One of the most high-profile criminal cases from Operation Cast Lead came to end on Sunday as a Jaffa military court approved a plea bargain reached between the prosecution and Staff Sgt. S., a Givati Brigade soldier who was indicted in 2010 for opening fire against protocol and shooting a 64-year-old Palestinian woman and her 35-year-old daughter to death.
The plea bargain included reducing the charges against the former soldier from manslaughter to illegal use of firearms. S. received a reduced sentence of 45 days in prison after pleading guilty.
- Soldier to be indicted for Gaza deaths
- Soldier may be charged with manslaughter
UN probe: Evidence of war crimes in Gaza conflict
The incident was majorly addressed in the UN's investigation into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Gaza, which was led by former South African judge Richard Goldstone. The UN's findings, which were later on retracted by Goldstone himself, concluded that "Israel committed actions amounting to war crimes, possibly crimes against humanity," and used the said case to emphasize their findings.
In the incident, which took place on January 4, 2009 near Gaza City, Staff Sgt. S. and a group of soldiers from his brigade were staying in a fortified complex. At one point, they noticed a group of civilians and prepared for the possibility that combatants may be traveling among them.
Gaza family with white flag (Photo: AFP)
According to a local testimony, the group was made up of 31 Palestinians, 21 of whom were children, who prepared white flags out of ripped sheets. The group moved into the area after they received instructions to evacuate their homes.
At this point, Staff Sgt. S. opened fire at them, wounding two of the Palestinians – Majda Abu Hajaj, 35, who died on the spot, and her mother Raya Salama Abu Hajaj, 64, who sustained serious injuries and died shortly after.
S. apparently fired at the mother and daughter without receiving any instructions to do so. An officer was by his side during the incident. At no time was an order given to open fire, according to the investigation.
However, the debriefing that followed the incident, did not note that the group was carrying white flags. The IDF characterized the incident as "problematic," and S. left his position in the battalion and the brigade.
'I want to go back to my normal life' (Photo: Moti Kimhi)
According to additional testimonies, including some that appeared in the Goldstone Report, the victims were part of the group of people waving a white flag.
After these testimonies were received, dozens of IDF officers and soldiers were questioned about other serious cases. S. was questioned by the military police in 2010, and appeared to explain the incident as a "threatening situation endangering the lives of the soldiers," though he said he initially fired at the victims' lower body. The shots were fired from an M-16 rifle. There were also tanks in the area, so it was not clear initially whether the shots were from a tank or from soldiers.
The new indictment filed against S. stated that the distance between S. and the group of Palestinians who were approaching the soldiers and did not stop following a warning shot, was 250-300 meters.
Despite the apparent discrepancies in the case, after a thorough investigation it was decided to charge S. with manslaughter.
IDF sources stated that S. clearly acted against orders, but said that the count of manslaughter in the original indictment was unfair. They further said that the prosecution is trying to make an example out of S.
'Apparent difference between original indictment and current one' (Photo: Moti Kimhi)
Following the hearing, S. told Ynet that he was sorry for what had happened. "I want to go back to my normal life. I want to study and travel like all of my friends did."
"I joined the army in order to serve my country. There was no proof that I had killed anyone but it wasn't easy walking around with that heavy baggage for nearly three years," he added.
"I always believed I would be found innocent," he said adding that "I feel like I'm one of the Goldstone Report's victims."
Captain Bella Gachat of the prosecution said that it was difficult to show a circumstantial link between the incident and the victims' death. There were inconsistencies in the investigation that could not be presented in court.
After the plea bargain was reached, S.'s attorney told Ynet that "There is an apparent difference between the original indictment and the current one. The defendant received early warning that a terrorist was amongst the group of civilians. He fired at the victims' lower body and then fired at their upper body when they didn’t stop approaching the soldiers."
"It's a shame that S. was falsely accused of manslaughter for two and a half years. We thank the prosecution for eventually coming to the right conclusion." he added.
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