RAFAH, GAZA STRIP — It all began at a hole in the ground in a field of melons, when an Israeli reconnaissance squad surprised Hamas militiamen near a tunnel entrance. A vicious firefight erupted, just a few bursts long but enough to leave two Israeli soldiers and one Palestinian militant dead.
After a quick body count, it was discovered that a young Israeli officer was missing, evidently having been dragged down the tunnel — a nightmare scenario for Israel, whose military doctrine enshrines “force protection” and vows never to leave a soldier behind, dead or alive.
The abduction took place one year ago, on Aug. 1, 2014. That is a day both Palestinians and Israelis have come to call “Black Friday,” when a 72-hour cease-fire in the middle of the Gaza war was shattered.
It was one of the deadliest and most controversial days in last summer’s war. And it returned to the spotlight last week with the release of a report by Amnesty International, which asserts that Israel’s use of one-ton bombs and heavy artillery shelling in civilian neighborhoods was a disproportionate, indiscriminate, even vengeful response to the abduction of a single soldier.
Amnesty said it found “strong evidence” of war crimes.
After the disappearance of the soldier, Amnesty says, 2,000 bombs, missiles and artillery shells were fired into densely populated areas.
Israel denied it used excessive force and said its soldiers were not only seeking the return of a kidnapped soldier but also fighting Hamas militants who attacked them from behind “human shields.”
The Amnesty investigation comes on the heels of a June report by the Commission of Inquiry on the 2014 Gaza Conflict for the United Nations, which concluded that the Black Friday events might amount to war crimes.
The report also found that Hamas may have committed similar violations of international law by indiscriminately firing rockets at Israeli civilians and basing combatants in schools, mosques and hospitals.
Human rights groups say 135 to 200 Palestinian civilians were killed over four days in early August; most died on Black Friday, Amnesty said.
Israel called both the United Nations and Amnesty investigations biased. It had denied access to the Gaza Strip to both groups.
The Israeli Foreign Ministry issued a rebuttal to the Amnesty report, calling it “fundamentally flawed in its methodologies, in its facts, in its legal analysis and in its conclusions.”
The Israeli government also charged that Amnesty had a “compulsive obsessiveness towards Israel.”
Amnesty researchers, however, say their report will probably guide prosecutor Fatou B. Bensouda at the International Criminal Court in her decision on whether to advance from the current “preliminary examination” of Israeli behavior in Gaza to a full “investigation.” That would be a much more serious matter, which could lead to indictments against top military and political leaders on both sides.
Black Friday began in the flat fields east of the southernmost Gaza city of Rafah, where Israeli troops were searching for a tunnel to destroy when they encountered the Hamas fighters. Lt. Hadar Goldin was pulled into a hole in the ground.
Radio communications, alongside video from a camera mounted on a soldier’s helmet, portray the chaotic events, with Israeli commanders initially not sure who was dead or alive.
Within minutes, senior Israeli commanders shouted the order to declare a “Hannibal Directive,” a classified protocol understood by many Israeli troops to mean “better a dead soldier than a captured soldier.”
Israeli soldiers dropped grenades into the tunnel and then went searching for their comrade in the darkness, firing bursts into the gloom.
Lt. Eitan Fund, 24, rushed forward to try to thwart the capture of his friend. “If I’m not back in 5 minutes — I’m dead,” he said, according to Israeli accounts. He did make it back, and he was later awarded a medal for heroism.
Fund found bloody pieces of Goldin’s uniform. Goldin was declared dead the next day based on the forensic evidence found in the tunnel, even though his body is still missing and still sought by Israel and his family.
Col. Ofer Winter was the commander of the Givati Brigade who issued the Hannibal Directive, which Amnesty said led to multiple strikes on tunnel openings, crowded intersections and a central hospital, all to stop Hamas from spiriting Goldin away.
The Amnesty report suggests Winter wanted to teach Hamas a lesson. The group quoted the colonel telling an Israeli newspaper: “Anyone who abducts should know that he will pay a price. This was not revenge. They simply messed with the wrong brigade.”
Palestinian witnesses to the events on Black Friday describe chaos and terror, as civilians returning to their homes during the cease-fire were suddenly subjected to intense shelling.
Yussef Abed, a surgeon at the Abu Youssef al-Najjar Hospital in Rafah, said he arrived at work at noon that day by ambulance. He was too scared to drive his own car, he said, because Israelis had ordered everyone off the streets.
In his office, the window exploded as an Israeli bomb destroyed a home a few hundred meters away. The hospital was packed with wounded; the morgue was filling with bodies. Frightened residents crowded into the hallways, hoping the hospital was safe.
“It was like the last scene in that movie about the Titanic before the boat sinks,” Abed said. “Then people began to panic.”
Doctors’ cellphones began to ring with calls from Israeli soldiers in intelligence units, warning the staff not to leave. The calls were also threatening, Abed said, warning that Israel suspected Goldin was being treated or held captive in the hospital. “Then everyone went nuts,” he said.
An ambulance crew that left earlier was struck by a missile, the medics incinerated, Abed said. Patients fled the hospital, some still attached to intravenous systems.
Abed said that Goldin never arrived at his hospital and that the shelling around the building kept the wounded from being treated.
Nearby, according to Amnesty, Israel dropped one-ton bombs in the al-Tannur neighborhood.
Rateb Bilbisi, whose family owns the grocery there, said Palestinians from east Rafah were seeking shelter from the sun under trees and awnings when huge explosions toppled a building across the street, leaving more than 16 dead, all of them civilians.
“We found a head a block away,” Bilbisi said. “That’s how big the bomb was.”
He said bodies remained on the streets for a day because ambulances could not enter the area.
In its rebuttal, the Israeli Foreign Ministry defended the Israel Defense Forces and said, “Amnesty builds a false narrative — claiming that four days of military operations by the IDF were in direct response to the killing and kidnapping of one IDF soldier.
“It seems that Amnesty forgot that there was an ongoing conflict — during which the IDF was operating to stop rocket fire and neutralize cross-border assault tunnels, and Palestinian terrorist organizations were actively engaging in intensive conflict against the IDF from within the civilian environment,” the ministry states.
Today, the scene of the initial fighting doesn’t look like much. Donkeys pull carts; melons grow fat in the fields; a lone white farmhouse is pockmarked with bullet holes.
There are still patrols here by armed factions from Islamic Jihad and Hamas, but the year-long truce has mostly held.
Farmers in Rafah say Palestinian armed factions are busy constructing combat tunnels again. Hamas is reportedly engaged in this rebuilding.
Both sides say that without a permanent truce, another round of war is likely.
Hazem Balousha contributed to this report.