Lives buried under the rubble in Gaza

Maysa al-Louh, 16, sitting on the rubble of her home with the bombed Sakhnin school in the background. (Sarah Malian/Christian Aid)

Three weeks after the Israeli offensive on the Gaza Strip, 16-year-old Maysa al-Louh sits stoically on the pile of sand that consumes half her home in Beit Lahiya. Under the sand, churned up by Israeli bulldozers during incursions into the area on 4 January 2009 lie all her report cards and school awards that were testament to her excellent academic record.

Nearby her grandmother tries to heat water on a pile of ash. The smell of decomposing chicken carcasses is overwhelming: the family’s chicken coop that provided them with eggs, as well as their vegetable garden, were all destroyed by the bulldozers and tanks.

Thirty-five people lived in the three-story al-Louh house. The contents of home life — a refrigerator, notebooks, framed pictures, and plastic flowers, lie scattered over the area. The adjacent Sakhnin Elementary School was also damaged by artillery shells and some of its classrooms are now a masse of mangled chairs, steel rods, shattered concrete and broken glass. Israel says militants were firing rockets from the school grounds.

“We were trapped in our home for two days while the Israeli army was based in the school nearby and operating in the area,” says Maysa’s 32-year-old mother Najat. “I had to give my children water from the toilet cistern to keep them alive. Then they ordered us to leave our house.”

“As soon as we left the house they opened fire on the area and some of our neighbors were killed. My husband and I said our goodbyes to each other when the tanks came,” Najat adds. “We thought it was the end.”

Najat is three months pregnant with her eighth child. Her youngest daughter Sara who lies listlessly nearby, has been unwell for days, with vomiting and a high fever. They have been unable to get her to a doctor.

When the family returned to their home after Israel’s unilateral ceasefire they discovered it had been shelled twice and all their animals killed. Two hundred and fifty meters away, and visible through a hole in the side of the house, is the toppled minaret of the local mosque, which took a direct hit. An air strike also hit Beit Lahiya’s large Ibrahim al-Maqadmah mosque on 2 January 2009, killing 16 people and injuring dozens more. A total of 2,400 homes were completely destroyed during the three week offensive and over 12,000 were partially damaged.

International organizations have established a number of tent camps around the Gaza Strip. But in search of adequate shelter from the elements, some displaced and homeless people have moved in with extended family members in other areas. This is further squeezing Gaza’s urban centers and placing an extra burden on already densely populated areas. It also means the scale of the problem of internally displaced people in Gaza is less visibly apparent.

On what was the second floor of the house, Najat’s sister-in-law Faiza, 44 picks through the remains of their children’s clothes. “Sometimes I wish we’d died rather than this …” she says. “There were no militants near our house. Is this not forbidden? Destroying homes, bombing mosques, killing chickens. Is that not forbidden?”

Maysa has been too upset to study since the end of the offensive. “She had 99 percent in English, but all her school reports and prizes are under that sand,” says her mother Najat. “What will happen to her future?” She shows me her bedroom now consumed by a mound of earth, and the edge of her bed that pokes out of the sand. “I had a few savings under my mattress,” she says. Who knows if I’ll ever find them.”

International law and the destruction of civilian property

“Operation Cast Lead,” or what Israel calls its 22-day offensive on the Gaza Strip between 27 December 2008 and 18 January 2009 had a devastating impact on Gaza’s physical infrastructure.

The preliminary list of damage to civilian property includes:

  • Two thousand and four hundred homes destroyed, and at least 12,000 homes damaged.
  • Sixty police stations and 30 mosques completely destroyed.
  • Twenty-one private enterprises, including cafeterias, wedding halls and hotels.
  • Twenty-eight public civilian facilities, including ministry buildings, municipalities and fishing harbors.
  • One hundred and twenty-one industrial/commercial workshops destroyed and at least 200 damaged.
  • Five concrete factories and one juice factory destroyed.
  • Five media and two health institutions destroyed.
  • Nine educational facilities including schools damaged or destroyed.
  • Thousands of dunums (a dunam is the equivalent of 1,000 square meters) of agricultural land razed to the ground.

Israel’s destruction of property and land belonging to Palestinians has been a feature of its occupation since 1967 and is in clear violation of international law. It has also contributed to the steadily deteriorating humanitarian situation in the occupied territories.

Despite Israel’s withdrawal of its forces and settlers from the Gaza Strip in 2005, Israel remains in control of Gaza’s seas, external borders, and airspace. The Gaza Strip is defined as occupied territory in accordance with international law. Consequently, as the Occupying Power, Israel remains bound by international humanitarian law. The targeting of civilian property violates the most basic tenets of humanitarian law, and is explicitly prohibited by both customary international humanitarian law and the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949.

Article 53 of the Fourth Geneva Convention prohibits the targeting of civilian property, except where such destruction is rendered “absolutely necessary by military operations.” As the Occupying Power, Israel has specific legally-binding obligations towards the civilian population of the Gaza Strip. If the destruction of property is found to be disproportionate to the direct military advantage gained, this would constitute a grave breach of the Geneva Conventions.

The systematic nature of Israel’s destruction of Palestinian civilian property and its use of heavy artillery, tanks and fighter jets against heavily populated residential areas has resulted in a disproportionately high number of civilian deaths and injuries, as well as extensive damage to civilian objects. The attacks are therefore illegal; they violate the principles of distinction and proportionality, and as such constitute grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions.

The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights is calling upon the High Contracting Parties to the Geneva Conventions to fulfill their obligations under Article 1 of the Fourth Geneva Convention to prevent such crimes, as well as their legally-binding obligation in accordance with Article 146 to bring persons alleged of committing grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions to justice.

Editor’s note: due to an editing error by The Electronic Intifada, this article originally quoted Faiza as saying, “There were no militants near our house. Is this not sinful? Destroying homes, bombing mosques, killing chickens. Is that not sinful?” The above version reflects the translation of her statement by PCHR.

This report is part of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights series “Aftermath” that looks at the aftermath of Israel’s 22-day offensive on the Gaza Strip, and the ongoing impact it is having on the civilian population.

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