The Israeli military is investigating a Thursday strike that killed eight family members in the central Gaza town of Deir el-Balah, the IDF said Friday.
“According to the information available to the IDF at the time of the strike, no civilians were expected to be harmed,” the army said. “The IDF is investigating the harm caused to civilians by the strike,” it said in a statement.
Military sources quoted by the Haaretz daily said the army was unaware of the family’s presence in the building when it conducted the strike, and that it had intended to hit Islamic Jihad infrastructure.
Haaretz said the building was in the IDF’s “target bank” several months ago, listed as a place of Islamic Jihad infrastructure. However, it reported, the list was not updated in recent months and no additional checks were made to see that the building was empty before the strike.
The report said the strike was aimed at destroying terror infrastructure and was not an attempt to target an Islamic Jihad leader.
On Thursday, IDF Arabic-language spokesperson Avichay Adraee identified the father of the family, Rasmi Abu Malhous, 45, as the head of an Islamic Jihad rocket unit.
— افيخاي ادرعي (@AvichayAdraee) November 14, 2019
AFP reported on Friday that Islamic Jihad said Malhous was “known as a person affiliated with Islamic Jihad but he was not a commander”.
However, the IDF sources told Haaretz that Abu Malhous had no ties to Islamic Jihad and that Adraee’s statement, and a picture he tweeted purportedly showing Abu Malhous, were false and were based on social media rumors.
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.
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.
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 militant 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.
And 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.
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.
The latest round of fighting began early Tuesday when an Israeli airstrike killed Baha Abu al-Ata, a senior Islamic Jihad commander who Israel said was responsible for numerous rocket attacks and was planning a deadly infiltration operation into Israel. The airstrike hit the top-floor apartment in Gaza City where he was sleeping, killing him and his wife.
Conricus said Israel had been following Abu al-Ata for 10 days but had held off attacking him sooner because he routinely surrounded himself with crowds of civilians for protection.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Thursday a group of Israeli soldiers to congratulate them on what he called a successful mission. “Our enemies got the message,” he said. “We can reach anyone, even in their beds.”
Such airstrikes can be permissible under international law, depending on the threat posed by the target and whether the damage to civilians is “proportional” to the military gain, said Omar Shakir, the country director of Human Rights Watch.
“Too often civilians pay the price for political brinkmanship by states and armed group,” Shakir said. “We’ve seen several rounds of fighting now in Gaza where civilians have lost their lives or had their property damaged and faced harrowing circumstances as the result of unlawful attacks by both parties.”
Palestinian terrorists also have come under international criticism for firing rockets indiscriminately at Israeli civilian areas. In this week’s fighting, Islamic Jihad fired some 450 rockets toward Israel, with most landing in open areas or being intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome defense system.
But the nonstop rocket fire crippled life across southern and central Israel as far away as Tel Aviv, some 80 kilometers (50 miles) away. Fifty-eight Israelis were lightly and moderately injured or treated for shock.
The Israeli military said dozens of the rockets this week were misfired and landed inside Gaza, with one believed to have damaged the offices of the International Commission for Human Rights, a Palestinian watchdog group. The group stopped short of criticizing the militants and called for an investigation of the incident.
Conricus, the military spokesman, said Thursday he had no information about the particular airstrike on the Abu Malhous home. But he defended the attacks on private homes, saying Islamic Jihad commanders used their residences to store weapons or as command and control centers, making them legitimate military targets.
“All of our operations were measured, proportionate and focused only on military assets belonging to Islamic Jihad,” he said.