In the immediate aftermath of the strike, television stations repeatedly broadcast pictures of a young Palestinian girl, overcome with grief, throwing herself on the sand just metres from where her father lay dead. Israeli leaders issued apologies.
But within 48 hours, the declarations of regret were giving way to doubts expressed by Israeli leaders over the military's culpability. By Tuesday, an Israeli army probe into the deaths was asserting that the blast on the beach was not the result of an artillery shell fired by Israel, but had been caused by an explosive device placed in the sand by Palestinian militants or "some form of unexploded ordnance." (One possibility raised was that an old Israeli shell lodged in the sand may have caused the blast..)
The head of the Israeli investigation, Maj. Gen. Meir Kalifi, said tests performed on a piece of shrapnel extracted from the body of a Palestinian girl injured in the blast, and undergoing treatment in an Israeli hospital proved that the injuries had not been caused by an Israeli shell. "The chances that artillery fire hit that area at that time are nil," Kalifi told reporters at a press conference Tuesday. Defense Minister Amir Peretz told reporters that "the intention to describe this as an Israeli event is simply not correct."
The Israeli military frequently shells areas in northern Gaza -- it has fired a total of 6,000 shells in recent months -- in an attempt to deter Palestinian militants from firing rockets into Israel. Many of the makeshift rockets, known as Qassams, have landed in the southern Israeli working class town of Sderot, where Peretz lives.
While they have not inflicted a large number of casualties, they have served as an effective psychological weapon for the Palestinians, instilling fear among residents of the town, many of who have begun directing their anger at the defense minister.
In his initial response, United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan called the findings of the Israeli probe "strange," but he later told reporters he had been responding to "speculations in the press."
Palestinian leaders have angrily rejected the military's probe, insisting that Israel is trying to escape responsibility for the killing of seven civilians. It was highly unlikely, they said, that militants would plant a bomb on a beach used by hundreds of people every weekend.
Lawmaker Saeb Erekat, a close associate of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, has called for an international investigation. "We believe that it is very disappointing that the Israelis are trying to lay the blame on us now...because this means that this crime could re-occur."
A probe conducted by the NewYork-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch contradicts the Israeli findings. Marc Garlasco, who arrived in Gaza a day after the seven civlians were killed to investigate the killings for the organization, said that Israeli shelling was "the likeliest cause" and that "all the evidence" pointed to this conclusion.
Garlasco, a former battle-damage assessment officer for the Pentagon, said that shrapnel collected from the scene, along with X-rays of Palestinians wounded in the blast, had convinced him that an Israeli 155mm shell was the cause of the explosion. He said he had also dug shrapnel out of a car parked near the site of the blast and that this was consistent with his findings.
While Human Rights Watch researchers said they could not determine "100 percent" that the blast had been caused by a shell fired by an Israeli gun, this explanation was the most plausible.
Bonnie Docherty, researcher for the group who is working with Garlasco in Gaza, told IPS that Palestinians hit in the blast sustained mostly upper body injuries. "This is consistent with a shell being fired through the air. If a dud shell that was buried in the sand had exploded, then most of the injuries would have been to the lower body."
Immediately after the Gaza beach blast, Peretz halted the artillery fire. But civilians continued to die, with nine people -- seven bystanders and two militants -- killed on Jun. 13 when an Israeli aircraft fired missiles at a van driving in Gaza. The army said Islamic Jihad men in the car were on their way to fire a rocket with an advanced range into Israel.
The first missile struck near the van, sending it crashing into the sidewalk. The second missile hit the target, but it also struck a crowd of people who had gathered at the site of the attack shortly after the first missile was fired. Two children and three medics who had rushed to the scene were among the dead.
In the aftermath of the civilian deaths, armed Palestinian groups said they were ending a 16-month-old truce and that they would resume attacks inside Israel.
Militants also continued to fire rockets into Israel, and Israeli leaders threatened to step up the military response to the rocket salvos. "If the residents of the Gaza Strip don't act and don't understand that the biggest threat to their security is the Qassam fire, then we will have to intensify our response and take steps that we have not yet taken," Justice Minister Haim Ramon of the ruling Kadima party warned Friday.
With both sides threatening to ratchet up their responses, a respite does not seem likely anytime soon for residents on either side of the Gaza-Israel border.
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June 13, 2006 (http://www.albionmonitor.com)
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