Rights Groups Dismiss Israeli Claim That Strike That Killed Aid Workers Was a Mistake

Destroyed buildings are seen in the Gaza Strip, as seen from southern Israel on Nov. 20, 2023. (AP)
Destroyed buildings are seen in the Gaza Strip, as seen from southern Israel on Nov. 20, 2023. (AP)
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Rights Groups Dismiss Israeli Claim That Strike That Killed Aid Workers Was a Mistake

Destroyed buildings are seen in the Gaza Strip, as seen from southern Israel on Nov. 20, 2023. (AP)
Destroyed buildings are seen in the Gaza Strip, as seen from southern Israel on Nov. 20, 2023. (AP)

Two basic mistakes, according to the Israeli military. First, an officer overlooked a message detailing the vehicles in the convoy. Second, a spotter saw something in one car – possibly a bag – that he thought was a weapon. Officials say the result was the series of Israeli drone strikes that killed seven aid workers on a dark Gaza road.

The Israeli military has described the deadly strike on the World Central Kitchen convoy as a tragic error. Its explanation raises the question: If that's the case, how often has Israel made such mistakes in its six-month-old offensive in Gaza?

Rights groups and aid workers say Monday night’s mistake was hardly an anomaly. They say the wider problem is not violations of the military’s rules of engagement but the rules themselves.

In Israel’s drive to destroy Hamas after its Oct. 7 attacks, the rights groups and aid workers say, the military seems to have given itself wide leeway to determine what is a target and how many civilian deaths it allows as “collateral damage.”

More than 33,000 Palestinians have been killed in Israel’s offensive, around two-thirds of them women and children, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry. Its count doesn't distinguish between civilians and combatants.

Israel says it is targeting Hamas fighters and infrastructure and that it tries to minimize civilian deaths. It blames the large number of civilian casualties on militants and says it's because they operate among the population. Israel says each strike goes through an assessment by legal experts, but it has not made its rules of engagement public.

OTHER STRIKES In the thousands of strikes Israel has carried out, as well as shelling and shootings in ground operations, it's impossible to know how many times a target has been wrongly identified. Nearly every day, strikes level buildings with Palestinian families inside, killing men, women and children, with no explanation of the target or independent accountability over the proportionality of the strike.

Sarit Michaeli, spokeswoman for the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, said the World Central Kitchen strike drew world attention only because foreigners were killed.

“The thought that this is a unique case, that it’s a rare example — it’s an insult to the intelligence of anyone who has been following the situation,” she said.

She said a broader investigation is needed into the rules of engagement: “The relevant questions aren’t asked because the investigations only deal with specific cases, rather than the broader policy.”

Israel’s chief military spokesman, Daniel Hagari, acknowledged, “Mistakes were conducted in the last six months.”

“We do everything we can not to harm innocent civilians,” he told reporters. “It is hard because Hamas is going with civilian clothes ... Is it a problem, is it complexity for us? Yes. Does that matter? No. We need to do more and more and more to distinguish.”

But the military hasn't specified how it will achieve this.

Brig. Gen. Benny Gal, who was part of the investigation into the World Central Kitchen strikes, was asked whether more questions should be asked before a strike is authorized.

“This was not our standards,” he said. “The standard is more questions, more details, more crossing sources. And this was not the case.”

WHITE FLAGS Palestinian witnesses have repeatedly reported people, including women and children, being shot and killed or wounded by Israeli troops while carrying white flags. Several videos have surfaced showing Palestinians being fired at or killed while seeming to pose little threat to Israeli forces nearby.

In March, the military acknowledged it shot dead two Palestinians and wounded a third while walking on a Gaza beach. It said troops opened fire after the men allegedly ignored warning shots. It reacted after the news channel Al Jazeera showed footage of one of the men falling to the ground while walking in an open area and then a bulldozer pushing two bodies into the garbage-strewn sand. It said at least two of the three men were waving white flags.

Aid groups have also reported strikes on their personnel.

Medical Aid for Palestine said its residential compound in the southern area of Muwasi – which the military had defined as a safe zone – was hit in January by what the UN determined was a 1,000-pound bomb. Several team members were injured and the building damaged, the group said.

The group said the Israeli military gave it multiple explanations – denying involvement, saying it was trying to hit a target nearby and blaming a missile that went astray. “The variety of responses highlights a continued lack of transparency,” the group said.

The medical charity Doctors Without Borders said a tank shelled a house sheltering its staff and their families in Muwasi in February, killing one staffer's wife and daughter-in-law.

Both groups said they had informed the military repeatedly of their locations and clearly marked the buildings.

Israeli admissions of mistakes are rare.

In December, after a strike killed at least 106 people in the Maghazi camp, the military said buildings near the target were also hit, likely causing “unintended harm to additional uninvolved civilians.” It also admitted soldiers mistakenly shot to death three Israeli hostages who were waving white flags after getting out of Hamas captivity in Gaza City.

‘THE PATTERN’ In Israel’s ground assaults, troops are operating in urban environments, searching for Hamas fighters while surrounded by a population hunkering in their homes and in motion, trying to flee or find food and medical care.

Some Israeli politicians and news outlets regularly proclaim there are no innocents in Gaza. And in some videos circulated online, soldiers talk of getting vengeance for the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks that sparked the war.

In that atmosphere, Palestinians and other critics say, soldiers on the ground appear to have wide liberty in deciding whether to target someone as suspicious. Residents and medical staff in Gaza say they see the result.

Dr. Tanya Haj-Hassan, a doctor with Medical Aid for Palestinians who just returned from two weeks at a Gaza hospital, said staff regularly treated children and elderly shot by snipers.

“It’s not an anomaly. It’s actually the pattern,” she told journalists in a briefing this week. “I don’t think it’s that children in particular are singled out as targets. The understanding and kind of the conclusion you reach ... is that everybody’s a target.”

Chris Cobb-Smith, a former British army and weapons expert who's done research and security missions in Gaza, said that if there was a breakdown in communication in the case of the World Central Kitchen strike, “for a professional army, this is inexcusable.”

“There seems to be a consistent pattern of utterly reckless behavior,” said Cobb-Smith, who helped investigate the Doctors Without Borders shelling.

Chris Lincoln-Jones, a former British intelligence staff officer who has worked in the defense industry including alongside an Israeli drone manufacturer, said the investigation showed unprofessional actions and poor command and control: “They don’t operate proper battle space management.”

Even if a gunman had been in the car with aid personnel, he said, it wouldn't justify a strike “unless the gunman was actually shooting at someone from the car.”

“No way that a NATO drone pilot would do that. I would expect to be prosecuted for doing that. I would expect to face the possibility of prison.”



Gaza High School Students Miss Final Exams as War Rages

 Destroyed buildings are pictured in Gaza, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, as seen near the Gaza coast, June 25, 2024. (Reuters)
Destroyed buildings are pictured in Gaza, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, as seen near the Gaza coast, June 25, 2024. (Reuters)
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Gaza High School Students Miss Final Exams as War Rages

 Destroyed buildings are pictured in Gaza, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, as seen near the Gaza coast, June 25, 2024. (Reuters)
Destroyed buildings are pictured in Gaza, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, as seen near the Gaza coast, June 25, 2024. (Reuters)

Majd Hamad, 18, dreams of becoming a doctor but the war in Gaza has left his textbooks buried under rubble amid relentless Israeli bombardment and has forced him, along with thousands of other young Palestinians, to miss his final high school exams.

"I was displaced from my house, and there were many books in there. I was hoping to get high grades (to get into university), but my house was destroyed and my books remain under the rubble," said Hamad.

Ironically, Hamad and his family are now living in a classroom at a school designated as a shelter after being forced early in the war to flee their home in Beit Hanoun in the northern Gaza Strip and move to Khan Younis in the south.

"I'm sad that I missed this school year. Sad because I would have been taking exams in this classroom where I currently live. I was hoping to get high grades and to graduate from this class and become a doctor," Hamad told Reuters.

"The war has destroyed many of our dreams, destroyed the dreams of many young people who were aiming high. It has left us with no energy or morale," said Hamad.

Palestinian officials say it is the first time in decades that high school exams are going ahead this month without the participation of students in Gaza.

Some 40,000 high school students in Gaza would normally be taking their final exams this month. A further 10,000 are doing so in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and the diaspora, and they would usually all take the exams at the same time.

Life for Hamad and his family, as for most of Gaza's 2.3 million residents, has instead become a daily struggle to survive amid Israel's military onslaught, the spread of hunger and shortages of basis items. He spends his days collecting water to drink and cleaning the classroom that is now home.

'BOOKS, NOT BOMBS'

Gaza's Education Ministry said in a statement that 450 high school students had been killed since the war erupted last October. Other Palestinian data showed more than 350 teachers and academics have been killed, while all 12 of Gaza's higher education institutions have been destroyed or damaged.

The current war began on Oct. 7 when fighters from Hamas, the group which has been running Gaza, attacked Israel, killing 1,200 people and taking 250 hostages, according to Israeli tallies.

The ensuing Israeli offensive has so far killed more than 37,600 Palestinians, Gaza health officials say, and laid waste to most of the tiny, densely-populated enclave.

An estimated 1,090 Gaza high school students will sit exams on Saturday in Cairo after they and their families managed to cross into Egypt before Israeli forces shut the border in May.

"Books, not bombs" read a banner held by one high school student during a gathering in Gaza last Saturday.

Back in Khan Younis, Hamad's mother Noha said they had hoped the war would end quickly and that he could return to his studies.

"But the war has gone on for a long time, it's destroyed us... I imagined that Majd would graduate from this class and (eventually) become a doctor. He would graduate and we would be happy for him, but this class has now become a shelter for us," she said.