Israeli army mistook aid workers for gunmen: inquiry

The Israeli military has dismissed two officers and formally reprimanded senior commanders after an inquiry into the killing of seven aid workers in an air strike in Gaza this week found serious errors and breaches of procedure, the military says.

The inquiry found Israeli forces mistakenly believed they were attacking Hamas gunmen when drones hit the three vehicles of the World Central Kitchen aid group late on Monday night, and that standard procedures had not been followed.

"The strike on the aid vehicles is a grave mistake stemming from a serious failure due to a mistaken identification, errors in decision-making and an attack contrary to the Standard Operating Procedures," the military said in a statement issued on Friday.

The killing of the seven aid workers, who included citizens of the United Kingdom, Australia and Poland, a dual US-Canadian and a Palestinian colleague, stirred global outrage this week.

In a call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday, US President Joe Biden threatened a shift in US policy towards Israel unless it reduced harm to civilians in Gaza, which had depended on aid even before the war. 

Hunger has spread since fighting began six months ago.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Friday the United States was carefully reviewing Israel's inquiry and would look very carefully at what steps Israel was taking.

Passports of aid workers killed in Israeli strike
Seven aid workers were killed in an Israeli drone attack on a convoy of World Central Kitchen.

"It's very important that Israel is taking full responsibility for this incident. It's also important that it appears to be taking steps to hold those responsible accountable. Even more important is that steps are being taken going forward to ensure that something like this can never happen again," Blinken told reporters in Brussels.

After publication of the findings, World Central Kitchen demanded an independent commission to investigate the incident. 

"Without systemic change, there will be more military failures, more apologies and more grieving families," WCK said in a statement.

The Israeli army (IDF) had already acknowledged that the seven WCK employees were killed in an air strike but the unusually swift investigation underlined the effect the incident has had on world public opinion.

Jose Andres, the chef who founded World Central Kitchen, said this week the seven workers had been targeted "systematically, car by car" as they scrambled to seek shelter when their vehicles were hit in succession.

The military said it had dismissed a brigade chief of staff with the rank of colonel and a brigade fire support officer with the rank of major, and formally reprimanded senior officers including the general at the head of the Southern Command.

The case was also handed over to the military advocate general to consider a possible criminal investigation, the military said.

The military said that as the aid convoy which the light vehicles were accompanying was travelling down the coastal road in Gaza towards a logistics point late on Monday, armed suspects had climbed onto at least one of the trucks.

The army showed reporters drone footage of a man on top of a lorry firing a rifle, which a spokesperson said had prompted the military to try, unsuccessfully, to contact WCK co-ordinators.

After the convoy reached a hangar and the trucks were unloaded, the three WCK vehicles left the location and turned south down the coast road shortly after 11pm. 

However, Israeli commanders could not see their identifying logos in the dark and did not identify them as belonging to WCK.

Yoav Har-Even, the former major general who led the inquiry, said forces had acted on the mistaken belief that the vehicles had been seized by Hamas fighters.

As the cars departed the hangar, one of the men getting into the vehicles had been carrying a bag which the operators watching drone footage took to be a rifle.

"The state of mind at that time was that the humanitarian mission had ended and that they were tracking Hamas vehicles with one suspected gunman, at least one suspected gunman, that they misidentified to be inside one of the three cars," he told reporters in a briefing.

"They struck that car and then they identified people running out of the car and entering a second car, which is when they decided to strike the second car. Then two people left the second car and entered the third car, which is when they struck the third car."

Those strikes were in breach of IDF standard operating procedures, he said.

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