Israel’s military has closed an investigation into the deaths of 21 Palestinian civilians in Gaza in 2009, finding no one responsible for the shelling. It also ruled the accident was not a war crime and the civilians were not targeted deliberately.
The Military Advocate General wrote to the country’s Human Rights Group B'Tselem on Tuesday that the Military Police had closed the long-lasting probe.
"The investigation completely disproved any claim about deliberate harm to civilians, as well as haste and recklessness about possible harm to civilians, or criminal negligence," Israeli media quoted Major Dorit Tuval as writing.
The full text of the letter is available on the Human Rights Group’s website.
The investigation focused on the shelling on January 5, 2009, during the ground offensive stage of the three-week war in the Gaza strip, known as Operation Cast Lead.
Witnesses at the time said that on January 4, 2009, Israeli troops had ordered about 100 civilians in the Zeitun district to enter the house and stay there, out of their way.
But the following day the Israeli Air Force hit the house with its shells. It collapsed, killing 21 member of a single Palestinian Samouni family, including nine children and 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, states B'Tselem’s website.
The military were therefore accused of launching the air strike on the building, despite knowing that it was occupied by civilians.
The case was highlighted in the report released separately in 2009 by former judge and commercial lawyer Richard Goldstone. Under a mandate of the UN Human Rights Council, Goldstone led a fact-finding mission to investigate war crimes and human rights violations in the Gaza War.
The report stated both Israel and the Islamist group Hamas were guilty of war crimes, which sparked outrage of Israel. It refused to cooperate further with the inquiry.
In response to the letter, 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,” says a message on the Human Rights Group’s website.