Saturday, January 26, 2008

Gaza beach

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.

13 Comments:

Blogger Annoymouse said...

Beach Blanket Blammo

As long as speculation is fair game, I agree that there lacks evidence of any explosive effects of a 155mm round. It seems too much a coincidence that the family should step on an anti-personnel mine while the IDF is actively shelling positions so close to a family picnic. God, the whole scenario is just nuts to me. Anyhow, what if the family in question was actually in the company of militants at or near the rocket firing position, were struck and then subsequently moved into “neutral” territory. It would explain why they were injured, it would explain why no area effects of the bomb were detected, it would explain why the little girl already had a propaganda script, and it would explain why the IDF didn’t want to release video surveillance footage because whether the victims were in the proximity of legitimate targets or not would hardly exonerate them for shelling their position.

Just a thought.

1/26/2008 08:39:00 AM  
Blogger NahnCee said...

Arab terrorists routinely hide behind civilians, knowing that Americans and Israeli's will go out of their way to avoid hitting civilians.

What if the family had been placed on that beach deliberately by Paletinian rocket-shooters hoping that the Israeli's WOULD spot them and not shoot back to take out their rocket launchers?

Already I'm not liking dear old daddy Palestinian because he's got two wives, but he'd either have to be really really stupid or have an enormous sense of entitlement and/or protection to hang around after rockets start landing within visual distance.

'course no one has claimed, ever, that the Palestinians are smart or have a well-developed sense of self-preservation.

1/26/2008 09:40:00 AM  
Blogger El Baboso said...

The Israelis could have used variable time (V-T) fuses or proximity fuses so the shells would airburst and not leave a crater. (That would be in keeping with the Israeli policy to limit collateral damage. For example, using a proximity fuse, if the shell was off a bit and was going to hit a building, it would explode before impact and damage the building, but not necessarily destroy it and collapse it on the inhabitants.) The casualty pattern would have been substantially different in those scenarios. Using base-ejecting cluster munition shells is a possibility nobody seems to be looking at.

Anyway, if I heard (and felt... you get hit by an overpressure wave from a nearby round, it's memorable) rounds landing nearby at 1630, I'd be leaving the beach at 1631.

Like the Al Dura affair and the Gulf of Tonkin incident, the narrative has now been so muddied, we'll probably never know what happened. I tend to believe it was one of those one in a million things where daddy just got winged by a piece of shrapnel that had his name on it, probably from an airburst.

1/26/2008 12:04:00 PM  
Blogger Wadeusaf said...

Hummm, no crater, no smothed out surface, a little girl imploring "film, film", as palis knock over lawn chairs and mess up picnic supplies. Next we'll be watching the same bodies getting killed on a different stretch of the beach. Refrigerated morgues are a wonderful thing, even if your religious beliefs say certain things about burial.

Okay, so why did Palie doctors remove shrapnel without stabilizing the patients, putting the wounded at risk before shipping them to a hospital in Israel?

These guys are just crazy, they will tire of putting up video that no one is going to believe, when no one believes them anymore.

1/26/2008 02:14:00 PM  
Blogger hdgreene said...

From Y-net:

George Habash, the founder of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, died Saturday evening at his home in Amman, a senior Jordanian official said. Habash was 82-years-old.

Apparently the guy was a Medical Student as a youth. They should change the Hippocratic oath to "first do no politics." I think they'd save more lives.

Of course, his was a Marxist group. They almost seem cute and cuddly now. I mean for a pit viper.

1/26/2008 03:06:00 PM  
Blogger Wretchard said...

el baboso,

I considered the air burst possibility, but the problem with that is that HRW undermines the possibility, claiming it has actually seen craters and powder residue. That, plus the absence of fragment damage on the picnic tables, etc argue against air burst. So unless Reshef number 5 or 6 were fuzed differently from the earlier shells which caused observable craters or we are dealing with a separate blast. I don't think it was a mine either. My other thought was that Reshef number 1 was a short round and exploded in a delayed fashion. But then again, where's the crater? So we are back to looking for an air burst and have circled around.

The forensic examination of the site leaves much to be desired. From the video the responders seemed more interested in scattering and overturning the picnic tables and chairs. Nobody was measuring the pattern of the crater, for example. The shape of the hole or at least the fragment fan can tell whether it was a high angle or low angle shot and sometimes it is possible to deduce the general direction from which the firing came.

So to me, it's still a mystery.

1/26/2008 03:07:00 PM  
Blogger Utopia Parkway said...

The removal of shrapnel from the victims by Pal doctors is a big inconsistency. Since the victims were going to be sent to Israel where they would receive presumably superior care it made no sense to remove the shrapnel. My memory is that the Israeli doctors said as much at the time. They would have been better able to remove the shrapnel in a way that was better for the victims.

A couple of pieces of shrapnel were recovered from one of the victims and the Israeli metallurgical analysis said it didn't come from any Israeli shells.

The Pal doctors who removed the shrapnel could easily have provided it and proved the source of the shrapnel. When asked why they didn't do so the Pal doctors lamely said they had thrown it away.

The Israelis were shelling Gaza regularly at the time. This would have given Hamas time to come up with a plan to either manufacture an event completely or to take advantage of something that had occurred but to spin it to blame Israel.

1/26/2008 03:21:00 PM  
Blogger Wretchard said...

One idea that came to mind was to offer a course for aspiring "war correspondents" at the journalism schools throughout the country taught by ex-police officers or EOD investigators. It would make journalists aware of what to notice or video in a scene so that it can be forensically analyzed in the rushes. For example, they should make use of the "long continuous shot" and tie it in to reference points. I am suspicious of prolonged closeups. But then again such a course might simply teach propagandists how to manipulate the presentation of evidence.

Most of us will never directly experience the conflict in Gaza, the West Bank or in the towns of Israel which are shelled. So we are dependent on proxies, such as reporters, to tell the story of what actually happens there. Unforunately, like the Spanish Civil War, that conflict seems to have no neutral observers left. This has had the unintended effect of debasing press reports from the region. In that situation we ultimately accept accounts based on which society we believe is more "trustworthy". We believe based on "reputation". And in that matchup one is rationally compelled to believe in Israel's account most of the time, because even if they lie, the democratic nature of their society means that they lie far less often than the Palestinian authority or "militant" groups who lie even when it is unnecessary to do so. Because Israel tells the truth far more often, that makes it possible for it to lie when it has to. Rationally, Hamas should tell the truth more often, and not lie gratuitously and congenitally, so that it can eventually draw level with Israel in terms of reputation. However, I don't think that will happen in my lifetime.

1/26/2008 03:57:00 PM  
Blogger Utopia Parkway said...

Rationally, Hamas should tell the truth more often...

If this bomb on the beach story was mostly or completely made up then there are a lot of people who were in on it: the little girl on the news, all the victims, the doctors, probably the video reporter and on and on. It's likely that they are not all made members of Hamas. Even if they didn't all know every detail of what did happen they probably all knew what didn't happen.

One thing that has struck me from interviews of Pals, interviews of man on the street Lebanese during the 2006 war, the Pallywood expose on Landes' site and many news reports is that virtually every member of these societies is ready at the drop of a hat to lie to reporters. It seems that they are prepared to say, with or without coaching, that their enemy of the moment is responsible: Israel did it, the American soldiers shot without provocation, He died in my arms with his intestines hanging out, there were no Hizballah fighters in this town at the time the Israelis bombed us etc.

What I don't know is if they are all simply in on it or if they are all afraid that if they say the wrong thing they'll end up at the bottom of the river. Maybe both or it depends on the time or place.

W, your suggestion that journalists should have training in how to film and report on the technical aspects of crime scenes isn't likely to help. The problem is that in some places the local rulers control the reporting. If the reporting isn't what they want then it doesn't get out and most reporters allowed in are sympathetic to the ruler's point of view anyway. If there would have been visible evidence that implicated Israel we would certainly have seen it and if there was visible evidence that exonerated Israel we would certainly not have seen it. I suppose there is always some possibility of some kind of technical evidence that could be revealed in a video that was not recognized at the time or that there were too many witnesses to hide the truth.

We need to build our line of defense one step further back. All journalists should be trained to recognize when they're being lied to. They can't credulously accept news reports that come from sources that are likely biased, at least not with carefully scrutinizing the reports. They need to recognize their own biases so as not to accept wrong reports that match their own biases. This way the fauxtography and other kinds of outright fraud will be nipped in the bud. Easier said than done.

1/26/2008 05:04:00 PM  
Blogger Wretchard said...

If this bomb on the beach story was mostly or completely made up then there are a lot of people who were in on it: the little girl on the news, all the victims, the doctors, probably the video reporter and on and on. It's likely that they are not all made members of Hamas. Even if they didn't all know every detail of what did happen they probably all knew what didn't happen.

This is the one thing which is likely to make you think the Palestinian shelling story was true. HRW cites the multiplicity of stories pointing to Israel as proof that conspiracy is impossible. This is an argument that must be taken seriously.

But what did people really see? Earlier accounts put the source of fire as coming from an IDF warship out to sea. What we know was that the last two Israeli shells, fired respectively at 4:31 and 4:50 were the probable culprits if at all. Suspicion must settle on the 4:50 shell -- Reshef 31 number 6. In which case there were no "two shells" at 150 meters because they we fired at a "target" different from the earlier

One might also argue that the probability that two explosions, one at 4:50 from an IDF shell and whatever killed the civilians, should occur in so narrow a time frame is so remote as to suggest they were one and the same. If there were crater, I think the Palestinian case would be nearly proved. But in its current state, the situation admits of reasonable doubt. Maybe its still possible to determine the truth in this case by finding out where the shell fell in absolute coordinates.

1/26/2008 06:32:00 PM  
Blogger NahnCee said...

Wretchard and Utopia are both laboring under the apprehension that journalists WANT to tell the truth. It's been my observation that the Christianne Amanpour's, the Dan Rather's, and the Geraldo Rivera's of the journalistic universe could care less about the truth.

A really passionate journalist will want, above all else, to find a way to blame either Israel or America for whatever happened. Lacking that, they'll go for the "if it bleeds, it leads" angle because THAT is what the editors back home will feature and THAT is what the person in the checkout line at the supermarket will hopefully notice and buy to take home to read.

If journalists had a mindset that wasn't self-aggrandizing and emotional and was logical and interesed in facts, they wouldn't be journalists. They'd be engineers or forensic pathologists.

I think the best we can hope for is the analytical analysis of the pictures once they are published back home, like what the blogosphere (and Wretchard) does routinely now. Most Americans and other regular citizens don't really care one way or the other about these details, but you know the "journalists" and their editors are keeping score, just like we on the blogosphere are.

1/26/2008 06:38:00 PM  
Blogger El Baboso said...

UP,

There have certainly been a lot of data points that show a degree of intimidation or collaboration in Muslim populations that is mind boggling to find in a non-totalitarian state.

* Some of the Pew Research Center polls that have returned 95%-plus responses one way or the other on certain questions. That kind of unanimity is virtually unknown elsewhere.

* The behavior of doctors and stringers in Iraq and Lebanon.

* The ability of Al Qaeda recruiters and cells to operate fairly openly in a number of Muslim countries and communities.

* Similar weirdness in the way that the A. Q. Khan network was able to operate with impunity (and fairly openly) across the Islamic world.

I have speculated in the past that Islam plus tribalism provides some enormous degree of social control that equals or exceeds the control of a totalitarian police state. I have noted that even those "secular" ex-muslims that I have known can be reduced to a fearful silence at the mere mention of the word "takfir." One hesitates to take this line of thinking to its logical (Western?) conclusion.

Wretchard,

Just a brainfart: Father was an informer. Father gets caught. HAMAS (or fill in the name of your favorite Palestinian organization) makes an offer: die a martyr and keep/restore your family honor or die a collaborator and your family deals with the shame for the next few generations. The usual incentives are provided: money from the martyr fund, the imam reminds him that he gets to take 70 of his friends and family with him to Al Jannah, etc. The operation is simple. On a certain date, we will conduct operations against the Israelis. You will take your family to the beach for a picnic. When the Israelis retaliate, you take the grenade and pull the pin and let the handle fly. You'll only feel a pinch.

Maybe that sounds a bit melodramatic, but given a society that can send thousands of young men and women to their deaths as suicide bombers, where families celebrate their deaths, is it really that far fetched? Plus its not like they are having a lot of success with the suicide bomber thing lately, is it?

1/26/2008 07:08:00 PM  
Blogger Hunkston said...

when a soldier is injuried in anyway when out on duty can they claim for compensation and loss of earnings? is it seen as the same as anyone else who suffers an accident at work? are they expected to be hurt due to the nature of the job or are there industrial accidents?

2/26/2008 01:21:00 AM  

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