An Israeli probe of a blast that killed eight Palestinian civilians on a Gaza beach last Friday will announce that it almost certainly came from a Hamas militant mine and not an Israeli shell, military officials said today.
A spokesman for the Hamas-led Palestinian government dismissed the conclusion, which was discussed by Israeli officials.
According to the findings, shrapnel removed from two wounded Palestinians taken to Israeli hospitals showed that the explosives were not made in Israel, the officials said.
In addition, the probe found that the last Israeli shell was fired in the area seven minutes before the blast, the officials said. A Palestinian group said the blast occurred while Israeli forces were still firing.
And the blast’s crater – which the military saw on television and through surveillance equipment – appeared to be from an explosion in the sand, not from a shelling, they said.
The explosion in the northern Gaza Strip went off by a Palestinian family that had been enjoying a seaside picnic. Seven relatives and another man were killed.
Footage of a Palestinian girl crying over her father’s lifeless body was broadcast around the world and became a symbol of the tragedy.
Palestinians immediately blamed a shell fired by Israeli forces, who have been attacking sites where militants launch crude rockets against the Jewish state. But the Israelis instead will likely focus blame on Hamas militants who may have laid a mine on the beach to defend against Israeli naval commandos, the officials said.
The Israeli investigation said the blast took place at 4.58pm. The last Israeli shell fired toward Palestinian rocket launchers who operate in the area was at 4.51pm, seven minutes before the blast, and landed 250 yards away from the scene, the officials said.
The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights said in an initial response to the Israeli claims that the blast occurred at about 4.40pm, when the army said it was still firing.
Palestinian officials said it was highly unlikely that Hamas militants would plant bombs at the beach because it is frequented by hundreds of people every weekend.
“This is a false allegation and the Israeli occupation state is trying to escape from shouldering its responsibility by accusing Palestinians without evidence or any proof,” said Ghazi Hamad, a spokesman for the Palestinians’ Hamas-led government.
“The eyewitnesses and the evidence that we have confirm that the massacre is the result of Israeli shelling and the allegation about land mines planted by Palestinians is baseless,” he said.
Israel at first left open the possibility that it was responsible and expressed sorrow for the deaths.
The military committee looking into the blast is expected to issue its findings later today.
The findings show that, after the blast, Israeli military viewed Hamas militants collecting the shrapnel from the area in an apparent effort to prevent authorities from revealing that the explosion was caused by explosives it had laid, the Israeli officials said.
The results of the investigation also are based on threats by Hamas to stop Israeli naval commandos from landing on the beach after group militants were killed in the area in an ambush by Israeli navy divers last month, the officials said.
The army has accounted for five of six of the shells that it fired in the area on Friday evening before the blast, the officials said. The one shell that is not accounted for was fired before the five others – more than ten minutes before the blast that killed the Palestinians – and apparently landed further away than the shells that were fired later, the officials said.
The blast occurred on the outskirts of the town of Beit Lahiya, not far from where Palestinian militants frequently fire rockets toward Israel. The shore is frequented by hundreds of Palestinian beach-goers on Fridays, a rest day in Gaza. Israel often shoots artillery in the area to prevent rocket launches.
Colin King, an explosives expert with Jane’s Defence Weekly, said that, even without access to the beach, Israel could probably tell what caused the blast if it had some photographs of the area and pieces of shrapnel.