Massive Artillery Shelling May Have Caused Numerous Civilian Fatalities in Gaza

It is thought that at least 32,000 artillery shells were fired during Protective Edge, four times as much as in Cast Lead in 2008.

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Israeli soldiers of the 155mm artillery cannons unit fire towards the Gaza Strip from their position near Israel's border with Gaza. July 27, 2014.
Israeli soldiers of the 155mm artillery cannons unit fire towards the Gaza Strip from their position near Israel's border with Gaza. July 27, 2014.Credit: AFP

In the massive artillery bombardment of the Gaza Strip in Operation Protective Edge, the Israel Defense Forces fired 30,000 shells, many of them into densely populated areas. That, according to figures issued by the army on July 29, after three weeks of fighting.

Artillery fire was used to extract combatants was used on several occasions. Military sources admit that since artillery fire is inaccurate, large numbers of Palestinian civilians may have been killed in these incidents.

Soldiers using artillery fire are required to keep a safe distance from other units in order to avoid hitting other IDF troops or enemy civilians. But these restrictions may be lifted when the mission is extract soldiers who are in trouble. This apparently happened on several occasions in the recent fighting.

On July 20, some 600 artillery shells were fired in less than an hour at the east Gaza City neighborhood of Shujaiyeh, in order to extract troops under fire. The required safety distances were considerably reduced, IDF figures show.

On August 1, in Rafah, more than 1,000 artillery shells were fired in the three hours following a Hamas cell’s capture of Lt. Hadar Goldin. The IDF continues to investigate the incident, which drew a great deal of international attention due to the high number of casualties.

The IDF expects foreign agencies to investigate the incident as well. This week the UN Human Rights Council appointed a team to investigate allegations of Israeli war crimes in the Gaza Strip.

The army’s investigation will focus on the conduct in the Rafah battle of the Givati Brigade, the Gaza Division and the Southern Command. It will center on the massive use of fire power in a densely populated urban area and the implementation of the so-called Hannibal Directive to thwart Goldin’s capture.

The battle in Rafah took place in a neighborhood whose civilian residents had not been evacuated by the IDF. According to Palestinian reports, 130 to 150 Palestinians, including many civilians, were killed in the fighting. In the three hours of fighting the neighborhood was pounded by more than 1,000 artillery shells and some 40 air strikes.

Some military sources told Haaretz the army has a problem explaining the controversial Hannibal Directive to many field commanders. The protocol allows for taking a calculated risk to thwart a soldier’s capture, but prohibits using massive fire that could kill the soldier with his captors.

In lectures, commanders often give the example of a situation in which a soldier has been taken on board a vehicle with his captors. While troops are permitted to shoot at the vehicle’s tires, they are not allowed to fire an artillery shell at the vehicle, which would likely kills the captive soldier.

But according to some military sources, many IDF commanders and soldiers believe that the Hannibal Directive calls for preventing a soldier’s capture at any cost, even if that means killing him.

The evidence left in the tunnel through which Goldin was abducted to Rafah and discovered the following day indicated that he was killed during the initial exchange of fire with the Hamas cell that tried to kidnap him. But at the time, IDF commanders were operating on the assumption that Goldin was still alive, and took extreme measures to thwart his abduction.

The defense establishment has set up two panels to thwart allegations of Israeli war crimes. One of them, headed by Maj. Gen. Noam Tibon, has already probed dozens of incidents in which numerous Palestinian civilians were killed. One of Tibon’s teams will also investigate the Rafah battle.

In Operation Cast Lead in 2009, the IDF fired some 8,000 artillery shells — around 4,000 smoke shells, 3,000 explosive shells and 1,000 illumination shells. Troops were ordered to avoid firing shells into densely populated areas, except in cases where they were needed to extract troops. Most of the artillery fire was directed at open areas or the outskirts of built-up areas, early in the military operation.

It is thought that at least 32,000 artillery shells were fired in Protective Edge.

A senior officer yesterday told journalists that troops in Gaza were supplied with 43,000 artillery shells. He did not say how many of them were actually fired, but said the overall cost of ordnance fired, including illumination and tank shells, came to about 1.3 billion shekels.

The officer said the troops fired more ammunition than was planned, adding that the IDF may have to make adjustments for future operations.

The IDF spokesman said that at when the operation is completed the army will conduct an in-depth investigation of Protective Edge.

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