JERUSALEM -- An Israeli military commander who ordered an air strike against a Gaza Strip home in 2009, killing 21 members of a family that was fleeing fighting in the area, will not face criminal charges, a military prosecutor announced Tuesday.
The attack on the members of the Samouni family -- who had had been ordered by Israeli soldiers to take refuge in the home hours before it was attacked -- was one of the most controversial incidents of Israel's 22-day offensive against Gaza militants more than three years ago.
The attack was cited by a United Nations report and several human rights groups as an example of possible war crimes committed by Israel during Operation Cast Lead, which left more than 1,200 Palestinians dead.
After initially denying the incident, Israel launched a criminal investigation that has been pending for more than two years.
In a letter released Tuesday, military prosecutors said they determined that Col. Ilan Malka's decision to attack the building was "deficient" but that he did not intentionally target civilians or act in haste or with criminal negligence. His decision was apparently based on a mistaken reading of aerial drone photographs showing some family members holding firewood, which Malka interpreted as a shoulder-fired missile.
In a statement Tuesday, the Israeli military said it "found that there were no grounds for employing criminal or disciplinary measures against any of those involved in the Incident, and instructed that the file be closed."
Israeli human rights groups criticized the army's decision, saying it raised questions about the military's ability to investigate itself.
"Shirking the responsibility for the deaths of hundreds of other civilians and the immense damage caused by Operation Cast Lead demonstrates yet again the need for an Israeli investigation mechanism that is external to the army," said attorney Yael Stein of the Israel human rights group B'Tselem.
-- Edmund Sanders
Photo: A wake is held for the Samouni family in the Zeitoun area of Gaza City in January 2009. Credit: Ben Curtis / Associated Press