The Israel Defense Forces’ Arabic-language spokesman said on Monday that posts he made last week alleging that an Israeli airstrike on a home in the Gaza Strip, which killed a Palestinian family of eight, had targeted a terrorist may have been “imprecise.”
On Twitter and Facebook, Avichai Adraee wrote on Thursday that the strike in Deir el-Balah targeted the head of the Islamic Jihad’s rocket unit in central Gaza, whom he identified as Rasmi Abu Malhous. He included a photograph purporting to show Abu Malhous.
However, defense officials told the Haaretz daily on Friday that the IDF’s Military Intelligence and Southern Command and other Israeli security institutions have no knowledge of what appeared in Adraee’s post. The newspaper also reported that it found that the source of the spokesman’s post was information shared on a Telegram channel.
One of the military officials added that Adraee published his post without consulting or checking with “the expert echelon” in the army, which this official said could have “immediately proved that it was false.”
“On 14/11, we announced that #Rasmi Abu Malhous, who was killed in Deir al-Balah, was an official in Islamic Jihad. But information that subsequently became available raises suspicions about the credibility of that [announcement], which may not be precise,” Adraee wrote in a follow-up post on Sunday.
“Out of a belief in publicizing the truth, the most important thing, we would like to issue this clarification and leave the matter to be dealt with in the investigation, from which we will learn lessons,” he said.
According to Haaretz, the home that was targeted in the strike last Thursday morning was identified in the past as a Palestinian Islamic Jihad-controlled site, but authorities had not recently confirmed the information. The newspaper also said that it found that the aim of the strike was not to kill a Islamic Jihad commander but rather destroy infrastructure belonging to the terror group.
It also said that Deir al-Balah residents described the home as a tin shack.
Israel and terror groups in Gaza engaged in some two days of fighting last week after the Jewish state eliminated Baha Abu al-Ata, a top commander in the Islamic Jihad terror group.
During the escalation in tensions, the terror groups fired 450 or so rockets and mortars at Israel, which responded with many retaliatory strikes in Gaza.
Among the eight killed in the strike in Deir al-Balah was a 45-year-old man named Rasmi Abu Malhous, two women and five children under the age of 13. Palestinian officials said 12 others were wounded in the airstrike.
Neighbors who spoke on condition of anonymity told the Associated Press that Rasmi’s brother, who they claimed was an Islamic Jihad commander, lived in the home, but they said that he was not there at the time of the strike. Haaretz’s story did not say that an operative in the terror group lived in the house.
Another neighbor, who spoke to al-Wataniya, a Gaza-based news outlet, said the family had no involvement with terror groups in the coastal enclave.
“Those people are civilians. They are not involved in politics or anything else,” said the neighbor, whose name was not cited. “They have a number of sheep, which they live off of.”
As of Sunday afternoon, Adraee’s original post from Thursday was still online.
Asked why Adraee had not deleted the post, an IDF spokesperson said: “Right now, the two tweets are staying online.”
Adraee has nearly 1.5 million followers on Facebook and nearly 300,000 followers on Twitter.
Earlier on Sunday, 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.”
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.”
Hamas, which has ruled Gaza for over a decade, was calling for the International Criminal Court to probe the strike, officials in terror group told Fox News on Friday.
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
Abdelhaj Musleh, another neighbor, said on Thursday that the airstrike came without warning. “If there had been a warning, no one would have waited for this death and destruction,” he said.
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 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 toll of 34 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 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 noncombatants,” 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.
Judah Ari Gross, Times of Israel staff and agencies contributed to this report.