The death of seven Palestinians on a Gaza beach two days ago was clearly a tragedy. But at this point we don’t know who caused it. The Israeli Air Force initially apologized for a “mistake,” leading to worldwide condemnation led by (unsurprisingly) the French.
But let’s not move too fast.
Ha’aretz reports today that the IDF is launching an internal investigation of the matter, because some evidence indicates that the “internal Palestinian causes” may be responsible for the deaths.
“We still do not have an exact analysis of what happened there,” military sources told Haaretz on Saturday. “The most reasonable explanation that has been heard is that it was a firing of a shell which veered off its path, however all data relating to the pinpoint location of the shells’ landing are not consistent with this [theory].”
As James Fallows brilliantly documented three years ago in the Atlantic, the death of 12-year-old Mohammed al-Dura, which instantly became an iconic event in the Arab world, was most likely caused by Palestinian fire and even might have been intentionally caused for Arab propaganda purposes. In 2002, Palestinians accused the IDF of a “massacre” in Jenin–until it was discovered that only 26 civilians died there, and there was absolutely no evidence of any massacre. In fact the Israelis risked their own casualities rather than inflict too much civilian damage (no doubt in part because of the international condemnation that would have resulted if they had used bombing raids such as the US did in Afghanistan and Iraq.).
I am not saying that this possibility is correct. We just don’t know. And of course, even if the IDF investigation concludes that “internal Palestinian causes” were responsible, this conclusion itself may be propaganda. If as it turns out, this all resulted from an IDF screw-up, major operational changes are called for.
But we should not jump to conclusions here. The Hamas military wing has already announced that it will target Israeli civilians inside the Green Line in “response” to the killings, and Hamas is calling on Palestinians to boycott the PA President Mahmoud Abbas’ referendum (which I predicted a couple of days ago, before the killings). Meanwhile, the PA has refused Israeli requests for specific information concerning the Gaza killings. All of these very quick responses seem a little too convenient for me to trust any initial reports.