Incidents Involving Harm to U.N and International Facilities, Gaza Operation / IDF investigation findings

These findings were published by the Israeli Foreign Ministry

(a) Incidents Involving Harm to U.N. and International Facilities

330 During the fighting in Gaza, the IDF faced a major challenge in avoiding damage to U.N. and other international and sensitive facilities. In the densely populated Gaza Strip there are over 750 United Nations facilities, and almost 1,900 sensitive facilities in total.
331 The challenge was made many times more difficult by Hamas’ strategic placement of terrorist units and missile launching squads in close proximity to these sites, as evident in the following photographs:

Mortar shells launched near an UNRWA school in the refugee camp in the central area of Gaza City (Source: IDF Spokesperson)

Rockets (red dot with a white star) launched near schools (yellow) in the Sheikh Radwan neighbourhood of Gaza City. In proximity to the schools there are training camps, terrorist organisation workshops for the manufacture of weapons and arms caches (red) (Source: IDF Spokesperson)

332 Notwithstanding the difficulties involved, in planning its Gaza Operation, the IDF took great care to map out these sensitive facilities, and to try to make sure they did not suffer damage during the Operation. During the Operation itself, the IDF took numerous precautions to avoid hitting facilities and vehicles affiliated with the U.N., Red Cross, Red Crescent and other international organisations. The IDF’s rules of engagement included clear orders to avoid harm to these facilities and vehicles. Throughout the Operation, the IDF coordinated with the U.N. and other international organisations through a special Civil Administration situation room and a centre for humanitarian coordination established in order to help coordinate humanitarian aid day-to-day. These procedures allowed for movement of some 500 convoys and vehicles throughout the Gaza Strip, and the transfer of a substantial supply of food and humanitarian aid.
333 Despite these precautions, in a number of cases military operations resulted in damage to U.N. facilities and injuries to personnel. While the vast majority of facilities remained unharmed, Israel views the damage and injury that occurred in these cases as an extremely serious matter and is committed to investigating allegations regarding Israel’s conduct in this regard. Investigations have already begun. The first step, under the procedures outlined above, was a thorough IDF field investigation. The results of this investigation are currently under review by the Military Advocate General.

334 Independent of the IDF’s own investigation, the United Nations Secretary General set up a Board of Inquiry to examine certain incidents involving U.N. facilities. While Israel viewed this inquiry as premature, pending the conclusion of its internal investigations, it nonetheless cooperated fully with the U.N. Board of Inquiry, providing it with extensive facts and pertinent information. Indeed, the Secretary General of the United Nations commended Israel for its extensive cooperation.(260) While Israel has concerns about certain aspects of the Board of Inquiry’s methodology and its resulting report,(261) Israel is currently working together with the United Nations to address issues which were raised in the Inquiry. Indeed, procedures can always be improved and lessons learned. Already, in light of the incidents that did occur despite the IDF’s precautions, and in parallel to the investigations undertaken thus far by Israel, IDF Chief of General Staff, Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi has re-emphasised the importance of better familiarising IDF forces at all levels with the location of sensitive facilities within their assigned combat zones. He ordered that regulations regarding safety-distances from sensitive facilities be highlighted, specifically with regard to the use of artillery, and also ordered that additional steps will be looked at to improve the coordination between the IDF and U.N. agencies in the field.
335 The following illustrative examples demonstrate both the process of investigation undertaken thus far in Israel with respect to certain incidents involving U.N. facilities, and the application of the proper legal standards to the facts currently available. As discussed above, the Law of Armed Conflict turns not on the simple fact that certain sites were damaged in the course of battlefield operations, but rather on whether military forces targeted military objectives, and whether in doing so they took into account considerations of proportionality, in weighing the possibility of incidental (but unintended) harm to civilian facilities or persons.(262)
(i) UNRWA School in Jabaliya (Fahoura School): 6 January 2009

336 In this incident, which occurred on 6 January 2009, IDF mortar shells landed outside a school being used as a UNRWA shelter. No mortar rounds hit the school itself, but landed in the road outside the school and at a nearby compound, resulting in flying shrapnel that reportedly injured several people inside the school, and killed or injured others nearby.
337 The IDF’s ’investigation of the incident found that, on 6 January 2009, an IDF force operating in the El-Attatra-Jabaliya area came under an effective barrage of 120mm mortars launched from a site about 3.5 km. from the force.(263) The launching site was situated only 80 metres west of the UNRWA school. The mortar attack lasted for almost an hour, with one mortar being fired every few minutes. As reported in the media, local residents later confirmed that mortar fire was coming from the vicinity of the school.(264)
338 Soon after the source of fire was detected, a scouting unit was dispatched to confirm the location. Approximately 50 minutes after the mortar attack had begun, two independent sources cross-verified the location of the mortars. Only subsequent to this, and after verification of a safety margin of at least 50 metres between the target (i.e., the identified source of mortar fire) and the UNRWA school, did the force respond to the ongoing barrage, by using the most accurate weapon available to it — 120mm mortars.
339 The IDF force that was under attack fired four mortars, about 5-10 minutes after the cross-checked identification of the source of fire, and while Hamas mortars were still being fired towards the forces. The IDF response succeeded in stopping the Hamas mortar attack. Indeed, as a result of the response, five Hamas operatives were killed. The effectiveness of the mission in achieving its military objective is thus indisputable.
340 The IDF acted to defend the lives of soldiers under fire, in order to stop continuing mortar attack. The defensive action targeted an identified source of mortar fire which represented a concrete and immediate threat to the force. The IDF executed the responsive fire with as much precision as possible, given the available munitions. Indeed, the fact that all the Israeli shells landed outside the school grounds demonstrates the care Israel took not to hit the school itself, consistent with its obligations under the Law of Armed Conflict.(265)
(ii) UNRWA Field Office Compound: 15 January 2009

341 In this incident, it has been alleged that IDF artillery firing caused shell casings and burning white phosphorous-soaked wedges to fall within a UNRWA Field Office compound, onto a warehouse area. The incident reportedly caused injuries to one UNRWA employee and two other unidentified persons who had taken shelter in the compound, as well as damage to buildings, vehicles and supplies
342 The IDF’s investigation found that this incident occurred in the Tel al-Hawa neighbourhood on the twentieth day of the Gaza Operation, during the second week of the ground manoeuvre, in which IDF forces were operating deeper in the urban areas of Gaza in order to reach Hamas’ bases, positions, weaponry warehouses, rocket factories, and launching areas. On the day of the incident, IDF ground forces, including tanks, were operating in Tel al-Hawa area against Hamas and other terrorist targets. IDF forces were proceeding towards topographically superior positions overlooking the area, and were exposed to constant fire by Hamas forces. Hamas units fired at the IDF with various kinds of weaponry, including light weapons, anti-tank missiles, and sniper fire.
343 Hamas’ anti-tank units, equipped with advanced anti-tank missiles, were operating in this area. These units were located mainly near the northern side of the UNRWA compound, so that the compound was placed between Hamas’ anti-tank units and IDF forces. The threat to Israeli forces was credible and imminent.
344 The IDF’s primary rationale for deploying smoke screening munitions containing white phosphorous was to produce a smokescreen to protect Israeli forces from the Hamas anti-tank crews operating adjacent to the UNRWA headquarters. Such a smokescreen has proven an effective response to the anti-tank threat, since it effectively blocks the enemy’s field of view and prevents it from using visual observation tools (including infra-red). As discussed in Section V.D(3)(a)(i) below, the IDF’s use of the standard smoke projectile — which is commonly found in the arsenal of other armed forces of States worldwide — is lawful for this purpose.
345 The smokescreen created during the fighting in Tel al-Hawa was effective in achieving its military objectives. It prevented most of Hamas’ attempts to launch anti-tank missiles, although one missile did hit an IDF tank. Hamas’ anti-tank units, which are mobile, had to change their positions in order to be able to attack IDF forces. In the absence of the smoke-screen, the fight would have continued in this area, and the IDF would have had to use reactive fire to engage anti-tank units, with the likelihood of greater civilian harm.
346 The target zones of the smoke projectiles were determined in accordance with operational considerations, including the progress of IDF forces and the changing deployment of Hamas anti-tank units. The IDF sought to maintain a safety distance of several hundred metres from sensitive sites, including the UNRWA compound. Despite the maintenance of a safety distance, some felt wedges and other components of the projectiles apparently landed in the compound after the release of the felt wedges in the air. The IDF neither intended nor anticipated this outcome. Following a U.N. report on a fire in the compound, and in response to a request by the U.N., the IDF ceased the use of smoke projectiles in the area. In addition, the arrival of fire trucks and evacuation of tankers from the UNRWA compound was coordinated with the IDF.
347 In conclusion, the incident took place during intense fighting, which involved Hamas’ deployment of anti-tank units equipped with advanced anti-tank missiles north of the UNRWA compound. Hamas thus placed the compound between themselves and the IDF forces.(266) The IDF implemented an effective smokescreen as a protective measure in response to this threat. The operational advantage of using the smokescreen was significant. The IDF anticipated that the risk to civilians and civilian objects was limited in relation to this operational advantage. Unfortunately, however, three individuals were injured and U.N. facilities were damaged.
(iii) UNRWA Bureij Health Centre

348 In this incident, an aerial bomb hit an apartment building opposite a UNRWA health centre. There were no injuries to the occupants of the apartment building, who had vacated the building following an earlier warning. However, debris and shrapnel from the strike apparently hit the UNRWA facility across the street, causing damage to the building and certain injuries inside, as well as injuries to persons who were approaching the centre’s gate.
349 The IDF’s investigation of this incident found that the strike involved the targeting of a legitimate military objective: a Hamas weapons and terrorist equipment storage site that also served as a weapons workshop. The site was located on the ground floor of a four story civilian residence in a densely populated area. The residence was connected to several neighbouring buildings and was adjacent to the UNRWA medical centre, as well as to mosques and an educational institution.
350 Given the location, the IDF carefully planned the operation, including an assessment of anticipated collateral damage, in order to minimise the risk to adjacent civilian facilities. Particular consideration was given to adjacent sensitive sites, such as the UNRWA health centre, which was marked in advance on IDF operational maps and aerial photographs. The IDF took the following steps in order to minimise possible incidental harm:
The IDF issued warnings in advance, by means of leaflets and telephone calls, advising civilians to keep away from facilities serving Hamas and other terrorist groups, such as the terrorist storage site and weapons workshop in the apartment building.

Several minutes before the attack, phone calls were made to the residents of the targeted building, calling them to evacuate the premises. Subsequently, the IDF issued an additional early warning to the residents of the targeted building and bordering premises, with light weaponry that did not endanger the residents. This early warning was effective and clearly understood by the neighbouring residents, as confirmed by their evacuation of the building before the attack.

The IDF used precision munitions and fired only one munition. A delay fuse was used to ensure that the detonation of the ammunition would destroy only the terrorist storage site and weapons workshop, and not the buildings connected to it. This special mechanism limited the damage to neighbouring buildings.

The direction and the angle of the strike were calculated to minimise collateral damage.

351 The strike succeeded in achieving the military objective: it neutralised the terrorist storage site and weapons workshop, while the building itself remained standing, thus avoiding structural damage to connected and adjacent buildings. The incident thus involved the accurate targeting of a verified military target. As noted, as a result of IDF warnings there were no injuries to the occupants of the apartment building in which the weapons workshop was housed, or in the adjacent apartment buildings.
352 However no precautions are infallible, and despite the IDF’s precautions in this case, the strike resulted in incidental harm to the neighbouring UNRWA centre. Israel regrets this harm, but this unfortunate fact it does not render the targeting decision in breach of the Law of Armed Conflict. Rather, the deliberate decision by Hamas to locate a weapons storage and workshop facility in a civilian building near the UNRWA medical centre, mosques, and an educational institution violated its obligations under the Law of Armed Conflict, including its obligation not to jeopardise the civilian population under its control.(267)
(iv) UNSCO Gaza Compound: 29 December 2008

353 This incident involved the aerial bombing by the IDF of a Hamas command and control centre, approximately 30 metres from a fence bordering a UNSCO compound. The attack occurred in the middle of the night when the nearby offices presumably would be empty. There were no direct hits on the UNSCO compound. However, the strike on the adjacent building reportedly caused shrapnel and concrete debris to fly into the compound, leading to physical damage to the premises, but no deaths or injuries.
354 As indicated, the operational goal of this strike was to eliminate a Hamas command and control centre and to destroy weapons and ammunition considered highly likely to be concealed beneath the building. The IDF took multiple precautions to minimise any incidental damage from this targeting of a verified military objective, including in particular the UNSCO compound, which was approximately 30 metres from the target and marked in advance as a sensitive site on IDF operational maps and aerial photographs. In particular, the IDF:
Used precision munitions, and fired only three munitions on what was a very large military target. Furthermore, the IDF used a delay fuse to ensure detonation of the munitions only deep within the building, in order to limit the possibility of damage to neighbouring buildings.

Calculated the direction and the angle of the strike to minimise collateral damage, in particular to the UNSCO compound.

Carefully considered the timing of the strike, executing it at night to minimise civilian presence.

Issued advance warnings through leaflets and telephone calls, advising civilians to keep away from facilities being used by Hamas and other terrorist groups, including command and control centres, such as the one at issue here.

355 These precautions were effective in ensuring that there were no deaths or injuries at the UNSCO compound. The IDF complied with both the rule of distinction (targeting a valid military objective) and the rule of proportionality, using means that eliminated the significant military objective without any injury to civilians.(268)
(v) UNRWA Asma Elementary School: 5 January 2009

356 This incident involved a missile that struck within the compound of a UNRWA school. The school itself had been closed for some time when the incident occurred, and the missile struck at night. However, earlier that day, UNRWA apparently had opened the school as an emergency shelter, although it did not so notify the IDF until the day after the strike. The missile strike killed three men who were outside the school building.
357 IDF’s investigation of the incident revealed the following information: On the night of 5 January 2009, a terrorist unit was present in Asma School preparing to carry out military activity against IDF forces. The unit was present at night in an elementary school compound, a place where no civilians were known or presumed to be at night, especially since the school had been closed for nine days when the incident occurred. Earlier that day, the UNRWA apparently had opened the school as an emergency shelter, although it did not so notify the IDF prior to the strike. The IDF concluded that there was no reasonable explanation for the presence of the unit in the elementary school, other than their preparation for the terrorist activity. The IDF targeted the terrorist unit only after it cross-checked this information. In order to minimise incidental damage, the IDF selected and used a guided munition with a reduced warhead. In addition, visual observation was also used to ensure that no other individuals were present at the site.
358 Information regarding the School functioning as a shelter for civilians was provided by the U.N. to IDF only on 6 January 2009, the day after the incident had occurred. A list of facilities serving as shelters — provided by the U.N. one day earlier on 4 January 2009 — did not include UNRWA Asma School.(269)
(vi) UNRWA School: Beit Lahia Elementary School: 17 January 2009

359 This incident involved the alleged hitting of a UNRWA school being used as a shelter by white phosphorous-soaked felt wedges and certain debris. Several deaths and injuries were reported.
360 ’The IDF’s investigation found that the incident occurred during a period in which IDF ground forces, including tanks, were operating in Beit Lahia against rocket-launching units and terrorist infrastructure. The forces were moving in an inferior terrain, threatened by Hamas positions located in the higher urban zone, including by Hamas’ units armed with advanced anti-tank missiles. IDF forces were exposed to continuous fire from different sources.
361 In accordance with the combat doctrine for dealing with anti-tank threats, IDF forces fighting in Beit Lahia used standard smoke projectiles in order to create a protective smokescreen between themselves and Hamas’ anti-tank units along the route of their progress. This smokescreen was effective and prevented Hamas from launching anti-tank missiles at IDF tanks. In the absence of such a smokescreen, it would have been necessary to use reactive fire at anti-tank units, with the likelihood of more extensive collateral damage.
362 The initial target zone of the smoke projectiles was located at a distance of one kilometre from the UNRWA school. The target zone was later adjusted in accordance with the progress of IDF forces, the wind direction and the deployment of Hamas anti-tank units. The nearest target zone to UNRWA school was several hundred metres from the School.
363 Despite the maintenance of an appropriate safety buffer between the nearest target zone of the smoke projectiles and the School, some felt wedges and other components of the projectiles unfortunately may have landed in the School. According to U.N. reports, such components apparently struck the roof of the School and caused significant casualties in one of the classrooms. It should be noted that such a falling of components is incidental to any use of air-burst munitions, including for the purpose of smoke screening, illumination, and so on.
364 In conclusion, the incident involved the implementation of an effective smokescreen as a protective measure, in response to concrete threats of Hamas anti-tank units against IDF tanks operating in Beit Lahia. The operational advantage of using the smokescreen was significant.(270) IDF forces had not anticipated significant collateral damage in relation to this advantage. The IDF is greatly saddened that civilians were injured, but this unfortunate fact does not render the original targeting decision a violation of the Law of Armed Conflict.
(vii) UNRWA Vehicle Convoy: 8 January 2009

365 The IDF also investigated an incident in which, according to a U.N. review, “small arms fire” was directed towards the lead car of a UNRWA convoy in the Ezbet Abed Rabu area, which was then occupied by the IDF.
366 According to initial findings, on the same day of the incident, there were three different U.N. movements coordinated with the IDF in the area of Ezbet Abed Rabu. There may have been a mutual misunderstanding concerning the coordination, which might have provided the relevant ground force with inaccurate information regarding the concrete movement.
367 The IDF has been concerned that errors in communication may have led to this incident, even though no injuries occurred. Accordingly, immediate steps were taken to rectify the situation, including providing credible assurances that the security of United Nations personnel, installations and humanitarian operations would be fully respected and that there would be undertakings for improved liaison and more effective internal coordination within the IDF.
(viii) UNRWA Vehicle: 14 January 2009

368 The IDF also conducted a field investigation into a complaint that a UNRWA vehicle came under fire in the Tel al-Hawa neighbourhood on 14 January 2009. The investigation found that the vehicle bore no U.N. markings at the time of the firing, and was travelling in an area that international organisations had been told was forbidden for movement. Most importantly, the vehicle was transporting a Hamas anti-tank squad, in clear violation of the prohibition on using humanitarian vehicles to support military operations. Immediately after discharging the anti-tank squad, the vehicle proceeded erratically toward the IDF forces. The IDF had due cause to think the vehicle was a Hamas car bomb, raising legitimate concerns about the security of its own forces.
369 The IDF’s use of force against an unmarked vehicle carrying a Hamas anti-tank unit comported with the Law of Armed Conflict. The IDF did not deliberately target a U.N. vehicle; indeed, the vehicle bore no U.N. markings. Furthermore, Hamas had turned the vehicle into a legitimate target by conscripting it for use in combat operations. In addition, it was fully appropriate for the IDF to take into account the security of its forces, in assessing the legitimacy of the target, as discussed in Section V.A.

Post new comment

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

More information about formatting options

prevent automated spam submissions.
Enter the characters (without spaces) shown in the image.