Last month the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a report on the 1,500 Israeli air strikes on Gaza over eight days last November. During that period, 174 Palestinians were killed, more than 100 of them civilians; six Israelis, four of them civilians, were killed by Palestinian fire. The seventeen-page report summarizes the findings of a fact-finding mission on human rights abuses committed by the Israeli army and Palestinian resistance groups.
The UN mission faults Israel for failing to distinguish between military and civilian targets and for its disproportionate use of force. The report also raises concerns about Israel’s deadly targeting of media offices and workers and its destruction of medical facilities and other infrastructure.
Several incidents in which multiple members of individual families were killed by Israeli missile strikes are described in the report.
Meanwhile, Palestinian armed groups are criticized for indiscriminate rocket fire from densely-populated areas of the Gaza Strip toward civilian targets and large population centers in Israel. The report also expresses concern over the summary executions of several Palestinians alleged to have collaborated with Israeli intelligence agencies.
Rocket blamed for baby’s death
But one particular sentence of the report has generated the most attention: “On 14 November, a woman, her 11-month-old infant, and an 18-year-old adult in al-Zaitoun [a neighborhood in Gaza City] were killed by what appeared to be a Palestinian rocket that fell short of Israel.”
This refers to the well-publicized and tragic death of baby Omar Masharawi. A photograph of his anguished father holding his tiny corpse was published around the world, one of the images most strongly associated with the November attacks.
The UN report erroneously states that Omar’s mother was killed but in reality it was another female relative who was also killed in the incident.
At the time of the baby’s death, it was widely reported that the child was killed in an Israeli missile strike.
On 16 November, The Electronic Intifada ran a story titled “‘He left life so early’: Gaza family devastated by Israel’s killing of baby Omar Masharawi,” in which the survivors of the strike describe their reaction to the tremendous loss.
Now the fact that the child may not have been killed in an Israeli air strike has become the only aspect of the devastating attacks that still generates media interest.
The media watchdog group Fair.org has noted how major media outlets like The New York Times and the Associated Press have zeroed in on this one sentence of the report. According to Fair.org: “the AP article is instructive; of the report’s 18 paragraphs, 12 are about the dispute over Omar …”
Zionist groups have predictably exploited this tragedy to promote their agenda to cast doubt over media and human rights groups claims about Israel’s well-documented human rights abuses and war crimes against Palestinians living under occupation.
Challenging the veracity of the UN’s findings on the strike on the Masharawi home, a BBC report published last month states that the findings “were based on a visit to the site a month after the attack.”
The BBC adds that the strike on the Masharawi home “happened only an hour after Israel launched its operation with the killing of Hamas’s military commander,” marking the beginning of the eight-day military campaign against Gaza.
“The Israeli military made no comment at the time of the incident but never denied carrying out the strike,” according to the BBC. “Privately, military officials briefed journalists that they had been targeting a militant who was in the building.”
Meanwhile, Omar’s father, a cameraman with the BBC, rejects the UN’s findings, and says no one with the UN had spoken with him.
The BBC also states that “At the time, human rights groups blamed the deaths on an Israeli air strike.”
But human rights groups haven’t unequivocally concluded that this was the case.
The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights published a report on 22 November stating that Omar was killed when an Israeli missile struck the family home, and hasn’t published anything on the case since then. (PCHR did not reply to queries from The Electronic Intifada on the Masharawi case.) But the Gaza-based rights group Al-Mezan says that the UN report is based on its own investigation into the incident.
I spoke with Mohammed Suliman, who works with Al-Mezan, about Omar Masharawi’s case. (Disclosure: Suliman is an occasional contributor to The Electronic Intifada and has blogged for us in the past. Readers may also recognize Suliman from a viral video of an Israeli missile strike dramatically cutting him off during a debate with an Israeli in Ashkelon on CNN during the November attacks.)
The UN fact-finding mission’s conclusions were largely based on Al-Mezan’s fieldwork, though this is not mentioned in its report, Suliman said. Suliman explained to me that Al-Mezan’s fieldworker visited the Masharawi home in the wake of the strike and conducted interviews with people in the area. Its findings at the time were that baby Omar was most likely killed as a result of a Palestinian-fired rocket.
Al Mezan’s findings are based on the type of damage caused to the family home, which it says is not characteristic of an Israeli F-16, Apache helicopter or drone strike. Meanwhile, Palestinian armed groups were firing rockets towards Israel half a kilometer from the Masharawi home and Israeli strikes were targeting the sites of the rocket-launchers at the time of the incident, he said.
“Now, what happened is that during this short period of exchange of fire between Palestinian groups and Israeli war planes, Masharawi’s house was hit. So it was very ambiguous what the cause of that attack was — it could be Palestinian rocket fire or Israeli war planes,” Suliman explained.
“I understand from our fieldworker that the course or the direction of the rocket which hit Masharawi’s house [indicates] that it was Palestinian rocket fire,” in addition to the damage not being characteristic of an Israeli strike.
Al-Mezan has not yet published its findings on the deaths of Omar Masharawi and his two adult relatives, who were not included in their registry of victims of Israeli strikes.
But Suliman — whose group is working on bringing cases to Israeli courts and endeavors to hold Israeli officials accountable for war crimes — insists that the Masharawi family’s tragedy be put into proper perspective.
“Even if we could definitively prove that Omar Masharawi was killed by Palestinian rocket fire, this should not distract us from the main issue … that this is a case of military occupation and this is a case of blockade by Israel, the fourth-strongest military in the world, a nuclear power with a sizable arsenal against a nearly defenseless, unarmed civilian population,” Suliman said.
Israel had broken a months-long ceasefire with armed groups in Gaza by extrajudicially executing Hamas commander Ahmad al-Jabari on 14 November.
“What happened prior to the November assault and the reason which led up to the outbreak of the Israeli aggression against Gaza, clearly showed that it is Israel which is primarily responsible for deaths that were caused during the November assault,” Suliman explained.
“[So a few cases] where Palestinian rocket fire is blamed for the death of a few Palestinians should not distract us from the main issue — that it is Israel which is basically the root cause of this conflict, the root cause of this violence, and had Israel abided by its obligations under international humanitarian law and international human rights law, this would not have happened.
“I would blame Israel for the death of Omar Masharawi,” Suliman concluded.