What Happened in Gaza's Rafah on 'Black Friday'?

Israeli attempts to stop the capture of 2nd Lt. Hadar Goldin are likely to be a major focus of international efforts to determine if the army acted appropriately during Gaza conflict.

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A Palestinian man looks out over destruction in part of Gaza City's al-Tufah neighbourhood in Gaza, August 6, 2014.
A Palestinian man looks out over destruction in part of Gaza City's al-Tufah neighbourhood in Gaza, August 6, 2014.Credit: AFP

The information available is patchy when it comes to the dramatic events in south Gaza on August 1, in which three soldiers and at least 130 Palestinians were killed in Israeli efforts to thwart the abduction of an officer. The incident, however, is likely to draw international attention in the coming weeks.

The efforts to stop the capture of 2nd Lt. Hadar Goldin raise many issues: Who breached the humanitarian cease-fire that collapsed following the incident in Rafah, the many Palestinian dead — figures range between 130 and 150, mostly civilians — and the IDF debate on the so-called Hannibal procedure – permission to risk the life of a captured soldier to stop the abduction itself.

These are likely to be a major focus of international agencies trying to determine if the Israel Defense Forces acted appropriately during its four-week Gaza offensive.

The information available to Haaretz on the events is partial and based on sources from the Israeli side only. Realizing the possibility of legal proceedings abroad, the IDF is in no hurry to volunteer all the details.

The humanitarian cease-fire, brokered by the United States and the United Nations, was to begin at 8 A.M. Friday August 1. Israel interpreted the understanding as permission to continue operating against Hamas tunnels in territory it had taken over.

On Thursday night it emerged that a tunnel had not been destroyed on the northeastern edge of Rafah. Soldiers from the Givati Brigade’s reconnaissance force, under the command of Maj. Benaya Sarel, were told to advance a few hundred meters to look for the entrance shaft. According to a senior officer, the force finished its task at about 5 A.M.

After 8 A.M., Sarel noticed a suspicious movement inside a building. He consulted with his commanders and according to one version, which has not been confirmed, was told to check the structure.

Sarel checked the structure with the team’s commander, Goldin, and the company commander’s radio operator, Staff. Sgt. Liel Gidoni. The rest of the force was under the command of the deputy company commander, whose name has been given as Lt. Eitan. These troops remained a few dozen meters away behind a building. Sarel, Goldin and Gidoni were killed on the spot by Hamas fire.

Because of the firing, time lapsed before other troops reached the scene and found the three dead. A few minutes later they realized that one of them was a Hamas militant wearing an Israeli uniform, according to one version.

At that point it was unclear whether Goldin had been taken alive. The soldiers also spotted the opening to the tunnel through which Goldin had been taken. Eitan has told the daily Yedioth Ahronoth that he decided to enter the tunnel to find Goldin, but permission to do so was denied at first.

Eitan’s decision to enter the tunnel went against procedure due to fears that tunnels may be booby-trapped. “I knew the risk but I decided to act,” he said.

Eitan and two soldiers entered the tunnel after Col. Ofer Winter, commander of the Givati Brigade, told Eitan to throw a grenade into the shaft before entering. The three soldiers moved ahead hundreds of meters in almost complete darkness. They discovered that the tunnel ended in a mosque and found gear belonging Goldin that suggested he had been mortally wounded.

According to the IDF, Sarel’s force was fired on at 9:16 A.M., about an hour and a quarter after the cease-fire began. American reporters suggested that the Israelis might be lying about the timing of the incident — that it had taken place about 30 minutes before the cease-fire, based on tweets from accounts linked to Hamas that reported an assault on Israeli soldiers east of Rafah.

But based on the information available to Haaretz, the IDF’s version seems correct. The official report on the incident appears on computerized operational systems, which would be difficult to falsify due to the many soldiers with access.

At first Hamas’ political wing proudly announced the capture of a soldier. But it then retracted the claim amid concerns about the diplomatic fallout. It then said the members of the Hamas force and the soldier had been killed by an Israeli strike.

The IDF believes that the abduction attempt was a local initiative at a low-level of command. When the Hamas fighters realized that the force under Sarel had entered the tunnel, they opened fire and then fled with Goldin’s body.

The Givati command headquarters near Rafah then used the Hannibal procedure to find Goldin. They did so without the immediate authorization of the Gaza Division and Southern Command.

This was the most aggressive action of its type ever carried out by the IDF, military sources said. In addition to the use of special forces, an armored column moved quickly about one kilometer into Rafah’s built-up area. The mosque was searched, as was a nearby Hamas command post firing to prevent the removal of Goldin. Israeli air support was also called in.

This procedure takes a risk with the life of a captured soldier to stop the abduction. But officers in the General Staff said this week the procedure does not permit the killing of a captured soldier to thwart the abduction. Still, some soldiers and junior officers might believe the killing of the abductee is preferable to an abduction.

The extreme measures to thwart the abduction apparently stemmed from Israelis’ shock in the last decade over the release of hundreds of security prisoners in exchange for abducted soldiers. An abduction is often considered something to be avoided at almost at any cost.

Thus, in this incident, many civilians were killed because of the heavy fire the IDF laid to thwart the abduction. Under the Hannibal procedure, there was no time to warn them to leave their homes.

Friends of 23-year-old Israeli 2nd Lt. Hadar Goldin mourn during his funeral at the military cemetery in Kfar Sava, August 3, 2014.Credit: AFP

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