A rare glimpse of the Israeli military while it targeted and killed a Palestinian child in a restricted area in the Gaza Strip is touching off anger, embarrassing the army, and reinforcing questions about military practices in the occupied territories.
After four years of fighting, shocking incidents on both sides have lost their shock value. But this time, what might otherwise have been a mere statistic in the death toll is erupting into a fiasco, including a call by a leading military analyst for the ouster of the army chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon, for allegedly playing a role in whitewashing the incident.
The killing of Iman al-Homs, 13, was graphically brought into living rooms Tuesday night on Israel's Channel Two television, complete with a recording of internal communications as a group of soldiers identified her as a child, shot her, and their commanding officer "verified" her killing with more shots. Iman, a short, slight girl wearing a school uniform and carrying a schoolbag, had entered an off-limits area and was spotted about 100 yards away from an Israeli position during the Oct. 5 incident in Rafah, Gaza Strip.
After the "verification," the company commander, identified only as Captain R., sums up by telling his soldiers: "Anyone that moves in the zone, even if it is a 3-year-old boy, should be killed."
What started out as a controversy over whether or not Captain R. emptied his magazine into Iman after her death, as some of his soldiers charge, has now taken on wider significance and raised troubling questions about the moral standards of the Israeli military, say critics. While the army is saying the incident is "exceptional," critics say it reflects norms in which killing of Palestinian noncombatants is accepted and not seriously investigated.
"Disregard for human life and being trigger-happy is not exceptional at all," says Nimrod Amzalak, a staffer at B'tselem, an Israeli human rights organization. "The exceptional part here is that it was documented."
Army spokeswoman Maj. Sharon Finegold says the incident "does not reflect the norms, values, and conduct of Israel Defense Force soldiers." She adds that it took place "during combat activities in the most violent place during the past four years." Major Finegold says: "The soldiers felt they were under immediate threat. We still don't have an answer as to what the girl was doing there."
She says that in some instances, Palestinian fighters have used children as decoys to distract the Israeli army and in other cases to test how close one can get to a position without being shot. Finegold dismisses the charge of laxity about civilian deaths. "Every death of an innocent is investigated, and unethical behavior is punished," she says.
The controversy is erupting just a week after an Israeli tank killed three Egyptian policemen on the Egyptian side of Rafah, with the army saying they were mistaken for Palestinian fighters.
Among the questions analysts say are raised by the recording: Why did soldiers, after identifying Iman as a child, shoot her or not object to her being shot? Why was she shot at such a great distance? Why did General Yaalon endorse a flawed investigation that exonerated Captain R., and what does that imply about other investigations he says he personally conducts when civilians are killed?
At one point in the recording, after establishing that Iman is "a girl about 10 years old," the lookout soldier says: "She is behind the trench, and she is scared to death. The [bullet] hits were right next to her, centimeters away."
Another soldier then describes how "our forces are attacking her" and the lookout says: "One of the positions has taken her down."
Captain R. says: "We operated on her. Yes, it seems she has been hit." Captain R. later adds that he "verified" the killing.
Captain R. was indicted on Tuesday in a military court for "illegal use of weaponry" after complaints by soldiers about his behavior published in a newspaper triggered a military police probe separate from that of Yaalon. The charge sheet alleges that R. approached Iman, who had already been struck by gunfire, and fired two bullets into her. Then he switched his gun to automatic and emptied his clip into her, it says. R's lawyer says he is innocent.
But the episode is not just about R., but about the Israeli army as a whole, wrote analyst Ofer Shelah in Yediot Ahronot, a newspaper.
"The Israel Defense Forces are revealed in this story as a group of defeated gangsters in the field and as whitewashers and tricksters in the [army headquarters]," he wrote. "The commanders, from the company commander who emptied his magazine into the girl's body to the chief of staff who endorsed an investigation that said the company commander 'did not discern who was shooting at him and therefore fired on the ground,' are not worthy of continuing in their jobs."
Menachem Klein, a political scientist at Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv, says of the soldiers' communications during the incident: "This is the banality of a war crime. They know she is a girl, but they assassinate her. It's very banal, very dry, like they are talking about a tank. They identify the target, but they don't acknowledge the individual, they don't see the face. These are automatons."
Yaalon Wednesday conceded that the investigation he had overseen "was a grave failure in arriving at the full truth," but he rejected calls to place some army investigations into the hands of civilian bodies.
He added in remarks quoted by Y-net news service that the killing of Iman involves "failures in values."
"I don't think we should exaggerate the problem," he added. "It exists, but we know how to handle it."