The Israeli military has cleared itself of culpability in one of the most controversial incidents in last summer’s Gaza war: a missile attack that killed four children on Gaza beach and injured a number of others. Israel’s advocate general’s office said the attack, which led to the death of four boys aged between nine and 11 was a “tragic accident”.
An account of the investigation, posted by military spokesman Lt Col Peter Lerner, said the strike had targeted a “compound” which had been known as belonging to Hamas’s Naval Police and Naval Force (including naval commandos)”. But journalists who attended the scene in the immediate aftermath of the attack – including a reporter from the Guardian – saw a small and dilapidated fisherman’s hut containing a few tools where the children had been playing hide-and-seek.
Mohammad Ramiz Bakr, 11, Ahed Atef Bakr and Zakariya Ahed Bakr, both 10, and Ismail Mahmoud Bakr, nine, were killed when they were hit by explosive rounds. Three of them died as they sought to flee the beach after the first child was killed.
Three other people were injured in the attack: Hamad Bakr, 13, was hit by shrapnel in his chest; his cousin Motasem, 11, injured in his head and legs, and Mohammad Abu Watfah, 21, who was hit by shrapnel in his stomach.
The conclusion of the Israeli military investigation comes while the Israel is under a preliminary investigation by the International Criminal Court to establish whether war crimes were committed during the Gaza war – both by Israel and Hamas. The finding will inevitably raise questions over the way in which Israel investigates incidents in which civilians were killed.
Israel’s conduct in last summer’s war was thrown under a harsh spotlight last month with the publication of the testimonies of dozens of soldiers who served in Gaza, collected by the Israeli human rights group Breaking the Silence, which included allegations that the Israeli military did not meet its obligations to protect civilians in wartime.
According to the UN, 2,200 Palestinians were killed in the 50-day conflict, of whom 1,492 were civilians, 605 militants and 123 unverified.
The recent statement by the Israel Defence Forces said the conclusion came at the end of an “extensive criminal investigation”.
“During the investigation,” it added, “testimonies were collected from a large number of IDF soldiers and officers who were involved in the planning and execution of the attack.”
The statement continued: “Additionally, an extensive number of documents relating to the attack were reviewed, along with video footage documenting the attack in real time, as well as media images and video footage which documented parts of the incident.
“Efforts were made to collect the testimonies of Gaza strip residents who were, allegedly, witnesses to the incident. In this context, the collection of testimony from three witnesses was coordinated. Regretfully, despite the prior coordination, the witnesses eventually declined to meet the investigators, and instead provided affidavits in regard to the incident.”
Although the attack was witnessed by a Guardian reporter, no attempt was made by the Israeli military investigators to seek a statement.
The IDF statement continued: “From the factual findings collected by the investigators, it revealed that the incident took place in an area that had long been known as a compound belonging to Hamas’s Naval Police and Naval Force (including naval commandos), and which was utilized exclusively by militants.”
The hut, however, was in plain sight of nearby hotels housing international journalists, none of whom described seeing militants in the area at the time of the attack.
Continuing its statement the Israeli military continued: “The compound in question spans the length of the breakwater of the Gaza City seashore, closed off by a fence and clearly separated from the beach serving the civilian population.
“It further found in the course of the investigation (including from the affidavits provided by Palestinian witnesses), that the compound was known to the residents of the Gaza Strip as a compound which was used exclusively by Hamas’s Naval Police.
“The IDF carried out a number of attacks on the compound in the days prior to the incident. In the course of one such attack, which took place on the day prior to the incident (15 July 2014), a container located inside the compound, which was used to store military supplies, was attacked.”
The Israeli claims appear at odds in several details with what journalists were able to see at the time.
The breakwater is both easily accessible from a side lane and also is located on one of the busiest parts of the public beach in Gaza port and accessible not only to the fishermen who use it, but local Palestinians who come to sunbathe and swim within feet of it.
The container described in the Israeli finding also appeared to contain no military equipment.
Describing the moment of the attack the Iisraeli military continues: “On 16 July, aerial surveillance identified a number of figures entering the compound at a running pace.
“These figures entered a shed adjoining the container which had been attacked the day prior. Against the backdrop of the aforementioned intelligence assessment, these were believed to be militants from Hamas’s Naval Forces, who had arrived at the compound in order to prepare to execute the aforementioned military activity against the IDF. It should be stressed that the figures were not identified at any point during the incident, as children.”
“In light of the above, it was decided to conduct an aerial attack against the figures which had been identified, after all the necessary authorizations for an attack had been obtained, and after a civilian presence in the area had been ruled out.
“When one of the identified figures entered into the remains of the container which had been attacked on the day prior to the incident, one missile was fired from the air towards the container and the adjoining shed. As a result of this attack, it appeared that one of the figures identified was hit. Following this attack, the rest of the figures began to run in the direction of the compound’s exit. Shortly before their exit from the compound, an additional missile was fired from the air towards them, which hit the figures in question after they had exited the compound.”
What is not clear from the Israeli report is why Israeli targeters had failed to identify that children had been playing on the beach prior to the attack.
This article by Peter Beaumont in Jerusalem was originally published by The Guardian