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Shir Hever discusses the Intercept report, revealing that the Israeli military used an armed drone to kill four children playing football and injure four others. The Israeli investigation of the killing is exposed as a sham

Story Transcript

While the interview was recorded, Israeli authorities announced the result of a separate internal military investigation conducted regarding the killing of 135 Palestinians in Rafah, Gaza, on August 1st, 2014.

MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. Good to have you with us.

New information sheds light on one of the most brutal and most memorable events of the Israeli 2014 summer invasion of Gaza, which was called by the Israeli government Operation Protective Edge. Over 2000 Palestinians, most of them civilians, were killed in that attack. But it’s difficult to imagine such a large number, sometimes. And human beings quickly turn into statistics. When a group of boys age 10 and 11 were playing on the beach of Gaza in July 2014 and Israeli missiles started firing on them, killing four and injuring four more, it was a painful reminder that no one in Gaza was safe from indiscriminate Israeli violence. The names of the boys were Ismail, Ahed, Zakariya and Muhammad, all part of the Bakr family.

This week, the Intercept’s Robert Mackey exposed leaked documents from the internal Israeli investigation following the killing. It reveals that the boys were killed by an armed Israeli drone. One boy killed directly; the other three tried to flee for cover, and were killed by a second missile which was fired 30 seconds later, chasing them as they fled.

Here to discuss these new findings is Shir Hever. Shir Hever is a Real News correspondent in Heidelberg, Germany. His recent book The Privatization of Israeli Security was published by Pluto Press in 2017, which we recently talked about here on The Real News with him. And Shir, welcome. Good to have you back.

SHIR HEVER: Thanks, Marc, for having me.

MARC STEINER: Shir, take us back to that time in July 2014 to refresh our viewers’ memories about that moment, the attack in Gaza, and what exactly happened- what we thought happened that day, when the four young boys were killed on the beach in Gaza.

SHIR HEVER: This is a truly harrowing story, and it’s very hard for me to get it out of my mind what exactly happened in those few seconds. Because I think those boys were playing football on the beach. And in the middle of the day, broad daylight. And suddenly there was an explosion, and one of these boys is killed. And I think that you or I, anyone who had a normal childhood, who would experience a situation like this might be frozen in terror. But these boys they already grew up under military Israeli occupation in the besieged Gaza Strip. They knew what missiles are, and they knew that they had to run for cover. And they responded immediately in a way that normal children would probably not respond. But nevertheless, the Israeli drone operators have chased them with a camera. And just before they were able to reach cover and leave the open beach area they shot another missile which exploded, killed three more boys, and injured four others.

Up until now it was believed that these two missiles were actually artillery shells fired from an Israeli warship, or warboat, patrolling the coast of Gaza, possibly because the attacks seemed to have come from the direction of the sea, and it was on the beach. But now thanks to the Intercept report by Robert Mackey, we know that it was actually an armed drone.

MARC STEINER: So what do we also know about what happened right after that? I mean, the Israeli government made some pronouncements, but they, the major general, Efroni I believe his name was, is, who was the adjutant general in Israel, was supposed to investigate this. But what happened then is not exactly the reality of what we’re finding out today.

SHIR HEVER: Yeah. One of the things about this beach that was attacked is that it was nearby several hotels where journalists were staying, international journalists. And these international journalists just could open the window and take pictures of the bombings, of the killed children. As I said, they were killed in broad daylight. And it is very clear from these pictures that were immediately published that those were young children. Of course they were not armed, or anything. It’s very clear to anyone watching these pictures. And one has to wonder about the Israeli narrative, the Israeli excuse, where they said it was not clear and that the Israeli forces thought they were actually Hamas operatives and they were armed. Maybe that football that they were playing with was actually a bomb or something, where they could have said that. Any simple camera of the journalists revealed that this was not the case.

Nevertheless, the Israeli government announced, the military announced, that they’re going to conduct an internal investigation. And this internal investigation was concluded after one year without pressing any charges. And the names of all the soldiers which were involved in this massacre were never released, and the Israeli military decided to close the case. And this is actually what happened. Now, four years later, we can see some of those documents from the internal Israeli investigation that was conducted by the Israeli military police.

And we have to remember one very important thing. In the last 20, possibly 30 years of Israeli occupation of Palestine, whether in the Gaza Strip or the West Bank, or anywhere else, no Israeli soldier was ever charged, let alone convicted, with murder. That charge simply cannot happen for any Israeli soldier killing a Palestinian. But in this case of the four boys playing football, they were not even charged with manslaughter, or with criminal negligence.

MARC STEINER: There’s a couple of questions here. I mean, and the visuals that our viewers are watching right now and have seen, they’re horrendous and they’re heartbreaking. I really want to focus here in on- I mean, this is a horrible human tragedy. What I, what I want to focus on here is what this really means. Let’s take it bit by bit. I mean, first of all, the fact that these young boys were probably killed by these drones that were being run by the Israeli army, the Israeli military. It’s complicated for Israel to have this revealed because of the nature, not just of the technology, but where the technology comes from and the agreement Israel has with the countries. Could you probe that a bit, that was also in this piece in the Intercept?

SHIR HEVER: Yes. Well, I think that, that is actually something that is a bit missing from the Intercept piece, to talk about the military technology side of things. Because these drones are not just random drones. We can be almost certain that these were Heron drones, which were produced by the Israeli company Israeli Aerospace Industries. And they were equipped with optical systems which are almost undoubtedly created by and produced by the Israeli company Elbit Systems. Elbit Systems and Israeli Aerospace Industries both are the two largest arms companies in Israel. And they provide weapons for the Israeli military.

And during this operation, during the invasion of Gaza, these two companies were constantly hammering the message, our technology is being used by the Israeli army right now. They were using videos from the attack on Gaza to promote their weapons. And the interesting thing is that what the Intercept is revealing inadvertently ruins the marketing of these two companies. Because nobody is questioning the ability of the Israeli military to kill children, and the capacity to use enough firepower to kill unarmed children is not really the selling point of these very weapons. The selling point should be and is the accuracy. The Israeli government and the Israeli army constantly boast that they are more accurate than other armies, that the Israeli military companies are able to provide them with very accurate and discriminate weapons, and they only target the actual people that they want to kill.

Now, putting aside the question whether Israel and the Israeli government has the right to execute anyone that they deem to be a terrorist without a trial, and to kill people just because they consider them to be Hamas operatives without any due process; putting that point aside. Of course, of course I think it’s clear that they don’t have that right. Nevertheless, in this case of killing four boys ages 9 to 12, then it’s clear that that was also not their intention. And in broad daylight, apparently the Israeli drones are not really able to discern shapes and figures, and the drone operators didn’t care enough to verify who they’re shooting at. And the drone operators decided to just open fire, apparently. And this is also something you can see in the Intercept report; they decided to shoot the second missile without getting confirmation from their own commanders. So they were operating under their own initiative.

And in this situation in any normal army you would expect some kind of accountability process where the soldiers were acting on their own volition. But no, in the Israeli army that does not exist. Israeli soldiers are never held accountable for using excessive violence against civilians. And in this case they didn’t care that the drone is not capable of really providing enough information to make a decision whether to open fire or not. They just opened fire.

And the reason this is so important is because Israel is one of the largest drone exporters in the world. Both of these companies, Israeli Aerospace Industries and Elbit systems, sell these drones all over the world. They sell them to countries like Germany, like the United States, Canada, Brazil, Poland, and many more. And the customers of these drones are expected to believe, we’re told, that the Israeli drones are superior and are able to discern the targets, and so on. But we see that this is actually a lie. And in fact, the drone operators, I don’t think that they intentionally were looking to kill 10-year-old boys. I think that they just didn’t care enough, and they wanted to kill Palestinians. And they, they didn’t care for the fact, about the fact that their optical systems are not as advertised.

MARC STEINER: So in the beginning when this happened, I mean, you, you paint a picture that is very complex, and one that almost cries out at the very least for what was said at the very beginning when this happened in 2014, and seeing whether or not somebody should be held accountable at the very least for criminal negligence in the Israeli army. So what does that mean? Let’s explore that a minute. I mean, that’s clearly not going to happen. This has come out. So what do you think the fallout will be internally inside of Israel, and what do you think the fallout could be internationally? Especially with their agreements to buy arms and their agreements to build drones.

SHIR HEVER: Well, there is a legal issue here. And the legal issue is about the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, which operates according to the Rome Convention. And the Palestinian state has signed the Rome Convention, which means that the Gaza Strip falls under the jurisdiction. Israel didn’t. The state of Israel did not sign this convention. But it doesn’t matter when Israeli soldiers are killing Palestinians in Palestine, or in the area that is recognized as part of the state of Palestine, such as the Gaza Strip.

So this means the International Criminal Court is not able to just start investigation whenever they want. As a requirement, the accused party or the suspect, in this case the state of Israel, has to refuse to conduct its own investigation. If there is an internal investigation process, the International Criminal Court does not have jurisdiction. And in the Israeli invasion of 2008-2009 in the winter which was known as Cast Lead, and 1400 Palestinians were killed by the Israeli military, the Israeli military said we see no reason to conduct an investigation. There will not be an investigation.

And because of that, the Human Rights Commission of the United Nations decided to conduct their own investigation. And back then, by the way, the Palestinians were still not signed to the Rome Convention. So this was the initiative of the Human Rights Commission of the UN. And they found- this was the famous Goldstone report, a 600 page report with a lot of data in it, a lot of facts, and it concluded that the Israeli army conducted crimes against humanity in the Gaza Strip in 2008-2009. This had a lot of repercussions on the Israeli economy, on the Israeli political standing, on the international boycott movement against Israel.

And seeing that the Palestinians have signed the Rome Convention, in 2014, the Israeli invasion against Gaza, they were a bit more careful. They killed more Palestinians in the end. They killed over 2000. But they then said we are going to conduct an investigation, an internal investigation, in order to see, to show that no crimes have been committed, and soldiers that have acted not according to their orders would be held accountable and will be prosecuted. Now, the Intercept is revealing that this investigation was a sham. There wasn’t a real investigation. And even if the facts showed very clearly that the soldiers were not following orders and killed children when they had every reason to believe that they were children, and every means at their disposal to check, and they still killed them, and there still was no charges pressed, and decided to close the investigation. So in fact, this proves that there is no internal investigation process. And that means that now Palestinians can take the state of Israel to court and conduct further investigations.

And I think this has also a lot of political repercussions. Both the United States and Israel withdrew this year from the UN Human Rights Commission in protest for its so-called pro-Palestinian bias, which is not true. But now that the Human Rights Commission can also know that their reluctance to conduct further investigations after this famous Goldstone report that was published in 2010, the reluctance to keep on investigating Israeli violations of international law did not prevent the U.S. and Israel from leaving. And now they know that the violation of international law continues. So I’m hoping that the U.N. Human Rights Commission will now resume its responsibilities and conduct further investigations.

MARC STEINER: So very quickly here, as we wind the conversation down, when you read the report on the Intercept about what they found was a leaked document from the, from the Israeli investigation. So I’m asking that because it seems like there was an investigation internally. It just didn’t amount-. It just wasn’t made public, and nobody acted on what they found inside the report about culpability in killing these four boys on the, on the beach. A, so comment to that. And B, does the Bakr family, since a lot of people in America are watching us right now, do they have any- can they do anything to find compensation for the death of their children? And finally, again, I think this will heighten the discussions in the internal politics of the United States around the future of Israel and Palestine, and what government policy should be, at least within the Democratic Party. I think you’ll see that happening. But let me, let me take those first two pieces, and see what you think as we conclude.

SHIR HEVER: Yeah. OK. Well, that’s a lot to address. But I think really that my main criticism of the Intercept report focuses on the first paragraph. In the first paragraph it says that there was a series of tragic events leading to a mistake that ended in the airstrike. And I think that is a very wrong way to put this, because nobody has ever claimed that the killing of the children was not a mistake. The question was what was the level of culpability on the Israeli soldiers that decided to use lethal force against civilians. And, and maybe they thought that they were attacking Hamas operatives. Even if they did, that doesn’t mean that they were allowed to do so. But, but in the end they ended up killing children. And I think this is what the Intercept report really reveals, that the first paragraph is kind of burying the lede.

And so the report does reveal that yes, they knew exactly that these soldiers acted in a criminal manner, and decided not to press charges and not to pursue the matter. Which means yes, there was an investigation, an internal investigation. As soon as they discovered incriminating evidence they decided to drop it. And legally, this means- so yes, the Bakr family, they are represented by an organization, an Israeli organization called Adalah, which is an organization for legal rights of Palestinians. It’s an NGO operating inside Israel under Israeli law, and I think Adalah is a very courageous organization, and they are very tenacious in their ability, in their attempt to provide justice for Palestinians. But at the same time, in the Israeli legal system this is simply not possible. The Israeli legal system is biased against Palestinians, and the new Law of the Nation that was just passed last month certainly cements that fact even more, so that even if they wanted, Israeli judges cannot really rule against the Israeli military when Palestinians make an appeal, except in very extreme cases.

And the Bakr family has no chance in the Israeli courts. This means they have to appeal to international jurisdiction through international courts. And this is why the International Criminal Court in the Hague should play a role, and the U.N. should play a role. And I think also the U.S. should play a role. And we should also remember that during this attack of 2014, the U.S. did play a role. President Obama at the time, who was a very strong supporter of the Israeli government and the Israeli policies, realized that the state of Israel is using U.S.-made weapons in Gaza against civilians, and he ordered stopping a shipment of Hellfire missiles to the Israeli military, because he was aware that these missiles are used in Gaza as, at the time. And he stopped that shipment, trying to minimize the level of culpability of the United States in the Israeli war crimes. I think it was too little too late, of course, to do it then. And as soon as the attack ended, the United States resumed shipping weapons to an Israeli military nevertheless.

But it does show that there is some level of awareness on the American side to what’s happening. And of course that awareness also means that the United States will also have to face some kind of accountability for supporting Israeli violence against Palestinian civilians.

MARC STEINER: Well, Shir Hever, it’s always a pleasure to talk with you. We really enjoy your work here, and thank you so much for what you’ve shared with us today.

SHIR HEVER: Thank you.

MARC STEINER: And I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Thank you for watching. We’ll be talking together soon. Take care.

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Dr. Shir Hever grew up in Israel and now lives in Germany. He has been reporting on Israel/Palestine stories for 16 years, and for the Real News specifically since 2016. He’s the author of two books and many articles, and is a committed member of several Palestine solidarity groups.