Who is responsible for the tragic deaths of about 15 Palestinians and many more wounded at a UN school in northern Gaza on Thursday? How does the IDF investigate such issues? The February 2013 quasi- government Turkel Commission’s second report and various reports produced after the 2008-2009 Operation Cast Lead are unique documents that flesh out exactly how investigations work.
First, non-lawyer officers question their troops and the commanders on the ground about an incident in operational investigations.
With some major incidents, a broader command investigation is launched, such as incidents from the current operation, which will be investigated by IDF Maj.-Gen. Noam Tibon (of the high command but still a non-lawyer.) Of the above incidents, a smaller number will make it to the desks of specialized divisions in Military Police and legal division for investigating incidents in war.
A much smaller number will be fully investigated and lead to indictments and possibly convictions.
The first responses to the UN incident were accusations against Israel for sole responsibility for the attack and the civilian deaths.
The IDF’s initial response was it needed to investigate the incident, followed by adding not long after, that there were suspicions that the deaths were caused by Hamas misfires or at most, possibly an errant Israeli shell aimed at Hamas fighters firing near the UN building.
By the end of Saturday and Sunday, the IDF said it had completed a further review, put out video footage showing a purported IDF shell landing in the courtyard of the UN school, where, the IDF said, there were no civilians at the time.
Based on this review and the footage, the IDF said it had proved that any Palestinians killed were not killed by the errant shell, putting the blame on Hamas.
The IDF did add that whether civilians inside the school were wounded or not by exploding shrapnel from the shell, which landed outside, was inconclusive at this time.
Initial responses in the media are still questioning the narrative and calling for further investigation, since on-the-ground reports from the civilians hit indicate that the school was hit both inside and outside and by as many as four explosions.
Some also asked Israeli spokespeople how they could be sure from the evidence they have that anyone hit by shrapnel was merely wounded and not possibly killed.
The truth is that this more “in-depth” investigation with more detail that has emerged is still at the earliest of investigative stages, even before the investigation Tibon will perform later, let alone the most comprehensive investigations, which will be undertaken by IDF prosecutors.
The IDF at this point has very little direct testimony from people on the ground and any soldiers who have been initially questioned have not had their stories more fully examined, including cross-referencing all those involved for possible inconsistencies.
The point of revealing the additional findings is not to be conclusive on all issues, such as whether the secondary effects of the IDF shelling, such as the shrapnel, wounded any Palestinians inside or the possibility that some might even have died from wounds.
The point is to combat the initial rushed narrative in which it was being accepted that the IDF was unambiguously responsible for all the civilian deaths, which also sounded like a massive war crime trial waiting to happen and was being used to pressure Israel on its overall war conduct.
It can take time to take apart such incidents in the fog of war.
An IDF investigation into a January 2009 Operation Cast Lead accidental indirect hitting of an UNRWA office in targeting nearby Hamas fighters, which also injured civilians, as late as July 2009 was still only discussing the portion of the incident caused by malfunctions of white phosphorous.
It was not yet addressing the use of high-explosive shells, which also related to the incident.
Only in January 2010 and July 2010 reports, around 12-18 months later, had the IDF fully reviewed the incident and reprimanded two very senior commanders, a brigadier general and a colonel for use of the shells in violation of the safety distances set down by the rules of engagement for urban areas.
In another January 2009 Gaza war incident, a UN school and civilians inside it were hit by shrapnel and other secondary effects from IDF mortar shells directed at nearby Hamas fighters – a similar sounding narrative to the current one.
Only in July 2010, did the IDF announce new rules of engagement for use of mortars in close proximity to UN and other “sensitive” areas.
So getting to the full bottom of the incident will take time, though it is worth noting that in these incidents, the investigations did ultimately exonerate IDF soldiers from any criminal charges since the targets were military targets and the casualties were accidental.
Public relations wars will be waged about how many UN facilities were hit (some UN officials have said at least 117 UN/public schools have been at least lightly damaged), but in 2009 only 13 UN complaints were actually filed out of 750 UN Gaza facilities, and the UN ultimately resolved any claims accepting compensation, without criminal charges.
What the full investigations will find and whether this incident will end similarly remains to be seen.