Target of Gaza Strike That Killed Family of Nine Was 'Miscategorized,' Israeli Army Finds

The compound where the Sawarka family lived was erroneously marked as 'military.' An accurate definition would have meant the Israeli strike wouldn’t have been carried out at all

Yaniv Kubovich
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Mourners prepare for prayers over the bodies of Rafat Ayyad and his two sons, who were killed in an Israeli airstrike, during their funeral at a mosque in Gaza City, November 13, 2019.
Mourners prepare for prayers over the bodies of Rafat Ayyad and his two sons, who were killed in an Israeli airstrike, during their funeral at a mosque in Gaza City, November 13, 2019.Credit: Adel Hana/AP
Yaniv Kubovich

The Israeli army said Tuesday that a Gaza complex hit in an Israeli strike last month, causing the death of nine family members, including children, was erroneously categorized as a "military compound" used by Islamic Jihad.

The shack of the Sawarkah family in Dir al-Balah in central Gaza was targeted toward the end of the two-day flare-up in the enclave after Israel assassinated Islamic jihad leader Baha Abu al-Ata in mid-November.

After concluding its investigation into the matter, the army said that the intelligence gathered showed that the family's shack was part of a "compound of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror organization, and that military activity was carried out there in the past as well as during [the] operation."

However, the investigation found that the targeted premises should have been marked as a civilian complex "with some military activity," rather than simply a military compound, as it was defined prior to the strike.

This definition affects the army's assessment of the potential scope of civilian casualties. Were it accurately defined, such a target wouldn't have been struck in what was considered a low-intensity operation, and in any case would have employed a "knock on the roof" warning – firing a small missile, without an explosive warhead – to give civilians time to escape.

In addition, the investigation indicated that while planning and executing the strike, the Israel Defense Forces predicted that uninvolved civilians wouldn't be harmed. Moreover, the army added that the "target was confirmed according to intelligence collected by the Southern Command in June, in accordance to the relevant intelligence methods, followed by several verifications, the last one being just a few days prior to the strike."

The investigation also shows that while military activity was carried out in the targeted compound, it wasn't a closed compound, with civilians in it. The summary of the investigation included several recommendations aiming at reducing as much as possible the possibility that such unusual incidents will happen in the future.

A military official said the Palestinian armed groups it fights in Gaza "are using civilian population, deliberately operating from within" civilian centers, and therefore the army is looking for solutions to minimize civilian casualties. "Even when the IDF is required to operate in such complex conditions, it will continue to investigate incidents in which uninvolved citizens are harmed, and will draw the proper conclusions."

During the two days of fighting, the army said, "some 25 terror operatives, who were responsible for rocket fire at Israel and more complex terror activities, were neutralized," adding that some 100 Islamic Jihad targets were struck, among them weapons manufacturing compounds and military outposts.

"As a result of these actions, which were carried out on the basis of intensive intelligence gathering over the past months, significant damage was caused to Islamic Jihad," the army said.

Furthermore, the army said that Israel's aerial defense systems intercepted 90 percent of the rockets fired toward Israel during the surge of violence, adding that defense efforts led by the Gaza Division prevented much more complex terror attacks along the border fence. 

After receiving the findings of the investigation, Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi instructed a series of new procedures and regulations, specifically on how targets are decided on and confirmed before any military action.

Following the incident, Haaretz investigation revealed that Israeli defense sources confirmed that at no stage was the area checked for the presence of civilians.

Contrary to statements given to the media, defense sources confirmed that the site was a complex of shacks – a target that even if used by the Palestinian group would not have much significance or harm its capabilities. Senior defense officials told Haaretz the target was approved in the past according to protocol, but had not been reexamined since.  

“The view in the Israel Defense Forces is that success is measured by how many targets you create, the number of new targets that are entered into the database,” an Air Force officer told Haaretz this month.

In the weeks that have passed since the army bombed the home of the Sawarka family, he has been privy to the active debate over that operation.

The IDF’s claim that the target was “verified,” that is checked a few days before the attack, made him and many other officers and soldiers in Military Intelligence and the Air Force’s intelligence branch uncomfortable. “In such discussions,” says the officer about the validation process, “mostly there is no significant intelligence activity dealing with a target that already exists, because it is more important to create new targets. That is what they count for you in the end.”

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