Fresh details was released Friday of a deadly battle in the Gaza Strip neighborhood of Shejaiya a month ago in which seven Golani Brigade soldiers were killed. The remains of one of the seven, Sgt. Oron Shaul, are believed to be held by Hamas operatives.
Published after the army completed the first stage of an investigation into the incident, the details released Friday traced the events that apparently enabled Hamas to snatch Shaul’s body shortly after he was killed.
The battle in Shejaiya, a Hamas stronghold close to the Israel-Gaza border, began overnight Saturday-Sunday on July 19-20, two days after Israel launched a ground offensive focused on finding and demolishing Hamas’s cross-border attack tunnels and thwarting rocket fire.
In the early hours of Sunday, a 1970s-model IDF armored personnel carrier stalled in one of the neighborhood’s narrow streets, and a soldier and an officer exited the vehicle to try and fix the problem. Shortly thereafter, Hamas gunmen fired an anti-tank missile at the APC. The vehicle exploded and burst into flames, causing immense damage and presumably killing all seven soldiers inside within seconds. The soldier and officer who had exited the vehicle survived the attack.
An army drone, which had been summoned to provide visuals from above, recorded infrared images of 5 people scattering near the vehicle, but the IDF could not determine their identities, the Walla news site reported Friday.
At that point, the Golani Brigade’s command, assessing that the soldiers in the APC had been killed, ordered other soldiers in the field to converge on the APC and evacuate body parts from within the vehicle. However, the soldiers were wary of nearing the APC, as they feared weaponry inside could set off a secondary explosion at any moment. The soldiers also reported hearing shouting in Arabic in the vicinity of the APC, according to Walla.
Golani Command decided to summon IDF combat engineers to erect a dirt barrier around the APC and seclude it from the surrounding area. The subsequent IDF investigation concluded that Hamas gunmen had already reached the vehicle and taken parts of Shaul’s body by this time. Hamas later released an ID photo of Shaul, along with his army ID number.
Golani Command did not institute a Hannibal Protocol — an IDF procedure under which soldiers are instructed to take extraordinary measures to thwart an abduction attempt; the procedure was ordered, by contrast, when the body of Hadar Goldin was seized in Rafah on August 1. The failure to declare the protocol was heavily criticized by military officials in the days following the incident.
By dawn Sunday, with the APC still ablaze, IDF officials ordered engineers to tow the vehicle back across the border and into Israel, in part to prevent Hamas from taking daylight propaganda photographs of it on fire. During the towing process, the engineers, under constant threat of fire from surrounding buildings, inadvertently drove over and buried partial remains of some of the dead soldiers. Remains also fell out of the stricken vehicle as it was being pulled back toward Israeli territory. Military tractors were later sent in to Shejaiya to collect a large amount of sand from the area which may have contained body parts.
After careful forensic work, the army was able to identify the remains of six of the seven soldiers who were killed in the APC blast, but no traces of Shaul, the seventh soldier, were found. Nonetheless, on July 25, a special IDF ethics committee ruled that sufficient evidence existed to determine that Shaul was killed in the attack. IDF Chief Rabbi Brig. Gen. Rafi Peretz notified the soldier’s family that Shaul was designated a fallen soldier “whose place of burial is unknown.”
On August 10, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon told Shaul’s family that his body was held by Hamas. Ya’alon stressed that the government was doing everything in its power in order to bring Shaul’s body back to Israel for burial.
Earlier that day, the ZAKA International Rescue and Recovery organization sent a letter to UN envoy Robert Serry, asking for permission to enter Gaza in order to retrieve the remains of Shaul and of Lt. Goldin, killed by Hamas gunmen during an ambush in Rafah on August 1 that breached a temporary US- and UN-brokered truce.
“Given our decades of experience as a UN-recognized international humanitarian volunteer organization in recovering human remains of disaster victims, we turn to you, as the UN Representative in the Middle East, to help facilitate the return of the soldiers’ body parts,” the ZAKA letter read.
Egyptian media reported early August that as part of ceasefire talks in Cairo, Israel was negotiating indirectly with Hamas for the return of the remains of Shaul and Goldin, in return for freeing Hamas captives from the past few weeks of combat. According to Channel 2, reports indicated that Israel would return eight bodies and some 15 captured Hamas gunmen. Israeli officials were later quoted as denying the reports, and branding them as psychological warfare.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has requested that the International Committee of the Red Cross assist in locating the bodies of the two soldiers and returning them to their families for burial.
A funeral was held for Goldin on August 3, and a coffin was interred. No funeral has been held for Shaul.
Adiv Sterman contributed to this report