Amnesty: Israel may be guilty of “war crimes” during Gaza massacre

Amnesty’s new report focuses on Israel’s systematic destruction of civilian homes during its summer assault on Gaza.

Mohamad Asad APA images

A new report published by renowned human rights group Amnesty International decries Israel for possibly committing “war crimes” during its 51-day assault on the besieged Gaza Strip this summer.

The report – “Buried Under the Rubble: Israeli attacks on inhabited homes” – was released yesterday. In addition to holding Israel accountable, the human rights group called on the international community to “suspend the transfer to Israel of arms, munitions, weapons and military equipment” until it takes “substantial steps” to meet its requirements under international humanitarian law. 

According to the latest United Nations figures, Israel killed 2,194 Palestinians during its summer assault on Gaza (deemed “Operation Protective Edge”). At least 1,523 of these were civilians. Palestinian resistance groups, on the other hand, killed 66 Israeli occupation soldiers and six civilians while firing back rockets.

While one Israeli child was killed as a result of Palestinian rockets, Israeli airstrikes and mortar attacks killed at least 519 Palestinian children.

By the time a ceasefire was reached between Israel and Palestinian factions in Gaza on 26 August, an estimated 110,000 people were living in emergency shelters and approximately 108,000 had been left homeless, according to UN estimates cited in the report. 

The Amnesty report – which focuses on eight Israeli attacks – notes that “Israeli air strikes during Israel’s recent military operation in the Gaza Strip, Operation Protective Edge, targeted inhabited multistory family homes.”

“Whole families, including many women and children,” the report observes, “were killed or injured by these targeted strikes and, in addition, there was extensive destruction of civilian property.”

“Collapsed on top of us”

The eight attacks detailed in the report resulted in the deaths of at least 111 Palestinians, including at least 104 civilians, and the intense damaging or complete destruction of 34 homes providing residence to at least 150 people.

Many of those homes, however, were also housing Palestinians who were already displaced from elsewhere in the Gaza Strip as a result of Israel’s large-scale bombing of the besieged coastal enclave, according to Amnesty.

A particularly horrifying attack took place on 29 July, when Israeli planes “dropped a large aerial bomb on the al-Dali building in the city of Khan Younis,” home to three families.

According to the report:

Thirty-seven people were in the building at the time of the attack, which killed 16 members of the Abu Amer family, seven members of the Breika family, seven members of the al-Najjar family, and four of the Mu’ammar family. The damage caused by the attack to adjacent houses killed one member of the al-Ramlawi family, and a member of the Abu Sitta family. In total, 36 people were killed, including 18 children, and at least 21 people were injured, including four children, several of them critically.

Hana al-Najjar, a mother of five, was at home in the al-Dali building at the time of the attack. She told Amnesty researchers that she was asleep when “suddenly we woke up and the entire house collapsed on top of us.”

She was the sole survivor from her immediate family. “I have five children, three daughters, and my son’s daughter,” al-Najjar said. “They all died. I have no one left … My husband is dead.”

No warnings

Israel has yet to release any information about the attack on the al-Dali building, but witness testimony provided to Amnesty suggests that three residents may have had ties to Palestinian resistance groups.

Tahrir Mu’ammar’s husband Ahmad was a member of the Palestinian political group Islamic Jihad, which, like most Palestinian political factions, is considered illegal by Israel. To date, he is the only resident of the building who has been acknowledged as a fighter.

In addition to Ahmad’s death, Mu’ammar also lost her two children in the airstrike – Yazan, three-and-a-half years old, and Hala, two years old.

Though Israel repeatedly claims to have provided “warnings” to Palestinians, urging them to evacuate buildings before its attacks, Mu’ammar maintained that her family “had not received a warning prior to the attack on the house.”

Amnesty pointed out that Israel is obligated to provide an explanation for an attack on the al-Dali building, which caused “the largest number of deaths in a single strike during Operation Protective Edge.”

“Even if all the three men who might have been targets had been directly participating in hostilities,” the report explains, “their presence in the house would not have deprived the other residents of their immunity, as civilians, from direct attack.”

Truce ignored

Less than a week after the attack on the al-Dali building, on 4 August, Israeli military forces struck the al-Bakri family home in the al-Shati refugee camp, a crowded residential area near Gaza City’s coast.

Although a temporary truce had supposedly went into effect at 10am that morning, “an Israeli aircraft dropped what appears to have been an aerial bomb on the crowded three-story house” at approximately 10:15am, according to the human rights group. 

At least 21 people were in the home at the time of the attack, and it resulted in the killing of six Palestinians, five of whom were members of the al-Bakri family. Among them were three children – Asil Mohammad al-Bakri (7), Asma Mohammad al-Bakri (three months old) and Kamal Ahmad Kamal al-Bakri (4).

Raisa Mahmoud Mohammad al-Bakri, 62, lost her daughter-in-law and three grandchildren. Speaking to Amnesty, she recalled:

It was horrible. The walls fell over my body. I was just lying there. The neighbors came and started lifting the rubble and carried me to the ambulance. I got injured in my eye and couldn’t see clearly. My two poor children – one lost his wife and two kids, and the other, after spending 15 years in [an Israeli] prison and finally managing to have his first son, is gone.

Like the attack on the al-Dali building and many others, Israel has yet to provide any information about the airstrike or its intended targets.

No credible investigations

Explaining that international law obliges Israel to hold accountable violators of international humanitarian law and perpetrators of war crimes, the Amnesty report notes that Israel’s investigations have failed to produce reliable conclusions.

The report also quotes the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem: “There is currently no official body in Israel capable of conducting independent investigations of suspected violations of international humanitarian law.”

It further points out “Israel’s long-standing failure to investigate and prosecute alleged war crimes, and its resolve to conduct such investigations under deficient domestic mechanisms under the supervision of high-level military officials.”

“The onus in on the Israeli government to explain what the intended target was in each of these attacks,” Amnesty concludes, “in what way the target was a lawful military objective, what the means and methods of attack used were and why they were selected.”

Investigations blocked

Palestinian, Israeli and international human rights groups denounced Israel and Egypt for repeatedly preventing Amnesty and other organizations from entering the Gaza Strip in late August, shortly before the military offensive ended.

Journalists, humanitarian workers and United Nations staff were permitted to enter Gaza as the assault raged on, Human Rights Watch stated in a press release on 20 August.

“Israeli authorities have denied repeated requests by both Amnesty and Human Rights Watch to enter Gaza via the Israeli-controlled Erez Crossing,” the press release reported. “Both groups also requested access from Egyptian authorities, who so far have not granted it.”

Egypt has a long history of complicity in Israel’s ongoing siege on Gaza, but its cooperation with Israel has increased since Egyptian military officer Abdulfattah al-Sisi took over the country in a summer 2013 coup.

Indonesian diplomat Makarim Wibisono was appointed as the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the occupied Palestinian territories in May, and was scheduled to begin investigations into Israel’s activities in the occupied West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and the Gaza Strip on 20 September. 

Israel, however, denied Wibisono entry to the occupied West Bank in September, preventing him from carrying out his duties.

His predecessor Richard Falk had also been repeatedly denied entry to the occupied Palestinian territories, including one occasion in which he was detained at Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport for twenty hours.

War crimes

Because Israel has failed to release information about many of its attacks on Palestinians in Gaza, “Amnesty International cannot be certain in any of these attacks what was being targeted,” the report says.

Amnesty adds: “In cases where there is no military objective, an attack could violate the international humanitarian law prohibition of direct attacks on civilian objects and on civilians. Attacks directed at civilian objects or at civilians, or disproportionate and indiscriminate attacks that kill or injure civilians are war crimes.”

Though Israel maintains that it targeted supposed military targets in Gaza, the work of human rights groups and journalists has consistently testified to the contrary.

Palestinian resistance groups, on the other hand, claim that the vast majority of their attacks targeted Israeli military establishments and not civilian areas.

In a recent interview with Vanity FairHamas leader Khaled Meshaal dismissed Israel’s claim that Palestinian groups were planning to target civilians in attacks launched through tunnels from the Gaza Strip.  

“There are Israeli towns adjacent to Gaza,” Meshaal said. “Have any of the tunnels been used to kill any civilian or any of the residents of such towns? No. Never!

“[Hamas] used them either to strike beyond the back lines of the Israeli army or to raid some military sites such as Nahal Oz,” he added, referring to a Hamas military operation against a military base, which the group aired on television at the time.

“When the rockets are fired out of Gaza, they are fired on military targets,” Meshaal explained. “The accuracy of such rockets, however, is limited. So, they sometimes miss their targets. That’s why when we acquire the smart, accurate rockets, striking of military targets will be more accurate.”


Patrick Strickland

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Patrick O. Strickland is an independent journalist and frequent contributor at The Electronic Intifada. He is presently working on his first book for the London-based publishing house Zed Books. See his in-depth coverage for EI.