By Laura Zuber
Impunity Watch Senior Desk Officer, Middle East
BEIT HANOUN, Gaza – On April 28, four young children and their mother were killed during an Israeli incursion into northern Gaza. Palestinian medics identified the dead children as sisters Rudina and Hana Abu Maateq, aged six and three; and their brothers, Saleh, four, and Mousad, 15 months. Their mother, Meissar, died later of wounds she sustained. In addition, two older siblings sustained serious injuries.
Responsibility for the deaths is unclear, and Israeli and Palestinian officials each blame the other. Palestinian sources say that the family was killed by shrapnel resulting from Israeli missiles which landed at their door. While Israeli Defense Force (IDF) sources say the deaths were caused when explosives, carried by two nearby militants, blew up.
On April 29, IDF officials promised that a full investigation will be conducted into the cause of the explosion. “Due to the sensitivity of the matter and the complexity of the battle … additional inquiries are to be carried out,” it said in a statement.
According preliminary findings by the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, around 8:15am, the Israeli Air Force (IAF) fired a missile, targeting a group of militants. The missile landed 10 meters away from the Meatak home, seriously injuring a militant. Less than a minute later, two more missiles were fired at the same location, landing at the door of the house and killing one militant.
“The shrapnel destroyed the door of the house and flew inside, where Meissar Abu Maateq, 40, and her six children were eating breakfast just two meters from the door,” the organization said in a statement.
B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights group, began conducting its own investigation shortly after the incident. B’Tselem spokeswoman Sarit Michaeli, said that they have no “concrete, clear proof of anything,” but that its preliminary findings are similar to the military’s.
“There was a group of militants near the house and the drone fired a missile at them. They were carrying bags that probably had grenades in them,” Michaeli said, adding that no one was killed in the first strike. “A minute later a second missile was fired at one of the men about a meter (yard) and a half outside the front door of the Abu Maateq house,” killing Ibrahim Hajuj, a Palestinian militant.
“The debate turns on whether he was carrying a bag that somehow caused a larger secondary explosion or whether the missile itself killed the four children and their mother,” she said.
According to a military spokeswoman, IDF “targeted from the air two Palestinian gunmen who were approaching the soldiers while carrying large bags on their backs. A big explosion erupted on the scene… indicating the presence of bombs and explosives in the gunmen’s bags… As a result of this big explosion, extensive damage was caused to a house that was near the gunmen and uninvolved civilians were hit.”
Contrary to B’Tselem’s preliminary findings and IDF statements, Palestinian residents claim that no militants were killed during the attack. The children’s father, who was close to the house and witnessed the explosion, told Al Jazeera there was no fighting in the area. “I did not see any fighters, there were no fighters around here … no fighting, neither from the Arabs or the Israelis,” he said.
On April 29, Israeli Prime Minister Olmert expressed regret over the killings. “The state of Israel and the government of Israel are deeply sorry when any civilian or non-combatant is hurt, particularly with regard to the mother and four of her children, who were killed,” Olmert told his cabinet at its weekly meeting. But he laid the blame on Hamas for allowing militants to operate within residential areas and “turning the civilian population in Gaza into an indivisible part of its war.”
PM Olmert also discussed a possible truce or ceasefire with Hamas. On April 25, Hamas proposed a six-month “period of quiet” in Gaza, which it said could then be extended to the West Bank. Under terms of the Egypt-backed proposal, the militant group would stop its rocket attacks on Israel for six months, while Israel would open Gaza’s border crossings and cease military operations in the territory.
Israel dismissed the truce offer, saying Hamas would use the lull to re-group and re-arm its militants. At the same time, Israel promised to hold fire if Hamas and smaller Gaza militant groups halt their attacks.
However, following the Israeli incursion into Beit Hanoun, militants fired 11 rockets and nine mortars from Gaza. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak scoffed at talk of truce efforts. “I think now we’re in a showdown with Hamas,” Barak told reporters. “That’s a more apt description than a possible cease-fire.”
For more information, please see:
AFP – Israel, Right Groups Probe Blast that Killed Gaza Family – 29 April 2008
Al Jazeera – Israel to Examine Gaza Child Deaths – 29 April 2008
Ha’aretz – PM Voices ‘Deep Remorse’ for Gaza Deaths, But Says Hamas put Victims at Risk – 29 April 2008
(The) Independent – Israeli Attack Kills Palestinian Mother and Four Children – 29 April 2008
International Herald Tribune – Official: 30 Representatives of Palestinian Factions Meet in Egypt to Discuss Truce, Unity – 29 April 2008
International Herald Tribune – Olmert Blames Hamas for Civilian Deaths in Gaza– 29 April 2008
BBC – Family Killed During Raid in Gaza – 28 April 2008
Voice of America – Hamas Chief Awaits Israeli Response on Gaza Cease-Fire – 27 April 2008