Richard Landes revisits the Gaza beach explosion of June 9, 2006 in which 8 Palestinians were said to have been killed, first supposedly by naval shelling from an Israeli warship and then subsequently, when accounts changed, by a 155 mm IDF artillery shell fired from an Army battery. Landes has produced a video in which he argues that a) the deaths were unlikely to have been caused by an Israeli artillery shell and that b) the Palestinians authorities may have been trying to blame Israel for an accident arising an unexploded beach mine.
The politicization of the tragedy means that we will probably never know the true cause of the disaster from positive evidence. All one can do is attempt to deduce the probable cause from the clues. Here's what I think, based simply on watching Landes' video and a little research.
According Human Rights Watch these events happened on the beach on June 9, 2006.
According to eyewitnesses, the Ghalya family had gone to the beach earlier that day to have lunch and to swim. They decided to cut short their stay when artillery shells started landing on the beach in the distance. After a shell fell 300 to 500 meters away, `Ali `Isa Ghalya, the father, started to gather his two wives and their children near the road to the beach. They collected their belongings and called a taxi. When two more shells fell about 150 meters away, the men were sitting in one group on the beach, and the women in another. A fourth shell—the one that caused the casualties according to witnesses—exploded between the two groups but closer to the women. Eleven-year-old Huda saw that her mother was injured. “My mother told me to escape,” Huda told Human Rights Watch at the wake organized for her deceased family members. “I went to my father and then I started screaming.”
According to the HRW account, multiple explosions were witnessed by numerous people. They "heard the shells coming". One of the key problems in analyzing the cause of this tragedy is correlating the timing with the IDF fire missions that day. The first question was, when were the civilians on the beach hit? The IDF maintained that the incident "occurred not before 16:57 and not after 17:10". The method used for calculating the time was based on the timestamps of video footage taken by overhead surveillance.
We can say that the incident took place 150 meters from a place we call the "Casino". The time of the incident was between 16:57-17:10. We came to this conclusion by analyzing three films. The first shows nothing irregular or unusual that might indicate that a large explosion took place in a range of 50 meters from the place of the incident on the beach between 16:54-16:57. A second film, from around 18:30, depicts people's behavior after the explosion, proving that the incident must have occurred before then. The third film shows the arrival of the ambulances at 17:15 which brings us to the conclusion that the incident occurred not before 16:57 and not after 17:10. Taking this timeline in account we have checked all reports of IDF fire on that day. I can without doubt say that no means used by the IDF during this time period caused the incident. The closest IAF attack took place 2.5 kilometers north of the site and occurred after 17:15.
HRW's own calculations put the time of the explosion which killed the civilians in the same time frame. Their estimates are based on "computerized hospital records that show children injured at the beach were treated by 5:12 p.m., and hand-written hospital records that show they were admitted at 5:05 p.m." In conjunction with the fact that it was ten minute one way trip from the hospital to the beach, there seems to be a consensus with respect to when the tragedy occurred: the probable answer being shortly before 17:00 hours.
This agreement on timing has largely been missed by the press. Careless media reporting has made much of the fact that HRW used the "computerized hospital records" to link an IDF fire mission with the time of the disaster and disprove the Israeli defense that timings exonerated them. But there is no dispute in the matter of timing. The IDF itself openly admits to firing that day, in that time frame, but not upon the place 150 meters away from "Casino" -- the site of the tragedy -- but on a target called "Reshef 31". The IDF was attempting to take out some rocket launchers which they claim had been firing from that site. Thus the real question boils down to correlating the site of the explosion which killed the victims with the impact area of the IDF fire mission. The IDF describes where they were shooting:
During those hours we fired six shells at a target called Reshef 31. In order to make sure we do not hit areas with citizens we fired range-adjustment fire approximately 580-600 meters north of the target. Using a special system we can precisely account for the places where five of the six shells landed. The first shell which was fired was not identified by the system, but the possibility of the first shell fired from the battery causing the incident is close to zero, as it was launched at around 16:30.
This string of five shells coincides very well with the HRW accounts. HRW's report on the Gaza Beach incident clearly refers to 'four shells' which more or less corresponds to the "Reshef 31" fire mission. HRW's account of what General Kalifi's detailed description of the "Reshef 31" fire mission is all I can find, being unable to locate the full IDF report on the incident.
Major General Kalifi said the IDF fired a shell at an area 600 meters away from the fatal blast to “calibrate” the artillery. Because IDF radar did not detect this first shell, the same artillery piece fired another shell of the same type towards the same target. According to Khalfi, another two shells were then fired with the “same gun and data.” These second, third, and fourth shells landed within 60 meters of each other, he said. The same M109 artillery piece fired the fifth and sixth shells at a different target. Kalifi said these last two shells landed 200 meters away from the fatal blast. This meant, he said, that the chance that their shrapnel could have injured the civilians was “one in a thousand or in ten thousand.” As noted earlier, the lethal radius of a 155mm shell is between 50 and 150 meters and the injury radius between 100 and 300 meters. That still leaves the first 155mm artillery shell, the one that Kalifi said the radar failed to detect. According to the IDF’s calculations, he said, the statistical probability that this first shell was the fatal one was “one in a billion.” He did not explain to Human Rights Watch the IDF’s methodology for reaching this conclusion. His explanation also does not account for witness testimony that the first shell was not the fatal one.
We've now reached the critical question: where did the fifth and sixth shells of Reshef 31 land? According to HRW they exploded within 200 meters from the place where the civilians were killed. Could one have caused the fatalities? According to the HRW's eyewitness account, the family groups were struck by a single "fourth" shell. But the IDF seems confident the blasts which killed the civilians were neither shells 5 or 6. How can they be so sure? The reasons for the IDF's confidence are embedded unnoticed in the HRW report.
Several IDF surveillance videos were the second main source the IDF presented to support its version of the incident. The IDF publicized three videos of the beach, all of which Human Rights Watch viewed. The first video, which Major General Kalifi said was filmed from a gunship from 4:54 to 4:57 p.m., showed “no excitement in behavior...no signs of panic.” Kalifi said the evident calm showed that the Israeli shells fired between 4:31 and 4:50 had not caused the incident. The second video, from a different surveillance camera, he said, showed a convoy of vehicles arriving at 5:15 p.m. Kalifi said these were ambulances, suggesting that the explosion occurred sometime after the last Israeli shell exploded—according to him, at 4:50 p.m. The third video, from a third camera, shows a lot of activity at the beach at 5:30 p.m., which Kalifi attributed to the chaos of the explosion. If this were the case, it would indicate that the explosion had taken place well after the last Israeli shell of that afternoon had landed.
It seems clear that the IDF was spotting fall of shot using UAVs or at least surveilling the area. They knew where every shell went either by visual observation or radar data and they also knew, by following the ambulances, where the civilians had been hit. And it was a simple matter for the IDF to conclude that impacts 5 and 6 were not the same as the place where the civilians were hit. But what of Reshef 31's first shell? This was unspotted, and probably a dud. Could it have gone off near the families belatedly? HRW itself admits this possibility. Unfortunately HRW goes through great lengths to dismiss the possibility of a below ground blast, citing its own military expert to assert that it must have been a surface blast. And therefore HRW goes out on a limb to suggest the fatal explosion was caused by an surface explosion.
What are we left with? First we have the video from the cameramen taken at the scene. A German newspaper echoed many of the questions Richard Landes' raised and points out in his presentation. Where was the crater of the shell which killed the families? Why were the beach things so undamaged? Although HRW claimed to have examined artillery shell craters, its not clear they are examining the relevant craters. The Reshef 31 fire mission would undoubtedly have left craters. The question is whether there was a crater where the family was hit. And the media video doesn't show it.
A number of possibilities capable of explaining either side of the story remain unresolvable with the available evidence. Maybe the beach things were spared from the fragments by luck. A person has a 30% chance of being struck by 155mm fragments at a distance of 50 meters so an object may have escaped scathing by good fortune. Maybe the Palestinian cameraman forgot to focus his camera on the crater. One might also argue that if the Israelis had overhead video spotting fall of shot they would have produced it to exonerate themselves. But the IDF is closed-mouthed about its secrets, so again, maybe not. But it's also possible that the civilians simply set off an unexploded munition, a scenario the HRW doesn't declare impossible. The "eyewitness" accounts of a single "fourth" shell, plus the the victims own perceptions suggests that the fatal explosion may have happened after the last two IDF rounds had been fired. Recall that final scene: the victims were upset by the shelling and abandoned their picnic but felt far enough from the perceived target to sit down while waiting for a taxi to take them home. Then they watched two shells go off some distance away and shortly afterward experienced an explosion which killed 8 persons.
How does this square with Khalifi's assertion that the blast happened after the last artillery volley? All in all, the fact that the IDF had overhead spotting plus the behavior of the victims, leads me to think that shells 5 and 6 really did land 200 meters away. They are in fact probably described by HRW's own report (see above) as the "two more shells [which] fell about 150 meters away". Those were Rehsef 31 5 and 6. The next explosion, which occurred some minutes afterward was probably due to something else, and its exact nature will never be known. But in a place like Gaza, where war has been a way of life for decades, where "militant" groups fire rockets from beaches and the IDF shells them back, the odds of becoming a victim of loose explosive is not beyond the realm of possibility.