IDF clears soldiers of wrongdoing in death of four boys on the Gaza beach

Decision to close case could have far-reaching consequences for the IDF legally and diplomatically.

A Palestinian man walks atop the remains of a house that witnesses said was destroyed by Israeli shelling during a 50-day war last summer, in the southern Gaza Strip, March 10 (photo credit: REUTERS)
A Palestinian man walks atop the remains of a house that witnesses said was destroyed by Israeli shelling during a 50-day war last summer, in the southern Gaza Strip, March 10
(photo credit: REUTERS)
No criminal charges will be filed against soldiers involved in one of the most infamous incidents of the 2014 Gaza war with Hamas, the killing of four boys on an open Gaza beach area as they reportedly played soccer on a sunny July day, the IDF Magistrate’s office reported late Thursday night.
The decision to close the case could have far-reaching consequences for the IDF legally and diplomatically. It was announced as Israel gears up for a major public relations battle in support of its actions during the past summer’s war.
The United Nations Human Rights Council is expected to publish a report on Operation Protective Edge that many expect will accuse Israel of war crimes. The PA is submitting its own war crimes complaints against Israel to the International Criminal Court later this month.
The death of the four boys during the shelling of the Gaza beach on July 16 is one of the most well-known incidents of the war. A number of journalists were on the beach at the time and caught it on camera.
Photographs of the dead Palestinian boys went viral online and across the airwaves with there seeming to be no possible explanation of why an IDF missile would have targeted a beachhead that was empty of anything but the four minors.
Due to the circumstances, the IDF opened up a criminal investigation in September 2014, only weeks after the war ended.
The IDF’s fourth report on the status of its investigations into war crimes allegations gives an entirely different and highly detailed picture.
The report says it is based on a myriad of interviews with IDF personnel from multiple branches involved in the operation and based on affidavits from Gazans who refused to provide testimony in person.
According to the IDF, the four minors, named as Ahed, Zakariya, Muhammad and Ismail al-Bakr, were unexpectedly in a gated off area that was known by the IDF and by Gazans to be a military location of Hamas’s naval commando unit.
Affidavits from Gazans were the source for the idea that Gazans knew it was also a military location, said the IDF.
Next, the IDF mentioned that it had undertaken several attacks on the same area against Hamas’s naval commandos or their stashed munitions, including on July 15, the day before the incident.
On July 16, army intelligence reported that Hamas naval commandos were entering the area to prepare an attack on the IDF.
Israeli aircraft identified several unidentified persons running into an installation on the beach near where the IDF had attacked the day before.
At no point was the IDF able to identify that the persons were children, said the report.
Commanders gave an approval to attack based on the assumption that there were no civilians in the area and that the persons were all Hamas naval commandos.
An IDF aircraft launched a missile that struck the installation, which the IDF presumes killed the persons it had identified as Hamas naval commandos.
After the air strike, additional persons started running to exit the area and an IDF aircraft fired a second missile at them, which struck them after they had exited the installation.
The report said that Military Advocate-General Maj.-Gen.
Danny Efroni could not determine why the four minors were in the presumed military area and that the aircraft that performed the surveillance could not have identified them as minors.
Accordingly, Efroni found that the Law of Armed Conflict had been followed and there was no basis to indict any of the IDF soldiers involved in the incident.
Efroni cited that the munition used for the air strike was designed to reduce wider collateral damage and that the aerial surveillance, though in the end imperfect, was undertaken to try to avoid civilian casualties.
He admitted that “ultimately the estimate that the unidentified persons were Hamas naval commandos was clarified as having been wrong” and the incident was “tragic,” but that this “after the fact” information did not negate the attack being legal based on the information available when it was ordered.
The report added that the IDF will act to improve its technological and intelligence abilities to avoid similar mistaken surveillance decisions in the future.
The IDF may face scrutiny over whether it should have fired if its surveillance could not identify that the unidentified persons were children.
Besides closing that incident, the report said that the IDF’s fact-finding teams have been handed 190 incidents to review, of which 105 incidents have been reviewed and were sent to Efroni to decide whether to file an indictment or to close the case.
Efroni has opened 22 criminal investigations to date, two of which have been closed and three of which have already led to indictments for theft-related crimes.
He has already closed 19 cases outright without indictment following his decision that there was no basis to indict.
Incidents that have led to the opening of new criminal investigations include the widely reported alleged IDF attack on attack on a coffee shop in Gaza on July 9 leading to nine dead Palestinians.
Other new criminal investigations involved allegations that Lt.-Col. Neria Yeshurun’s unit, with improper motivations, fired on a pharmacy in Gaza from which his soldier, Capt. Dmitri Levitas, was killed the day before and a July 28 incident in which IDF soldiers allegedly beat a resident of Juhor ad-Dik after he was already in custody.
A major incident in which Efroni closed the case after a preliminary review and without a full criminal investigation was the July 21 alleged attack on a building in Gaza City, leading to 15 dead Palestinians.
The IDF explained that the attack was against senior Islamic Jihad commander Shaaban Dahdah and was undertaken at night as IDF intelligence had indicated that the building was a place of business and would be empty of civilians at night.
The 14 Palestinian civilians of the Kilani and Darbas families who were killed had taken refuge in the building after evacuating from their homes, but the IDF said it was unknown that they were there.
The IDF may face scrutiny with the decision since it said it used a lower impact munition, but ultimately several upper floors of the building collapsed in the attack.
The IDF implied it may undertake even more surgical strikes in the future.
Despite statements to The Jerusalem Post in recent days that the IDF might announce its decision on the Hannibal Protocol incident of August 1, 2014, no decision on that was announced.
Separately, the Foreign Ministry has prepared a detailed report in support of Israel’s actions during Operation Protective Edge that it is prepared to release once the UNHRC publishes its document. It looks to highlight the Hamas practice of firing from civilian areas in Gaza.
Tovah Lazaroff contributed to this story.