Soldier may face charges over Gaza killings

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The Israeli military is considering indicting a soldier for killing two Palestinian women in what would be the first prosecution in connection with hundreds of civilian deaths during its 2008-09 offensive in Gaza.

The move, 18 months after the end of Operation Cast Lead, follows a military police investigation into the shooting of Majda Abu Hajaj – said by several witnesses to have been carrying a white flag at the time – and her mother Raya. The Independent on Sunday was the first media outlet to report on the shootings after interviewing witnesses in Juhr al Dik, the village south of Gaza City where the incident occurred.

So far only two indictments have arisen from Israel's three-week military offensive: one for theft and illegal use of a credit card; the other for overstepping authority when soldiers ordered a Palestinian child to open suspicious bags for them. The soldier involved in the Juhr al Dik incident, who is from the Givati Brigade, has been formally summoned by Brigadier General Avichai Mendelblit, the military advocate general of the Israel Defence Forces, to a hearing before a decision on an indictment – probably for manslaughter – is taken.

The shootings took place on 4 January 2009, the first day of Israel's ground offensive. Numerous witnesses have testified that the two slain women were among a group of some 30 residents, including young children, who were fired on as they tried to flee a house where they had been taking shelter. Their bodies could not be recovered until 19 January.

The Israeli human rights agency B'Tselem, which pressed hard for the investigation into this incident, said yesterday it was not yet known whether the advocate general's office intended to take action against the commanders involved. B'Tselem said it had called for "the responsibility of the command echelon" to be investigated.

Witnesses told The Independent on Sunday at the time that a shell had landed at the house of the civilian Abu Hajaj family, injuring 12-year-old Manar Abu Hajaj, and that ambulances had not been able to reach the area because of tanks. The family had then fled and taken shelter with their neighbour, Mohammed al-Safadi. Mr al-Safadi said that the Israeli military broke into radio broadcasts to tell those in border areas to leave their homes. His son Ahmed, 23, and Majda Abu Hajaj, 35, tied white flags to sticks and were leading the group out when the shooting began. Majda fell dead, apparently shot in the back as the group ran away, and her mother was also shot, dying of her wounds soon afterwards.

The Israeli military said yesterday that "in accordance with standard procedure, the soldier was informed of his right to request a hearing before a decision is rendered". It added: "Since no decision has yet been taken, we cannot provide additional information at the present time."