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Israel could have used smaller weapons against Hamas to avoid deaths in Gaza tent fire, experts say

WASHINGTON (AP) — Defense experts who reviewed images of debris from Israeli airstrike sparks deadly camp fire for displaced Palestinians wondered why Israel was not using smaller, more precise weapons when so many civilians were nearby. They said the bombs used were likely American-made.

The strikes, targeting Hamas members, killed up to 45 people sheltering in a camp for temporarily displaced people near the southern Gaza town of Rafah on Sunday and international condemnation.

Israel is investigating the attack but says Hamas targets were 1.7 kilometers from a declared humanitarian zone and its review before the strike determined no expected harm to civilians.

But displaced civilians were scattered throughout the area and Israel had not ordered their evacuation. So even though the tents that burned were not inside the demarcated humanitarian zone, civilians believed they were safe.

Israel, which was attacked by Hamas on October 7, 2023, did not specify where the burned tents were located in relation to the compound it bombed on Sunday, but released a satellite image showing that there were known civilian shelters located about 180 meters (600 feet). He pointed out that although there were no tents “in the immediate vicinity,” due to “unforeseen circumstances, a fire tragically broke out, killing Gaza civilians nearby.”

Footage released by the Israeli military appeared to show people walking near the targeted buildings before the explosion. The images also appear to show tents nearby.

Israel did not identify the bombs it used, but Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari, an Israeli military spokesman, stressed that the country chose the smallest munition its planes could carry – with 17 kilograms (37 pounds) of explosive material each – and that an unintentional secondary explosion could have caused the fire.

Even the smallest aircraft-launched munition can prove too big near civilians because of the way it explodes and can send fragments far, defense experts said.

Images posted on social media from the tent camp Monday and verified by The Associated Press showed a CAGE code, a unique identifier assigned to U.S. government suppliers, on pieces of the exploded weapons.

Based on these images and satellite photos of the debris field, two defense experts said the bombs used were likely American-made 250-pound (113-kilogram) GBU-39 small-diameter bombs.

Although smaller than many other weapons supplied by the United States to Israel, these bombs can still cause significant damage. The entire 250-pound hull and its components are designed to spew fragments that can travel up to 2,000 feet (600 meters).

“They basically use two bombs whose fragments can travel 600 meters in a densely populated area. So it doesn’t provide any insight into whether they’re trying to limit casualties,” said Trevor Ball, a former Army explosive ordnance disposal technician.

Ball said the serial number on the tail kit parts and shell debris shown in photographs identify the munitions as 250-pound GBU-39s. It’s unusual to describe a bomb by its explosive charge — in this case, 37 pounds — instead of its total weight, according to Ball and Mark Cancian, a retired Marine Corps reserve colonel and senior advisor to the Study Center strategic and international.

The debris field in Gaza indicates that the bombs could explode before impact, which would guarantee the death of their targets but also risk unintended deaths, Ball and Cancian said. The images showed a small hole where shrapnel had been found.

The GBU-39’s fuse settings can be adjusted so that the bomb explodes on impact, which would create a crater on the site, or set for a delayed explosion if the objective is to cause it to penetrate deeper into a target first.

They can also be configured to explode in mid-air, just before impact, to ensure that multiple targets are hit. But that setting also maximizes area damage, which could account for a secondary explosion even if weapons or other flammable materials were some distance away, Ball said.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters Wednesday during a news conference. a visit to Moldova that the United States is awaiting an investigation to show what weapons were used and how they were deployed.

While this confirms that Israel used a small-diameter weapon, “we also see that even limited and targeted weapons targeted attacks – designed to combat terrorists who have killed innocent civilians and are plotting to kill more – even these types of operations can have terrible, horrific, unintended consequences,” Blinken said.

Defense experts said Israel had better options to turn to than the GBU-39 when civilians were nearby.

The Israelis have already deployed drones to launch smaller, more precise weapons, Cancian said. These precision airstrikes used over the years have caused little damage beyond the immediate target.

Israel, for example, could have used a smaller antipersonnel weapon called a mini-Spike in this strike, which would not have created as large a debris zone if it targeted specific Hamas leaders, Cancian said.

The United States has held a shipment of even larger 2,000-pound (900-kilogram) bombs of Israel over fears they would be used in Israel’s Rafah operation, where more than a million Palestinians gathered after Israel bombed other parts of Gaza. Today, the same number of people have fled Rafah and are scattered across the country. makeshift tent camps and other areas.

Sunday’s strike shows that even the small 250-pound bombs the United States continues to supply may be too big to use near areas densely populated with refugees, Cancian said.

White House national security spokesman John Kirby said Wednesday that the United States was still trying to gather information from Israel about the deadly Rafah strike. He declined to discuss the specific munitions used by Israel, but said Israel’s public comments on the munitions used “certainly indicate a desire to be more deliberate and more precise in their targeting.”


Federman reported from Jerusalem. Associated Press writers Matthew Lee in Prague, Ellen Knickmeyer and Zeke Miller in Washington and Kareem Chehayeb in Beirut, Lebanon, contributed.

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