Early in the morning of November 22, five Palestinian children were blown to pieces by an Israeli mine or bomb as they headed to school in Khan Younis. The children were six to fourteen years-of-age, all from the Al Astel family. It is unclear if the explosion was set off by the children tripping over or kicking the device, or via remote control.
The next day, a senior Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) official was quoted on Israel Radio as saying "a big mistake was done." The officer admitted an undercover army unit planted the device "in the area," yet evaded any explanation as to why it was planted in the vicinity of a school.
Yesterday, the IDF issued its first official statement regarding the killings. An IDF investigation revealed serious flaws in the planting and operation of the ordnance. Following the usual script, the IDF feigned "sorrow over the deaths of five children." The IDF claims the device was planted in an area used by Palestinians to fire mortars at nearby Israeli colonial settlements and army positions. Israel Radio quoted IDF officials as saying the "device was meant to remain well hidden and was to be set off when the Palestinian shooters returned to the area." (quoting Ha'aretz, 11/25/01)
Israeli opposition leader MK Yossi Sarid of Meretz, responding to IDF claims that their recent operations in Khan Younis were designed to prevent Palestinian attacks, responded: "That's a targeted hit? Do you know who will pass by the area [where the bomb is planted]? It's a residential area. What kind of bombs do you place in an area where school children pass by?" (Ha'aretz, 11/24/01)
MK Ran Cohen (Meretz) has called for a Knesset committee to investigate the incident, expressing dismay that the IDF sat quietly for two days before putting out an official statement that amounts to little more than a cover-up.
MK Uri Ariel (National Union-Yisrael Beiteinu) disagreed, stating that IDF investigations take time because they are thorough. "I have faith in the IDF," he stated. "[Ariel] said that the army was is in the throes of the battle in the territories, and was busy assassinating Mahmoud Abu Hanoud [of Hamas] and so could not concentrate solely on the investigation that Cohen demanded." (Ha'aretz, 11/25/01)
In other words: we were too busy trying to assassinate a Palestinian leader to investigate our killing of Palestinian children, but now that we've taken a five-minute breather from our assassination campaign we can conclude from our thorough investigation that a regretful mistake was made. Sorry kids, we'll try to do a better job of killing the right folks next time.
The Israelis have not condemned the killings, though some officials say an apology might perhaps be in order.
According to the Palestinian Red Crescent Society, 821 Palestinians have been killed since the second Intifada erupted on September 29, 2000. 16,661 Palestinians have been injured, many maimed for life. Palestinian children under the age of 18 represent about 1/4 of those killed.
The Israeli military's killing of Palestinian children is not a sometimes accidental by-product of 34 years of occupation. It is in fact a matter of deliberate policy.
In a chilling interview conducted by Ha'aretz correspondent Amira Hass, an IDF sharpshooter admitted it was IDF policy to shoot at children above the age of 12. Here is an excerpt (AH = Hass, IS = Sharpshooter):
AH: You haven't shot children.
IS: "All the sharpshooters haven't shot children."
AH: But nonetheless there are children who were hit, wounded or killed after they were hit in the head. Unless these were mistakes.
IS: "If they were children, they were mistakes."
AH: Do they talk about this?
IS: "They talk to us about this a lot. They forbid us to shoot at children."
AH: How do they say this?
IS: "You don't shoot a child who is 12 or younger."
AH: That is, a child of 12 or older is allowed?
IS: "Twelve and up is allowed. He's not a child any more, he's already after his bar mitzvah. Something like that."
AH: Thirteen is bar mitzvah age.
IS: "Twelve and up, you're allowed to shoot. That's what they tell us."
AH: Again: Twelve and up you're allowed to shoot children.
IS: "Because this already doesn't look to me like a child by definition, even though in the United States a child can be 23."
AH: Under international law, a child is defined as someone up to the age of 18.
IS: "Up until 18 is a child?"
AH: So, according to the IDF, it is 12?
IS: "According to what the IDF says to its soldiers. I don't know if this is what the IDF says to the media."
AH: And children are from 12 down. Is there no order that between 12 and 18 you shoot at the legs and not the head?
IS: "Of course we try to see to it that he really is over 20."
AH: In the 10 seconds that you have.
IS: "In the 10 seconds that I have, I have to estimate how old he is."
AH: And in what direction the wind is blowing, and the deviation here and there, and which way he'll jump the next moment.
IS: "Yes, but there are hardly any mistakes by sharpshooters. The mistakes are made by people who aren't sharpshooters."
AH: And it turns out that they happen to hit the children's heads, and all this is just by chance?
IS: "If you say you have seen children that have been hit in the head a lot, then it is sharpshooters."
AH: So what you're saying is that our definition of children is different.
IS: "Your definition is different."
AH: Because for you it's someone who is 12.
AH: But a child of 13 doesn't bear arms, no matter what you call him, a boy or a teenager or an adult.
IS: "He isn't holding a gun but a firebomb, and in certain places it is possible also to fire on people who throw firebombs."
("Don't shoot till you can see they're over the age of 12," Ha'aretz, November 20, 2000)
In another article, Hass reported that a group of Western diplomats traveling from Jerusalem to Ramallah witnessed Israeli troops fire live ammunition at a group of stone-throwing Palestinian children, "even though the children were too far to pose a risk to the soldiers." "The diplomats say that shots were fired even though a long line of civilian cars were traveling past the children at the time." "[One of the diplomats] says that he saw a second soldier in the observation tower clapping and raising his hands as if in victory after his colleague fired at the children." ("Envoys say they saw IDF fire at children" Ha'aretz, July 26, 2001)
In a damning indictment of Israeli military criminality and pathology, former New York Times Middle East Bureau chief Chris Hedges writes:
"Yesterday at this spot the Israelis shot eight young men, six of whom were under the age of eighteen. One was twelve. This afternoon they kill an eleven-year-old boy, Ali Murad, and seriously wound four more, three of whom are under eighteen. Children have been shot in other conflicts I have covered-death squads gunned them down in El Salvador and Guatemala, mothers with infants were lined up and massacred in Algeria, and Serb snipers put children in their sights and watched them crumple onto the pavement in Sarajevo -- but I have never before watched soldiers entice children like mice into a trap and murder them for sport." (“Gaza Diary: Scenes From the Palestinian Uprising,” Harpers, October 2001)
In a report released last week, B'Tselem, the leading Israeli human rights organization, blasted what it called a "shallow and superficial" Israeli army investigation into the shooting death of an eleven-year-old Palestinian boy, Khalil al-Mughrabi.
On July 7, Khalil and twenty to thirty other children played soccer in the Yubneh Refugee Camp, in Rafah, near the Egyptian border. After they finished playing, the children sat on some mounds of sand near the border fence. Suddenly, Khalil's head burst into parts from a bullet fired by an Israeli soldier in a nearby observation post. The soldiers proceeded to unleash "intense fire" on the other children. Ibrahim Abu Susin, 10, and Suleiman Abu Rijal, 12, were badly wounded.
"An eleven-year-old child was killed and two children were injured for no reason. However, the army failed to open any investigation against the soldiers responsible, even though all the army officials involved in the review of the incident clearly knew that the soldiers had used lethal weapons when their lives were not in jeopardy and had violated army regulations."
B'Tselem notes that despite the deaths of hundreds of Palestinian civilians since the Intifada broke out, "the Military Police only opened some twenty investigation files relating to the illegal use of weapons. In none of the cases were indictments filed." The report goes on to say that,
"Over the years, B'Tselem has received hundreds of letters from the Judge Advocate General's office regarding events in which Palestinians were killed, injured, or beaten by soldiers. In some of the cases, Military Police investigations were opened, and in some, the Judge Advocate General's office only conducted an internal investigation. Most of the replies that B'Tselem received state that the soldiers acted properly and that no action was taken against the soldiers involved." ("Whitewash: The Office of the Judge Advocate General's Examination of the Death of Khalil al-Mughrabi, 11, on 7 July 2001," B,Tselem, 11/13/01)
Given the well known history of the Israeli military's farcical self "investigations," don't hold your breath for an honest accounting of the killing of the five children in Khan Younis.
The message Israeli troops receive from the lack of serious investigation into and punishment for military criminality is clear: you can murder civilians -- even little children -- for no reason at all, and you can do it with impunity.
True to form, the US has also refused to condemn its client's murderous actions.
US State Department spokesman Philip Reeker expressed "regret" over the latest killing of Palestinian children, saying the incident served as a "strong reminder" of the consequences of the ongoing violence. "The United States deeply regrets the tragic accidental deaths of five Palestinian children . . . when they came in contact with unexploded ordnance. It was a terrible tragedy. We understand that the Israeli army has begun an investigation into the circumstances of these deaths and we expect that investigation will thoroughly determine what happened. This incident... is a strong reminder of why both sides should do all they can to end the violence, reduce tensions and resume negotiations," he added.
And so it goes, the children of Palestine suffer, the occupation continues, Israeli state terrorism accelerates and the best that the Palestinians can expect from the US by way of Colin Powell is a PR performance that does nothing in substance to pressure our Israeli client from desisting. Instead, the US puts the burden of responsibility for "ending the violence" squarely on the Palestinians, while calling for an end to the Intifada, an uprising (however flawed) that is both a reaction to Israel's brutal occupation and the Palestinian Authority's corruption, incompetence and selling out of the cause.
To steal a quip from Palestinian writer Sam Bahour, US statements are "equivalent to that of a policeman walking past a rape victim, still pinned under her assailant, and verbally scolding both parties by advising them to work out their differences."
Israel has little to fear that its continuing rampages through the occupied Palestinian territories and the latest incident of child killings will jeopardize the staggering $3-5 billion of military and economic "aid" it receives from the US annually. Nor should Israel fear that America's vaunted "War on Terror" will extend to them. It's simply a matter of whose side you are on.
Our tax dollars at work as they say. And still we wonder why the US is the object of anger and resentment to many around the world.
Given the overwhelming US military, economic and diplomatic support for Israel, the moral imperative is on us to end our government's decisive role in Israel's ongoing colonial conquest and occupation of Palestinian lands and its people.