An Israeli platoon commander accused of firing a full clip of ammunition into the body of a Palestinian schoolgirl after she was lying on the ground dead or wounded has been suspended from duty pending investigation, the military said Wednesday.
The case is unusual in that soldiers under the officer’s command helped spur an army probe by providing detailed accounts to Israeli media.
The 13-year-old Palestinian, Iman Hamss, was fired on by soldiers Oct. 5 as she walked near an army outpost near Rafah, at the southern tip of the Gaza Strip. Her family said she was on her way to school. She was wearing her uniform and carrying a knapsack filled with books.
At the time of the incident, the army said the girl had deviated from the route toward her school and entered a so-called sterile area surrounding the outpost. It said soldiers feared that the knapsack might contain explosives. It did not.
The Israeli military’s rules of engagement in Gaza permit soldiers to shoot any Palestinian who strays into areas close to army outposts, Jewish settlements and the border fence surrounding Gaza, if the troops suspect hostile intentions.
In and of itself, the death would have been unlikely to prompt an inquiry. But the case caused an outcry when soldiers told Israeli journalists that after the girl had been wounded, perhaps mortally, the commander approached her and “verified the kill” -- army parlance for firing at close range at downed combatants to make sure they are incapacitated or dead.
“We were in shock -- we grabbed our heads in disbelief. We couldn’t believe what he was doing,” a soldier who was present told the Yediot Aharonot newspaper this week, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Just a little girl -- how do you spray a child with bullets from zero range?”
The girl was shot about 20 times, Palestinian medical officials and Israeli military sources said.
Before detailed accounts of the killing emerged, the army’s chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon, told the Cabinet that the girl had almost certainly been sent by Palestinian snipers to try to draw the soldiers from their outpost. Senior officers subsequently distanced themselves from that account, saying a full investigation was needed.
Col. Eyal Eisenberg, commander of the Givati Brigade, told Army Radio on Wednesday that the platoon leader, who has not been publicly identified, had been suspended while the investigation was taking place. The colonel pledged that there would be no “whitewash” and that all the army’s findings would be disclosed in full.
Separately from the army’s probe, Israel’s judge advocate general, Brig. Gen. Avi Mandelblit, on Tuesday ordered a criminal investigation by military police.
Criminal investigations of Israeli soldiers for actions against Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are rare, and prosecution still rarer. The military traditionally vests field commanders with broad discretionary powers when it comes to responding to potential threats.
Moreover, the army is a much-trusted institution among Israelis, in part because of the universality of military service. Nearly all young men and women are drafted. Men continue to do reserve duty, often in combat units, well into their 40s.
The case was given added impetus by the shooting Tuesday of another Palestinian student as she sat at her desk in a United Nations-run school in the Khan Yunis refugee camp in southern Gaza. Ghadeer Jaber Mokheimer, 11, died of her wounds Wednesday, the second such fatality inside a U.N. school in a month.
The army acknowledged firing shots in the area at the time, but said it was responding to mortar fire from near the school.
More than 100 Palestinians have been killed in a large-scale military operation in the northern Gaza Strip meant to prevent Palestinian militants from firing crude homemade rockets at Israeli towns near the Gaza border. The two sides dispute the breakdown of combatant and civilian casualties, with Israel saying that nearly all the dead were fighters. Palestinians and human rights groups say nearly 20 children were among those slain.
The Israeli incursion began two weeks ago Wednesday, and Eisenberg, the Givati commander, said it would end only after it had achieved its goal of quelling the rocket fire. Israel sent more than 2,000 troops and 200 armored vehicles into a swath of northern Gaza after two Israeli toddlers in the Negev desert town of Sderot were killed Sept. 29 in a rocket attack.
Israeli troops enlarged their zone of operations in northern Gaza on Wednesday, moving into the agricultural village of Beit Lahiya. Three Palestinians, identified by both sides as militants, were killed in the latest fighting. Seven other Palestinians were wounded. Hospital officials said the injured included four children.
The heavy Israeli troop presence has not been able to halt firings of the Kassam rockets altogether; two more projectiles were launched Wednesday from northern Gaza. But for the first time, a new early-warning system in Sderot gave residents about half a minute’s notice, broadcast over a public-address system, to take cover.
The rockets fell harmlessly in a field.
While recent Israeli military activity has been concentrated in Gaza, troops in the southern West Bank city of Hebron on Wednesday achieved what they described as a significant success by capturing 31-year-old Palestinian Imad Kawasme, said by Israel to be the head of the local cell of the Hamas militant group and the mastermind of an Aug. 31 double bus bombing that killed 16 Israelis in the southern Israeli town of Beersheba.
Members of the Kawasme clan have carried out more than half a dozen suicide bombings, and the Hebron cell of Hamas has been particularly difficult for Israeli intelligence to crack because it is drawn almost entirely from that extended family.