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How Israel is ‘bombing Gaza blind’ with old intelligence

Exclusive: Israeli servicemen say ‘serious structural problems’ mean ‘masses of targets’ are attacked and killed without thorough intelligence evaluations, writes Bel Trew

Wednesday 12 February 2020 12:37 GMT
Awad Abu Mismeh, 20, inside the crater of what once was his father's home after an Israeli airstrike
Awad Abu Mismeh, 20, inside the crater of what once was his father's home after an Israeli airstrike (Bel Trew)

The Israeli military regularly strikes sites in Gaza using out-of-date intelligence that can be well over a year old, bombing “blind” with no real-time check for civilians causing unnecessary deaths, Air Force personnel have revealed.

Instead, Israeli air force members told The Independent “serious structural problems” and a culture of “destroy, destroy, destroy” rewards military personnel for identifying fresh targets on the 25-mile long strip rather than checking the validity of thousands already in the database, known as the “bank”.

If those targets run out, as happened during longer campaigns like the 2014 war with Gaza, they said the air force was told to “simply keep dropping bombs”.

The servicemen said while moving targets, such as militant commanders, are watched by aircraft prior to the strikes, static ones are usually not. Their allegations cast doubt on statements by the Israeli military (the IDF) that “it does everything it can to prevent unnecessary killings in Gaza”, a besieged strip home to two million people and one of the most densely populated places on earth.

Another worry concerns the calculation of “permitted civilian casualties” or so-called collateral damage in major military operations, like 2014’s “Protective Edge”. Over 1,400 Palestinian civilians and six civilians on the Israeli side were killed during the 51-day war, according to the United Nations.

Gaza airstrike: 'We had no warning'

The servicemen said if the threat level against the Israeli military increases in one part of Gaza, and the operational mode and accepted level of “collateral damage” is raised, that is applied to the entirety of the Strip, regardless of the intensity of the threat in other areas, raising questions about proportionality.

Rights groups warn these practices are driving up civilian death tolls and in specific instances may violate international law.

The Israeli army declined to comment on the specific allegations but told The Independent: “The army has a detailed organisational structure in which decisions are made.”

On its website, it outlines how it mitigates casualties. The IDF has repeatedly in the past denied allegations it has committed illegal strikes.

“Formally there is a ‘use by’ date for each target after which time two new sources of intel have to be found to re-incriminate it. But there are too many targets to check in comparison to the number of researchers,” said one Air Force intelligence personnel (“A”), whose identity has been concealed for security reasons.

“A” said targets have routinely not been checked “for sometimes more than a year”.

“Expired targets are not necessarily the priority. Usually, researchers are assigned projects to find new targets. It is a hassle, they prefer to discover something new,” “A” added.

“And so, [in times of conflict] targets are selected from the bank regardless of whether they are up-to-date. This is a structural problem.”

The same air force intelligence member said that at “a systematic level, masses of targets are being bombed without visual check as there are not enough drones.”

“The atmosphere is not encouraging people to take [verification of targets] seriously. There is less discipline. It is a price that civilians pay,” “A” added.

A second member of the air force (“B”), told The Independent this becomes a major issue during longer operations, like 2014 when for a lack of targets, the orders were to “simply keep dropping bombs” anywhere in order to “make noise”.

“There was a lot of focus on, I can say with certainty, making noise. Those were the words that were said too, ‘to make noise’, to create a sense of fear on the other side, a sense that [the conflict] was continuing,” “B” added.

These allegations were corroborated by other testimonies from personnel collected by Israeli organisation Breaking the Silence (BtS)and handed to The Independent.

Israeli advocacy groups say this shatters international assumptions that Israel, which has one of the most advanced and well-equipped militaries in the world, is engaged in “clean warfare” in Gaza that aims to mitigate casualties.

BtS, a rights group made up of Israeli veterans, is so concerned about major structural problems that it has called for an external probe saying that most of the civilians killed in Gaza were “killed according to protocol”.

“The common person thinks we have precise weapons, with precise intelligence led by technology that is all clean, but a dive into this exposes that this is a complete misunderstanding of what is going on,” said Yehuda Shaul, BTS’s founder.

“We believe the problem in Gaza is systematic. It’s the orders, it’s the entire structure of the planning and execution of the operation rather than one soldier, one event, one unit. We would like to see an external Israeli civilian investigation into the rules of engagement and protocol of the IDF in Gaza.”

Yael Stein, research director for Israeli rights group B’Tselem, said the Israeli army’s insistence on only conducting internal reviews is part of a “whitewashing mechanism” to reduce scrutiny from outside.

“There are never any real investigations, they never investigate policy. It is Israel putting a lot of effort into creating a facade that they are investigating to make the world think that they are being thorough,” she said.

We believe the problem in Gaza is systematic. It’s the orders, the entire structure of planning rather than one soldier, one unit 

Yehuda Shaul, Breaking the Silence

The revelations come amid mounting pressure on Israel to change its conduct in Gaza, including a possible investigation by the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Gaza has been crippled by a 13-year Israeli and Egyptian blockade first imposed after militant group Hamas violently seized control of the coastal enclave in 2007.

Israel and several other countries consider Hamas a terrorist group and say the blockade is needed to keep the group from arming. The Israeli military and militants in Gaza have fought three wars since 2008.

The ICC’s top prosecutor Fatou Bensouda announced in December she wants to open a probe into war crimes committed by all sides in the Palestinian Territories since the start of the 2014 war.

The Israeli military, already accused by UN experts of committing possible war crimes in the Strip, vehemently denies that it has violated international law and says it does not recognise the court’s jurisdiction. Hamas is also in the ICC’s and UN’s crosshairs for its conduct, including indiscriminately firing at Israeli civilians.

Among the major events likely to be examined will be the cross-border flare-ups over the last year and a half which have seen the armed wings of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) fire hundreds of rockets at southern Israel and the Israeli army conduct hundreds of bombings within the Strip.

‘Attack, Attack, Make Noise’

Human Rights Watch said last week that it believed that during the last major escalation in November, at least two Israeli strikes that killed 11 civilians were likely unlawful.

During a 14 November bombing that nearly wiped out an entire Palestinian family, including five children all under the age of 14, HRW found that the Israeli military “failed in their legal obligation to carefully assess the nature of their target”, to check for civilians and to ensure that they attack only combatants and military objectives.

Left-leaning Israeli daily Haaretz cited defence officials saying that in this strike, which killed nine people in total, the military had again used outdated intelligence and had not conducted a prior inspection of civilian presence at the site.

Gerry Simpson, HRW’s associate crisis and conflict director, said consequently both the Israeli strikes and Palestinian rocket fire “highlights the need for ICC scrutiny”.

The Israeli army told The Independent it thought HRW’s report was “factually unfounded, deficient and biased” and “jumps to baseless legal conclusions”. The army did not directly address Haaretz’s claims.

The target was corrugated iron structures in a central Gaza agricultural district, that were home to the two families of brothers Rasmi, 45, and Mohammed Abu Malhous, 40, according to relatives and neighbours.

Just past midnight on 14 November three air-dropped munitions pounded the area as approximately 20 members of the family were sleeping, eviscerating the homes. Nine people, including Rasmi, Mohamed, their wives and five children were killed, the youngest aged just one year old. The remaining members of the extended family said one adult and nine children were also injured, some of whom were interviewed by The Independent.

Little is left of the structures: in their place are three yawning craters. The area is flanked by open agricultural fields and just a few hundred metres away is a sprawling UN compound.

The Israeli military’s Arabic spokesman at first claimed the strike had successfully killed a Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) commander he named as Rasmi Abu Malhous, but the army revised its statement, later claiming it had hit a military compound.

After conducting an internal review, the army said that it had miscategorised the shacks, adding they should have been identified as a civilian complex with “some militant activity” but gave no further information.

However, the military appeared to cycle back when speaking to The Independent this week, saying the target was identified as a “Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) military compound… used to conduct military activity”. The statement did not elaborate on the kind of activity.

The army said it was first designated in June 2109 “in accordance with the relevant IDF intelligence doctrine” and claimed it had been vetted several times “lastly just days prior to its attack”.

“During the planning and execution of the strike, the IDF expected that no civilians would be harmed by the strike,” the statement read.

“In practice, as was later realised, although military activity indeed was conducted in the compound, it was a not closed off [sic] and used solely for military activity … Civilians were, unfortunately, also present during the strike,” it added.

During the planning and execution of the strike, the IDF expected that no civilians would be harmed 

Israeli military statement

The Independent’s own investigation into the strike, including interviewing the family and neighbours, visiting the bomb site and examining satellite imagery of the area dating back to 2008, found evidence that appears to counter many of the claims about the military nature of the target.

The Independent also found that the bombing had not only killed nine civilians but, according to the Gaza Coastal Municipalities Water Utility, it took out a nearby well – civilian infrastructure – prompting further questions over the proportionality, and so legality, of the strike.

None of the half dozen family members, including injured children The Independent interviewed individually, recognised the photo of the alleged PIJ commander that was originally identified as the target by the IDF’s Arabic spokesman.

Neighbours and relatives maintained that the family had been there since at least 2007: satellite imagery provided by HRW of the site in 2008, 2014, 2016 and immediately prior to the attack in 2019 – that was analysed by The Independent – appears to corroborate this.

There is nothing obvious above ground in the imagery to suggest it is a military compound.

Satellite imagery shows the structures were consistently in place since at least 2008, supporting the family’s claims they had been living there for over a decade (IGoogle Earth) (Google Earth.)

‘Gaza strike: why didn’t they see the children?’

Relatives said Rasmi was a retired police officer in the Palestinian Authority (run by Fatah, a rival to Hamas and PIJ) and Mohamed was a goat-herder, claiming there was no military activity at the site.

One member of the community at the time of the strike told The Independent they believed one of the brothers may have been a member of the PIJ. However, neither the PIJ nor the Israeli authorities have publicly identified either of them as members of group or its armed wing. The PIJ regularly identifies its “martyrs”.

“We had no warning, no one informed us the place would be hit even though there were so many children inside. It just happened all of a sudden, the house, the ground was shaking,” said Salmiya, 70, Rasmi’s mother who lives a few hundred metres away.

“There is no military site there, or a weapons store, there isn’t even a flour store. There were no fighters. If it was a weapon store, we would have seen more explosions or any signs or effects from it,” said Hamdan Abu Malhous, Rasmi and Mohamed’s cousin.

Mr Abu Malhous queried how, if the Israeli military had checked the target in the days prior to the attack, they did not see the children.

“The whole family has lived there since the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza [in 2005], including children who are not hidden. They were clearly there playing by the home, in the street in the area, from sunrise until sunset,” he said.

“The Israelis use drones day and night. Their machines and drones are so sophisticated they can photograph and identify an ant. How did they not see them?”

Family members compare a photo the Israeli army tweeted of the alleged target and a photo of Ramsi (Bel Trew)

‘There are not enough drones’

While the air force personnel The Independent spoke to were not involved in this particular strike they said it was indicative of a wider problem and further evidence that the use of old or incomplete intelligence during bombing campaigns was “systemic”.

The airmen painted a picture of a detailed official procedure to select and verify targets that is undermined by “serious structural problems”. They said this was compounded by the complexity of operating in Gaza, a densely populated territory where irregular construction occurs frequently, and military infrastructure is often co-located with civilian housing.

The servicemen said that protocol dictates a timeframe for each type of target. For example, a large Hamas base would not necessarily have to be checked for a year since it is not likely to change.

But a less permanent structure like the huts in the Gaza strike should have been, according to protocol, checked every few months for civilian presence.

The selection of targets takes place in a “factory”, which for high-value targets is manned from the Israeli military headquarters: the Kirya in Tel Aviv.

Personnel member “A” said according to military protocol, researchers need two independent types of intelligence that point to a possible target.

Once the target is approved by senior officers it is transferred to operational intelligence, where a tactical team including weapons experts plan the strike in advance. Detailed photo presentations are usually pieced together to assist the pilots.

There is also a system which automatically flags planned targets that are too close to sensitive buildings such as hospitals and mosques.

In the planning phase, the unit consults lawyers who are supposed to provide legal advice on sensitive targets and the acceptable level of collateral damage in line with international law.

A pair of children’s jeans is one of the few items that survived the airstrike (Bel Trew)

But personnel “A” said the line of questioning is the wrong way around and so most targets are green-lighted. The lawyers will only ask the team if they think the strike would be proportionate – which is usually answered in the affirmative – rather than investigating the details of how the soldiers came to that conclusion.

If the target passes these rounds, it is “banked”, joining thousands of other targets ready for an escalation or war. In theory, researchers are expected to constantly loop back through their targets, checking whether there have been any new developments that may heighten the threat to civilians.

In practice, however, once targets are banked, they are “rarely removed from the system”, even if there have been serious changes on the ground or a significant period of time has passed. Research teams are also under pressure to, and rewarded for, creating new targets.

“This means targets are being attacked without a serious intelligence evaluation beforehand,” personnel “A” said.

“They do not go back to check unless it is a time-sensitive target [like a targeted killing],” he added.

Targets are being attacked without a serious intelligence evaluation beforehand

Israeli air force intelligence personnel

Personnel “B” agreed, saying particularly during the 2014 war “most of the air force targets that were attacked weren’t “cleaned” – meaning when the military has confirmed no uninvolved civilians are present at the site of the bombing target prior to the strike.

“There was no capacity. I don’t know if there was a will, but for sure there was no capacity… We didn’t look at every target,” “B” said.

The problem lay in the number of drones. Israel has an extensive number of unmanned aircraft that hover over Gaza both during and outside of conflict situations however personnel “B” said they are not just used by the air force but by all of Israel’s security and intelligence arms and are often not available ahead of strikes.

“There isn’t enough [of them],” he continued.

‘Raining bombs’

These problems are heightened during periods of heavy bombardments, like the 2014 war when personnel were ordered to “make it rain bombs”, “B” said.

“The Gaza Strip is a small place, and this target bank runs out pretty quickly,” “B” added.

“Pretty quickly we kind of ran out of exactly what to attack.”

He said it got to the point in 2014 where people within the air force were even questioning why the military campaign was still going on.

“Everyone’s talking about what we’re doing here because the bank was finished,” “B” continued.

“There was a sense we got from above, from the IDF command, that we needed to: attack, attack, make noise.”

We ran out of exactly what to attack in Gaza. [But] there was a sense from IDF command that we needed to: attack, attack, make noise 

Israeli air force serviceman

’Internal reviews are a cover-up’

During the longer operations (like 2014) there are different “operational modes”: how many civilians can be killed or injured per target, and what damage is permitted to infrastructure and buildings around it, both said.

Personnel “A” said, however, these phases “are a blanket statement for the entire operation irrelevant to the actual risk to troops in specific areas. Instead, everything is elevated across Gaza,” raising questions about proportionality.

The military can move up a phase, allowing more civilian casualties, if they feel the fire from the Palestinians is more intense but also if the Palestinian attacks are seriously “damaging morale” in Israel or even if the army believes international opinion would permit it, the personnel claimed.

This is corroborated by several other testimonies gathered by Breaking the Silence and shared with The Independent.

BTS’s Mr Shaul said this protocol had to be reviewed.

“The army moves to a higher operational mode, elevating collateral damage levels in one part of Gaza, meaning more people will die on the other side of the strip. Does that sound legitimate?”

He said this is why the army’s internal reviews, like the most recent one into the 14 November strike, are “a cover-up”.

“They are side-tracking us from the real problem which are the rules itself. The IDF’s investigations look into the violations of norms and rules and I am saying the norms and rules are the problem.

“Most of the targeted civilians in Gaza were killed according to protocol.”

Relatives of the Abu Malhous family search through the remains to find belongings (Bel Trew)

‘There is not way you can attack Gaza without killing a lot of people’

The other issue is the difficulty of trying to operate in the densely populated territory.

Many military targets in Gaza are co-located with civilian infrastructure due to the nature of the terrain and how Hamas and other militant groups operate in the Strip. The Israeli military has repeatedly accused both organisations of using human shields.

Personnel “A” said, in theory, there are detailed protocols to work out how many people may be hurt or killed by a strike, including “completely scientific” statistical models that calculate damage.

But that does not apply to the haphazard landscape of Gaza, “A” continued.

“There is no way to accurately assess damage in Gaza. Any assessment is a bad assessment. There is no mathematical model for Gaza, it is too crowded to model,” the serviceman said.

There is no way to accurately assess damage in Gaza. Any assessment is a bad assessment

Air force intelligence personnel

“A” added that since you cannot do serious intelligence work on a single building it’s impossible for thousands of targets.

Personnel “B” agreed, saying it is hard to operate “in one of the most crowded neighbourhoods in the world”. This was particularly acute during the 2014 Gaza war when under-pressure commanders ended up green-lighting the phases of the war which permitted the highest levels of collateral damage.

“[There is] no way you can attack without killing a lot of people, no way, never, you can’t. Unless everyone gets out of there,” “B” said.

“In the end, the Strip is a finite area. The population has to move somehow. They can’t all disappear. So sometimes, you let loose. That’s the commander’s spirit. He says to the cell commanders: Guys, it’s up to you, the highest collateral damage rate, okay.”

Ms. Stein said that rather than systemic flaws in the protocol being the main problem, the overarching message from the Israeli government is “that Palestinians lives do not matter”.

“It’s a matter of political will. As long as they continue to see Palestinians lives as irrelevant and something you can dispense of very easily, I don’t think it will change,” she said.

It’s a matter of political will. As long as they continue to see Palestinians lives as irrelevant.. I don’t think it will change

Yael Stein, B’Tselem

“There were little children killed [in the 14 November strike] and everyone was saying it was legal. In the end who cares? Children were killed.”

Back in Gaza, the relatives of the November strike victims are left picking their way through the few remains of the homes for belongings, trying to make sense of what happened.

The grandparents said the children who survived, some of them with severe injuries, are suffering from trauma and wake up screaming in the night.

“We had to dig the children out when it first happened. There is just nothing left of the home, it is like the earth swallowed them up,” said Awad Abu Mismeh, 20, Rasmi’s son.

“Why use three massive bombs to take out two families, some goats and a few huts. We want to know why?”

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