United Nations report suggests Hamas may have killed Palestinian infant Omar Mishrawi

March 11, 2013

BBC journalist Jihad Mishrawi carries his son’s body at a Gaza hospital as November fighting between Israeli forces and Gaza-based Hamas raged. (Associated Press)

On Nov. 14, as the Israeli Defense Forces and Palestinian militant groups exchanged fire across the Gaza-Israel border, an explosive landed on the home of BBC journalist Jihad Mishrawi. Following the incident, he told the BBC that his sister-in-law, his brother and his son, an 11-month-old infant named Omar, had been killed.

The next day, I wrote about a powerful photo of Jihad carrying his son's body, which appeared on the front page of the Washington Post. In my post, I cited reports that an Israeli air strike was responsible: "An Israeli round hit Misharawi’s four-room home in Gaza Wednesday, killing his son, according to BBC Middle East bureau chief Paul Danahar, who arrived in Gaza earlier Thursday."

But it turns out that, according to a new United Nations draft report from the office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the explosive that killed Omar Mishrawi may have actually been fired by the Gaza-based militant group Hamas, which has a reputation for missing. Though the initial report was less than clear on the matter (more on this below), the Associated Press now reports that a representative from the UN says the explosion "appeared to be attributable to a Palestinian rocket." If true, this would be a significant shift in our understanding of Mishrawi's death, which became a symbol of that month's conflict.

I returned from vacation this morning with more than a few reader notes alerting me to the UN report and asking me to append my earlier post. I held off because the draft report was a bit sketchy, as draft reports can sometimes be. It does not name Mishrawi or his family, stating only, "On 14 November, a woman, her 11-month-old infant, and an 18-year-old adult in Al-Zaitoun were killed by what appeared to be a Palestinian rocket that fell short of Israel." That's the right time and location, but the wrong family relationship: Omar's aunt, not his mother, was killed in the strike. While it was reasonable to wonder if this might still refer to the strike that killed Mishrawi, this single sentence was far from conclusive. The citation, which reads only "Case monitored by OHCHR," didn't offer many clues.

Matthias Behnke, a representative of the UN office that authored the report, has since clarified to the Associated Press that the report is indeed referring to Mishrawi's family. Behnke explained that the report does not "unequivocally conclude" that Mishrawi was killed by a Hamas munition, but said that evidence did point toward a rocket fired by a Palestinian group. Here's the A.P. story:

He said there was no significant damage to the house, unusual for an Israeli strike. He said witnesses reported that a fireball struck the roof of the house, suggesting it was a part of a homemade rocket. Behnke said the type of injuries sustained by al-Masharawi family members were consistent with rocket shrapnel.

A BBC story expresses some doubt about the UN report. The BBC's Jon Donnison writes, "The Israeli military made no comment at the time of the incident but never denied carrying out the strike. Privately, military officials briefed journalists that they had been targeting a militant who was in the building." Donnison adds, "The Israeli military had reported no rockets being fired out of Gaza so soon after the start of the conflict."

The question of which "side" bears responsibility for Mishrawi's death is of course important, if at the moment not fully known, in its own right. It's also, in some ways, part of a larger battler over symbolism and narrative in the Israel-Palestine conflict. As I wrote at the time, the much-circulated photo of Mishrawi was championed by critics of Israel's policies toward the Palestinian territories, held up as a microcosm of what they argued was an unjust conflict that disproportionately affected Palestinians. A small but troubling minorities of those critics suggested the Israeli military does not care about, or even willfully targeted, Palestinian children.

Meanwhile, some observers sympathetic to the Israeli strikes pointed out, with what may have been prescience, that Hamas rockets often miss and might have landed on Mishrawi's house. They argued, as they are again arguing today, that the media attention on the photo underscores their suspicion that the world does not give Israel a fair shake.

A conflict in which two armed groups exchange fire across a populated area is probably bound to kill civilians. So why the heated debate, still ongoing, over whose army inadvertently killed an 11-month-old infant who was the enemy of neither?

Both sides, of course, were arguing about more than just the fate of this one boy. They were, and are now, continuing the same argument about blame, responsibility and victimhood that has run parallel to the Israel-Palestine conflict for years. Omar Mishrawi's death and his photo, like so many incidents before it, are treated as a microcosm of the much larger conflict that took his life. But, as I wrote in November when reports suggested that an Israeli strike had killed Mishrawi, does knowing which military's errant round happened to have landed on this civilian home really determine the larger narrative of one of the world's thorniest and most complicated conflicts? Does assigning blame for Mishrawi's tragic death, awful as it may be, offer us any real insight into who holds the blame for 60 years of fighting? And is partitioning blame really going to serve either side particularly well?

It’s difficult to see how knowing whose rocket or missile killed Mishrawi would resolve the larger questions for which that debate is a proxy: responsibility for continuing the long-term conflict, for sparking the latest round of fighting in November, and for the Israeli and Palestinian civilians who suffer as a result. But these are notoriously thorny debates. As with so many protracted geopolitical conflicts, neither side comes out looking as angelic or demonic as its partisans might wish. In many ways, something as isolated as a single photo of a wounded or killed child offers a purer, cleaner, lower-risk way to talk about issues too messy to engage with directly. They’re a great way to win arguments, but not necessarily to end them.

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Caitlin Dewey · March 11, 2013