KR Washington Bureau
By Dion Nissenbaum
Knight Ridder Newspapers
BEIT LAHIYA, Gaza Strip - Two weeks after an explosion on a Gaza Strip beach killed eight picnickers and turned images of an 11-year-old Palestinian wailing over her dead father into an icon of the Arab-Israeli conflict, new evidence is raising questions about the Israeli version of what took place.
The Israeli military cleared itself of responsibility for the deaths, saying that whatever exploded on the beach June 9 wasn't an errant shell fired by Israeli soldiers during a barrage of the waterfront. Based on video clips from one of its ships, Israel concluded that the explosion came at least 10 minutes after the military had stopped shelling.
But medical logs, cell phone records and other evidence reviewed by Knight Ridder suggest that the explosion took place during the barrage and probably was due to an artillery round.
According to phone records and ambulance logs, the first emergency call for help at the beach came at 4:40 p.m., while the shelling was going on and about 20 minutes before Israel contends the blast hit the Palestinians.
Defense analysts and human rights advocates say a large piece of shrapnel that a Palestinian family says hit their son that afternoon came from the same type of artillery shells that Israel uses, though Israel disputes that.
Doubts about the military investigation have sparked calls from human rights groups and the Palestinian Authority for an independent examination, something Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has suggested is unnecessary.
"This Israeli military investigation is incapable of uncovering the truth," said Lucy Mair, an Israel-based researcher for the group Human Rights Watch.
If no one had been at the beach to capture the explosion's aftermath, the incident might have passed quickly with a few Palestinian condemnations and a brisk Israeli retort.
But a cameraman caught 11-year-old Huda Ghaliya sobbing over the body of her father. The unsettling images, broadcast around the world, transformed the attack into an international drama.
Those images have become a potent symbol in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that could embolden Palestinian resistance and erode international support for Israel. That makes assigning blame even more important for both sides.
Israel is still looking into the explosion, but is standing by its conclusion: No Israeli shell fired that Friday hit the beachgoers.
"We don't know what caused it, but we know what didn't cause it: It wasn't any artillery fired that day," Israel Defense Forces spokesman Jacob Dallal said. "We want to know what happened. It's a serious and tragic event."
The time the explosion occurred is central to the dispute.
Israel acknowledges that it fired eight artillery shells at the Gaza coastline between 4:25 p.m. and 4:55 p.m. Six of those were 155 mm rounds fired by an artillery unit about five miles away in Israel. The first and eighth rounds were fired by a naval vessel offshore.
Israeli investigators contend that the deadly explosion happened at least 10 minutes after the last round. Their main evidence is two videotapes taken from a naval ship off the coast.
The first video was taken between 4:54 and 4:57. It shows a near-empty beach and no clear signs of medical crews treating wounded Palestinians. The second, taken at 5:15, shows ambulances arriving, leading the Israeli investigators to conclude that the blast took place in that 18-minute gap.
But eyewitnesses, computerized cell-phone records, hospital logs and an internal United Nations report contradict that claim.
A U.N. spotter in northern Gaza radioed his Gaza City headquarters at 4:33 p.m. to say the Israeli military had resumed its attack and that there were reports of massive casualties at the beach. The U.N. report on the incident hasn't been made public, according to a diplomat who asked not to be identified because of the incident's sensitivity.
Seven minutes later, according to the Palestinian cell-phone company Jawwal, someone used a cellular phone to dial the local emergency number to report casualties at the beach. The report was passed to the Palestine Red Crescent Society, which noted the cell phone number in its logbook. Jawwal confirmed the call's time at Knight Ridder's request.
The first Red Crescent workers on the scene told Knight Ridder that an artillery explosion rattled their ambulance as they rushed to get six victims to a hospital.
Handwritten records at Kamal Odwan Hospital - at least 10 minutes from the beach - show that the first victims were admitted at 5:05 p.m. A computerized blood test for one of the survivors was conducted at 5:12 p.m. (The record is dated 4:12 p.m. because the machine was never changed for Daylight Saving Time.)
There are also questions about Israel's claim that the deaths couldn't have been caused by an artillery round fired that day.
Using radar images taken between 4 and 5 that afternoon, Israel says it knows within 30 yards where seven of the eight shells that were fired landed.
The shell Israel can't account for was fired at 4:30 by the artillery battery in Israel. Israel says the next three shells hit 600 yards north of the fatal blast site. Since all four shells had the same coordinates, the chances that the first one would veer off course and hit the beachgoers are "one in a billion," IDF spokesman Dallal said.
Palestinians who were on the beach that day said the rounds landed much closer to civilians than Israel would like the world to think.
Said Abu Rabia was on the beach with 14 members of his family around 4:30 when a shell hit about 200 yards from where they were sitting, he said. He and his family ran toward the parking area where Huda Ghaliya and her family were waiting for their car.
As Rabia and his family were leaving the beach, he said, he heard the whistle of another shell, which exploded in front of him and created a cloud of smoke. When it cleared, Rabia said, he could see the Ghaliya family - about 15 yards away - decimated by the blast. Two of his own sons were hit by shrapnel.
At Kamal Odwan Hospital, Rabia said, doctors pulled a thick, inch-long piece of metal from his 19-year-old son's stomach. Rabia keeps the chunk of metal in a bloodied piece of gauze as a reminder.
The jagged piece of metal has easily recognizable numbers from 90 to 100 that resemble a rotary combination lock on a safe. A military analyst who looked at photographs of the object for Knight Ridder identified it as part of the fuse of an artillery round.
Marc Garlasco, a former Pentagon analyst and current Human Rights Watch researcher who saw the shrapnel, came to the same conclusion.
But Israel said it had analyzed two quarter-inch pieces of shrapnel recovered from victims treated in Israel and that neither came from a 155 mm shell.
Even if an Israeli shell had caused the blast, the military contends, it wasn't a shell fired that day. Dallal said it could have been a defective shell buried in the sand that someone in the family triggered accidentally, or even a booby trap that Palestinian militants had planted.
Any investigation is hampered by the region's political realities. Israel's military has no access to the blast site, the victims, evidence that the Palestinian bomb squad collected or any records in the Gaza Strip.
Human Rights Watch offered to provide the Israeli military with shrapnel it pulled from a car that had been hit by the blast, but investigators refused, Garlasco said.
"An investigation that refuses to look at contradictory evidence can hardly be considered credible," he said. "The IDF's partisan approach highlights the need for an independent, international investigation."