On the first day of Israel’s massive assault on Gaza last summer, the army fired a missile into a three-story apartment building, completely destroying the complex and killing nine members of the Kaware family.
Among the dead were children, and the atrocity — or “error” as the Israeli military would later call it — portended what would become one of the deadliest tactics of the fifty-day assault: destroying Palestinians’ homes.
A new report by the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem examines how Israel came to permit the widespread targeting of homes last summer. The report concludes that Israel violated international law but suggests it may not have violated its own policies.
In fact, the office of Danny Efroni, Israel’s military advocate general (MAG), determined that the strike on the Kaware family home complied with Israeli domestic law as well as requirements of international law. It has opened only one criminal investigation into a strike on a private residence.
While there has been resistance among Israel’s military and government to the MAG’s handful of internal investigations into last summer’s events, there has been an even stronger pushback to the current United Nations inquiry into the attack on Gaza. The UN’s conclusions are likely to be far less forgiving than those of Israel’s MAG, which has, increasingly, contorted international law to sanction the targeting of civilian buildings and infrastructure.
B’Tselem estimates that of the more than 2,200 men, women and children who lost their lives during the assault, 25 percent of them were in their homes when they were killed. And of those, at least 70 percent were civilians.
In one strike detailed in the report, thirty-four people from five different families perished in a building in which a kindergarten was located.
“Fending off” criticism
Since opening up thirteen criminal probes, Efroni has stated “the law is probably the most effective tool for fending off arguments made against us.”
But the “law” to which Efroni and his investigators adhere has undergone a thorough reconstruction: as early as 2008 the Israeli army’s legal department introduced new guidelines that permit the kind of warfare Israel has conducted in the last three major attacks on Gaza.
The International Law Division (ILD), a branch of the military advocate general’s office, began authorizing systematic airstrikes against civilian infrastructure during Operation Cast Lead — Israel’s three week assault on Gaza in late 2008 and early 2009 — under the rationale that all of it was operated by Hamas.
In 2009, an ILD officer told the Tel Aviv daily Haaretz, “Our goal is not to fetter the army, but to give it tools to win in a lawful manner.”
After the first day of last summer’s military operation, an Israeli military spokesperson announced that the four residences that had been destroyed had been the homes of “operatives in the Hamas terrorist organization.” The next day, however, the military backtracked, claiming the homes were not just where the operatives lived, but part of Hamas’ “operational” or “terror” infrastructure.
Indemnifying the military
This became the official justification for targeting homes.
This justification is problematic, according to B’Tselem, because the Israeli army has yet to produce evidence to substantiate claims that the thousands of homes damaged or destroyed were hubs of military activity to justify, according to the rules of proportionality, the staggering death toll of Palestinian civilians.
The International Law Division is responsible for justifying Israel’s highly influential targeted assassination program and developed the “roof knock” system — a euphemism for bombing the top of a building as a precursor to a bigger and deadlier attack. The “roof knock” tactic was widely used in Gaza last summer.
Though it did not protect civilians — as B’Tselem and many other human rights observers have determined — the “roof knock” technique has been effective at something: indemnifying the military for killing people who “remained” in an area or building they had been “warned” to evacuate.
In its explanation for closing the investigation into the strike on the Kaware family home, the MAG contended that the army had sufficiently warned the family through a telephone call and striking their roof with a projectile.
B’Tselem’s report offers a stout rebuttal to Israeli army’s claims that it goes to great lengths to protect innocent civilians. What is also abundantly clear is that not only does Israel routinely kill and maim civilians, it does so as a matter of policy — one it has worked hard to “legalize.”