(Jerusalem) - The Israeli military police decision to interview Palestinian witnesses to a case where an Israeli soldier allegedly shot three young girls and their grandmother holding white flags during the fighting in Gaza marks a positive development, Human Rights Watch said today. Two of the girls died.

Human Rights Watch called on Israel to conduct thorough and impartial investigations into all allegations of serious laws-of-war violations by its forces during the December-January conflict in Gaza.

In a report published on August 13, Human Rights Watch documented the incident in which an Israeli soldier allegedly fired upon two women and three young girls who were holding makeshift white flags outside their home in the Jabalya neighborhood of Izbt ‘Abd Rabbo. Amal ‘Abd Rabbo, 2, and Su'ad ‘Abd Rabbo, 7, were killed, and their sister, Samar ‘Abd Rabbo, 4, was paralyzed below the waist. Their grandmother, also Su'ad ‘Abd Rabbo, 54, was wounded. The family told Human Rights Watch that they had come out of their house in response to orders from an Israeli soldier when fighting in the area had ceased.

Human Rights Watch's on-the-ground investigations found no evidence of Palestinian fighters in the area at the time. Three eyewitness accounts and corroborating evidence including tank tracks, spent bullet casings, an ammunition box found at the scene, and an examination of the grandmother by forensic experts indicate that an Israeli soldier fired upon identifiable and unarmed women and children.

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) initially dismissed Human Rights Watch's findings about the case as based on "unreliable witness reports," but on September 2 Israeli military police interviewed the grandmother, Su'ad ‘Abd Rabbo, and the girls' father, Khaled ‘Abd Rabbo, who also witnessed the shooting. The two traveled to the Erez border crossing between Israel and Gaza. Khaled ‘Abd Rabbo told Human Rights Watch that two Israeli investigators with interpreters interviewed them separately for several hours.

"Israel's decision to ask Palestinian witnesses for their side of the story is appropriate and overdue," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Right Watch. "We hope this signals a determination to obtain all relevant evidence and vigorously pursue justice for the ‘Abd Rabbo family."

Before withdrawing from Gaza on January 18, Israeli forces destroyed the ‘Abd Rabbo family's house as well as many other homes in the eastern part of the neighborhood. Interviews with 17 residents indicate that most of the destruction in Izbt ‘Abd Rabbo occurred after January 14, but that Israeli forces controlled the area from January 7 until the end of the conflict.

In June 2009, three Palestinian and Israeli human rights groups, Al Mezan, Al Haq, and Adalah, submitted a complaint to the Israeli military advocate general calling for an investigation into the killing of the two ‘Abd Rabbo girls. The complaint also addressed the killing of Adham Khamis Mohammad Naseir, 37, who was reportedly shot and killed while trying to help evacuate the wounded family members.

Samar ‘Abd Rabbo was transferred for medical treatment to Egypt and then Belgium, where she was later joined by her mother and two brothers.

On July 29, the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a report that said Israel is conducting 13 criminal investigations and approximately 100 "field investigations" into allegations of violations by its forces in Gaza during "Operation Cast Lead." One of the field investigations, into "allegations regarding the shooting of civilians carrying white flags that killed two civilians" in the "Abed Rabu neighbourhood" on January 7, appeared to be the case of Amal and Su'ad ‘Abd Rabbo. Human Rights Watch has reported that past Israeli field investigations - which are typically conducted by military personnel within the relevant unit's chain of command and do not involve contacting Palestinian witnesses - have been flawed and rarely led to prosecutions. 

The military advocate general has the authority to decide whether or not to open a criminal investigation into this case.

To date, the IDF has not answered any of the detailed questions from Human Rights Watch about its investigations into "white flag" killings in Gaza, and has not agreed to requests to meet to discuss these concerns. These cases involved the alleged shooting of 11 civilians who were in groups waving white pieces of cloth or scarves to convey their civilian status.

Israel has an obligation under international law to investigate credible allegations of laws-of-war violations by its forces and, where violations are found, to punish those responsible. Human rights organizations, the media, the United Nations, and Israeli soldiers have reported such incidents that took place during IDF military operations in Gaza in January.