On the morning of Oct. 5, Iman Hams, a slight girl of 13 wearing a school uniform and toting a backpack crammed with books, wandered past an Israeli military outpost on the Gaza Strip's southern border with Egypt.
The Israeli captain on duty alerted his troops to reports of a suspicious figure about 100 yards from the outpost. Soldiers fired into the air, according to radio transmissions, military court documents and witnesses.
"It's a little girl," a soldier watching from a nearby Israeli observation post cautioned over the military radio. "She's running defensively eastward. . . . A girl of about 10, she's behind the embankment, scared to death."
Four minutes later, Israeli troops opened fire on the girl with machine guns and rifles, the radio transmissions indicated. The captain walked to the spot where the girl "was lying down" and fired two bullets from his M-16 assault rifle into her head, according to an indictment against the officer. He started to walk away, but pivoted, set his rifle on automatic and emptied his magazine into the girl's prone body, the indictment alleged.
"This is Commander," the captain said into the radio when he was finished. "Whoever dares to move in the area, even if it's a 3-year-old -- you have to kill him. Over."
The girl's body was peppered with at least 20 bullets, including seven in her head, said Ali Mousa, a physician who is director of the Rafah hospital where her corpse was examined.
An investigation was undertaken, and the military's top commanders -- including the chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon -- said repeatedly that the captain had acted properly under the circumstances. But Israeli newspapers published graphic accounts by soldiers who said they witnessed the incident, and Israel's Channel 2 television aired recordings of the radio transmissions.
As a result, the company commander -- identified by the army only as Capt. R -- was indicted this past week on charges of misuse of a firearm, ordering subordinates to lie about the shooting and violation of military regulations. In addition, the military moved to reexamine the investigation, which Yaalon conceded had been "a grave failure" and which the indictment alleged was the subject of an attempted coverup.
The shooting of the schoolgirl added to a growing number of incidents that have spurred Israeli soldiers to speak out about abuses of Palestinians, despite pressure from superiors in the field and statements by senior military officials playing down such cases. Last week, after troops provided photographic evidence to an Israeli newspaper, the military opened an investigation into allegations that soldiers desecrated the bodies of Palestinians killed during army operations.
In a vitriolic meeting of the Israeli parliament's law committee this month, legislator Zahava Galon of the dovish Yahad party said, "The army sends across a message of disregard for human life" with such behavior.
Five days after the October incident, Yaalon told Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's cabinet that the girl likely had been used as a lure to draw soldiers from the outpost and into the range of Palestinian sniper fire. Yaalon told the cabinet that his investigation showed that the soldiers fired into the air, but when the girl continued walking and tossed her backpack aside, they shot at her, fearful that she might have a bomb.
Under questioning from a cabinet member, Yaalon denied press reports that the commander and other soldiers left the outpost to make sure the girl was dead. At the next cabinet meeting a week later, he went further, saying he believed the captain's account that he was responding to "gunfire aimed at him by firing a burst into the ground" and said the captain offered "a reasonable explanation considering the conditions of the location and the events."
But soldiers who witnessed the incident and told their stories to the Israeli news media eventually forced Yaalon to reverse his claims. Last week, Yaalon conceded that the army's investigation had been a failure, and he said he was "determined to deal with every incident of this type in order to root out every failure of values from the Israel Defense Forces."
"There is no logical reason for what he did," a soldier, who declined to be identified, told the daily newspaper Yedioth Aharonoth a few days after the incident. "Not for shooting the two bullets at her, and certainly not the burst afterward. This is the most sickening thing I have ever seen during my army service. It was desecration of a body. That is not what we are taught to do in the army. . . . The 13-year-old girl was already dead. Why did he fire that burst into her?"
Shmuel Shenfeld, one of the indicted officer's attorneys, said the captain opened fire because of "suspicion of a penetration by a terrorist" near the outpost. He added, "I believe he will be acquitted because he acted the way one has to act in order to neutralize a threat on his soldiers."
Shenfeld denied that the captain pumped bullets into the dead girl, saying he was firing in response to shooting from the direction of the nearby refugee camp.
The indictment issued against the captain alleged that he called several of his subordinate officers and soldiers into his office a week after the incident and "tried to convince" them that they "noticed shooting near the body of the deceased only," rather than shooting at the body. The indictment also accused the captain of asking his men to testify that he hit the body with the burst of fire "by mistake" as he was withdrawing from the area.
Shenfeld said that some soldiers in the unit were trying to frame his client.
Dangerous combat zone
The shooting occurred on the edge of the Rafah refugee camp in the far southwestern corner of the Gaza Strip near the Egyptian border -- the most dangerous combat zone in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The youngster, Iman Hams, dressed in the striped pinafore worn by girls who attend the U.N.-run schools in Gaza's refugee camps, was on her way to class just before 7 a.m. on a Tuesday morning, her 25-year-old brother, Ihab Hams, said in an interview. Her school is located on the edge of the refugee camp, a few hundred yards from the Rafiakh Jewish settlement to the north and an even shorter distance from an Israeli military border post to the west.
When the school called her family to report that she did not show up for classes and that a girl had been shot nearby, Ihab Hams said he raced to the scene to investigate.
"She was going to school like every day, and the soldiers started to shoot," Hams said he was told by a teacher at the school who witnessed the incident. "She was injured in her leg and became hysterical. She started to run. A teacher tried to stop her, but she didn't listen because she was so scared.
"Then they shot her," he said.
When he returned home, his father asked if Iman, one of nine children, was the girl being reported dead on the radio.
" 'No, she's okay,' " Ihab said his father replied. "I stood at the door and I felt so sad. My father asked me again. Then I told him, 'Iman has passed away.' "
Special correspondent Islam Abdulkarim in Gaza City and researcher Samuel Sockol contributed to this report.