By Lasse J. Schmidt
It has been my personal experience that the Israeli military is willing to go far to maintain the illusion of its soldiers’ innocence – even when these have just killed and injured civilians. Actually, I have come to believe that there is an automatic response system in place in the Israeli military, which is activated whenever Israeli soldiers are involved in the killing or injury of civilians. Most often it is set in motion long before any investigation has been conducted and, in all its simplicity, its only objective is to make official and unambiguous statements maintaining that the Israeli soldiers in question were only returning enemy fire and that militants are to be blamed for all civilian casualties.
This might seem like crazy conspiracy theory, but my allegations here are grounded in facts and personal experiences. They are based on official statements by the Israeli military from when I was injured by Israeli bullets in Jenin in April 2003. And from the day after, when my American colleague Brian Avery was near-fatally injured in the face by an Israeli machine gun bullet. And from five days later, when our British colleague Tom Hurndall was fatally injured by an Israeli sniper. And from four weeks later, when the British filmmaker James Miller was killed by an Israeli bullet through the neck.
Therefore, it appeared to me as business as usual when the Israeli military Tuesday put the blamed Hamas for 43 civilians killed and 100 injured at a United Nations school in Gaza.
When being bombed by Israeli forces, the al-Fakhora school in Gaza served as shelter for 1,674 civilians. Of the 43 people killed, ten were children and five women. Most of the victims had sought shelter at the U.N. school as a result of Israeli soldiers forcing them to leave their homes in other areas of the Gaza Strip. The U.N. had been careful informing the Israeli military of the locations of all its buildings in the Gaza Strip and of which of them were being used as shelter for civilians.
“We provided the GPS coordinates to the Israeli military and updated them regularly,” said John Ging, director of operations in Gaza for the UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for the Near East, which operates the al-Fakhora school.
While U.N. is calling for an independent investigation of the incident, the Israeli military already on Tuesday said it had finalized an initial inquiry into the incident. According to the U.N., three missiles hit the school compound (from Israeli tanks or airplanes). According to the Israeli military, one tank shell hit the school playground.
Explaining the attack, the Israeli military claimed that two known Hamas fighters had fired mortars at Israeli positions from the playground inside the school compound. Therefore, Israeli soldiers returned fire with a single shell, purposely killing the two Hamas fighters. According to the Israeli military, the civilian casualties were caused not by this single shell but by the fact that Hamas had booby-trapped the school. Allegedly, the single Israeli shell triggered these explosives, which then again caused the tragic – and to the Israeli soldiers, completely unexpected – turn of events.
However, U.N. representatives are consistently maintaining that there were no Hamas fighters inside the school compound. According to the New York Times, residents in the neighborhood said two brothers known to be Hamas fighters were in the area at the time of the attack. But, the residents said, the mortar fire did not come from the school or its compound, but from elsewhere in the neighborhood.
“I am very confident that there were no militants in that school. It is fully controlled. We very carefully vet [check] anybody seeking shelter in our locations,” John Ging said.
Tuesday’s reaction by the Israeli military – blaming it all on militant Palestinians – reminds me of my own experiences in the spring of 2003. I was a human rights worker in the West Bank with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) and one of my responsibilities was to defy curfews imposed by the Israeli military. The objective was to alleviate civilian suffering and ultimately try to prevent Israeli soldiers from injuring or killing innocent civilians when the military invaded the city.
It was on one of these days of complete curfew that I sustained my first and only injury during my 15 months of living and working in the West Bank. It was Friday, April 4.
With a couple of colleagues from Sweden, I was upholding a presence on a main street in Jenin, where stone-throwing Palestinian youth were clashing with two armored Israeli armored personnel carriers (APCs). It is our experience that Israeli soldiers are less trigger-happy when internationals are present, which means less injured and dead Palestinian children and young people.
Standing in close proximity to a small group of stone-throwing children, I was making myself clearly visible to the Israeli soldiers in the two APCs driving aggressively up and down the main street. As often before, it was not clear to me whether the Israeli soldiers were trying to scare off the stone throwing crowd or trying to pick a fight.
At one point, an APC stopped right in front of the small group of youth and me. It then shot a short burst of four to five bullets from a heavy machine gun. The bullets hit a stonewall three meters to my right. My back and the backside of my legs were showered with little pieces of stone from the wall and little pieces of metal from the bullets (shrapnel).
In all honesty, it was a very modest injury that only deserves to be mentioned here because of what followed. On my left shoulder, I sustained a tiny wound hardly causing me any pain or bleeding and on the backside of my left thigh, I sustained a wound causing me a bit of pain and some bleeding. I never sought medical attention and never officially informed anyone about the incident.
The following day, Saturday, April 5, the town was still under total curfew. Another of my responsibilities was to keep track of injuries and deaths and report these to my organization and the outside world. Therefore, I made my way to the hospital in the morning to inquire about any casualties. Here, I ran into a Palestinian reporter for the French news agency, APF. We exchanged stories and at one point during the conversation, as a funny side note, I told him about my tiny little injury from the day before.
An hour or so later, I was shocked to learn that the APF had sent out a news telegram telling of a Danish peace activist in Jenin injured by Israeli fire that same morning. Maybe he got the day wrong or maybe he just changed it to make the story more newsworthy. I quickly called up my mother back in Denmark, ensuring her that I was safe and that the injury was insignificant.
A few hours later, I was in disbelief once again when the Israeli military responded to the AFP news story by sending out a press release on the incident. Here, the military acknowledged that a Danish citizen had been injured in Jenin that morning – Saturday, April 5 – but it maintained that he had been caught in cross fire between Palestinian militants and Israeli soldiers and most likely was hit by a Palestinian bullet.
I could not help but laugh. By responded to a highly inaccurate news story, the Israeli military had commented on and described in detail an incident that had not taken place.
Later that same day, Saturday, April 5, the news agencies got something very real to write about. My American friend and colleague, Brian Avery, was near-fatally injured when hit in the face by a bullet from an Israeli machine gun. I was an eyewitness to the incident, and the burst of 20-25 bullets from the Israeli APC came without warning in a situation that appeared completely safe. There were no Palestinians in the area, just us six internationals, standing still with our hands in the air. Also, only one gun fired and that was the Israeli machine gun.
At first the Israeli military were silent about the incident. Then, as the media picked up the story, a press release was sent out, stating that Brian Avery had been caught in cross fire between Palestinian militants and Israeli soldiers and most likely was hit by a Palestinian bullet. As the years have progressed, the military has changed its official account of the shooting a couple of times. At one point, it claimed to have no knowledge of the incident. Today, nearly six years later, the Israeli military does not really know which story to tell. Brian Avery recently received a compensation of US$ 150,000 from the State of Israel, who however still officially claims that there is no proof that Brian Avery was hit by an Israeli bullet.
Five days after the shooting of Brian Avery, on April 10, 2003, the British human rights worker and photojournalist, Tom Hurndall, was shot through the brain in Gaza. He died after ten months in a coma. Initially, the military sent out a press release saying that he had been caught in cross fire between Palestinian militants and Israeli soldiers and most likely was hit by a Palestinian bullet. Later on, the military maintained that Hurndall had been dressed in camouflage clothing, shooting at an Israeli watchtower. Finally, an Israeli military sniper admitted to having shot Hurndall. In accordance with the many civilian eyewitnesses to the shooting, the sniper explained that Hurndall had been helping little Palestinian children escape the line of fire coming from that same tower, and that Hurndall had been dressed in civilian clothing and a bright orange safety jacket.
Just four weeks after the shooting of Brian Avery, the award winning British cameraman, James Miller, was shot in the neck while walking with his film crew towards an Israeli APC at night. At first, the military explained that Miller he had been caught in cross fire between Palestinian militants and Israeli soldiers and most likely was hit by a Palestinian bullet. This is clearly contradicted by video footage of the crew approaching the APC. Here, it is evident that the night was calm and quiet besides from three shots, all fired from the APC.
In April 2006, an official British inquest jury in London held legal hearings on both the Miller and the Hurndall shooting. After listening to eyewitnesses and military experts and seeing photo and video evidence, the verdicts were clear: Tom Hurndall was “intentionally killed” and James Miller was “murdered” by Israeli soldiers.
I suppose we will never really know why the al-Fakhora school was bombed, leaving 43 civilians dead and 100 injured. I am convinced that Israel will never allow an independent investigation into the incident and that the USA will support this dishonourable effort – just as these two countries did with the proposed investigation into Israel’s invasion of the Jenin refugee camp in April 2002 (where some 65 Palestinians were killed and 3500 lost their homes).
Consequently, we will be left with drawing our own conclusions. Residing in California, I of course cannot say what happened – and why. However, I can say that I am not considering the official statements by the Israeli military when trying to make sense of the events.
-Lasse Jeppesen Schmidt earned his BA in journalism and MA in Peace and Conflict Studies. He lived and worked a year-and-a-half in the occupied Palestinian territories. He first visited Palestine as a volunteer human rights activist for the International Solidarity Movement (ISM). He visited last in September 2007, when called by the military police investigators to give testimony in the Avery shooting. He is a native of Denmark, but currently residing in the U.S. with his American wife and their son. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.