Mourners carrying the body of Amir al-Nimrah, 15, whom rights groups say was killed in Gaza by an Israeli airstrike meant to warn civilians of an impending attack.
Said Khatib/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Dec. 17, 2018
JERUSALEM — An Israeli military tactic intended to spare civilians actually killed two Palestinian teenagers recently and needs to be viewed as a form of attack, not as the ethically responsible precautionary measure that Israel portrays it to be, two human rights groups said in a new report.
The tactic is referred to as “knocking on the roof,” a euphemism for hitting a building with loud but not terribly destructive munitions before switching to the powerful missiles or bombs meant to level it.
The report assembled crowdsourced video into a meticulous reconstruction of the killings of two teenage boys in an airstrike in July on an unfinished high-rise in Gaza City, the first of four “roof-knocking” missiles meant to warn off civilians that instead killed them.
The bottom line, it concluded, was that an airstrike must not be considered a warning, and must conform to international humanitarian law requiring armies to take pains to identify legitimate targets and avoid harming civilians.
The report also accused the office of the Israel Defense Forces’ spokesman of “manipulating the truth” in choosing the images it publicized of the attack.
Early Tuesday, the military spokesman’s office issued a statement acknowledging that the Israeli Air Force had failed to notice the two teenagers in harm’s way. It said that Israel’s Military Advocate General was examining that failure.
But it defended the roof-knocking tactic, insisting it “coincides entirely with international law” and had been proved “countless times” to “reduce harm to civilians located in or near structures that are military objectives.”
And it denied any effort to distort news coverage of the attack on what Israel called an urban-warfare training center of Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza.
The report was published as a video on Monday by B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights group, and Forensic Architecture, a London-based research group that investigates state violence and human rights violations.
It pinpointed the moment on July 14, during a daylong exchange of rockets and airstrikes between Israel and Gaza, when Amir al-Nimrah and Luai Kahil were killed: at 5:45 p.m., as they sat with their legs dangling over the edge of an unfinished tower overlooking Al Katiba Square, having just taken a selfie.
(Amir was widely reported to be 15 years old and Luai a year older, but B’Tselem said on Tuesday that it had obtained documents that put the age of both boys at 14.)
In an English-language publication during the 2014 war with Gaza, the Israeli military said it used “loud but nonlethal” bombs for roof-knocking.
Young Palestinian men in front of a building damaged by an Israeli airstrike in Gaza City in July.
Mahmud Hams/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
But videos recorded in July by people who rushed to the rooftop to try to help the two boys showed pockmarks in the concrete surface that the report said matched the shrapnel pattern of an antipersonnel missile.
That would be consistent with the Israeli practice of using munitions for roof-knocking strikes that would explode on the surface of a building, rather than pierce it and endanger those inside.
A government report on the 2014 Gaza war acknowledged that the tactic was “imperfect,” but said that it prevented many civilian deaths and injuries.
The boys, however, were seated only about 30 feet from where the missile struck, according to the report.
“Warning strikes are an essential part of the Israeli military’s claims to high ethical standards,” said Eyal Weizman, director of Forensic Architecture, which has also collaborated with The New York Times. “But such warnings are sometimes delivered with the same missiles that are used elsewhere to kill,” he said.
To support its conclusion that the Israeli military had selectively chosen images used to publicize the attack, the report analyzed video posted online by the military spokesman’s office.
All told, four roof-knocking strikes hit the building between 5:45 p.m. and 5:58 p.m., the report found. Four tremendous blasts then quickly destroyed it at 6:02 p.m.
About an hour later, the Israel Defense Forces spokesman’s office issued a Twitter post with a video of the attack, with clips of what looked like four roof-knocking strikes on the building followed by the major explosions. The two teenagers could not be seen on the roof in the first clip.
But the report found that the first roof-knocking strike, at 5:45 p.m., was actually missing from the military’s Twitter post.
In its place was an additional angle on the third strike, at 5:54 p.m. — recorded after the boys’ bodies had already been carried away by people who rushed to the roof to try to help them.
That prompted the human rights groups to ask whether the Israeli military had suppressed video that might have shown the boys on the roof when the first missile was fired — or whether it was incapable of conducting airstrikes in populated areas while still meeting its legal obligations to spare civilians.
“We don’t know if the boys were visible to the military before the first strike,” said Amit Gilutz, a B’Tselem spokesman. “If so, they should have aborted. If not, that raises grave concerns as to the military’s surveillance capabilities.”
The military spokesman’s office denied any attempt to manipulate coverage of the airstrike. It said that the first visual evidence the military had seen of the two teenagers’ presence on the rooftop — despite a review conducted in response to news reports of their deaths — was in the video published on Monday by B’Tselem and Forensic Architecture.
“Any allegations that the I.D.F. knowingly distorted or edited video footage are totally baseless and false,” it said.