IDF opens probe into Rafah strike, says steps were taken to prevent civilian deaths

Military source says ‘reduced in size’ warheads used in strike; premier vows to press on in Rafah despite mounting global ire; IDF’s top lawyer stresses army’s robust legal branch

Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian is The Times of Israel's military correspondent

Palestinians inspect damage after an Israeli airstrike on what the IDF said was a Hamas compound, adjacent to a camp for internally displaced people in Rafah, Gaza Strip, May 27, 2024. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)
Palestinians inspect damage after an Israeli airstrike on what the IDF said was a Hamas compound, adjacent to a camp for internally displaced people in Rafah, Gaza Strip, May 27, 2024. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

The Israel Defense Forces airstrike in southern Gaza’s Rafah late Sunday, which targeted two senior Hamas officials but also reportedly killed dozens of Palestinian civilians, will be probed by the top-tier General Staff Fact-Finding Assessment Mechanism, the military announced on Monday afternoon.

The mechanism is an independent military body responsible for investigating unusual incidents amid the war. The probe was ordered by the military advocate general, the IDF said.

The airstrike in the Tel Sultan area of western Rafah targeted and killed the commander of Hamas’s so-called West Bank headquarters — charged with advancing attacks against Israel in and from the West Bank — as well as another top member of the unit.

Hamas health authorities said some 45 people were killed in the strike, which had also engulfed several tents and shelters where thousands of people were taking shelter in the area.

Responding to the incident, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Israel had made attempts to keep civilians safe by evacuating one million Palestinians from Rafah.

“Despite our efforts not to hurt them, there was a tragic mishap. We are investigating the incident. For us it’s a tragedy, for Hamas it’s a strategy,” he said, while also vowing to continue fighting in Gaza despite mounting international condemnation of the offensive in the Strip’s southernmost city.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the Knesset on May 27, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

“I don’t intend to end the war before every goal has been achieved. If we give in, the massacre will return. If we give in, we will give a huge win to terror, to Iran.”

The IDF in its statement said that the strike was carried out based on “intelligence information on the presence of the terrorists in the area,” and that beforehand, it had carried out “many steps to reduce the chance of harming uninvolved [civilians], including aerial surveillance, the use of precision munitions, and additional intelligence information.”

“Based on [these steps] it was estimated that no harm was expected to uninvolved civilians,” the IDF said.

A military source said that two missiles with a “reduced in size” warhead, which were adapted for such targets, were used in the strike.

The IDF added that the strike did not take place in the designated “humanitarian zone” in the al-Mawasi region on the coast, where the military has called Palestinians to evacuate to in recent weeks.

Footage from a fire that broke out in a camp for displaced Palestinians in southern Gaza’s Rafah, following an Israeli strike on what the IDF said was a compound used by Hamas in the area, May 26, 2024. (Social media/X. Used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Earlier on Monday, Maj. Gen. Yifat Tomer-Yerushalmi, the military advocate general, described the Rafah airstrike as “very grave” and “still under investigation.”

“The IDF regrets any harm to noncombatants during the war,” Tomer-Yerushalmi said at a conference hosted by the Israel Bar Association.

She also said that Israel was investigating the deaths of Palestinians captured during the Gaza war as well as at a military-run detention camp where a human rights group has alleged abuses of inmates.

Citing accounts by former inmates and a doctor from the Sde Teiman base, the Physicians for Human Rights group said last month that detainees have suffered severe violence causing fractures, internal bleeding, and even death.

Military Advocate General Yifat Tomer-Yerushalmi speaks at the Israel Bar Association annual conference of attorneys in Eilat in southern Israel, on May 27, 2024. (Flash 90)

Palestinians have also accused Israeli soldiers of illegal killings during the seven-month-old Gaza war.

Tomer-Yerushalmi described the war as “unusual” in the “unprecedented scope of the emerging legal issues,” in the “sensitivity and great complexity of the legal challenge we face,” and “the immediacy with which the legal front affects the war on the ground.”

Israel’s enemies, she said, are “cynically taking advantage of the law, while brutally using the civilian population as human shields.”

Israel is “in a war it did not choose” against “an enemy that abuses and harms even its own people.”

The war in Gaza erupted after Hamas’s October 7 massacre, which saw some 3,000 terrorists burst across the border into Israel by land, air and sea, killing some 1,200 people and seizing 252 hostages amid acts of brutality and sexual assault.

Israel responded with a military campaign to destroy Hamas, topple its Gaza regime, and free the hostages.

Palestinians look at the destruction after an Israeli strike on what the IDF said was a Hamas compound, adjacent to a camp for internally displaced people in Rafah, Gaza Strip, May 27, 2024. (Eyad BABA / AFP)

Tomer-Yerushalmi also discussed developments at the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court, where cases have been brought against Israel over the ongoing war.

At the ICJ, South Africa has accused Israel of genocide, while at the ICC, the chief prosecutor said last week he was seeking arrest warrants for Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, alongside three top Hamas leaders. The arrest warrant request has been denounced by most of Israel’s international allies.

Tomer-Yerushalmi called South Africa’s charges of genocide “disgusting” and said that the claim that Israel is deliberately killing civilians and destroying their property “has no basis in reality.”

In addition, it is “outrageous” that the ICC announced the arrest warrant requests together with a similar move against three Hamas leaders, she said.

ICC top prosecutor Karim Khan has accused Netanyahu and Gallant of, among other things, using starvation as a weapon against Gazans.

That claim is “absurd” considering the IDF’s efforts to bring food, medicine, and humanitarian resources to Gaza, Tomer-Yerushalmi said.

Journalists at the International Court of Justice photograph the Israeli legal team before judges enter, in The Hague, Netherlands, May 24, 2024. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)

The ICC prosecutor, in defending his move, has said it was in part due to him not seeing that Israel is doing anything to investigate accusations of wrongdoing by its forces in Gaza.

But Tomer-Yerushalmi argued that the review and investigation mechanisms in the IDF, including the Military Police, “are professional and independent.”

She noted that “the professionalism and abilities of these bodies were recognized in the past by international bodies too, including the ICC prosecutor.”

“There is no other country in the world that can be as proud of its commitment to examine compliance with the rule of law, in the midst of an existential war,” she said.

The IDF’s Rafah operation is considered one of the final phases of its war with Hamas. Last week, the ICJ ordered Israel to stop operations in Rafah that would risk the destruction of the civilian population sheltering there. Israeli officials have said the ambiguous order still leaves room for it to continue its offensive in the southern Gaza city.

While allowing that there may have been violations of law by troops, “these are exceptions that do not indicate the rule” and do not indicate a deliberate policy to deviate from the laws of war.

Tomer-Yerushalmi stressed that the IDF’s commitment to justice “does not stem from the fear posed by the international arena. It stems, first and foremost, from the fact that the State of Israel is a country of laws. The rule of law, and the purity of weapons, are values woven into the IDF’s code of values from the day it was established.”

Times of Israel staff and agencies contributed to this report.

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