Israel fires two officers after finding grave errors in strike on aid workers

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By James Mackenzie and Rami Amichay

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - The Israeli military 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 said.

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 Britain, Australia and Poland, a dual U.S.-Canadian national and a Palestinian colleague, stirred global outrage this week.

In a call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday, U.S. President Joe Biden threatened a shift in U.S. 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.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Friday Washington was carefully reviewing Israel's inquiry and would look very carefully at what steps Israel was taking.

"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," said a statement published by WCK.

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 impact 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 convoy hit was the second of four planned missions to deliver some 200 tons of food brought to Gaza by sea last month under WCK management as part of efforts to increase the amount of aid getting into Israeli-besieged Gaza.

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 coordinators.

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 11 p.m. (2100 GMT). 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.

The army pledged to address the fact that it had been unable to see the rooftop logos in the dark as part of a wider package of lessons to draw from the disaster.

(Additional reporting by Ari Rabinovitch; editing by Kevin Liffey and Mark Heinrich)