UN report finds errant Palestinian fire responsible for child’s death during Gaza fighting, but parent and human rights group maintains Israel is responsible

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Jihad al-Misharawi carrying his son’s body at a Gaza hospital. (Photo: AP)

The U.N. Human Rights Council has issued a report on the November 2012 Israeli attack on Gaza (you can read a PDF of the report here). Although the 17-page report excoriates both Israel and Palestinian forces for numerous violations of international law during the fighting, the headline from the report has been a finding that BBC employee Omar al-Masharawi’s 11-month-old son Omar was most likely killed by an errant Palestinian missile rather than Israeli fire. Masharawi’s grieving photo was one of the most indelible images of the fighting and the story behind the photo is becoming another battle over the narrative of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

From the report (p. 14):

By 19 November, according to IDF sources, at least 99 rockets fired between 14 and 19 November from within the Gaza Strip had landed in Gaza. On 14 November, a woman, her 11-month-old infant, and an 18-year-old adult in Al-Zaitoun were killed by what appeared to be a Palestinian rocket that fell short of Israel. In addition, OHCHR received reports related to an incident in which two civilians, including a child, were killed, and five persons, including three children, were injured, as a result of what appeared to be a Palestinian rocket that fell short and hit a house in Al-Quds Street, near Khilla Gas Station, Jabalya, on 16 November. For its part, Izz Al-Din Al-Qassam Brigades underlined the limited military arsenal of Palestinian armed groups as a reason for failing to precisely attack military targets. Yet the military capacity of the conflicting parties is irrelevant to the duty, under international humanitarian law, of these parties to take all feasible measures to avoid loss among civilians and damage to civilian property.

Although UN officials say they were unable to “unequivocally conclude” Palestinian fire was the cause of the child’s death, and the Israeli government has yet to comment, Israel supporters have taken to social media claiming Israel is absolved in the child’s death. In addition, several writers have called for retractions of previous reporting but al-Masharawi himself refutes the UN report calling it “rubbish.” In a BBC story al-Masharawi says UN investigators never spoke with him and that Palestinian militant groups will usually apologize in cases where they are responsible:

Omar was killed, along with an aunt and an uncle, after a missile hit the family home in Gaza City.

It happened only an hour after Israel launched its operation with the killing of Hamas’s military commander.

The family, and human rights groups, said that the house was hit in an Israeli attack.

The Israeli military made no comment at the time of the incident but never denied carrying out the strike.

Privately, military officials briefed journalists that they had been targeting a militant who was in the building.

Now, though, the United Nations says the house may have been hit by a Palestinian rocket that fell short.

This is despite the fact that the Israeli military had reported no rockets being fired out of Gaza so soon after the start of the conflict.

UN officials visited the house four weeks after the strike.

They said they did not carry out a forensic investigation, but said their team did not think the damage was consistent with an Israeli air strike.

However, the UN said it could not “unequivocally conclude” it was a misfired Palestinian rocket.

A UN official said it was also possible the house was hit by a secondary explosion after an Israeli air strike on Palestinian weapons stores.

Jehad Mashhrawi dismissed the UN findings as “rubbish”.

He said nobody from the United Nations had spoken to him, and said Palestinian militant groups would usually apologise to the family if they had been responsible.

An Israeli military spokesman said he could not comment on the accuracy of the UN’s findings but said it would not be the first time a Palestinian rocket had misfired.

He said that, in the intense first hours of the conflict, it was not always clear what was happening.

A Los Angeles Times report is also dubious of the findings citing other errors:

A March 6 report from the U.N. Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights said the three were killed “by what appeared to be a Palestinian rocket that fell short of Israel.”

It offered no details about how it reached the conclusion. Hamas officials and family members had previously dismissed the possibility that a Palestinian rocket had misfired.

The report also mistakenly identified one of the victims as the baby’s mother. She was not harmed in the incident.

The Associated Press gives more background on the UN investigation, and says the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, which has criticized Palestinian militant groups in the past, rejects the UN findings based on its own investigation:

Matthias Behnke, head of OHCHR office for the Palestinian territories, cautioned he couldn’t “unequivocally conclude” that the death was caused by an errantly fired Palestinian rocket. He said information gathered from eyewitnesses led them to report that “it appeared to be attributable to a Palestinian rocket.”

He said Palestinian militants were firing rockets at Israel not far from the al-Masharawi home. Behnke said the area was targeted by Israeli airstrikes, but the salvo that hit the al-Masharawi home was “markedly different.”

He said there was no significant damage to the house, unusual for an Israeli strike. He said witnesses reported that a fireball struck the roof of the house, suggesting it was a part of a homemade rocket. Behnke said the type of injuries sustained by al-Masharawi family members were consistent with rocket shrapnel.

The Gaza-based Palestinian Center for Human Rights said it still held Israel responsible for Omar’s death.

The PCHR has condemned Hamas fighters and other militants in the past for errantly-fired rockets that have killed Palestinians, including during the November clash.

A researcher said the group interviewed family members, neighbors and security officials before they concluded that an Israeli strike killed the baby. She requested anonymity because she wasn’t authorized to speak to reporters.

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