An Israeli soldier accused of killing a Palestinian mother and daughter carrying a white flag during Operation Cast Lead will serve just 45 days in prison. He agreed to a plea bargain and had his charge downgraded to “illegal use of weapon”.
The plea bargain on the reduced charge – down from manslaughter – was approved on Sunday by a military court in Jaffa.
The investigation into the killing of a 64-year-old mother and her 35 year-old daughter, shot while walking with a group of Palestinians holding white flags after their home was bombed, was opened following a complaint filed by Israeli human rights group B'Tselem.
The incident happened on January 4, 2009, during the Israeli Operation Cast Lead.
It happened when a group of Gaza civilians carrying makeshift white flags approached an IDF position manned by Givati soldiers, including the unnamed infantry sergeant, identified by Israeli media as "Staff Sergeant S”.
“S” opened fire on the group, without an order from his commanding officer.
The younger woman was killed on the spot, while her mother was severely wounded by the gunfire and later died of the wounds.
“S” later admitted he had fired shots and reported hitting one of the people in the group. He explained his actions by describing the incident as a “threatening situation endangering the lives of the soldiers” and claimed he fired at the legs of the advancing crowd.
The military said there were discrepancies between the troops' accounts of the incident and the details reported widely by human rights groups. The troops reported shooting one man at the site, not two women, and on a different date.
The lawyers of “S” then argued there was no connection between the shooting he admitted to and the killing of the Palestinian women, as no conclusive proof was presented. In particular they demanded the bodies be presented to the court.
The military prosecution accepted the claim and dropped the manslaughter charges, changing them to the “illegal use of weapon”.
"Following a mediation process and upon examination of the evidence with the recommendation of the military court, both sides have reached a plea bargain in which the indictment will be adjusted, and he will be convicted of using a weapon illegally," AFP quotes a military statement.
“S” will now serve 45 days in prison, while a conviction of manslaughter would have carried a sentence of up to 20 years.
By now “S” is the only Israeli soldier to face manslaughter charges for suspected unlawful killings during Israel’s war against Gaza in 2008-2009.
B 'Tselem argued the indictment was based solely on the soldiers' accounts and not on conflicting testimony from Palestinian witnesses. In a statement posted on its website the group demanded that the Military Police Investigation Unit (MPIU) reopen the file into the killing.
The human rights group has called for independent investigations into some 20 cases involving the killings of 92 Palestinians. Instead, they say, the military launched its own investigation into 11 deaths, including the “S” case.
The death toll from the three-week Gaza War was 1,417 Palestinians and 13 Israelis. Four of the latter are believed to have died from friendly fire.
Palestinian Center for Human Rights said that of those Palestinians killed, 926 were civilians, including 429 women and children. 236 were combatants and 255 were members of the Palestinian security forces.
Back in 2009 The Times published an anonymous account of deliberate killings of Gaza civilians.
The soldiers' testimonies included accounts of an unarmed old woman being shot from a rooftop while crossing a main street during the fighting.
"I don't know whether she was suspicious, not suspicious, I don't know her story," one non-commissioned officer was quoted as saying to Danny Zamir, the head of the Rabin pre-military academy. "I do know that my officer sent people to the roof in order to take her out… It was cold-blooded murder."
He then revealed how soldiers were clearing houses by shooting anyone they encountered on sight.
"When we entered a house, we were supposed to bust down the door and start shooting inside and just go up story by story… I call that murder. Each story, if we identify a person, we shoot them. I asked myself – how is this reasonable?"
Another NCO recounted a military blunder that led to a mother and her two children being shot dead by an Israeli sniper.
"We had taken over the house… and the family was released and told to go right. A mother and two children got confused and went left… The sniper on the roof wasn't told that this was OK and that he shouldn't shoot… you can say he just did what he was told… he was told not to let anyone approach the left flank and he shot at them.”
"That's the beauty of Gaza. You see a man walking, he doesn't have to have a weapon, and you can shoot him," said one soldier after being asked why a company commander ordered an elderly woman to be shot.
According to The Times, IDF troops also used Palestinian children as human shields to check for traps and explosives. The soldiers, who ordered a nine-year-old boy to open bags suspected of containing explosives, were charged in 2010 with “inappropriate behavior and overstepping authority.”
The UN launched its Fact Finding Mission into the conflict. In 2009 a former judge and commercial lawyer Richard Goldstone, who led a fact-finding mission, released a report which stated both Israel and the Islamist group Hamas were guilty of war crimes during this conflict.
The report sparked outrage on the part of Israel and it refused to cooperate further with the inquiry.