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Israeli Inquiry Into Gaza Attack Focuses on Footage

Video of missile strikes that caused scores of bystander casualties is inconclusive.

October 24, 2003|Megan K. Stack | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — Moments before an Israeli helicopter fired the second of two missiles into the street of a Gaza refugee camp this week, a group of people dashed into a nearby alley toward the strike, according to grainy, bird's-eye footage made public by the military.

Israel is investigating whether the proximity of the small crowd is a factor in the number of bystander casualties -- eight were killed and 70 injured -- during the attack on the Nusseirat refugee camp, the bloodiest of five air assaults Monday. The video offers the most plausible explanation yet for the toll that roiled Israeli society and raised Palestinian cries for revenge.

It was a warm autumn night on a densely populated street of rundown apartment houses and shops when the Israeli gunship hovering over a car fired two missiles. The military said two fleeing Hamas militants were inside the vehicle.

Neighbors flocked to the scene after the first explosion, Palestinian witnesses and officials said, only to come under fire when the second missile hit. Israel flatly rejected their story, insisting that the pilot didn't fire into a crowd.

The video doesn't wholly contradict either claim. The street near the car looks almost empty during both strikes. But the footage shows that, after the first missile hammered the road, neighbors poured into the alley. It looks as if they were moving toward the scene when the second missile was fired.

The people look smaller than bugs and cars resemble tiny matchboxes in the blurred footage, which was recorded by an overhead drone. It is impossible to tell whether people were sitting on stoops and beneath awnings and overhangs along the roadway, as would be customary for the evening hours. It is also difficult to tell whether there were people in the street at the end of the block.

The army released a shorter version of the tape the day after the airstrike and made the full recording available to reporters Wednesday.

"It was a technical mistake," Israeli army spokeswoman Sharon Feingold said. "We didn't do it on purpose."

"We never said, 'It's not true that these people were killed.' We never said that," army spokesman Jacob Dallal said. "We just said, 'Try to understand how it played out in the eyes of the pilot.' "

Violence in the volatile Gaza Strip continued early today when a Palestinian gunman pushed into the Jewish settlement of Netzarim and opened fire. Two Israeli women and a man were killed in the dawn shootings; two more Israelis were wounded.

The gunman was shot dead on the spot, and soldiers were searching to see whether there was a second attacker. Further details were being kept secret by the military in the hours immediately after the attack in Netzarim, home to both soldiers and settlers.

The missile strike in Nusseirat began after two Hamas militants dropped off two of their colleagues at the fence dividing the Gaza Strip from Israel, military sources said. The pair crossed into Israel, where they planned to carry out a suicide bomb attack, the army said. Instead, they were shot dead by Israeli soldiers.

The helicopter chased after the two militants in the car, caught up with them in the refugee camp and fired on them.

Military sources theorized that the car might have contained leftover explosives or ball bearings that blew up when the second missile struck. That would explain the severity of the injuries and the claims by some witnesses that a third missile was fired, they said.

"If you look at the collateral damage inflicted by type of missile used, it still doesn't explain how the people in the alley were injured," Feingold said.

But no evidence was given to back up the theory, and nothing was left of the car but a few twisted chunks of metal.

Feingold said Israel killed 12 Palestinians in Gaza on Monday. Some Palestinian sources had said that a total of 14 Palestinians were killed, counting the two men who were shot after crossing into Israel.

Palestinians said the would-be bombers were members of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, not Hamas. Thirteen of the wounded were in serious condition, Associated Press reported. The dead included a young boy and a 29-year-old doctor.

"We are not all militants here," said Jihad Hamed, a doctor at the municipal clinic up the block from the missile strikes at Nusseirat. "We need a cease-fire."

In another reminder of languishing peace talks, Israel issued building tenders for more than 300 new homes in two West Bank settlements Thursday. Under the stalled "road map" peace plan, the Jewish state is obliged to freeze all construction in the settlements, which occupy land where Palestinians hope to build their state.

The Jewish neighborhoods flourishing in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are one of the most painful thorns between the two sides. In spite of international disapproval and its obligations to the U.S.-backed peace initiative, Israel has continued to expand existing settlements and to build new outposts this year.

Meanwhile, two Palestinian men suspected of spying on fellow Palestinians for Israel were marched to a square in the West Bank refugee camp of Tulkarm and shot dead while dozens of people watched Thursday.

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