Social media posts by the military’s Arabic-language spokesman falsely claiming that an airstrike that killed a family of eight last week had targeted a terrorist remained online Sunday, over two days after the Israel Defense Forces acknowledged that the information contained in them was incorrect.
On Twitter and Facebook, IDF Arabic-language spokesperson Avichay Adraee on Thursday wrote that the strike in Deir el-Balah in central Gaza targeted the head of the Islamic Jihad’s rocket unit, whom he identified as Rasmi Abu Malhous, including a photograph purporting to show him.
However, no such figure exists in the Islamic Jihad organization, IDF officials told the Haaretz newspaper on Friday, and Adraee’s claim appeared to have been based on false rumors that were spread on civilian channels on the Telegram application.
As of early Sunday morning, Adraee’s posts remained online without any clarification or acknowledgment that the information contained in them was untrue.
Adraee has nearly 1.5 million followers on Facebook and nearly 300,000 followers on Twitter.
In response to a Times of Israel query on the IDF’s decision to leave its false social media posts online, the military said in a statement that Adraee’s post was written on the basis of the information that was initially received, and that the strike as well as the identification of Abu Malhous were under investigation.
“Initial information showed that an Islamic Jihad operative was killed in the strike, apparently a commander in the Islamic Jihad rocket unit. This was also posted in the IDF Spokesperson’s social media account in Arabic,” the statement read.
“An initial review showed that the information regarding his identity is not certain. The subject of his identity, as well as the harm caused to civilians by the strike, is being further reviewed.”
On Friday the IDF said it was probing the circumstances that led to the strike.
“According to the information available to the IDF at the time of the strike, no civilians were expected to be harmed,” the military said. “The IDF is investigating the harm caused to civilians by the strike.”
According to Haaretz, which broke the story, the home that was targeted in the late-night strike was identified in the past as a Palestinian Islamic Jihad-controlled site, but the information had not been confirmed recently and appeared to be out of date. Neighbors of the family killed in the strike said they were not involved with the terror group.
“I live next to them. From the force of the strike, the tin shack I live in flew into the air. There’s no [military] infrastructure connected to the [Islamic] Jihad or anyone else,” a neighbor told Israel’s Kan public broadcaster on Saturday.
Palestinian officials said 12 others were wounded in the airstrike. The Hamas-run Health Ministry said all of the fatalities in the strike were civilians.
The United Nations envoy for the Middle East on Friday called on Israel “to move swiftly” with its investigation into the strike.
“There is no justification to attacking civilians in #Gaza, or elsewhere. Such a tragedy!,” Nickolay Mladenov tweeted. “I call on #Israel to move swiftly with its investigation.”
Gaza’s Hamas rulers were planning on calling for the International Criminal Court to probe the strike, officials told the Fox News correspondent in the Strip.
NEW: Hamas is calling on the ICC to investigate Israel for committing a war crime by conducting the strikes that killed eight family members in Deir al-Balah on Wednesday, officials tell Fox News
— Trey Yingst (@TreyYingst) November 15, 2019
Nearby residents said the airstrike came without warning. With fighting raging between Israel and Islamic Jihad terrorists throughout Gaza, two loud blasts shook the night, destroying the Abu Malhous home and killing eight members of the family in a split second.
Rasmi Abu Malhous was killed, along with his wife, sister-in-law and five children under the age of 13, including his 7-year-old son and two nephews, aged 2 and 3.
Abdelhaj Musleh, a neighbor, said many children lived in the house. “If there had been a warning, no one would have waited for this death and destruction,” he said.
The neighbors claimed he was not involved in any terrorist activity and the family had been living in the building for 20 years.
The home was virtually disintegrated by the blast, leaving a large crater with kitchenware, pillows and mattresses strewn about. Neighbors dug out eight bodies and tried to salvage some school backpacks and clothes.
“When we came, we did not recognize where the house was standing,” said Musleh, the neighbor. “The airstrike intentionally targeted civilians.”
While the Israeli military said as many as 25 terrorists were killed in the days of fighting, Palestinian human rights monitors said the dead included 18 terror operatives and 16 civilians. They included three women and eight minors.
As Israel claims victory in its latest battle against Gaza terror groups, its tactics of carrying out airstrikes on private homes suspected of harboring terrorists could once again come under scrutiny over the civilian death toll.
Palestinian terrorists also have come under international criticism for firing rockets indiscriminately at Israeli civilian areas. Over the course of several days of fighting last week, Islamic Jihad fired some 450 rockets toward Israel, with most landing in open areas or being intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome defense system.
Since Hamas seized power in Gaza in 2007, Israel has fought three wars and dozens of skirmishes against terrorist groups. While the wars have inflicted heavy damage on Hamas and the smaller Islamic Jihad group, hundreds of civilians have also died in Israeli airstrikes.
The civilian death toll has drawn heavy international criticism, and the International Criminal Court in The Hague has opened a preliminary investigation into Israel’s battlefield tactics.
Israel rejects the criticism, saying it takes numerous precautions to prevent unnecessary civilian casualties.
It says its targets are based on sophisticated intelligence and cleared by legal advisers and other experts, and that it often warns inhabitants to evacuate before their homes are struck. It says it has fine-tuned its guided missiles, delivering small payloads that minimize damage beyond the precise target.
“Our operations against the Islamic Jihad were very accurate, very deliberate, based on the highest level of intelligence that we have,” Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, a military spokesman, told reporters Thursday after a ceasefire was declared.
“One of the key considerations was and remains to limit to the greatest extent possible collateral damage and the effect on non-combatants,” he added.
Israel argues that civilian casualties are inevitable in Gaza’s densely populated urban environment. Terrorists often fire rockets from crowded residential areas, drawing Israeli retaliatory strikes, and Israel accuses the terrorists of using civilians, including their own families, as human shields.
Times of Israel staff and agencies contributed to this report.