Israeli military and political officials should not be forced to assume personal responsibility for the 2002 Gaza assassination of a Hamas strongman which resulted in the death of 13 innocent Palestinians, a panel probing the incident said in its report on Sunday.
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On July 22, 2002 an Israeli plane dropped a 1-ton bomb on a house in Gaza City in which Hamas military wing commander Salah Shehadeh was staying. In addition to Shehadeh and his aide, 13 civilians, including eight children were killed in the incident.
A committee was appointed by former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in 2008 to investigate the incident, following a High Court appeal by left-wing activist and member of Yesh Gvul, Yoav Hass.
In their appeal, Hass and other Yesh Gvul members insisted that criminal investigations be initiated against then Israel Air Force chief Dan Halutz, then Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon, then Defense Minister Benjamin Ben Eliezer and former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
In the report culminating the panel's probe submitted to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday, committee members justified the strike, saying that the "targeted killing against Shehadeh was imperative because of the increase and escalation in terrorist attacks since 2000, in a manner which led to a situation of actual war, classified as an 'armed conflict.'"
The panel added that the Hamas strongman had been the motivational, ideological, and operational force of Hamas and was aware of being wanted by Israel.
Referring to the massive collateral fatalities brought upon by the bombing, the report said that the consequence were "unintended, undesired and unforeseen," adding, however, that they "did not stem from disregard or indifference to human lives."
According to the panel's conclusions, all those involved in the operation were aware of the possibility that civilians could be hurt, ensuring that civilian injuries and casualties would be kept at a minimum.
"Notwithstanding all this, a gap arose between what was expected and what actually occurred," the report surmised, adding that the "central reason for this gap was incomplete, unfocused and inconsistent intelligence information with regard to the presence of civilians in the structures adjacent to the Shehadeh house (the garage and huts), where most of the civilians died."
The report was critical of defense establishment officials, criticizing their estimates and judgment, as well as pointing out miscommunications in regards to the pass of intelligence between the security forces involved.
"Too much weight was placed on the immediate strike on Shehadeh, and too little weight was given to the possible risk to uninvolved civilians as a result of the strike," the report said.
However, despite the flaws mentioned by the report, the committee established that there were no grounds to pursue a criminal investigation of officials involved in the incident, whether in the military or in the government.
"The commission does not recommend that personal measures be taken against any of those involved in the operation," the report said.
As for the reasons behind that decision, the report cited "the many years that had passed since the operation," as well as "the fact that decision makers, including Shin Bet head Avi Dichter and IDF chief of staff Moshe Ya'alon culminated their duties."
Dichter currently serves as a Kadima MK, while Ya'alon is a Likud minister and deputy premier.
According to the report, Israel had weighed "more moderate steps geared at terminating Shehadeh's activities," such as a ground-troops operation, but those measures were not implemented since they put the operation's success at risk as a result of the possible injury of both IDF soldiers and uninvolved civilians.
"Therefore, targeted killing was selected as a measure that would guarantee Shehadeh's elimination, with the expectation that this would not cause disproportionate harm to uninvolved civilians," the report said.
The report concluded by stating that, "despite the outcome which resulted in this instance, the means of targeted killing was and continues to be a lawful tool in the war against deadly terrorism, provided that the operation is carried out in accordance with the principles and rules set out by Israeli and international law and the ethical and moral norms on which they are based."