"Can it be that the Israeli army, with all of its technologically advanced weapons, cannot distinguish between armed combatants and children playing at the seaside?"
On Friday 12 June 2015, the Israeli army announced the closure of the investigation file into the killing of four children of the Bakr family - Ahed (10 years), Zakaria (10 years), Mohammed (11 years) and Ismail (10 years) – by an Israeli military rocket attack, while they were playing on the fishermen's beach in Gaza City, during the War on Gaza last summer, on 16 July 2014.
Immediately following the killings, Al Mezan and Adalah submitted an urgent letter to the Military Advocate General (MAG) demanding an immediate, independent investigation into suspected war crimes. The human rights organizations reject the Israeli army's closure of the investigation.
Al Mezan and Adalah emphasized that, "Testimonies collected from witnesses confirm that the site of the attack was not being used for military purposes, in stark contrast to the Israeli army's claims in its report. This site is part of the fishermen's port, which is adjacent to a coffee shop and next to a number of hotels and an event location. The testimonies show that people who were sitting in the coffee shop were also injured by shrapnel from the attack."
In addition, Al Mezan and a large number of press reports confirmed the presence of numerous journalists at the site, which the Israeli army considered to be a Hamas "military outpost". Tyler Hicks, a New York Times award-winning photographer, who witnessed the killing of the boys, told the British newspaper The Guardian that, "A small metal shack with no electricity or running water on a jetty in the blazing seaside sun does not seem like the kind of place frequented by Hamas militants." Foreign press sources, who stayed at the site for long periods of time, confirmed that the site was used by fishermen on a consistent basis, and could be easily entered via the public beach of the port.
Al Mezan and Adalah also stressed that, "Even if the Israeli army's arguments were true, which have clearly been refuted, the Israeli army cannot close the investigation file and clear the military of international humanitarian law violations. Even if the site was sometimes used as a military site, that alone does not justify indiscriminately bombing people located there, especially as Israel has acknowledged that at the time, there were no ongoing hostilities from this site, which is required by international laws of war." The army's acknowledgement that there were no combat operations from the site at the time of the bombing alone, argue Al Mezan and Adalah, may be sufficient in finding international humanitarian law violations.
Al Mezan and Adalah also refute the Israeli army's claims that it was unable to distinguish that the targets were in fact children playing on the beach. Al Mezan and Adalah emphasize that, "The Israeli army's allegations are illogical. The Israeli army has high technological capabilities, which are able to check the smallest details on the ground. However the army still claims that it did not have the ability in this case to recognize that these small children, without any weapons, are not fighters from the Hamas movement. It is unreasonable that the Israeli army, with all of its capabilities and experience, cannot distinguish between the movement of children playing, and the movement of fighters preparing to carry out combat operations."
The human rights organizations also stressed that although four witnesses from Gaza gave affidavits, which were submitted by Adalah and Al Mezan to the Military Advocate General's office, the Israeli army asked only one witness – a child who suffers from post-traumatic stress, according to the medical report that was sent to the MAG – to testify at the Erez checkpoint. The other three witnesses expressed their willingness to give their testimonies, but were never approached. Notably in the press release, the Israeli army stated that witnesses from Gaza who were invited to testify refused to attend. Commenting on this claim, Al Mezan and Adalah highlight that, "Foreign press sources confirm that none of the foreign journalists who witnessed the event at the site, photographed it and wrote about it were summoned for investigation. This showed that the Israeli army has no willingness to uncover the truth of the incident."
Al Mezan and Adalah added that, "The Israeli army does not mention the torture, ill-treatment and harassment frequently suffered by Palestinians at the Erez crossing at the hands of the Israeli army, including arbitrary arrests, interrogations for long hours and days, and exploitation whereby the army attempts to pressure them to cooperate with the Israeli intelligence agencies. The army uses these practices even against extremely sick patients who come to Erez seeking medical treatment out of Gaza. Knowing all this, how can Palestinian witnesses feel safe going to and trusting the Israeli army, especially when they are submitting testimonies that are against the army itself?"
In this regard, Adalah and Al Mezan emphasized that, "The witnesses' fear and their refusal to testify to the Israeli army confirms the need for an independent, international investigation, which alone is capable of reaching the truth of what happened in Gaza. The Israeli army's investigation system lacks independence, impartiality and transparency."
Al Mezan and Adalah concluded that, "The Israeli army only spoke to and listened to itself in the course of this investigation. The army completely ignored dozens of foreign press witnesses to the event from the site, as it did not ask these journalists to provide their evidence. A fair system does not and cannot investigate itself, and those who commit war crimes cannot hold themselves accountable for those crimes. This case shows that the Israeli investigation system is deeply flawed and contradicts international law and norms of investigation."