We are a delegation of eight American lawyers, members of the National Lawyers Guild (NLG) in the United States, who have come here to the Gaza Strip to assess the effects of the recent attacks on the people, and to determine what, if any, violations of international law occurred and whether United States domestic law has been violated as a consequence. We spent five days interviewing communities particularly impacted by the recent Israeli offensive, including medical personnel, humanitarian aid workers and United Nations representatives. In particular, the delegation examined three issues: 1) targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure; 2) illegal use of weapons and 3) blocking of medical and humanitarian assistance to civilians.
Targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure
Much of the debate surrounding Israel’s aerial and ground offensive against Gaza has centered on whether or not Israel observed principles of proportionality and distinction. The debate suggests that Israel targeted Hamas, i.e., its military installations, its leaders and its militants, and in the process of its discrete military exercise it inadvertently killed Palestinian civilians. While we have found evidence that Palestinian civilians were victims of excessive force and collateral damage, we have also found troubling instances of Palestinian civilians being targets themselves.
The delegation recorded numerous accounts of Israeli soldiers shooting civilians, including women, children, and the elderly, in the head, chest and stomach. Another common narrative described Israeli forces rounding civilians into a single location, i.e., homes and schools which Israeli tanks or warplanes then shelled. Israeli forces continued to shoot at civilians fleeing the targeted structures.
We spoke to Khaled Abed Rabu, who witnessed an Israeli soldier execute his two-year-old and seven-year-old daughters, and critically injure a third daughter, Samar, four years old, on a sunny afternoon outside his home. Two other Israeli soldiers were standing nearby eating chips and chocolates at the time on 7 January 2009. Abed Rabu recounts standing in front of the Israeli soldiers with his mother, wife and daughters for five to seven minutes before one of the soldiers opened fire on his family.
We spoke to Ibtisam al-Samouni, 31, and a resident of al-Zeitoun neighborhood in Gaza City. On 4 January, the Israeli army forced approximately 110 of al-Zeitoun’s residents into Ibtisam’s home. At approximately 7am on 5 January, the Israeli military launched two tank shells at the house without warning, killing two of Ibtisam’s children: Rizka, 14 and Faris, 12. When the survivors attempted to flee, Israeli forces shot at them. Her son Abdullah, seven, was injured in the shelling and remained in the home among his deceased siblings for four days before Israeli forces permitted medical personnel into al-Zeitoun to rescue them. After medical personnel removed the injured persons, an Israeli war plane destroyed the house and it crumbled over the lifeless bodies. The dead remained beneath the rubble for 17 days before the Israeli army permitted medical personnel to remove their bodies for burial.
We spoke to the family of Rouhiya al-Najjar, 47, who lived in Khozaa, Khan Younis. Israeli forces ordered her neighborhood’s residents to march to the city center. Rouhiya led 20 women out of her home and into the alley. They all carried white scarves. Upon entering the alley, an Israeli sniper shot Rouhiya in her left temple, killing her instantly. Israeli forces prevented medical personnel from reaching her body for 12 hours. These are only some of the accounts that we’ve collected.
Israeli forces also destroyed numerous buildings throughout the Gaza Strip during the recent incursion. Guild delegates viewed the remains of hundreds of demolished homes and businesses — in addition to the remains of the American School in Gaza, damaged medical centers, and the charred innards of the UN agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA) warehouses. While in situations of armed conflict, collateral damage and mistakes can occur, the circumstances surrounding the cases that the delegation investigated indicate deliberate targeting rather than collateral damage or mistake. Specifically:
The American School at Gaza, which was hit with two F-16 missiles on 3 January 2009, killing the watch guard on duty. According to Ribhi Salem, the school’s director, the Israelis gave no warnings. Salem stated that the school had come to an agreement with resistance groups not to use school grounds and there had never been resistance activity on the property.
John Ging, the Director of Gaza Operations for UNRWA, reported that Israeli forces fired missiles at UNRWA schools in Gaza City, Jabalyia and Beit Lahiya. The United Nations compound in Gaza City was also hit with white phosphorous shells and missiles. Ging noted that all UN buildings and vehicles fly UN flags, are marked in blue paint from the top, and that during hostilities the UN personnel remained in constant contact with Israeli authorities.
Misuse of weapons
Our delegation has heard allegations of the use of DIME (Dense Inert Metal Explosive) weaponry, white phosphorus and other possible weapons whose use in civilian areas is prohibited. We have also heard of the use of prohibited weapons, such as flachettes. We have found our own evidence of the use of flachette shells, which we will combine with evidence collected by Amnesty International to push for further investigation. We have not found any conclusive evidence of the use of DIME, though we believe that this warrants further investigation and disclosure by the Israeli military.
Our findings overwhelmingly point to the use of conventional weapons in a prohibited manner, specifically, the use of battlefield weaponry in densely populated civilian areas. Customary international law forbids the use of weapons calculated to cause unnecessary suffering. We found evidence that Israel used white phosphorus in extensively throughout its three-week offensive in a manner that led to numerous deaths and injuries. For example, Sabah Abu Halima, 45, lived in Beit Lahiya with her husband, seven boys, and one girl. It was midday and she and her entire family were at home. Within minutes she felt her home shaking and missiles fell through the rooftop. She fell to the ground upon impact. When she looked up she saw her children burning.
Preventing access to medical and humanitarian aid
Under customary international humanitarian law, the wounded are protected persons and must receive the medical care and attention required by their conditions, to the fullest extent practicable and with the least possible delay. Parties to a conflict are required to ensure the unhindered movement of medical personnel and ambulances to carry out their duties and of wounded persons to access medical care. Speaking to medical workers and the family of victims, NLG delegates documented serious violations of this provision. Among the stories documented include:
Al-Zeitoun neighborhood, which came under attack and invasion by ground forces on 3 January 2009. The Palestine Red Crescent Society received 145 calls from al-Zeitoun for help, but were denied entry by Israel. Bashar Ahmed Murad, Director of Emergency Medical Services for the Palestine Red Crescent Society told us that “a lot of people could have been saved, but hey weren’t given medical care by the Israelis, nor did the Israeli army allow Palestinian medical services in.” When paramedics were finally allowed to enter on 7 January, Israeli forces only gave them a three hour “lull” to work and prohibited ambulances into the area. Instead they forced paramedics park the ambulances two kilometers away and enter the area on foot. Murad told delegation members how they had to pile the wounded on donkey carts and have the medical workers pull the carts in order to help the most people possible in the short time they were given. After the three hours were over, the Israeli army started shooting toward the ambulances. The Red Crescent was not able to reach that area again to evacuate the dead until 17 January 2009 when the Israeli army pulled out.
On 16 January, Israeli forces shot at the jeep of Mohammed Shurrab, 64 years old, and two of his sons, Kassab and Ibrahim, aged 28 and 18, as they were returning from their fields. Mohammed was shot in the left arm and Ibrahim was shot in the leg. The elder son, Kassab, sustained a fatal bullet wound to the chest, being shot multiple times after he was ordered out of the car. Mohammed, bleeding from his wound, contacted the media, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and a number of non-governmental organizations via mobile phone in order to acquire medical assistance. Israeli forces denied medical relief agencies clearance to reach them until almost 24 hours after Mohammed, Ibrahim and Kassab had been shot. Earlier that morning, Ibrahim had succumbed to his wound and died. Mohammad Shurrab and his sons were shot during a so-called “lull” in Israeli ground operations, which Israeli forces had agreed to in order to allow humanitarian relief to enter and be distributed in the Gaza Strip. As such NLG delegates fail to see how this denial of medical access to the wounded Shurrab family could have been absolutely necessary and not simply arbitrary.
International humanitarian law also prohibits attacks on medical personnel, medical units and medical transports exclusively assigned to carry out medical functions. Delegate members saw ambulances seriously damaged and destroyed, some apparently deliberately crushed by Israeli tanks. The Palestine Red Crescent Society and the Palestinian Ministry of Health informed delegates that 15 Palestinian medics were killed and 21 injured in the course of Israel’s assault.
This delegation is seriously concerned by our initial findings. We have found strong indications of violations of the laws of war and possible war crimes committed by Israel in the Gaza Strip. We are particularly concerned that most of the weapons that were found used in the 27 December assault on Gaza are US-made and supplied. We believe that Israel’s use of these weapons may constitute a violation of US law, and particularly the Foreign Assistance Act and the US Arms Export Control Act.
A report of our initial findings will be compiled and submitted to, among others, members of the United States Congress. We intend to push for an investigation by the United States government into possible violations by Israel of US law. We also hope to contribute our finding and efforts to other efforts by local and international lawyers to push for accountability against those found responsible for the egregious crimes that we have documented.
Members of the legal delegation: Huwaida Arraf (New York, Washington DC), Noura Erekat (Washington DC), James Marc Leas (Vermont), Linda Mansour (Ohio), Rose Mishaan (California), Thomas Nelson (Oregon), Radhika Sainath (California) and Reem Salahi (California).