There was an ironic juxtaposition of stories in a post on Americablog last week.
The post began with the story of former Fatah militant Mohamed Abu Mailek, who is reported to have been released from prison in Gaza. Abu Mailek is described as a former member of a rocket squad who “decided he was not prepared to fire on civilians”, and was charged as a result with collaboration and espionage.
Well, good for him. And I don’t mean that in my sarcastic, snippy, usual way. I mean, unreservedly, good for him.
Then Americablog goes on to mention without comment that the BBC is reporting that a deal has been reached “for the release of Sgt Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier held hostage by Palestinian militants for five years."
Let’s leave aside the question of why an Israeli soldier who is captured while on active duty enforcing a military blockade of the Gaza Strip should be called a “hostage” rather than a “prisoner”. There’s a much more delicious – and no doubt inadvertent - irony arising from running those two stories together, and it’s this...
In April 2006, shortly before Shalit was captured, a coalition of Israeli civil rights groups unsuccessfully petitioned the Israeli High Court to order the IDF to rescind its recent decision to allow Israeli artillery to fire within 100 metres of civilian houses in the Gaza Strip. The previous safety margin for firing near civilian areas was 300 metres. The Israeli civil rights groups noted that allowing artillery shells to be fired within 100 metres of Palestinian homes gravely endangered Palestinian civilians, seeing as the shells were known to land in a 100 metre spread from their target.
Six human rights organizations appealed the High Court on Sunday to cancel a regulation which allows Israel Defense Forces artillery to fire shells at targets up to 100 meters away from Palestinian houses.
Last week Defense Minister Shual (sic) Mofaz reduced the safety range down from 300 meters in an effort to put a stop to Qassam rocket fire from the Gaza Strip into Israel.
Attorney Michael Sfard claimed on behalf of the human rights organizations that Mofaz's decision deliberately endangers Palestinian lives because the shells are known to land within a 100-meter spread from their targets.
IDF officers admitted that the new regulations put Palestinian lives at risk but insisted it would help strike back at Palestinian militants launching rockets at Israeli civilians.
Last week a 12-year-old Palestinian girl was killed and five of her family members were wounded when an IDF artillery shell struck their house in the northern Gaza Strip town of Beit Lahiya. In response, IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz asked Mofaz to reinstate the previous safety regulations, but was turned down.
- IDF accused of 'knowingly risking Palestinian lives'; Ha'aretz, 16 Apr 2006.
If you fire shells to within 100 metres of civilian housing, knowing that those shells will land up to 100 metres from their intended target, then you are firing at that civilian housing. Putting it any other way is just whitewashing the fact that you are lobbing shells at civilian areas.
Human Rights Watch reported that between September 2005 and September 2006 Israel killed through artillery fire 38 people in the Gaza Strip, of whom 17 were children under the age of 16, and 12 were women; furthermore, HRW was “unable to find any report or claim that those killed or injured by artillery fire included persons believed to be combatants”. Referring specifically to the reduction in safety margins from 300 to 100 metres, HRW concluded: “This new policy undoubtedly added to the number of civilian casualties and damage to civilian property”. [Footnote]
One wonders whether, after it became public knowledge in April 2006 that IDF artillery was using rules of engagement that were by design killing civilians, any of the Israeli artillerymen and tank gunners implementing those orders had the courage to take the same moral stand as Mohamed Abu Mailek, who “decided he was not prepared to fire on civilians”?
One wonders in particular whether the sainted “hostage” Gilad Shalit, captured two months after this newly permissive policy came into effect, while serving as a tank gunner at Israel's border with the Gaza Strip, ever gave it a moment's thought?
After all, this is the most moral army in the world we’re talking about.
From September 2005 through May 2007, the same period covered by the rocket attack statistics cited above, the IDF fired 14,617 artillery shells into Gaza. This fire killed at least 59 people, wounded another 270 people, and did significant damage to many civilian structures. Of the 38 Palestinians killed through September 2006, 17 were children under the age of 16, 12 were women, and one was a 60-year-old man; Human Rights Watch, in its field investigations, identified 5 of the remaining 8 men as civilians. A subsequent artillery attack on November 8 killed or mortally wounded 23 and injured at least 40 Palestinians, all civilians. As discussed below, this last incident led to an Israeli moratorium on further use of artillery in Gaza, which continued as this report went to press in mid-June 2007.
Most of the artillery shells that the IDF fired into Gaza in this period landed in open areas, and the great majority did not result in civilian casualties. Many, however, were fired close to civilian areas, and some landed directly on homes and other civilian structures, causing serious harm and loss of life. Human Rights Watch has been unable to find any report or claim that those killed or injured by artillery fire included persons believed to be combatants, and the IDF has not responded to a Human Rights Watch request about whether any Palestinians killed or injured by artillery fire into the Gaza Strip were combatants or believed to be combatants. Israeli artillery strikes in 2006 also left many unexploded shells strewn on the ground that constitute a continuing hazard to lives and livelihoods.
Israeli artillery strikes hitting Beit Hanoun and nearby Beit Lahiya caused considerable civilian casualties and damage to civilian structures. On April 10, 2006, for example, Sofia Gabin told her children to hide in a cement cupboard when she heard explosions nearby. "I was afraid for them. It was the safest place," she said. A shell landed directly on the house, killing her 8-year-old daughter, Hadi, and injuring 10 others. A series of strikes earlier that week leveled several homes belonging to the Abu Shamas family and injured or killed at least three civilians. The frequent shelling has also had a devastating impact on the civilian life of the northern Gaza towns.
Two changes in IDF artillery practices in April 2006, roughly corresponding with Hamas's taking over the Palestinian Authority (PA) following its January victory in parliamentary elections, led to a significant jump in civilian casualties. This was evident in that all 59 Palestinian deaths and all but eight of the 270 injuries due to Israeli artillery fire into Gaza occurred after the change in IDF practices. First, the IDF greatly increased the number of artillery shells fired: a total of 446 rounds were fired in March 2006 while 4,522 rounds were fired in April 2006. Between May and November, when the IDF instituted a moratorium, the number of shells fired fluctuated between 113 (October) and 3,709 (July) per month, averaging more than 1,350 shells per month. The second change was an increase in artillery attacks in the immediate vicinity of civilian residences. There is evidence that this was a deliberate policy: an Israeli newspaper reported in April that the IDF had narrowed the "safety zone"-that is, the minimum distance it required between a potential target for its artillery and the nearest homes or populated areas-from 300 meters to 100 meters, a report that the IDF refused to affirm or deny. This new policy undoubtedly added to the number of civilian casualties and damage to civilian property. There was no parallel increase in rocket fire in April 2006.
- Indiscriminate Fire: Palestinian Rocket Attacks on Israel and Israeli Artillery Shelling in the Gaza Strip