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Who killed 11-year-old Dima Asaliah?: Reporter’s notebook

who-killed-11-year-old-dima-asaliah?:-reporter’s-notebook
(Photo by Fatima Shbair/Getty Images) Palestinians inspect damage to buildings in Al-Saftawi street northern Gaza City on May 20, 2021 in Gaza City, Gaza.

(NEW YORK) — Something was off about this one. The explosion punched a beach ball-sized hole in the wall. In a conflict in which thousand-pound bombs were so routinely used, it was comparably tiny.

On May 19, Dima Asaliah’s family said she was doing an errand for her mother — fetching a large, metallic bread maker from her sister’s home about 50 yards down the sandy alleyway. As she was returning with the bread maker, just feet away from home, an explosion ripped her little body apart, perforating the bread maker with dozens of dime-sized holes. The blast shattered her home’s windows and blew the sandals right off her feet. The family showed us grisly video of the aftermath.

The next day, our team in Gaza filmed her funeral. Her impossibly small, shroud-covered body was carried on a stretcher through tight alleyways and placed on the floor of Dima’s pink-painted bedroom which, due to continued airstrikes, now doubled as a funeral home. The women ululated, and Dima’s mother, Dunya, sobbed as she clutched the child’s backpack.

A few days after that, producer Becky Perlow and I visited Dima’s family ourselves. They live in a bare-bones two-story house in northern Gaza. We featured the family on ABC’s World News Tonight, Dima’s mother smelling her daughter’s pillow and blanket, holding them close, and, despite the heat, piling the rest of Dima’s possessions atop of her. She sat there murmuring prayers, rocking back and forth. Her agony is seared in our memories.

The family told us they were convinced an Israeli drone had dropped a bomb on their daughter. But why? Becky and I had not seen a blast site like this, either from a Hamas or Islamic Jihad rocket or from an Israeli airstrike. It seemed the warhead could not have been much larger than a grenade. But where did it come from? Typically, Israeli bombs punched swimming pool-sized craters in the earth, obliterating buildings. And Palestinian rockets also left more damage than we saw here beside the house. We wondered whether that bread maker she was carrying might have been an IED.

That day I reached out to the Israeli military. We sent them the exact location of the explosion site, the time, date and person targeted, pictures of the blast zone and the aftermath video provided by Dima’s family. The initial answer came relatively quickly: The IDF said that no drone or Israeli air asset had ever targeted that location. I went at them the next day: What about artillery or tank shells? The answer came back: Negative.

But something was still wrong. We sent the images to Steve Ganyard and Eric Oehlerich, security consultants for ABC News, and they weighed in and linked us with another EOD expert. Everybody was perplexed. That expert, Steve Draper, suggested it could have been a small Israeli warhead or a 107mm Hamas rocket. Hundreds of Palestinian rockets launched from Gaza fell short of Israel or misfired, landing inside Gaza.

I also showed the pictures to an Israeli pilot who immediately said, “Oh I know what that is … it’s a shell from a naval ship.” With that tip, Draper said he knew immediately the provenance of the ordinance: “Israel’s new Sa’ar 6 class corvettes have a 76mm OTO Melara deck gun. … There is a particular round for that gun,” he wrote, “the L62 HE-PFF IM84, which incorporates a body of pre-formed tungsten cubes designed to destroy missiles and air targets. This would coincide with the massive fragmentation evidence at the impact site, and also help account for the lack of any remnants of the round — it’s not a large round to begin with, and the body is designed to fragment.”

Last Tuesday, with that new information, I went back at Israel for the seventh time asking for clarification, suggesting the shell could have been from a naval deck gun. Each time I posed a question, the Israeli military said it would get back to me. And they did. Six days after the question about the naval deck gun, I received this answer: “A preliminary investigation indicated that a Palestinian Islamic Jihad operative was targeted at the location on May 19, 2021. The details of this incident are under review. The IDF works in accordance with international law and takes as many precautionary measures as possible in order to reduce harm to civilians during operational activities …” It goes on to note the more than 4,000 rockets fired into Israel from Gaza.

In the past, Israeli investigations of allegedly errant killings like this have taken months to complete.

Sadly, the answer from the Israeli military only raises more questions: Were there “eyes,” via drone, on this “target?” Could someone have mistaken an 11-year-old girl for an Islamic Jihad operative? Did someone knowingly pull the trigger doubting the quality of the available intelligence? What was that intelligence, specifically? Did they think the bread maker was an IED?

Do the soldiers who made this mistake know? How would they feel?

How many new enemies did Dima’s death create? And what would those new enemies be willing to do to avenge her killing?

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