IDF probing alleged violations of regulations and international law during war on Hamas

Team said planning to look at airstrike on senior Hamas leader that allegedly killed dozens of civilians, demolition of university campus, and 3 hostages mistakenly shot by troops

Palestinians look at a house destroyed in an Israeli strike in Rafah, Gaza Strip, February 5, 2024. (Hatem Ali/AP)
Palestinians look at a house destroyed in an Israeli strike in Rafah, Gaza Strip, February 5, 2024. (Hatem Ali/AP)

The Israel Defense Forces has launched an internal probe of possible violations of international law by troops during the ongoing war against the Hamas terror group in the Gaza Strip, the Haaretz daily reported Tuesday.

A specially formed team of investigators will look into various incidents, including the alleged killing of dozens of civilians in a strike that targeted a Hamas commander and the mistaken shooting of three escaped Israeli hostages who were abducted from Israel during the devastating Hamas October 7 attack that sparked the war.

IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi appointed former military Operations Directorate chief Yoav Har-Even to lead the team. It will operate under the auspices of the military’s top-tier General Staff Fact-Finding Assessment Mechanism.

IDF Advocate General Brig. Gen. Yifat Tomer-Yerushalmi has given the team authorization to begin work.

The IDF confirmed the developments to Haaretz, saying in a statement the investigation would “examine reports and complaints regarding the violation of Israeli and international law during the fighting.”

“The mechanism has begun the process of collecting data and information about the various events that took place during the fighting and is in the initial probe stages.” the IDF said.

Yifat Tomer-Yerushalmi, Israel Defense Forces military advocate general, in Jerusalem on February 8, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90 )

The team has already met several times recently to prioritize a list of incidents it intends to look into, the report said. The team will present its findings to the military advocate, which will decide whether to open a military police investigation into any of the cases.

According to Haaretz, in most of the cases on the list, there were many civilian casualties or there was significant damage to sites such as hospitals, educational institutes, and administrative buildings.

One incident that will be examined is the targeted strike on Ibrahim Biari, Hamas’s Central Jabaliya Battalion commander, during which dozens of civilians were said to have been killed.

The team will also probe the bombing of the Red Cresent headquarters in southern Gaza’s Khan Younis last month. According to the Red Crescent, five people were killed and three others were wounded in the strike. At least 14,000 displaced people were sheltering in the building and a nearby hospital, it said.

Another case is expected to be the demolition of the Israa University campus last month. The destruction of educational sites requires approval by the IDF chief of staff and a legal opinion backing the military need to damage the site.

Head of IDF Southern Command Maj. Gen. Yaron Finkelman already probed the incident and the findings were presented to Halevi. It found that the demolition did not have the appropriate approval. Halevi ordered significant disciplinary measures against the engineering forces involved, Haaretz reported.

The IDF said at the time that the campus and its surroundings were used by Hamas to attack Israeli forces but admitted that bringing down the building had not been given the required authorization.

A picture taken from Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip shows smoke rising over buildings in Khan Younis in the distance, following Israeli bombardment on February 5, 2024 as fighting continues between Israel and Hamas. (SAID KHATIB / AFP)

The team will also probe the fatal shooting of three Israeli hostages who escaped captivity and tried to present themselves to soldiers while waving a white banner and with their hands raised. Tragically, troops opened fire on Yotam Haim, Samar Talalka, and Alon Lulu Shamriz, killing all three.

Although there has already been a probe of the matter, the results of which were presented to the families of the hostages and the military advocate, the latter asked the new probe team for additional investigative material. Based on the final results, a decision will be made on whether to open a military police investigation into the unit that opened fire on the hostages, and whether to file indictments.

Military investigators are already looking into incidents in which soldiers are said to have set fire to hundreds of buildings in Gaza. Halevi has also spoken to commanders about the phenomenon, stressing to them that it is prohibited and illegal.

Sources told Haaretz that Halevi’s warnings have had only limited success in curbing the setting of fires. While in some cases commanders reportedly ordered the torching of buildings used by Hamas because there were not enough demolition charges to destroy the structures, the practice has allegedly become more commonplace, with soldiers starting fires without any authorization.

The probe will also look at the deaths of 21 reserve soldiers during the planned demolition of a building that went awry when Hamas fighters attacked the force, causing explosives to detonate prematurely.

A building in southern Gaza’s Khan Younis smolders following fighting between IDF troops and Hamas operatives, January 29, 2024. (Emanuel Fabian/Times of Israel)

However, the probe will not for the time being investigate the deaths of three hostages who died in a tunnel close to the place where the commander of Hamas’s Northern Gaza Brigade, Ahmed Ghandour, was killed in an IDF strike as he hid in a tunnel.

The bodies of IDF Sgt. Ron Sherman, 19, and Cpl. Nik Beizer, along with civilian Elia Toledano, 28, all of whom were kidnapped on October 7, were recovered from a Hamas tunnel in Jabaliya on December 14.

A Hamas propaganda video released a week after Sherman, Beizer, and Toledano were found showed the three and claimed they had been killed in an Israeli airstrike.

An initial IDF probe has found that the three Israelis were not killed in the strike.

War erupted on October 7 when Hamas led a cross-border attack from Gaza on Israel that killed 1,200 people, most of them civilians. The thousands of terrorists who invaded southern areas also abducted 253 people who were taken as hostages in Gaza, where over half remain captive.

Israel responded to the attack with an air, sea, and ground offensive to destroy Hamas, remove it from power in Gaza, and free the hostages.

Halevi previously appointed Har-Even to head a team investigating the military and intelligence failures that enabled the Hamas attack, but later halted its work due to political criticism.

According to the Haaretz report, senior military officials accept the need for the current legal probe even if it leads to prosecuting soldiers, seeing it as necessary for the continuation of the offensive in Gaza.

The report said Halevi and other senior officers have repeatedly communicated to commanders on the ground the need to adhere to regulations and keep within the bounds of international law.

But commanders have pushed back, saying they can’t keep an eye on every single officer or soldier who decides to act of his own accord.

IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi, issues a video statement, January 23, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

Halevi was said to be against any probes of the military in the early stages of the war, fearing it would distract commanders at a time when large numbers of troops were engaged in the fighting. However, as the intensity of the conflict has waned, the army sees an opportunity to begin probing alleged violations that will require questioning commanders and taking testimony from soldiers.

The development came as Israel is preparing to defend itself in the International Court of Justice in The Hague where South Africa has brought a case accusing Israel of genocide in Gaza.

One of Israel’s main contentions in staving off international war crimes prosecutions is that troops are ordered to adhere to international law and that any violations are dealt with by Israel’s own robust military and civilian justice systems.

At least 27,365 people in Gaza have been killed, according to the Hamas-ruled territory’s health ministry. The figure cannot be independently verified and does not distinguish between civilians and combatants. The military says it has killed more than 10,000 terrrorists in Gaza and an additional 1,000 were killed in Israel on October 7.

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