jabaliya school with four high-explosive artillery shells.
It holds the Israeli military responsible for that attack and two others. Together, nearly 50 Palestinians were killed in the three attacks.
The U.N. inquiry found that in nearby Beit Hanoun on July 24, at least two high explosive mortars landed in a school courtyard as people gathered to evacuate to a safer shelter. Between 12 and 14 Gazans were killed, the public summary of the commission's inquiry says, and 93 people were injured.
In Rafah, bordering Egypt in the southern Gaza strip, the U.N. inquiry says a precision-guided missile targeting three men on a motorcycle struck the street outside the school gates mid-morning on Aug. 3. Fifteen people were killed, including a U.N. guard inside the school compound.
Hundreds of Palestinian civilians were killed in the seven weeks of fighting in Gaza. In general, Israel says that the Islamist group Hamas was storing weapons and firing from densely packed civilian areas. Israel says it targeted Hamas and that civilian deaths were not intentional.
Israel initially denied wrongdoing in the Jabaliya and Beit Hanoun attacks. But after further examination of evidence, military prosecutors decided there is "reasonable suspicion" that soldiers may have not followed all the rules.
Prosecutors have opened criminal investigations into both attacks.
The drone attack in Rafah is still under investigation, according to Israeli deputy military attorney general Col. Eli Baron.
Israel told the U.N. board of inquiry, according to its report, that by the time it became clear the missile would strike the motorcycle outside a school, it was too late to redirect.
Baron says there is a range of possible outcomes in any of the scores of incidents under review.
"There could be a criminal indictment," he said, during an interview in his office at the Kirya, Israel's military headquarters in central Tel Aviv. "There could be disciplinary measures."
He also said military prosecutors use these investigations to examine whether battlefield guidance given to soldiers could be improved.
Even when criminal investigations are opened, as has happened regarding Jabaliya and Beit Hanoun schools, indictments are far from certain, Baron said.
"Many people think the mere fact that you launch a criminal investigation means you have, you know, a war criminal at the end of the road. And it doesn't necessarily mean that."
After a similar war in late 2008, dubbed Operation Cast Lead by the military, Israel's internal investigations led to a few convictions. According to news reports at the time, the longest sentence was seven months in prison, for credit card theft.
The U.N inquiry after that war openly called for compensation, specifically for damaged U.N. property. Israel paid the U.N. more than $10 million.
Jaser, who now walks with pain and takes medication to calm his nerves, says he'd like Israel's investigation to result in financial help for survivors now too injured to make a living.
But a neighbor, Tala Abu Ghnaim, who was also at the school when it was hit, dismisses the notion that it's even possible to compensate for the damage done.
"What, they can kill us then 'compensate' us?" he asked. "We want safety."
Asked whether Israel would consider compensation this time, Col. Baron said he didn't know.
"Obviously that's a political decision," he said. "The [U.N.] secretary general said nothing about compensation in his [recent] report."
That doesn't mean it won't come up, says Farhan Haq, deputy spokesman for U.N. Secretary General Moon.
"If there is a need to pursue the issue of compensation, we'll pursue it," he says.
But he said the real priority is a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
Meanwhile, the Beit Hanoun school is back up and running, with two shifts of students daily, as is usual in crowded Gaza schools. The badly damaged classrooms of the Jabaliya school are being completely rebuilt.
Eleven children who lost their father in that attack are struggling to rebuild their lives. Their mother, Fatiyeh Abu Gamar, now a widow, says she simply misses her husband being around to take care of the family.
He was often unemployed she said, but "when he was alive nobody dared to interfere in our family life. It's different now," she says.
Now male relatives are trying to tell her what to do, including take her daughters out of university.
Her youngest, a 9-year-old boy, says when he grows up he wants to kill Israelis in revenge for killing his father. Abu Gamar says she told him no — we don't know exactly who did it. Israeli prosecutors say they don't know either yet, and they may never.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.