The mortar round that killed four-year-old Daniel Tragerman on the second to last day of the war in and around Gaza last summer was fired from a United Nations installation, Lt. Gen. (res) Benny Gantz, the commander of the army during the 50-day war, said on Monday.
“I will share with you my painful experience of visiting 75 [bereaved] families in the last four months of my service… I went to visit each and every family [bereaved by the Gaza war]. No media. Just them and me,” Gantz said, speaking in English at an Israel Law Center conference on the need to change the laws of war.
“I went and visited the civilians that were killed. That includes the family of Daniel Tragerman, four years old, that I was in the same kibbutz when they shot those mortars from a UN installation in Gaza.”
UNRWA Spokesman Chris Gunness said in a statement Tuesday that this allegation was made by the Israeli Army in August 2014. “However, it is false,” the statement read. “Less than 2 hours after it was first made by the Israeli army, the Israeli army itself officially retracted the claim and issued a correction through the Twitter account of its Spokesperson… It is extremely disappointing that a former head of the Israeli army should repeat an allegation publicly retracted by his own spokesperson.”
Lt. Col. Peter Lerner on August 23 wrote, in a two-part tweet, that “the school the mortar was launched near from [sic] is not being used as a shelter by UNRWA but rather a shelter maintained by Hamas authorities in Gaza.”
Lerner said Tuesday he was looking into the matter.
Gantz had happened to be visiting Kibbutz Nahal Oz — a community perched roughly one mile from the Gaza Strip — on August 22, 2014, when a mortar shell fired from Gaza landed outside the Tragerman family’s home, killing Daniel. The mortar shell landed outside and sent shrapnel smashing into the home. Daniel and his family had only a three-second warning between the sounding of the alarm and the impact of the mortar round that killed him.
Daniel’s mother Gila said at his funeral that he generally displayed an “iron discipline” about the mortar warnings. On that day, he did not make it into the reinforced “safe room” in their house in time.
The war claimed the lives of over 2,000 Palestinians, roughly half of whom are believed to have been combatants.
A UN panel last Monday submitted a summary of events affecting UN personnel and facilities during the war. The Board of Inquiry, as it’s known, reviewed and investigated seven incidents involving the loss of 44 Palestinian lives, at least 227 injured or damage at UN facilities, a statement read. The Board also reviewed three incidents involving weapons found in UNRWA schools, including instances in which Palestinian armed groups may have used UNRWA school premises to launch attacks.
Speaking of Hamas’s practice of largely targeting Israeli civilians and operating from within civilian population centers, Gantz said democratic countries must update the laws of war, returning to a period “when the laws of war were meant to limit the bad guys” and not a tool to be used by terror organizations in the asymmetric battles of today.
In the late days of the war, Hamas, frustrated by Israel’s rocket defense — which intercepted hundreds of rockets fired at civilian centers — shifted tactics, focusing on mortar rounds, which travel a shorter distance and for which Israel does not yet have an adequate defensive response.
Israel is working on making operational a laser-based defense against mortars and is weighing changing its approach to the evacuation of civilians in the line of fire. Maj. Gen. (res) Eyal Eisenberg, who was discharged after four years as head of the IDF Homefront Command in March, told The Times of Israel recently that the army would strongly consider removing citizens from the front line communities during the early days of a future conflict.
Gantz, who was speaking at the Israel Law Center’s “Toward a New Law of War” Conference in Jerusalem, illustrated the way Israel’s enemies use civilian cover by focusing on two Gaza hospitals – Shifa, in Gaza City, and Wafa, in Shujaiya. The former, he said, was used as a hiding spot for Hamas leadership throughout the war and not targeted by the IDF — “even though I knew that Hamas leadership was somewhere there underground,” he said – and Wafa was used as a Hamas operational center during the bloody battle for Shujaiya and bombed only once it was completely evacuated.
Civilian involvement in the next war, and perhaps an even higher death toll, was all but guaranteed, Gantz warned. “Let me tell you something,” he said. “It’s going to be worse next time.”
Note: this article was updated on May 5 to include UNRWA Spokesman Chris Gunness’s statement.