The explosion happened in an instant. Late in the afternoon of June 9, on a beach in Beit Lahiya, a blast of heat and shrapnel killed seven members of a family who had gathered there for a picnic: Ali Ghaliya, five of his children and his second wife. His first wife and four more of his children were wounded, as were dozens of other people. A Ramattan News Agency cameraman rode to the scene with an ambulance. After arriving, he filmed Huda Ghaliya, 10, stumbling through the carnage, wailing and beating her chest, calling out for her dead father.
Within days, that searing image was published around the world, becoming a touchstone for the wider conflict between Israel and the Palestinians--and setting off a rancorous dispute about who is responsible for the deaths in Huda's family. In the immediate aftermath of the blast, Palestinians blamed the deaths on an Israeli shell, and Izzadine al-Qassam, the military wing of Hamas, the Palestinian Authority's ruling party, abandoned a 16-month cease-fire with Israel. In the ensuing series of reprisals, rockets fired into Israel by Palestinian militants injured one Israeli civilian, and an Israeli air strike killed 11 people, including two militants.
Yet even as the violence escalated, the truth about what happened on June 9 remains elusive. Israeli officials initially expressed sorrow over the incident and halted shelling in the area pending an internal investigation of the incident. But last week the Israelis revealed that a probe led by Major General Meir Kalifi has absolved Israel of blame. According to Kalifi, the Israel Defense Forces (I.D.F.), on the basis of aerial surveillance, have fixed the time of the explosion at between 4:57 p.m. and 5:10 p.m. In response to Qassam rocket attacks by Palestinian militants, the I.D.F. fired six artillery shells toward the beach from 4:32 to 4:51, which would make it almost impossible for one of them to have caused the explosion. The report also found that a piece of shrapnel taken from the body of one of the wounded, who was being treated at an Israeli hospital, did not match the 155-mm shells the I.D.F. use. "I state clearly that we still regret the incident," says I.D.F.'s chief of staff, Lieut. General Dan Halutz, "but we are not responsible for it."
Then who is? Kalifi speculated that unexploded ordnance fired at an earlier date might have caused the blast but that it was more likely to have been caused by an explosive device manufactured by Palestinian militants and planted at the beach. That hypothesis is disputed by investigators from Human Rights Watch (HRW) who arrived at the scene the day after the incident. According to the organization, witnesses say Ali Ghaliya gathered his family to leave the beach after the first shells hit, to the north. Two survivors told HRW they heard the sound of an incoming projectile and saw a blur of motion in the sky before the explosion. Computerized hospital records show the first patients were admitted at 5:05 p.m.--which, given the time it takes for an ambulance to drive to and from the scene, suggests that the explosion might have occurred during the time the I.D.F. acknowledge they were shelling.