Anshel Pfeffer
November 18, 2010 - 1:00am

An Israel Defense Forces officer is being probed for obstructing an investigation into the death of a Palestinian civilian during Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip while he was serving as batallion commander.

The officer is suspected of failing to submit the results of an inquiry regarding the woman, who was killed when she and a group of civilians approached a station of the Givati Brigade in January 2009, during Israel's three-week offensive on the Gaza Strip.

The soldiers allegedly fired warning shots at the group and did not notify either the military prosecution or the Southern Command about the woman's death.

The fatal incident was first investigated following reports by B'Tselem, an Israeli human rights organization, and was later mentioned in a United Nations report by former South African jurist Richard Goldstone, which accused both Israel and Hamas with war crimes.

A reserve officer inadvertantly discovered the suppressed field investigation, which was not transferred batallion level to the army's legal corps as required. The officer apparently debated for nearly eight months whether to discuss the matter with the upper echelon. In December 2009, he finally sent a letter to his commanding officers and to Military Prosecutor Avihai Mandelblit who opened an investigation within the month.

In June, Mandelblit decided to charge another IDF soldier, identified only as First Sergeant S., for opening fire on a group of Palestinians carrying white flags and killing a civilian woman, in disregard of the IDF's rules of engagement. At the same time Mandelblit ordered another investigation into the question of why the batalion had not informed higher echelons of the incident.

Although 64-year-old Raya Salma Abu Hajjaj and her 35-year-old daughter Majda were killed in the January 4, 2009 incident, the soldier was charged for the death of a single civilian because it could not be verified that it was his shots that killed the women.

Sergeant S. was part of a combined force of Givati and armored brigades which had entered a built up area when it identified a group of around 30 Palestinians walking toward them, apparently after being ordered by the IDF to evacuate their homes in a neighboring area.

A deputy battalion commander ordered troops to fire warning shots toward the group - but not at them. Soon after the order was given, two Givati Brigade soldiers joined the troops. One of them, S., opened fire, killing the two women.

S. said during the army investigation that he had fired at the women's legs only when he believed troops' lives to be at risk and had not intended to kill them.

Investigators found that the deputy battalion commander had acted properly. The case against S. centered on how much he knew the circumstances and the commander's orders when he arrived at the scene.

Three other soldiers have been tried for offenses against civilians during the Gaza war.

Some 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed during Israel's three-week war on Hamas in late 2008 and early 2009.

Earlier this year, Israel submitted its response to the UN report. Defense Minister Ehud Barak said at the time:

"This report stresses that the IDF is like no other army, both from a moral standpoint as well as from a professional standpoint."

Barak said: "All of the soldiers and officers whom we sent to battle need to know that the state of Israel stands behind them even on the day after."


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017