A Palestinian-Dutch citizen is suing two senior Israeli military commanders for the bombing of his family’s home during Israel’s 2014 attack on the Gaza Strip.
On 20 July of that year, without warning, an Israeli airstrike destroyed the house in the al-Bureij refugee camp in central Gaza, killing six members of Ismail Ziada’s family and a seventh person who was visiting them.
Ziada, who lives in the Netherlands where he is married to a Dutch citizen, could not attend the funerals of his family members due to Israel’s blockade on Gaza.
He lost his mother, 70-year-old Muftia Ziada, three brothers, a sister-in-law and a 12-year-old nephew.
Ziada holds Benny Gantz and Amir Eshel, respectively the Israeli chief of staff and the chief of the air force at the time of the attack, responsible for the decision to drop the bomb.
This month, Ziada’s lawyers, Liesbeth Zegveld and Lisa-Marie Komp with human rights law firm Prakken d’Oliveira, filed a complaint in a Dutch court.
The same lawyers recently filed another case in the Netherlands on behalf of a Palestinian severely injured when the Israeli army used Dutch-trained dogs to attack him in the occupied West Bank.
In Ziada’s case, Gantz and Eshel have been summoned to appear on 27 June. If they don’t show up or send attorneys, the court could enter a default judgment in Ziada’s favor.
Ziada is suing the Israeli generals for more than $600,000 in damages plus court costs.
Among the witnesses the complaint cites is a neighbor of the Ziada family who described “how the image of the destroyed house and the mutilated bodies shocked him.”
Last year, Ziada sent a letter to Gantz and Eshel holding them liable for the devastating harm he suffered from the Israeli attack. Although the Israeli justice ministry confirmed receipt, it has still offered no substantive response.
Assault on Gaza
The attack on the Ziada home was part of what the complaint calls Israel’s “policy to bomb civilian residential buildings” in “breach of international humanitarian law.”
During 51 days in the summer of 2014, Israel carried out thousands of airstrikes on Gaza, including targeted attacks on residential and other civilian buildings, an independent investigation commissioned by the UN Human Rights Council found.
In total, 2,251 Palestinians were killed – about one in every 1,000 of Gaza’s residents – including 1,462 civilians, among them 551 children. More than 11,000 Palestinians were injured, the majority women and children.
The UN inquiry found that Israel’s destruction and killing often amounted to war crimes and “may have constituted military tactics reflective of a broader policy, approved at least tacitly by decision-makers at the highest levels of the Government of Israel.”
According to the complaint, Gantz and Eshel were among the top leaders who “designed the policy of bombing residential buildings” and are “fully responsible for the decision to bomb the Ziada family residence.”
A key claim in the complaint is that the Dutch courts have jurisdiction over the case both because of Ziada’s connections to the Netherlands and because there is no way for him to obtain justice in Israeli courts.
It points out that Israel’s Military Advocate General (MAG) investigated the attack and concluded that the pilots who dropped the bomb would not be prosecuted, noting that they acted with the approval of military commanders.
The MAG claimed that the Ziada home served as a command center of the military branch of Hamas and that the “military advantage” of carrying out the attack without giving any warning outweighed the risk of civilian casualties.
But the complaint points out that MAG provided no evidence to support the decision not to open a criminal investigation and tried to use information allegedly obtained after the attack to justify it in retrospect.
International law requires that a decision about whether an object is a legitimate military target be made with information available before the attack.
The MAG’s handling of this case is part of its well-documented role in whitewashing hundreds of complaints filed by Palestinians through lawyers and human rights groups for alleged war crimes during the attack on Gaza.
As Ziada’s complaint notes, MAG cannot credibly investigate the Israeli army since it is not independent and directly advises the army on attacks in the midst of military operations.
The complaint also details how Ziada cannot gain justice in Israel’s civil and criminal courts since Israeli law doesn’t incorporate provisions to prosecute war crimes. Israel’s civil law also includes an “act of war” exception, which has been interpreted by judges to give the military blanket immunity for damage it causes to Palestinians.
Moreover, Israel imposes insurmountable legal and practical restrictions on Palestinians pursuing justice, including an unrealistically short 60-day period in which to file a complaint, exorbitant and discriminatory financial guarantees and bans on travel that prevent Palestinians meeting with lawyers or appearing as witnesses.
Shortly after the deadly attack on the Ziada family home, 91-year-old Dutch citizen Henk Zanoli expressed his shock and pain by returning his Righteous Among the Nations medal to Israel.
Ziada is married to Zanoli’s great-niece.
Zanoli and his mother were given the medal by Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial for hiding a Jewish child from Nazi occupation forces from 1943 until the Netherlands was liberated in 1945.
They took a great risk because they were already under suspicion from the Nazis. Zanoli’s father was sent to a concentration camp in 1941 for opposing the German occupation. He died at Mauthausen a few months before the war ended.
“It’s a political statement,” Zanoli, a former judge, told Dutch media in 2014. “I want to show that I disagree with the actions of the Israeli government towards the Palestinians.”
In a letter he sent to the Israeli embassy along with the medal, Zanoli wrote that Israel’s actions in Gaza had already resulted in serious accusations of war crimes.
He added that as a retired jurist, “it would be no surprise to me that these accusations could lead to possible convictions if true and unpoliticized justice is able to have its course.”
Ziada’s lawsuit will test whether that kind of justice, unavailable in Israel, can be found in the Netherlands.