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Gaza Beach Incident 2006
 Reliance on eyewitnesses with little credibility and contradictory accounts publicized with certainty by HRW “military expert” Marc Garlasco

On Friday June 9, 2006, in the midst of ongoing rocket attacks against Israel and the IDF’s artillery responses in the area, eight Palestinian civilians were reported killed in disputed circumstances by an explosion on a Gaza beach.62   Palestinian allegations, based in part on video footage that included some crude fabrications and unverified eyewitness claims (Palestinian Media Watch June 12, 2006),63  brought global condemnation of Israel’s “massacre.”  A few days later, on June 12, Human Rights Watch’s “senior military analyst” Marc Garlasco held a press conference.  He alleged that Israel was indeed responsible and echoed the Palestinian call for an “independent international investigation.” His statement included unverified claims and “forensic evidence” provided by Palestinian “security officers”.64  This was the beginning of HRW’s campaign, which gave international legitimacy to unverifiable Palestinian claims, focused on the alleged Palestinian victims and erased the broader context of ongoing rocket attacks.

On June 13, HRW published a lengthy news release headlined “Israel: Investigate Gaza Beach Killings Artillery Strike Probably Killed Palestinian Family”. The condemnatory text echoed Garlasco’s indictment and repeated the claim that the evidence “overwhelmingly supports the allegations that the civilians were killed by artillery shells fired by the IDF” (HRW News Release June 13, 2006).  This statement cited the claims of “Palestinian security officials” while ignoring evidence that shrapnel removed from the injured, who had been brought to Israeli hospitals, did not come from an Israeli shell (Rettig 2006).65

The press release had the façade of a technical analysis with reference to the use of GPS readings and other details meant to convey the impression of military expertise, but that are largely irrelevant.  HRW researchers, presumably Garlasco, claimed to have found “a large piece of unoxidized jagged shrapnel, stamped ‘155mm,’ which would be consistent with an artillery shell fired by the IDF’s M-109 Self-Propelled Artillery.” There is no mention of the possibility that Palestinians may have moved such an item so that it could be “found” for this purpose. The statement also referred to a “Palestinian explosive ordnance disposal unit who investigated three craters on the beach,” quoting claims by “General Salah Abu ‘Azzo, head of the Palestinian unit” to have found fragments consistent with 155mm artillery shells.

Consistent with many other HRW reports on Israel, the statement demanded “an independent,  impartial investigation” that “involve the use of external, international experts,” and condemned Israeli investigations. The text also invoked the rhetoric of international law, implying that Israel failed to “distinguish between soldiers and civilians, targeting only the former.” The statement used legal terms such as “indiscriminate” and “disproportionate attacks in which the civilian harm outweighs military necessity.”  In the context of the Gaza Beach events, as in many similar cases, HRW officials and “researchers” clearly possessed neither the factual nor military information necessary to make such judgments.66

Then, on June 16, Garlasco gave an interview to The Guardian (UK), claiming (McGreal 2006):

You have the crater size, the shrapnel, the types of injuries, their location on the bodies. That all points to a shell dropping from the sky, not explosives under the sand…I’ve been to hospital and seen the injuries. The doctors say they are primarily to the head and torso. That is consistent with a shell exploding above the ground, not a mine under it.

Maj.-Gen. Meir Klifi of the IDF, who headed the investigation into the incident, directly challenged Garlasco’s evidence (Katz and Keinon 2006), including the claim at his press conference that he found shrapnel from an IDF 155mm shell, 200 meters from site of the explosion that killed the family.  Klifi responded that the IDF had indeed fired a shell at a target 200 meters from the site – there had been ongoing Palestinian attacks launched from the area –which explained the shrapnel nearby, but not at the place of the alleged explosion.

On June 19, Garlasco finally held a three hour meeting with Maj.-Gen. Klifi. In comments reported by journalists, Garlasco reportedly admitted that he could not contradict the findings of the Israeli enquiry (Katz and Siegel-Itzkovich 2006), and changed a number of his previous allegations:

“We came to an agreement with General Klifi that the most likely cause [of the blast] was unexploded Israeli ordnance,” Garlasco told the Jerusalem Post following the meeting.”67

This plausible – but not definitive – explanation contradicted all of Garlasco’s and HRW’s previous assertions about injuries and crater size as indicators that the explosive charge came from the air.  The June 13 press release quotes two Palestinians who “heard the sound of an incoming projectile and saw a blur of motion in the sky before the explosion that killed the seven civilians.” In the attempt to provide artificial credibility, HRW claimed that “[r]esidents of northern Gaza are familiar with the sounds of regular artillery fire.”

Garlasco also reportedly reversed his view of the IDF’s investigation. According to the Jerusalem Post (Katz and Siegel-Itzkovich 2006):

Garlasco told Klifi during the meeting that he was impressed with the IDF’s system of checks and balances concerning its artillery fire in the Gaza Strip and unlike Hamas which specifically targeted civilians in its rocket attacks, the Israelis, he said, invested a great amount of resources and efforts not to harm innocent civilians.

Lucy Mair – head of the HRW’s Jerusalem office – said Klifi’s team had conducted a thorough and professional investigation of the incident and made “a good assessment” when ruling out the possibility that an errant IDF shell had killed the seven Palestinians on the Gaza beach.”

However, a further HRW press release was published on June 21, which contradicted these admissions and repeated the standard call for an independent investigation.  HRW again criticized the IDF for not including evidence gathered by the Palestinians in its investigation, ignoring serious credibility problems and past examples of deliberate tampering (Katz and Siegel-Itzkovich 2006; see also NGO Monitor Report July 28, 2008).68   The internal dynamics of HRW that produced these reversals are unclear.  Ultimately Lucy Mair decided to assert the impossibility of the task itself, stating: “This Israeli military investigation is incapable of uncovering the truth.”69

The many discrepancies should have led Garlasco to apologize, withdraw his claims, admit that he had been misled by Palestinian officials, and that his technical capabilities are limited. But Garlasco ignored the clear holes in his analysis, persisted with this campaign, and relied on his title as HRW’s “military expert,” which was repeated extensively in the international press (BBC News June 14, 2006; see also Macintyre June 14, 2006; see also USA Today June 14, 2006). HRW marketed Garlasco as the neutral expert alternative to the IDF by publishing press releases (HRW News Release June 13, 2006; see also HRW News Release June 14, 2006; see also HRW News Release June 1, 2006)70  which continually dismissed the Israeli account.

Similarly, the speed at which Garlasco and HRW reported “facts” based only on Palestinian claims and pseudo-technical analysis reflects a highly irresponsible and unreliable approach in the context of the confusion of a war zone in which there is a long history of false claims used for propaganda purposes. While Garlasco appears to be acting out of concern for and sympathy with the Palestinian victims, he expresses this by targeting Israeli military officials with false allegations of indiscriminate attacks, deliberate targeting of civilians, disproportionate force, and wholesale violations of international law.