An Israeli sniper implicated in the shooting deaths of two unarmed Palestinian women waving a white flag during the 2008-2009 invasion of Gaza will be jailed for just 45 days after reaching a plea deal with a military court.
The sniper, identified only as ‘Staff Sergeant S,’ was initially charged with manslaughter for the January 4, 2009 shooting deaths of 64-year-old Riyeh Abu Hajaj and her 37-year-old daughter Majda Abu Hajaj. But under the terms of the plea deal, the charge against him was reduced from manslaughter to using a weapon illegally.
“Following a mediation process and upon examination of the evidence with the recommendation of the military court, both sides have reached a plea bargain in which the indictment will be adjusted, and he will be convicted of using a weapon illegally,” a statement from the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) read.
According to the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, the two Abu Hajaj women were shot dead after they fled their home after it was hit by a tank shell during Israel’s 2008-2009 ‘Operation Cast Lead’ invasion of Gaza. The two woman, along with some children, were outside their tank-blasted home when “they saw tanks about 150 meters (492 feet) from them,” B’Tselem says. “Two of them waved the (white) flags, and the children in the group sat on the ground.”
“Suddenly, and without warning, shots were fired at the residents, killing Majda Abu Hajaj on the spot. Her mother, Riyeh Abu Hajaj, was severely wounded by the gunfire.” She later died from her injuries.
Such atrocities were not uncommon during ‘Cast Lead,’ a punitive war launched in retaliation for Palestinian rocket attacks against Israel. Thousands of rockets were fired by militants resisting Israeli occupation, resulting in 15 Israeli deaths in 2008. Israel’s invasion of Gaza, slammed by international observers as grossly disproportionate, killed 1,417 Gazans. Of these, 926 were innocent civilians, including 429 women and children.
Whole families were wiped out. Samera Baalusha’s five daughters were killed by an Israeli missile. A dozen members of the Daya family, including seven children ages one to 12 died in an airstrike on their home. Three of Dr. Izz el-Deen Aboul Aish’s daughters were blown to bits by an Israeli tank shell. The Israeli government called their deaths “reasonable.”
During Cast Lead, Israeli troops indiscriminately shot Palestinian children, bulldozed a home with a woman and a child still inside and ordered civilians into a building before shelling it. On one occasion, a sniper ordered a mother and her two children out of their home and told them to move to the right. When, in their confusion, they instead moved left, they were all shot dead.
“That’s the beauty of Gaza,” one IDF soldier boasted to the Times of London. “You see a man walking, he doesn’t have to have a weapon, and you can shoot him.”
IDF troops also used Palestinian children as human shields to check for booby traps. The Israeli government denied this was taking place, but soldiers who participated told very different stories.
“To ask a combat soldier who served in the occupied territories if they used Palestinians as human shields is like to ask do you drink coffee in the morning,” IDF veteran Yehuda Shaul frankly admitted. In one case, IDF troops forced a nine-year-old boy to check a bag for explosives. The child later said he thought the Israelis would kill him and that he was so terrified that he wet his pants. The soldiers involved were charged and convicted— not of war crimes, but of “unauthorized conduct” and “exceeding their authority”– and walked out of the courtroom free men.
The IDF dismissed dozens of other alleged war crimes and atrocities committed by its troops during ‘Cast Lead’ because “according to the rules of warfare, no faults were found in the forces’ actions.”
But the United Nations found otherwise, concluding that both Israeli forces and Palestinian militants, namely Hamas, committed war crimes. Both sides dismissed the UN’s findings, and its now-infamous Goldstone report has been partially discredited. While there is no doubt that Israeli forces deliberately targeted and killed innocent civilians, this was not a matter of official policy, as the report had initially claimed.