Israeli Army Ends Probe Into Strike That Killed Four Gaza Children

No way soldiers could have known figures running by the beach were children, military investigators say; three new investigations into Operation Protective Edge incidents opened, one due to Breaking the Silence report.

Mourners during the funeral of the four Gaza children killed in the strike. July 2014.
AFP

The IDF announced on Thursday it would be discontinuing its internal investigation of suspected criminal conduct surrounding an incident in which four Palestinian children were killed by an Israel Air Force strike on the Gaza seaside, during last summer's Operation Protective Edge. Also, military prosecutors announced the opening of three additional internal investigations into incidents concerning IDF soldiers' conduct during the operation, one of which is based, among other things, on a testimony given by an IDF soldier to the Breaking the Silence NGO, and published in its report on the Gaza war.

The four Palestinian children whose deaths led to the investigation - Ismayil Bahar (aged nine), Aed Bahar (aged ten), Zacharia Bahar, (aged ten), and Muhammed Bahar, (aged 11) - were killed by missiles fired by an IDF aircraft while they were near the beach in Gaza, last June.

A preliminary IDF probe confirmed the children were killed by an Israeli strike on a compound next to the Gaza harbor and that according to information gathered by the IDF, the compound was being used by Hamas naval fighters as a base of operations.

According to the investigation's findings, the compound had been under IDF surveillance for several days prior to the strike, due to intelligence relating to  a meeting of Hamas militants that was to take place within it. On the day of the IDF strike, an Israeli military aircraft identified several running figures entering the compound – whom IDF forces took to be Hamas militants. "At no stage of the event were the figures identified as children," the prosecution's statement read. "The decision to carry out a strike against the figures identified in the compound was made after all necessary pre-strike authorizations were received, and a survey was carried out to make sure no citizens were in the area."

One missile was fired after one of the children (taken by the IDF soldiers to be a Hamas militant) had entered a shipping container that had been bombed by the IAF the day prior. After it was fired, the other three children commenced running in the direction of the compound's exit, at which point the second missile was fired at them, hitting them just as they left.

"After the incident it became clear that, tragically, four children who had entered the compound due to an unknown reason were killed by the strikes," the prosecution's statement read. "The investigation's findings show that due to the circumstances, the forces who took part in the strike had no way of identifying that the figures spotted by aerial surveillance were in fact children."

After the incident was reviewed by panel set up by the General Staff to examine unusual events that took place during the Gaza fighting, the deputy prosecutor for operational affairs Major Harel Weinberg said there is "reasonable grounds for suspecting the strike was carried out in disregard of the IDF's binding rules." A military police investigation was launched in September – and has now been closed by military prosecution, who declined to press criminal or disciplinary charges against any of the soldiers involved.

According to the IDF, after the military police's investigation was completed and reviewed by the head military prosecutor General Danny Efroni, a decision to close it was made due to there being no grounds to suspect any crime was committed by IDF forces. The investigation included gathering testimonies from all the soldiers involved in the strike's planning, footage documenting the strike, and also footage captured by journalists who were in the area when the strike took place, the prosecution said, adding that testimony was also given by three Gaza citizens.

'Revenge fire' investigation launched

Also on Thursday, the military prosecution announced that military police investigations had been launched into three incidents concerning suspicions of criminal conduct by IDF forces during Operation Protective Edge.

One investigation relates to a testimony given by an IDF soldier to Breaking the Silence, which was published by the NGO in its report on the IDF's conduct during the operation. The incident concerns "revenge fire" allegedly carried out by IDF soldiers in memory of a fallen officer from the Armored Corps officer, Dima Levitas, who was killed during the operation. In the NGO's report, an armored brigade soldier is quoted as recounting that "this was shooting like what's done at funerals - only with a shell, and at houses. It wasn't towards the air. It was just choosing – the tank commanded said 'Choose the house that's farthest away, so it hurts them the most.' A sort of revenge," he told Breaking the Silence.

A similar testimony was published in the Israeli army magazine "Bayabasha" in October of 2014 - but the army only decided to launch an investigation after the publication of the Breaking the Silence report in May. The soldier whose testimony was published by the group quoted the commander of the Armored Corps brigade, Liutenant Colonel Neriah, as explaining to the soldiers under his command: "I was sorry that his (the fallen soldier's) company and mine can't be at Mount Herzl for his funeral - so we've decided to fire, at the time the funeral takes place, a barrage of shells toward the location where he met his end." The army said in a statement that the fire was considered "forbidden fire," and that it was decided to open the criminal probe following media reports that IDF forces had purposely fired tank shells towards a medical building from where fire had that led to the death of captain Levitas had originated the day earlier.

Another investigation was opened after the Joint Command's review panel examined the incident in which IDF forces had bombed a café in Khan Yunis, in which a World Cup soccer game was being broadcast. Nine Palestinian civilians who were watching the game were killed in the attack, and ten others were seriously wounded. In this case, too, the prosecution stated, there is "reasonable grounds for suspecting the strike was carried out in disregard of the IDF's binding rules."

The third investigation was opened in response to a complaint received by prosecutors, that IDF forces had allegedly beat a Palestinian resident of the neighborhood of Juhar al-Dik, after he had been arrested for no just cause.

The IDF statement also stated that after a Joint Command review, a decision had been made to refrain from launching a criminal investigation into the IDF's bombing of the residence of the Al-Najar family in Khan Yunis - a strike that killed eight people, two of whom were considered to be Hamas militants. According to the military, there were no grounds for suspecting any criminal conduct by IDF forces – but, in wake of the incident, the prosecution had decided to recommend military documentation of the planning procedures for carrying out such strikes be improved.