Friendly fire kills 5 Israeli soldiers amid intense fighting in Gaza

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Five Israeli paratroopers were killed and several injured when an Israeli tank fired on them in the latest friendly-fire incident during the country’s war against Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip.

The Israel Defense Forces said on Thursday that a tank fired twice at the troops, with an initial review showing that it was likely the result of misidentification during fierce fighting with “Hamas in a dense [urban] area” in Jabalia. IDF troops have returned to the ruins of the northern Gaza refugee camp a few months after Israel had declared the area cleared of Hamas fighters.

The Palestinian militants sometimes “dress up as [Israeli] soldiers, and fight within civilian buildings”, a spokesperson said.

Israeli media said the paratroopers had been fired at several hours after they set up a command post in a building, and were joined by a second group of soldiers. The incident on Wednesday night brought the toll of Israeli soldiers killed in accidents, including friendly fire, to 49, out of about 280 who have been killed since ground combat operations commenced in Gaza in late October, the IDF said.

The deaths illustrate the challenges for IDF forces as they target Hamas militants during close-quarters combat in devastated areas of northern Gaza, with Israeli and international human rights groups criticising troops for often opening fire without fully identifying their targets.

An Israeli tank manoeuvring
An Israeli tank manoeuvring in Gaza near the city of Jabalia earlier this week © Atef Safadi/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

The latest friendly-fire incident came just a few days after a tank fired at a UN vehicle in southern Gaza, according to one person familiar with the incident, killing one international staffer and severely injuring a second. That incident, which has strained relations with the UN, is also under review, IDF spokesperson Nadav Shoshani said.

On Thursday, the International Court of Justice began hearing arguments after South Africa asked the UN’s top court for additional emergency measures to halt Israel’s offensive on Rafah, the southern Gazan city where more than 1mn people had sought refuge, and order Israel to allow UN and other aid officials unimpeded access to the besieged strip.

South Africa last year launched a case at the ICJ accusing Israel of committing genocide against Palestinians in its war in Gaza. Israel has vociferously denied the allegations. 

Over the course of seven months of conflict with Hamas since its deadly cross-border incursion on October 7, the Israeli military has taken responsibility for several high-profile incidents where errant fire and violations of its unpublished rules of engagement have claimed the lives of innocent non-combatants.

In April, an Israeli drone strike killed seven foreign aid workers who were part of a World Central Kitchen humanitarian convoy, drawing international condemnation. Last December, Israeli troops on the ground mistakenly shot dead three Israeli hostages who had managed to escape from Hamas captivity.

Israel’s military leaders apologised for both incidents and promised to sharpen their rules of engagement. International aid groups and the UN said the process was still unreliable.

Fighting on Israel’s northern frontier with Lebanon has also escalated, with increased cross-border fire between the IDF and the Iran-backed Hizbollah militant group. Several dozen rockets were fired at Israel’s northern Galilee region and the occupied Golan Heights. Late on Wednesday a drone struck about 50km into Israeli territory near a military facility.

Israel responded with artillery and air strikes at Hizbollah “military posts” in southern Lebanon. A drone strike killed what the IDF claimed was a senior Hizbollah commander near the city of Tyre earlier this week, drawing a heavy barrage of missile and rocket fire that killed an Israeli civilian. Israel retaliated with air strikes in the north-eastern Bekaa region.

The uptick in hostilities on both of Israel’s active fronts comes a day after the country’s defence minister, Yoav Gallant, lambasted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s lack of wartime strategy.

In a televised press conference, Gallant criticised the long-serving leader’s indecision on creating an alternative governing structure for postwar Gaza that could replace Hamas control.

“In the absence of such an alternative, only two negative options remain: Hamas’s rule in Gaza, or Israeli military rule in Gaza,” Gallant said.

Calling on Netanyahu by name, Gallant implored the prime minister “to make a decision”, placing “national priorities above all other considerations, even with the possibility of personal or political costs”.

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