Revealed

Outdated Intelligence, Social Media Rumors: Behind Israel's Killing of Gaza Family

Military officials acknowledge the eight family members died in a building that hadn't been examined by Israeli intel for months, and no one checked whether any civilians were in the vicinity before the overnight strike, which the IDF is now looking into

Palestinians attend the funeral procession of members of the same family who were killed overnight in an Israeli airstrike in Dir al-Balah, November 14, 2019.
Mahmud Hams/AFP

An Israeli strike Wednesday overnight that killed eight Palestinian family members targeted a Gaza building that appeared in an outdated target database, and it was carried out without prior inspection of civilian presence at the site.

Haaretz WeeklyHaaretz

Following the attack, one of the last incidents in a two-day surge in violence between Israel and Palestinian group Islamic Jihad, the Israeli army's Arabic-language spokesman claimed that the building was a command post for an Islamic Jihad rocket launching unit in the central Strip. However, this claim was backed by unreliable information based on rumors on social media, which hadn't been verified.

The building where the family lived was on a list of potential targets, but Israeli defense officials confirmed to Haaretz that it had not been looked at over the past year or checked prior to the attack.

The officials also confirmed that they had no idea who the Palestinian whose name and picture were released by the army's Arabic-language spokesman was, stressing he wasn't known to be somehow linked to Islamic Jihad, refuting the spokesman's initial claim.

Residents of the central Gaza town of Dir al-Balah described the building that was targeted as a tin shack, but it was added months ago to the "target bank" used by the Israel Defense Forces' Southern Command as an "infrastructure target," meaning it was of interest as a site, although not because of any individual linked to it.

The army classified the site, found in a complex of dilapidated shacks and greenhouses, as a military training complex. But in the period since it was approved as a target, the changes at the complex were not looked into to determine if it still served as an Islamic Jihad site.

At 1:30 A.M., the green light was given to attack the structure and other targets using a JDAM bomb, which is used by the Israeli Air Force's fighter aircraft. This weapons system fitted on aerial bombs enables a direct hit using a GPS-based guidance system.

Defense sources confirmed that at no stage was the area checked for the presence of civilians.

According to an initial investigation the army conducted, the strike was never intended to target a given individual, despite the statement released by its spokesman, but rather to hit infrastructure used by Islamic Jihad.

Palestinians look at the scene of an Israeli air strike in the central Gaza Strip. November 14, 2019.
Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters

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 IDF is still trying to understand what the family was doing at the site, a defense source told Haaretz. The military doesn't rule out a Palestinian claim that the family had been living there for quite some time prior to the attack.

A neighbor, who said he personally knew the family, told Haaretz that they had lived there for "over 20 years." He added they were "known as simple people, living in shacks and making their living off herding and some agriculture, nothing beyond that. They … didn't come here recently or were moved here by anyone."

He also said the targeted complex isn't known to be used for any sort of military activity.

"This was a very simple, poor family, who lived from hand to mouth in a tin shack, with no water or electricity," another neighbor who knew the family told Haaretz on Thursday. "They lived of herding sheep and were known as simple, poor people. Is this the way the head of a rocket unit or a senior Islamic Jihad officer lives?"

Thousands attended the family's funeral on Thursday.The Palestinian Health Ministry identified them as Rasmi al-Sawarkah, 45; his son Muhannad, 12; Maryam, 45; Muath Mohammed, 7; Wasim Mohammed, 13; Yousra, 39; and two toddlers whose bodies were dug up from the debris on Thursday morning and whose names haven’t been released.

Dir al-Balah residents said all of them were related and lived in the same complex.

The IDF spokesman in Hebrew said in a statement that the strike targeted "terrorist infrastructure," adding: "According to the information the IDF had at the time of the strike, it was not expected that any uninvolved civilians would be harmed."

A jihadist known to no one

Following the strike, the Israeli military's Arabic-language spokesperson Avichay Adraee posted on his official social media accounts that a senior Islamic Jihad commander was killed in the strike. A man identified by Adraee as Abu Malhous was said to be in charge of the group's rocket squadrons in central Gaza.

The photo released by the Israeli army's Arabic-language spokesman.
Screenshot

Defense officials now admit it was a false statement, and defense sources told Haaretz they are unfamiliar with anyone of that name. The IDF's Intelligence Corps has no such information that correlates with Adraee's statement, and the army is examining whether the mistake stemmed from the death of a man with the same name – although he doesn't look like the person whose photo was distributed by Adraee.

Haaretz found that the false statement, which defense sources confirmed wasn't based on any intelligence gathered by Israeli security agencies, was inspired by unreliable information shared on social media, including an Israeli Telegram group.

However, senior officials gave a green light to publish the unverified information in an attempt by the IDF to display its achievements in targeting high-ranking Islamic Jihad operatives in this round of fighting, which began on Tuesday in the early morning with the assassination of Baha Abu al-Ata.  

This family's killing has been heavily criticized by Palestinian officials and citizens, also leading the United Nations envoy Nickolay Mladenov to tweet: "There is no justification to attacking civilians in Gaza, or elsewhere! Such a tragedy! My heartfelt condolences to the family of Al-Sawarkah & I wish a speedy recovery to the injured. I call on Israel to move swiftly with its investigation."

IDF officials expressed great frustration with how events unfolded, and one of them confirmed it is highly unlikely that such a key figure to the Islamic Jihad's rocket operation would be found in a shack during a round of violence. The individual who appeared in Adraee's statement is unknown to the Israeli military, the official stressed, and the information was published without consultation with officials in the field, who could have easily refuted it.

Other military officials said there was no intention to cover up the killing of a Palestinian family, and that it was an innocent mistake, while admitting the way the incident was handled and made public was unprofessional.

The IDF's spokesman in Hebrew said that "initial information" pointed to the death of an Islamic Jihad operative, but "an examination found that the information concerning his identity was uncertain. The issue is being investigated."

Noa Landau contributed to this report.