TEL AVIV | The Israel Defense Forces for the first time admitted operational and intelligence errors during its recent war on Hamas that led to civilian deaths, including 21 Gazans killed in one house in Gaza City.
But the army stressed that the incident was unintentional and an exception, again rejecting charges of war crimes such as the inappropriate use of white phosphorus.
Brig. Gen. Dan Harel, the army’s deputy chief of staff, told reporters in a briefing that the Jan. 6 attack on the al-Daia family residence in the Zeitoun neighborhood was the result of an “intelligence mistake.” The house was mistaken for a Hamas arms storage facility, he said.
The misstep was one of a “very small number” found to be “unfortunate and unavoidable,” the army said in a statement. And yet, the army said it is still reviewing allegations of misconduct, such as firing on U.N. facilities and humanitarian targets, as well as indiscriminate civilian deaths and destruction of property.
The results of the operational review will be submitted to the military’s judge advocate general, the army said. So far, one Israeli soldier has been court-martialed for indiscriminate firing of a weapon.
A spokesman for the Hamas, the militant group ruling Gaza, said the Israeli army is “telling lies.”
A coalition of Israeli human rights groups called the findings “very problematic,” challenging the assertion that civilian casualties were inadvertent. The coalition said the casualties were the result of a policy to use overwhelming force in order to minimize Israeli injuries that might sap public support for the war.
“The doctrine of using extreme armed force was a doctrine set from above,” said Sarit Michaeli, spokeswoman for the Israeli human rights watchdog called B’tselem. “For the purposes of law enforcement and people seeking accountability, this is not the correct forum to conduct this investigation.”
Though media attention surrounding accusations of misconduct has subsided, the military briefing comes at a time when international groups, such as the United Nations, and human rights advocates are trying to push for trials in European countries with courts that assert universal jurisdiction over war crimes allegations in third-party countries.
A group of Norwegian lawyers filed a complaint Wednesday accusing 10 Israelis of war crimes in Gaza under the country’s new universal jurisdiction law, the Associated Press reported. Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and opposition leader Tzipi Livni were among those named in the complaint.
Though confirming that Israel used white phosphorus shells, Gen. Harel insisted the munitions were fired only into uninhabited areas and used almost exclusively as a marker for artillery gunners.
The army also used midair smoke bomb explosives that scattered hundreds of fragments containing white phosphorus in civilian areas, though Gen. Harel said those weapons were permitted under international conventions as not sufficiently incendiary to pose any danger to civilians.
That contradicts assertions made by Palestinian and Arab doctors that incendiary agents left severe burns on Palestinians.
The army also said it has a list of the 1,166 Gazans killed in the fighting, about 300 fewer than the tally by Palestinian authorities.
Moreover, Israel said at least two-thirds of those killed were militants, while the Palestinians said they were civilians.