Hatem Ali, File, Associated Press
RAFAH, Gaza Strip — The first of August dawned as a day of promise for the Mahmoum clan and thousands of other Palestinians stuck in United Nations shelters in Rafah — thanks to a temporary cease-fire with Israel they could go home for three days.
But the expected respite quickly turned into one of the deadliest and most controversial episodes in the recent war between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. After just two hours, amid fear that Hamas had captured an Israeli soldier, the Israeli military sealed off the Rafah area and began shelling. By the end of the next day, 190 Palestinians were dead, according to a list of names compiled by two Gaza human rights groups, including 14 members of the Mahmoum family.
The Rafah operation is almost certain to be a focus of U.N. investigators and rights groups looking into possible war crimes because it highlights a key concern: The treatment of civilians.
A Palestinian rights group argues that the Israeli army violated the rules of war, which include giving adequate warning to civilians, using proportionate force and distinguishing between civilians and combatants. Unlike in many other Gaza battles, civilians were caught by surprise by the sudden fire and sealed exits.
"None of the rules of international humanitarian law was observed," said Mahmoud Abu Rahma of the Al Mezan rights group.
The Israeli military confirmed that Rafah residents were barred from leaving the area on Aug. 1, but declined comment on the war crime allegations. It denied firing into a densely populated area without regard for civilians, saying precise airstrikes hit targets linked to militants and artillery — though inherently inaccurate — was only aimed at open fields.
Late on Aug. 2, the suspected capture of the soldier turned out to be a false alarm, and the Rafah episode is one of several under internal military review.
"If we accidentally or mistakenly targeted a civilian situation, it was a mistake, and we are very sorry about that," an officer from the army's Southern Command said on condition of anonymity as he wasn't authorized to speak on the record.
The following account is from interviews with Palestinian survivors and the Israeli military, along with events witnessed by The Associated Press.
The cease-fire took effect at 8 a.m. Friday. Mustafa Mahmoum, a municipal bulldozer operator, was at work clearing rubble from previous Israeli strikes. But after weeks in a shelter, his wife Iqzayer, 34, and their seven children returned to the family home in Tannour in east Rafah, about 2 miles (3 kilometers) from the Israeli border.
A few houses down Ouroba Street, the main thoroughfare, Azizeh, 47, the wife of one of Mustafa's cousins, and her nine children also moved back home into their two-room shack with a roof of corrugated metal.
At 9 a.m., the commander of Israel's Givati Brigade, Col. Ofer Winter, had just dozed off after a sleepless night when he received an alert from the field.
Givati soldiers searching for Hamas' network of military tunnels had been ambushed by Hamas gunmen, he was told. Over the next half hour, it became apparent that Maj. Benaya Sarel, a recon officer, and Liel Gidoni, his radio operator, had been killed, and 2nd Lt. Hadar Goldin was missing.
At 9:36 a.m., Winter announced over the field radio the word nobody wanted to hear: "Hannibal."
Hannibal is the name for the military protocol to be followed if a soldier falls into enemy hands. The aim is to stop the capture, even if it means loosening open-fire regulations.
Winter ordered all forces to take territory so that the kidnappers couldn't move, he told Israel's Yediot Ahronot newspaper.
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