The battle of Huda Ghalia - who really killed girl's
family on Gaza beach? Guardian investigation casts doubt
on Israeli claim that army was not to blame
By Chris McGreal in Beit Lahia
17 June 2006
Heartrending pictures of 10-year-old Huda Ghalia running
wildly along a Gaza beach crying "father, father, father"
and then falling weeping beside his body turned the
distraught girl into an instant icon of the Palestinian
struggle even before she fully grasped that much of her
family was dead. But the images of the young girl who lost
her father, step-mother and five of her siblings as
picnicking families fled a barrage of Israeli shells a
week ago have become their own battleground.
Who and what killed the Ghalia family, and badly maimed a
score of other people, has been the subject of an
increasingly bitter struggle for truth all week amid
accusations that a military investigation clearing the
army was a cover-up, that Hamas was really responsible and
even that the pictures of Huda's grief were all an act.
However, a Guardian investigation into the sequence of
events raises new and so far unanswered questions about
the Israeli military probe that cleared the army of
responsibility. Evidence from hospital records, doctors'
testimony and witness accounts challenges the central
assertion that the shelling had stopped by the time seven
members of the Ghalia family were killed.
In addition, fresh evidence from the US group Human Rights
Watch, which offered the first forensic questioning of the
army's account, casts doubt on another key claim - that
shrapnel taken from the wounded was not from the kind of
artillery used to shell Gaza.
The pictures of Huda's traumatic hunt for her father
garnered instant sympathy around the world and focused
unwelcome attention on Israel's tactic of firing thousands
of shells into Gaza over recent weeks, killing more than
20 civilians, to deter Palestinian rocket attacks.
The Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, initially
apologised for the killings but the military swiftly
realised it was confronting another PR disaster to rival
that of the killing of Mohammed al-Dura, the 12-year-old
boy who died in his father's arms amid a barrage of
gunfire six years ago and became the first iconic victim
of the intifada.
The army quickly convened a committee to investigate the
deaths on the beach and almost as swiftly absolved itself
The committee acknowledged the army fired six shells on
and around Beit Lahia beach from artillery inside Israel.
But it said that by coincidence a separate explosion -
probably a mine planted by Hamas or a buried old shell -
occurred in the same area at about the same time, killing
The army admitted that one of the six shells was
unaccounted for but said it was "impossible", based on
location and timings, for the sixth shell to have done the
killing. The investigation also concluded that shrapnel
taken from the wounded was not from artillery.
The military declared its version of events definitive.
Others went further and saw a Palestinian conspiracy. An
American pro-Israel pressure group, Camera, which seeks to
influence media coverage, went so far as to suggest that
the film of Huda Ghalia's trauma was faked: "Were the
bodies moved, was the girl asked to re-enact her discovery
for the camera, was the video staged?"
But the army's account quickly came in for criticism, led
by a former Pentagon battlefield analyst, Marc Garlasco,
investigating for Human Rights Watch. "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," he said. "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."
Mr Garlasco also produced shrapnel from the site
apparently marked as a 155mm shell used by the army that
The key part of the military's defence hinged on timings.
It says it fired shells toward the beach between 4.30pm
and 4.48pm, and that the artillery barrage stopped nine
minutes before the explosion that killed the Ghalia
The army concluded that the deadly explosion occurred
between 4.57pm and 5.10pm based on surveillance of the
beach by a drone that shows people relaxing until just
before 5pm and the arrival of an ambulance at 5.15pm.
Major General Meir Kalifi, who headed the army's
investigation committee, said the nine-minute gap is too
wide for Israel to have been responsible for the deaths.
"I can without doubt say that no means used by the Israeli
defence force during this time period caused the
incident," he said.
But hospital records, testimony from doctors and ambulance
men and eyewitness accounts suggest that the military has
the timing of the explosion wrong, and that it occurred
while the army was still shelling the beach.
Palestinian officials also question the timing of video
showing people relaxing on the beach just before 5pm if
the army, by its own admission, was dropping shells close
Several of those who survived the explosion say it came
shortly after two or three other blasts consistent with a
pattern of shells falling on the beach.
Among the survivors was Hani Asania. When the shelling
began, he grabbed his daughters - Nagham, 4, and Dima, 7 -
and moved toward his car on the edge of the beach. The
Ghalia family was on the sand nearby awaiting a taxi.
"There was an explosion, maybe 500 metres away. Then there
was a second, much closer, about two minutes later. People
were running from the beach," said Mr Asania. "Maybe two
minutes later there was a third shell. I could feel the
pressure of the blast on my face it was so strong. I saw
pieces of people."
This sequence is backed by others including Huda's
brother, Eyham, 20. Annan Ghalia, Huda's uncle, called an
ambulance. "We were sitting on the sand waiting for the
taxis, the men on one side and the women on the other. The
shell landed closer to the girls," he said. "I was
screaming for people to help us. No one was coming. After
about two minutes I called the ambulance."
The first ambulance took children to the Kamal Odwan
hospital. Its registration book records that five children
wounded in the blast were admitted at 5.05pm. The book
contains entries before and after the casualties from the
beach, all of whom are named, and shows no sign of
tampering. The hospital's computer records a blood test
taken from a victim at 5.12pm. Human Rights Watch said
altering the records would require re-setting the
The distance from the beach to the hospital is 6km. Even
at speed, the drive through Beit Lahia's crowded back
streets and rough roads would not take less than five
minutes and would be slower with wounded patients on
Dr Bassam al-Masri, who treated the first wounded at Kamal
Odwan, said allowing for a round trip of at least 10
minutes and time to load them, the ambulance would have
left the hospital no later than 4.50pm - just two minutes
after the Israelis say they stopped shelling.
Factoring in additional time for emergency calls and the
ambulances to be dispatched, the timings undermine the
military's claim that the killer explosion occurred after
the shelling stopped.
The first ambulance man to leave another Beid Lahia
hospital, the Alwada, and a doctor summoned to work there
say they clearly recall the time.
The ambulance driver, Khaled Abu Sada, said he received a
call from the emergency control room between 4.45pm and
4.50pm. "I went to look for a nurse to come with me," he
said. "I left the hospital at 4.50pm and was at the beach
The Alwada's anaesthetist, Dr Ahmed Mouhana, was woken by
a call from a fellow doctor calling him to the hospital.
"I looked at the time. That's what you do when someone
wakes you up. It was 4.55pm," he said.
Dr Mouhana left for the hospital immediately. "It only
takes 10 minutes from my house so I was there by 5.10pm or
5.15pm at the latest. I went to reception and they had
already done triage on the children," he said.
If the hospital records and medical professionals are
right, then the emergency call from the beach could not
have come in much later than 4.45pm, still during the
From the number of shells counted beforehand by the
survivors, Mr Garlasco believes the killer shell was one
the army records as fired at 4.34pm.
A military spokesman, Captain Jacob Dalal, said the army
stood by its interpretation. Military investigators said
shrapnel taken from Palestinians treated in Israeli
hospitals was not from 155mm shells fired that day. "We
know it's not artillery," he said. "It could be a shell of
another sort or some other device."
The military has suggested that the explosion was rigged
by Hamas against possible army landings but Palestinian
officials say that would only be an effective strategy if
there were a series of mines or Hamas knew exactly where
the Israelis would land.
Mr Garlasco said the metal taken from the victims may be
detritus thrown up by the explosion or shards from cars.
He said shrapnel collected at the site of the explosion by
Human Rights Watch and the Palestinian police was fresh
and from artillery shells.
The former Pentagon analyst said that after examining a
blood-encrusted piece of shrapnel given to him by the
father of a 19-year-old man wounded in the beach
explosion, he determined it was a piece of fuse from an
"The likelihood that the Ghalia family was killed by an
explosive other than one of the shells fired by the
Israeli army is remote," he said.
Capt Dalal defended the army's investigation. "We're not
trying to cover up anything. We didn't do the
investigation to exonerate ourselves. If it was our fire,
we'll say it," he said.