A claim that 15 people were killed as a result of a strike at the UNRWA school in Beit Hanoun

Original Hebrew source: JAG decisions regarding exceptional events that occurred during Operation Tzuk Eitan system – Update No. 6

As reported in the past, media reports, reports and appeals by an international organization and NGOs submitted to the Judge Advocate General’s Office indicate that on July 24, 2014, at approximately 15:00, 15 people were killed and others injured as a result of an attack in the area of an UNRWA school Hanoun by the IDF.
As a result, it was decided to transfer the case to the General Staff investigation mechanism. The factual findings gathered by the mechanism and presented to the MAG formed a reasonable basis for the suspicion that the incident violated the rules binding IDF forces. Therefore, the Military Advocate General ordered the opening of an MPIU investigation into the circumstances of the incident. The investigation was thorough and comprehensive. In which testimonies of many soldiers and officers were taken, as well as testimonies of seven Palestinians. In addition, materials were examined from the relevant military systems, affidavits received from Palestinian witnesses, and more. In addition, videos, recordings of contact networks and photographs were examined, some of which were transferred to UNRWA and by a non-governmental organization. Documents examined in the investigation indicate that on July 10, 17 and 20, 2014, residents of Beit Hanun received mass messages, including leaflets, radio and television broadcasts, telephone calls and voice messages, calling for evacuation from the area. This, in light of the IDF’s intention to enter the area, in order to locate and neutralize a cross-fence offensive tunnel, according to information available to the IDF, left the Beit Hanoun area towards Israeli territory. Testimonies of the commanders and soldiers indicate that in practice civilians evacuated the area, and civilians were not seen during the fighting.
This was done with the exception of the civilians who were in the school, which was known to the IDF as a shelter for civilians who were evacuated from their homes.
The commanders of the force also tried to evacuate the school, in order to prevent harm to those in it, in light of the fighting that took place in the area, and many attempts were made to coordinate the evacuation of the school and transfer the citizens to another shelter.
On the day of the incident, in the early hours of the morning, IDF forces began advancing to withdraw the enemy from the area. IDF forces encountered intense enemy fighting, which fired anti-tank missiles, light weapons and sniper fire. Meanwhile, the forces identified a scene of explosive devices in the area near the school. During the course of the attack, fire erupted at them from a number of buildings, wounding an officer and a soldier. A short time later, shots were fired from the area towards another force. After clashes with the enemy, IDF forces evacuated the wounded and moved back to the lines of defense. Shortly afterwards, an order was issued to fire at the area in which the events took place, in order to prevent the continuous firing at IDF forces and to allow re-entry into the area.
According to the investigation material, the commanders who ordered the shooting believed that, except for the area of the school, the area was evacuated from civilians.
The investigation also revealed that the forces were instructed to avoid possible harm to the school, and therefore the main consideration in choosing the coordinates to which the shooting was directed was to ensure that the school was safe.
Therefore, the shooting was carried out using precautionary measures intended mainly to prevent harm to the school and its civilians. The forces planned to fire mortars at a concrete spot about 130 meters from the school fence (a distance significantly greater than the relevant safety ranges).
The shooting was carried out by a single mortar barrel in order to increase accuracy, while using observation and use of munitions with the lowest possible damage.
In retrospect it became clear that three of the shells landed in a school area and resulted in the injury of civilians. The investigation indicates that this result was not observed in real time by the forces, and was caused by an unintended and unexpected deviation of the shells from the marked coordinates. When it became clear that the school was damaged, all the forces in the area were instructed to hold fire immediately, and coordination was made in order to enable the passage of vehicles of equipment and medical treatment to and from the school grounds.
Following the incident, the IDF produced operational lessons intended to help prevent such incidents in the future. It should be noted that during the investigation, various elements claimed that a mortar shell or a rocket fired by the Palestinian terrorist organizations had damaged the school. No support was found for these claims. After examining the findings of the investigation, the Military Advocate General found that the shooting procedures were consistent with the provisions of Israeli law and the rules of international law. The decision to carry out the attack was made by the authorized authorities for a clear military purpose and was aimed at a space from which continuous enemy fire was carried out, which was deployed in a number of locations and placed the forces in real danger.
The attack was consistent with the principle of proportionality, since despite the results of the attack, as it turned out, when the decision was made to implement it, it was not expected that civilian casualties would be harmed.
This assessment was not unreasonable under the circumstances. The attack was also carried out using various precautions designed to prevent harm to civilians, inter alia by preferring the most focused weaponry available to the forces, and by using observation. The MAG found that the discretion of all the commanders involved in the incident was not unreasonable under the circumstances. The actual harm to civilians not involved in the fighting, which was not expected during the decision on the attack, is a regrettable result, but it does not retroactively implicate the legality of the attack. In view of the aforesaid, the MAG ordered the closure of the investigation file without taking any legal action – criminal or disciplinary – in relation to any of those involved in the incident.