File photo, Palestinians look for their belongings after houses were destroyed in an Israeli strike in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, August 2, 2014. Hatem Ali/AP

IDF Closes Probe Into 2014 Gaza War's Deadly 'Black Friday'

Three soldiers and dozens of Palestinians were killed in Rafah in August 2014; controversial 'Hannibal Directive' was used to thwart soldier’s abduction

Israel's military prosecution has closed the army investigation into the clash between Israel and Hamas forces at Rafah, dubbed "Black Friday," during Operation Protective Edge in mid-2014, it stated Wednesday. 

Military Advocate General Maj. Gen. Sharon Afek said he has decided against a military police inquiry into the battle. No criminal or administrative proceedings will be pursued against the commanders involved, he said, though he also admits that the inquiry revealed flaws and discrepancies.

The Israel Defense Forces announcement indicates that the number of Palestinians killed in the battle is significantly greater than the "41 people" that Israel cited at first. At least 42 armed Palestinians died, as well as up to 70 Palestinian civilians.

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The fighting at Rafah began on August 1, 2014, slightly more than an hour after one of the several failed ceasefires declared in Operation Protective Edge had begun. A Givati reconnaissance unit commanded by Major Benaya Sarel was combing a farming area in eastern Rafah for tunnels (according to the Israeli interpretation of the understandings reached in the ceasefire, it was allowed to pursue such activity in areas under Israeli control). The point men of the unit encountered a Hamas unit, which killed Sarel, the commander 1st Lt. Hadar Goldin and Staff Sgt. Liel Gidoni. The Hamas fighters then fled through a tunnel, taking what turns out to have been Goldin's body with them.

A small Givati force chased the Hamas unit into the tunnel, where they discovered objects, including Goldin's protective gear, which the Hamas men discarded.

An examination of these objects enabled the military to later declare Goldin as dead; a funeral has been held for him even though Hamas still holds his remains. The dispute over returning his body, and that of Golani Staff Sgt. Oron Shaul, is still constraining the efforts to reach an arrangement for the Gaza Strip.

Israeli soldiers sit next to a tank in a deployment area on August 02, 2014 on Israel's border with the Gaza Strip, August 2, 2014. Getty Images

Meanwhile, with Goldin presumed kidnapped, the Israeli forces switched to "Hannibal" directive, which was the Israeli army norm at that time in cases of abduction. Forces from Givati and the Armory Corps, commanded by then-Col. Ofer Winter (now Brig. Gen.), launched an assault on Rafah, hoping to thwart the abduction. At the time, the Israeli forces did not have information indicating that Goldin had already been killed at the beginning of the clash with the Hamas unit.

However, as arose from an inquiry Haaretz published a week after the incident, this was the most aggressive Hannibal directive the Israeli army ever employed.

The Hannibal directive allows forces to undertake a variety of means to foil abduction, including at the expense of the kidnapped soldier's life.

Alongside Special Forces and Givati soldiers, an armored battalion penetrated about a kilometer into the built-up area of Rafah, moving fast. The tunnel through which Goldin's remains had been taken ended at a mosque, which the Israeli forces searched; they also searched a nearby Hamas outpost and shot live fire to prevent the Israeli officer, then still presumed alive, from being moved.

After the fighting, top officers at the IDF general command said the Hannibal directive does not allow soldiers to deliberately target the kidnapped victim in order to thwart abduction. In practice, there was a discrepancy between the written directive and the instructions that junior officers and soldiers understood. Some understood that it's better to kill a kidnapped soldier than to allow the abduction to succeed.

Two years after this, the incumbent chief of staff, Gadi Eizenkot, approved another directive to handle abductions, which is clearer on what may and may not be done when trying to thwart a soldier from being snatched.

The first goal of the directive is to isolate the area where the abduction took place in order to try to prevent the kidnappers from escaping. That involves massive live fire. However, in most of the Gaza Strip during Operation Protective Edge the Israeli army first called on the residents to leave before opening fire; most did, and the fighting was with Hamas units ambushing from hiding places, with few civilians around.

In Rafah, however, that isn't how things went down.

After Goldin's abduction, a force of six battalions entered the Strip, some foot soldiers and some in armored vehicles and tanks. The forces advanced beyond the main north-south axis road, west of which was an area from which civilians were not evacuated. The army employed heavy fire to isolate the area. Artillery shells were fired at dozens of targets marked in advance along the main roads, in order to prevent the abductors from escaping.

In less than four hours of fighting, the Israeli forces shot about 1,000 artillery shells and about 240 mortar shells at Rafah.

At the same time, the advancing forces needed heavier than usual air support, because they were operating in a threatening area that had not been combed yet; they were also contending with an enemy at close range. Israeli jets bombed dozens of targets all over Rafah, including Hamas positions and forces. One of the reasons for the many civilian deaths was that many were caught between Hamas and Israeli soldiers.

In the days following the fighting, sources in Gaza claimed that Palestinian deaths were in the range of 130 to 150, almost all of whom were civilians. An Israeli army inquiry leaked to the media some weeks later claimed that 41 people had been killed. Now the military advocate general is coming up with figures that look more credible: at least 42 armed Palestinians were killed and at least 70 civilians.

Among the civilians, up to ten were killed by artillery fire and about five by tank fire; the rest died in air raids. That day the Israeli army razed 170 to 200 buildings, most of them greenhouses or other agriculture-related structures.

In one incident, near 10:50 A.M., 16 civilians died from an air raid at an intersection southwest of Rafah intersection. Based on footage of the incident, the army says, the air force dropped two bombs on homes regarding which they had intelligence, but civilians had gone into the street near these homes mere seconds before the bombs fell. There was no time to deflect them, the army says.

Palestinian sources charge that the Najar hospital in Rafah was deliberately targeted and that medical teams in ambulances were fired upon, which would be a breach of international law. The Israeli army claims it did not identify deliberate damage to the hospital, only slight damage caused by nearby fighting.

The prosecution confirms one case of firing towards an ambulance, but claims the vehicle wasn't transporting the wounded: it was transporting armed fighters of the Islamic Jihad. Twelve Palestinians were killed in that incident, of them seven who belonged to the Islamic Jihad, the army says. It has no knowledge of any civilians killed by ground forces.

The fighting in Rafah ebbed in the afternoon, and in the days that followed, the efforts to locate Goldin moved to the intelligence front.

In the four years since, three military inquiries have looked at the Rafah incident. In the last year, their findings have passed to a final examination by the military prosecution. The findings are bound in three thick files, with hundreds of documents and a pile of aerial photographs.

Calling it "doctoral dissertation," the army sources say no battle has ever been judicially studied by the IDF with such thoroughness. Dozens of officers and soldiers testified on the Israeli side; tapes of the signal network, video clips , reports and diaries were studied. The army also looked into many complaints on the Palestinian side, and studied inquiries by foreign human rights organizations, cross-checking their information with the information on the Israeli side.

Yet the final conclusions aren't far from what one might have assumed in the first place. The military advocate general is confident in his conclusions, but it's hard to see the Israeli public or politicians accepting officers being put on trial for decisions made under fire that were intended to protect the lives of soldiers and to foil abductions.

Brig. Gen. Afek and his people analyzed the battle from the legal perspective: was anything criminal done? They did not analyze the wisdom and quality of the operational moves, regarding which some reservations have been made in the course of the inquiries. Their inquiry does not indicate that Palestinian civilians were deliberately fired upon, nor does it indicate extreme negligence or indifference to their lives. Nor did the prosecution identify an atmosphere of vengeance, or lack of restraint, among the commanders and soldiers after the deaths of the soldiers and the abduction of 1st Lt. Goldin.

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