JERUSALEM — The Israeli military has decided not to pursue criminal charges against soldiers involved in missile strikes in the Gaza Strip last summer that killed four children playing on a beach.
The Military Advocate General Corps investigated the notorious incident, which took place July 16 in view of hotels where international journalists were staying, and concluded that there was no criminal wrongdoing.
The four cousins, ages 9 to 11, who were killed were sons of the extended Bakr fishing family. Four other children were injured by shrapnel. Images of the dead and wounded children being rushed from the beach toward ambulances were broadcast around the world. A reporter for The Washington Post witnessed the attack.
The children were playing on the breakwater jetty in the Gaza City harbor when the aerial assault began. After the first salvo was fired, they ran toward a beach hotel where journalists were working, and a second Israeli airstrike hit the group.
In a summary of the criminal investigation released Thursday night, the Israel Defense Forces said its personnel believed they were targeting militants from the Hamas navy.
“It should be stressed that the figures were not identified at any point during the incident as children,” the Israeli military said.
Israel called the misidentification of the targets an “error” but said that “the tragic outcome of the incident does not affect the legality of the attack.”
The decision not to pursue criminal charges comes as Israel braces for a new U.N. human rights report on last summer’s war between Israel and Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist militant movement that controls the Gaza Strip.
Prosecutors at the International Criminal Court in The Hague are also pursuing a preliminary inquiry to decide whether war crimes may have been committed by Israel and Hamas and whether the global court has jurisdiction.
If crimes are found to have been committed but Israel is pursuing the matter in an open judicial manner, the ICC prosecutors may conclude that there is no reason for them to become involved.
More than 2,100 Palestinians were killed, and the United Nations says the majority were civilians, including more than 500 children. On the Israeli side, 72 people, most of them soldiers, were killed. The deaths in Israel included one child.
Human rights groups such as Amnesty International have alleged that both Israel and Hamas committed war crimes during the conflict.
A group of active and retired Israeli soldiers called “Breaking the Silence” issued a report in May alleging that permissive rules of engagement for Israeli forces were partly responsible for the high civilian death toll.
Israel generally blames Hamas for the civilian casualties, saying the group employed “human shields” and hid weapons in hospitals, schools and mosques. Israelis say their army is among the most moral in the world and adheres to international norms, even in urban warfare against terrorist groups that operate in civilian areas.
Israeli military officials say their troops took precautions to avoid civilian casualties and collateral damage during the war — such as by telephoning civilians in houses about to be hit, dropping leaflets warning noncombatants to flee an area and firing small-charge, less-lethal missiles at structures, the so-called “ knock on the roof,” to urge occupants to flee before the structures were hit with more lethal rounds.
U.S. Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, commended Israel for going to “extraordinary lengths” to avoid civilian deaths.
In its investigation of the incident on the beach, the Israeli Military Advocate General Corps said the target was “a compound used to store military supplies,” which was “used exclusively by militants.” Israel said the compound was fenced off from the beach.
After the attack, journalists visiting the breakwater jetty described it as not a fenced compound but a shipping container and shed containing a few tools and fishing equipment. The area was — and still is — used by the Gaza fishing fleet.
The Israeli report said the children had entered a shed that had been hit by an Israeli missile the day before. “They were believed to be militants from Hamas Naval Forces, who had arrived at the compound in order to prepare to execute the aforementioned military activity against the IDF,” the report said.
After the first strike, “the rest of the figures began to run in the direction of the compound’s exit,” the report said. “Shortly before their exit from the compound, an additional missile was fired from the air toward them, which hit the figures in question after they had exited the compound.”
The attack took place at midday. The Israelis employed surveillance and armed drones throughout the offensive and carried out precisely targeted killings of suspected Hamas commanders.
In the report, however, the Israelis concluded that “it would not have been possible for the operational entities involved to have identified these figures, via aerial surveillance, as children.”
Israel says it has investigated 105 alleged “exceptional incidents” in the Gaza war and referred seven cases for criminal investigation.
In a summary of its actions released Thursday night, the IDF said it had found no criminal wrongdoing in the deaths of 15 civilians in a strike against a Gaza City high-rise that took out a senior commander of Islamic Jihad. Nor were IDF troops criminally liable in a strike that killed eight family members in the town of Khan Younis in southern Gaza, it said.
Three Israeli soldiers have been indicted on charges of looting $600 from a house in Gaza.