IDF clears troops in massive deadly bombardment during 2014 Gaza war

Army’s top lawyer determines that the 72 civilians killed in offensive after capture of soldier were not deliberately targeted and officers worked to prevent deaths of bystanders

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

The Israeli military’s top lawyer on Wednesday closed the case on one of the bloodiest battles of the 2014 Gaza war, deciding not to file any criminal charges against those involved in a massive shelling of southern Gaza that left 72 civilians dead, the army said.

The Israel Defense Forces also completed the investigation of seven other, lower-profile cases in which soldiers were said to have unnecessarily killed Palestinian civilians, finding that no crimes or misdeeds were committed.

The military’s findings regarding the “Black Friday” offensive, the nickname for the bombardment of the southern Gaza city of Rafah, largely matched those of the IDF Southern Command’s investigation shortly after the war. The IDF released the results of the probes in a 30-page document in Hebrew.

At 9:06 a.m. on August 1, 2014, just over an hour after the start of a humanitarian ceasefire, fighters from the Hamas terror group emerged from a tunnel in the southeastern part of Rafah and attacked a nearby IDF unit, killing two soldiers and capturing Lt. Hadar Goldin, dragging him back into their tunnel.

Six minutes later, troops in the area initiated the so-called Hannibal Protocol, a controversial order giving commanders near unlimited freedom to do anything necessary to prevent the capture of a soldier.

According to IDF figures, in the ensuing offensive, 42 armed Palestinian combatants were killed, along with 72 others, whom the military acknowledged were likely civilians. The high death toll led to the day’s events later being called “Black Friday.”

According to the army’s findings, the Israeli offensive lasted approximately 10 hours, during which time artillery cannons launched some 250 shells, tanks fired approximately 140 shells and Israeli aircraft conducted dozens of strikes against targets in the city, which is home to approximately 150,000 people.

“In media publications, in reports received by the Military Advocate General, and in requests from and documents produced by non-governmental organizations and international groups, it was alleged that the IDF during the battle acted indiscriminately and disproportionally, and mass casualties and mass destruction was caused by the way it acted,” the army said.

“The events of the battle of Rafah have been investigated in a comprehensive and professional manner by the General Staff’s investigatory mechanism. Following a thorough consideration of the findings of the investigation, Military Advocate General Maj. Gen. Sharon Afek decided that there is no cause to open a criminal investigation into the events of the battle,” the military said in a statement.

Smoke rises following what witnesses said were Israeli air strikes in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, Friday, August 1, 2014. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

The IDF said its probe found no indication that the civilian deaths were deliberate, though it recognized that it lacked sufficient evidence about all of the cases. The majority of the people killed were hit by airstrikes aimed at “military targets or combatants from terror groups,” while a smaller number were killed in the blasts from artillery and tank fire.

“However, in the case of 16 civilians, there was not enough information to tie their injuries to specific events,” the army said.

Afek also dismissed claims made by some human rights groups that Israeli soldiers in the battle were acting out of a desire to “avenge” Goldin’s capture.

According to the military, Afek’s investigation determined that commanders in the field acted “to prevent injury to uninvolved civilians.”

Givati Brigade officer Lt. Hadar Goldin, 23, from Kfar Saba, who was killed in Gaza on August 1, 2014 (photo credit: AP Photo/ Ynet News)

“The findings of the investigation indicate clearly that IDF troops were acting to prevent the capture of Lt. Hadar Goldin, may his memory be blessed, and to attack terror groups in the area, using attacks on military targets and combatants,” the IDF said in a statement.

The decision to close the cases was quickly condemned by the left-wing B’Tselem human rights group.

“The military advocate general again proves that it does not matter how many Palestinians are killed and how arbitrary the reasons are for their deaths by the army. He, standing at the head of a white-washing Israeli mechanism, will always find a way to bury the facts,” the group said.

Black Friday

Immediately following the attack by Hamas on August 1, 2014, the IDF believed that Goldin may have still been alive when he was captured. The military later determined that he had been killed in the initial attack by Hamas, in violation of a ceasefire, in which Maj. Benaya Sarel and Staff Sgt. Liel Gidoni were also killed.

Under the Hannibal Protocol, the military launched a large-scale assault in the city, using infantrymen, artillery fire, mortar shells and airstrikes.

“All claims regarding the events of the battle, including the allegation that civilian bystanders were injured, were investigated thoroughly and professionally. The review did not fight any suspicion that justified the opening of a criminal investigation,” the army said.

The military said the probe was conducted by three teams working in parallel to one another. Each team was led by a brigadier general and those involved were not part of the units that were being investigated during Operation Protective Edge, the army said.

“As part of the review, hundreds of documents, videos, radio communications and pieces of intelligence were collected, and a number of operations were conducted in order to analyze them from the viewpoint of the entire battle and specific events,” the IDF said.

This investigation, as well as one conducted by the Southern Command shortly after the war, found a number of professional failings in the conduct of troops in the field. The Hannibal Protocol, for instance, was found to have been misunderstood and was replaced with a new, clearer set of orders in 2017.

500 complaints, six convictions

During and following the war, the military received at least 500 complaints regarding 360 events. The the General Staff’s investigatory mechanism has looked into 220, completing their review of all but a few dozen, the army said.

Of these, 31 cases were determined to warrant a criminal investigation by the Military Police. All but two of them have been resolved.

These criminal proceedings have led to the convictions of six IDF soldiers, all of them for looting or for aiding and abetting looting.

“The IDF is working to complete the investigation for the all these events as quickly as possible,” the army said.

Illustrative photos of IDF troops leaving Gaza at the close of a ground operation in August 2014. (IDF Spokesperson’s Unit/ Facebook)

The seven other cases of Palestinian civilians being killed that were closed by the IDF on Wednesday were found to have either been legitimate under the rules of armed conflict or were determined not to have been perpetrated by Israeli forces.

An airstrike on a building that was believed to be housing a senior Hamas official in the Gazan city of Khan Younis on July 29, 2014, in which 35 people were killed, three of them combatants, and 27 were wounded was found to have been conducted based on incorrect information — specifically about the number of people inside the building at the time of the attack — though the military advocate general determined that the decision-making process was in line with international law requirements.

“This is true despite that in retrospect it was determined that there was a gap between the facts that were known after the attack and the information that was at the disposal of the military commander at the time that he made the decision,” the MAG wrote.

“In light of the incident, the IDF internalized a number of operational lessons in a number of different areas,” he said.

Smoke from an Israeli strike rises over Gaza City, Gaza Strip, Saturday, August 9, 2014.(photo credit: AP/Lefteris Pitarakis)

In another case, from July 21, 2014, in which the IDF was said to have killed nine Palestinian women in an attack on a building in Gaza City, the MAG found that neither the air force nor IDF Ground Forces conducted a strike in the area at that time.

“Experts assessed that the facts likely indicate that an explosion of a homemade device took place at that location,” the MAG wrote.

The women were therefore found “to have been injured as a result of activities of a group besides the IDF,” he said.

The 50-day Operation Protective Edge killed more than 2,100 Palestinians, most of them civilians, according to Palestinian sources in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip. The IDF says about half of those killed were combatants. Seventy-three Israelis were killed in the fighting, 66 of them soldiers.

Israel launched the Gaza operation first to halt rocket fire by Hamas terrorists and then to destroy a number of attack tunnels that entered Israeli territory. Hamas, an Islamist group dedicated to the destruction of the State of Israel, seized control of Gaza in a violent coup against the Palestinian Authority in 2007.

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