'You Can’t Knock on Their Door': Israel Strikes Some Gaza Targets Without Checking for Civilians in Real Time

The killing of the al-Sawarkah family reveals failures in 'fire and forget' attacks, where pilots don't see the target and intelligence isn't updated

Yaniv Kubovich
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Palestinians gather around crater following an Israeli air strike at Deir al-Balah in the southern Gaza Strip, November 14, 2019.
Palestinians gather around crater following an Israeli air strike at Deir al-Balah in the southern Gaza Strip, November 14, 2019.Credit: AFP
Yaniv Kubovich

Two weeks since the air force attack in Deir el-Balah that killed nine members of the Sawarkah family, who were living in a structure that the army had defined as an Islamic Jihad “terror infrastructure,” the Israel Defense Forces are still investigating why the green light to bomb the building wasn’t based on updated information.

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 50

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But an inquiry conducted by Haaretz shows that this conduct isn’t unusual. According to sources in the defense establishment, the IDF often bombs terror targets in Gaza that were included in its target bank long before the strike without checking in real time whether there are civilians at the site or whether the site has been converted into residences.

The IDF is continuing to claim that the structure bombed was an Islamic Jihad “training installation.” Security sources familiar with the incident say it wasn’t a family home, but shacks with embankments and surrounding fences typical of a training compound. However, a photo of the structure from 10 months ago obtained by Haaretz shows the site had one small shack surrounded by a torn fence that allowed free access and that there were no embankments. On the other hand, there were also no visible items of the type associated with a family dwelling or the presence of children.

After it was revealed that the information on the structure was not updated before it was bombed, the army argued that it had done another check a few days before the bombing. However, the last check dealt with the conditions for a strike and the restrictions imposed on it – but the building’s situation and updated intelligence information were not checked. The family’s neighbors say that in recent years the building was occupied by civilians.

Southern Command head Maj. Gen. Herzi Halevi said this week, “Such things can happen. We weren’t surprised by it, while on the other hand this was not a result that we wanted.” In an interview with Army Radio, Halevi repeated the claims that the compound “served Islamic Jihad for several rounds of clearly military activity,” and said, “We act meticulously.”

He added, “We know [how] to attack slowly and more carefully, but our job is to look at the entire equation. If we attack slowly and act too carefully, it’s liable to harm us. The dilemma is between the residents of the south and the residents of Gaza. If you know that you are living near terror infrastructure, then leave the area when the escalation starts.”

A security source said that if the army classifies a place as “terror infrastructure” there are very few restrictions on attacking it, especially if it’s in an agricultural region or distant from a residential area. He said the assumption is that there are not meant to be civilians in military installations and that those harmed will be terror operatives staying in the site. “Targets like a warehouse for weapons aren’t always checked [again] by the IDF before an attack; there’s no way for the IDF to check that,” he said. “You can’t knock on their door.”

Noting that during a war thousands of targets may be attacked in a day, it’s impossible to examine every target in real time or document it before striking, said the source. He added most terror infrastructures are bombed on a “fire and forget” basis, with the pilot never even seeing the target.

After the strike, the IDF clarified that in all the recent rounds of operations in Gaza, only terror infrastructures were targeted and that no other incident similar to the Deir Al-Balah one had occurred.

A military source said that there are some intelligence sources that still believe that the area was an Islamic Jihad training compound. While the army argues that the selection of targets and planning of the assault “were done in accordance with the mandatory instructions,” the IDF refuses to explain what the “mandatory instructions” are, arguing that, “We’re talking about operational procedures and intelligence methods that cannot be revealed.”

Last year, human rights activists filed suit to get information from the IDF on the procedure for attacking targets in the West Bank and Gaza, and Tel Aviv District Court Judge Shaul Shohat ordered the army to hand over a summary of the procedures that did not include classified information. The document given to attorney Eitay Mack, representing the human rights activists, noted that, “Legal advisers are involved in some of the missions of planning the validity of the targets, with a stress on the process of approving the targets in advance.” In other words, lawyers may examine the targets when they are included in the target bank, but there is no obligation to review the information when a possible attack is imminent.

A senior security source who was heavily involved in the IDF’s activity in recent years and is very familiar with target choices and the approval of attacks, told Haaretz that, “When a target is put into the [target] bank, the operational conditions for attacking it are not updated; they are determined when it’s inserted into [the bank on the basis of] intelligence.”

He added that some of the information about targets comes from sources that are not professional and may be influenced by a dispute among neighbors or a business dispute. “Everything should be done to examine the information, but to say that this can always be done is not accurate,” he said.

After the attack, MK Merav Michaeli (Labor) submitted a query to Deputy Defense Minister Avi Dichter, in which she asked about the procedures for setting targets, how often their relevance is checked, whether the IDF attacks targets that aren’t updated and if this doesn’t constitute a waste of money and undermine the army’s effectiveness. In his response Dichter also noted the possibility of unreliable information, adding, “Sometimes there are limitations on checking the validity of targets and one must decide whether to attack despite the time that’s passed,” said Dichter, adding “I suggest that we wait for the [results] of the inquiry.”

The IDF Spokesperson said in response, “As reported by the IDF, structures were attacked in this incident that were implicated as an Islamic Jihad infrastructure. These buildings were first selected as a military target after being incriminated several months ago, and professionals validated this incrimination again a few days before the attack.

“From the initial investigation, the selection of the target and the planning of the attack were done in accordance with the IDF’s mandatory instructions. In keeping with the information the IDF had at its disposal when the attack was carried out, it was not expected that noncombatant civilians would be hurt in the strike. The IDF regrets any harm to uninvolved civilians and regularly takes varied operational and intelligence steps to prevent, to the degree possible, harm to them because of attacks on military targets. The IDF is investigating the various aspects of this incident.”