Three months after the conclusion of the Israeli offensive in Gaza, the Israel Defense Forces admits that alongside Operation Cast Lead's impressive achievements, there were several mishaps, some of which resulted in the unfortunate loss of Palestinian civilian lives.
Nevertheless, IDF Deputy Chief of Staff Major-General Dan Harel stressed that the numbers of these operational malfunctions was small, adding that "each case has been investigated and we are learning their lessons.
Hamas, he added, must shoulder some of the blame since "it placed civilians in the front lines. None of the investigations conducted so far has turned up so much as one case in which an Israeli soldier deliberately targeted Palestinian civilians, and should any such case be found, we will deal with it to the full extent."
Operation Cast Lead's debriefings will be fully concluded in two months time, when all the military units taking part in the operation finish reviewing their operations in the field.
Five teams named by IDF Chief of Staff Lieutenant-General Gabi Ashkenazi, which have been simultaneously conducting an independent investigation into several incidents questioned by various human right groups – both international and Palestinian – also stand to turn in their findings shortly.
One of the first issues probed by the defense establishment was the use of phosphorus shells. The IDF stressed that the Navy's use of the shells adhered to the restrictions posed by international law, but following the criticism voice over their use, the military decided to halt such fire on January 7.
Nonetheless, several incidents in which phosphorus shells were used were recorded after the cease and desist order was given – a fact the IDF attributed to the directive not reaching all troops – but even then, the fire complied with international law restrictions.
As for the use of smoke bombs containing phosphorus, the IDF said such applications were restricted to camouflage use. Smoke bombs, said the report, pose no threat to human beings, they are a necessary part of combat and should they be needed in the future they will be used again.
Mistakes in the field
The most severe operational failure investigated took place during Cast Lead's sixth day, in the east Gaza City neighborhood of Zeitoun: IDF forces were gearing to attack an arms warehouse adjacent to a civilian home. As a result of faulty intelligence, the Air Force was given the wrong coordinates and shelled the house, instead of the warehouse, killing 21 members of the same family.
The military said that the regrettable incident, grave as it may be, was the result of a professional mistake, which could occur during intensive fighting in urban terrain.
A senior IDF source told Ynet that although the results of the investigation would be turned over to the Judge Advocate General for further review, it was unlikely that the indicated would be ruled as an act of neglect or premeditation, and therefore those involved were unlikely to face criminal charges.
Other incidents probed concern claims of fire on United Nations and other internationally-owned facilities. One of the cases investigated is the alleged targeting on an UNRWA school, Fakhura, in the northern Gaza neighborhood of Jabalya.
The Palestinians initially claimed 40 people were killed in the ill-fated strike, but the IDF found that forces in the field were firing at a Hamas cell engaged in launching rockets. The military deduced that between 12 and 17 people were killed, five of whom were confirmed Hamas terrorists – and that the school was never hit.
Another investigation focused on two alleged strikes on a Red Cross warehouse in the Tel Hawwa neighborhood in Gaza City. The IDF found that in both cases, the Israeli forces were returning enemy fire. The facility was never directly targeted, although flash fire did ensue the fighting.
According to military data, only a handful of UN facilities were damaged during the Gaza offensive, and only one case indicated that a soldier violated fire protocol and hit a UN vehicle – for which he faced disciplinary proceedings.
Another military investigation was launched into incidents involving fire on medical facilities, vehicles and personnel in the Gaza Strip.
The IDF was also able to unequivocally ascertain the fact that Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh set up his headquarters inside Gaza's Shifa Hospital, which was also used as an operational headquarters by other Hamas leaders. The military found that Hamas operatives also took over the hospital's basement ward, closing it off to civilians.
the investigation also found that five of the seven medical professionals killed the operation were, in fact, Hamas operatives.
Another inquest probed the January 4 event which left senior Hamas operative Nazar Rayan dead. The IAF was ordered to strike four weapon warehouses hidden inside residential homes. The military placed calls to all four venues, in an attempt to warn any civilians away and the IAF conducted an advance-fire maneuver near the premises prior to striking. Nevertheless, 16 civilians were killed in the strike. The IDF maintains it did not know the Rayan family members remained on the premises.
The IDF also looked into a December 29 strike on a truck transporting rockets. The truck was targeted after the military's data indicated that the cargo was made up of rockets, but it later turned out to be carrying oxygen tanks. The military concluded that the truck's proximity to a Hamas hub led to the strike. Four of the eight people killed in the incident were confirmed to be Hamas operatives.
Major-General Harel pointed out that according to defense establishment intelligence, 709 out of the 1,167 Palestinian fatalities in Operation Cast Lead were Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorist and 295 were civilians. The affiliation of the remaining 162 fatalities, he said, has so far been impossible to ascertain.
Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee Chairman Tzahi Hanegbi (Kadima) said that the findings of the IDF's inquiries into Operation Cast Lead "refutes serious suspicions that IDF soldiers acted against ethical values and battle morals."
"I will summon Chief of Staffi Ashkenazi, before the committee so that he may present the report's conclusions in full."
Defense Minister Ehud Barak said that the IDF's investigation "proved once more that the IDF is one of the most ethical militaries in the world and that it is not afraid to probe itself.
"The IDF launched the Gaza operation after eight year of Israeli citizens being under constant fire. We regret the loss of innocent lives, but that is solely the Hamas' responsibility."