Israeli military inquiry clears soldiers of killing 21

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The Independent Online

The Israeli military has decided not to prosecute anyone involved in the artillery shelling which killed 21 Palestinian civilians in the northern Gaza town of Beit Hanoun in November 2006.

The Israel Defense Forces announced last night that there was "no need" for a military police investigation demanded by human rights groups after an internal inquiry had found the shelling was wrongly targeted because of an "extremely rare malfunction" in the artillery control system.

The artillery attack killed at least 13 members of the same Athamneh family, many as they tried to flee into the street after the first shell struck their house. Witnesses at the time said the attack had lasted for many minutes and involved a series of up to 12 shells.

The military said that the system failure had caused incorrect range findings which led "unknowingly, to fire at a different target than planned initially".

The military advocate general, Brigadier General Avichai Mendlblit, had decided that those involved in the incident "were not substantially or severely negligent" in a manner that would justify legal action.

The statement said that the army had intended to fire at an area near the town from which Qassam rockets had been fired before and that there was "credible" intelligence that it would be used again for rocket launches. Instead two residential buildings had been hit. The military said it had implemented "lessons and conclusions in order to prevent such an event from recurring".

The Israeli human rights organisation Btselem said last night that the conclusions "should not serve as an excuse for Israel to relinquish responsibility" for the Palestinian deaths and demanded compensation for the victims.

Btselem also questioned whether the investigation conformed to the legal requirements for it to be "independent, effective, open to review and timely".

Some Palestinians in Gaza expressed incredulity at the time, given the proximity of Beit Hanoun to the border, that Israeli forces were unable to see physically where the initial shell or shells had landed in time to halt the salvo.

The military said last night a "barrage" had been fired and "it was not just one shell that could be stopped."

The then defence minister, Amir Peretz, ordered a halt to the use of artillery in Gaza after the incident – an order which the military said was still in force.