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Amnesty Says Israel’s Attacks on Civilians During Gaza Offensive Amounted to ‘War Crimes’

The human rights watchdog believes the number of civilian and child casualties reveals that Israeli forces hardly tried to avoid the deaths of non-combatants.

by Alice Speri
Nov 5 2014, 12:00am

Imagen por Momen Faiz

Israel's targeted attacks on Palestinian civilians during this past summer's military campaign in Gaza amounted to war crimes, the human rights watchdog Amnesty International charged in a report released Tuesday.

During Operation Protective Edge, Israeli forces exhibited "callous indifference" to the devastation wrought on civilian lives and properties in attacks that were "clearly disproportionate" to their military gains, the group said. 

Entire families and scores of children were wiped out in attacks targeting family homes.

It's déjà vu in Gaza all over again. Read more here.

"Israeli forces have brazenly flouted the laws of war by carrying out a series of attacks on civilian homes, displaying callous indifference to the carnage caused," Philip Luther, director of Amnesty's Middle East and North Africa program, said in a statement accompanying the release. "The report exposes a pattern of attacks on civilian homes by Israeli forces which have shown a shocking disregard for the lives of Palestinian civilians, who were given no warning and had no chance to flee."

The Israel Defense Forces did not respond to a VICE News request for comment on Tuesday, but they claimed throughout the conflict that they were focusing on military targets, and accused Hamas of using civilians as "human shields" — a claim independent observers disputed.

'The repeated, disproportionate attacks on homes indicate that Israel's current military tactics are deeply flawed and fundamentally at odds with the principles of international humanitarian law.'

The Amnesty report details eight cases in which family homes in Gaza were attacked — collectively killing 104 civilians, including 62 children. At least 2,189 Palestinians were killed during the seven-week conflict, including 1,486 civilians and 513 children, according to UN figures. Sixty-six Israeli soldiers and six civilians were also killed.

Throughout the offensive, Israeli forces touted that they were warning civilians of imminent attacks, which they frequently did by air dropping leaflets on residential neighborhoods warning residents to evacuate the area. But Gaza residents told VICE News that they had nowhere to go, as even "safe havens" like UN-run shelters came under fire.

Gazans ordered to evacuate ask: 'Where are we supposed to go?' Read more here.

Some of the homes destroyed in attacks documented by Amnesty were "overflowing" with family members who had fled other parts of the densely populated strip seeking refuge in what they thought were safer neighborhoods — a sign that there was nowhere to run for safety, as many Gazans had said.

At least 18,000 homes were partially or entirely destroyed during the bombing campaign and ground invasion.

No warning was given prior to the attack in the cases documented by the Amnesty report. The group did identify possible military targets in some of those attacks, but said that the number of civilian deaths and destruction were disproportionate.

In one instance — the deadliest documented in the report — 36 members of four families, including 18 children as young as one, were killed when Israeli forces struck the three-story al-Dali building in the southern Gaza town of Khan Younis on July 30.

In another, Israeli forces that were apparently targeting a member of the al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas's armed wing, leveled the Abu Jame' family home in Bani Suhaila, near Khan Younis, killing 25 people — including 19 children.

"Regardless of the intended targets, both of these attacks constitute grossly disproportionate attacks," the Amnesty report charged. "They should have been cancelled or postponed as soon as it was evident that so many civilians were present in the house."

Israel has launched a ground invasion of Gaza. Read more here.

(Photos by Momen Faiz)

The 50-page Amnesty report contains graphic details and dozens of interviews with survivors and witnesses to the attacks, including several who describe harrowing searches for the bodies of dear ones buried under the rubble.

"It was terrifying we couldn't save anyone," Khalil Abed Hassan Ammar, a doctor with the Palestinian Medical Council, told Amnesty. He was a resident of the al-Hallaq family home, which was destroyed with no warning as the family gathered for iftar, the evening Ramadan meal. "All of the kids were burnt, I couldn't tell which were mine and which were the neighbors'.… We carried whoever we were able to the ambulance."

"I only recognized Ibrahim, my eldest child, when I saw the shoes he was wearing," he added. "I had bought them for him two days before."

"All I can remember are the bits and pieces," Ayman Haniyeh, a neighbor who helped search for survivors, said. "I saw of bodies, teeth, head, arms, insides, everything scattered and spread."

Another survivor of the attack said she was left hugging a bag full of the "shreds" of her son's body.

'Failing to allow independent human rights monitors into Gaza smacks of a deliberately orchestrated attempt to cover up violations or hide from international scrutiny.'

Israeli officials maintained throughout the conflict that they were doing all that they could to minimize civilian casualties, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused Gaza's leaders of "piling up" as many civilian dead as possible for propaganda purposes.

"They use telegenically dead Palestinians for their cause," Netanyahu controversially remarked, drawing worldwide condemnation. "They want the more dead, the better."

But Amnesty believes the number of civilian and child casualties reveals that Israeli forces hardly tried to avoid the deaths of non-combatants.

"Even if a fighter had been present in one of these residential homes, it would not absolve Israel of its obligation to take every feasible precaution to protect the lives of civilians caught up in the fighting," Luther said. "The repeated, disproportionate attacks on homes indicate that Israel's current military tactics are deeply flawed and fundamentally at odds with the principles of international humanitarian law."

Israeli shelling kills four children on Gaza beach. Read more here.

(Photos by Dylan Collins)

Amnesty said that because Israeli authorities continued to deny its observers access to Gaza, it was forced to conduct its research remotely and through field workers based in the strip. The UN Human Rights Council is also carrying out its own investigation into this summer's conflict, but Israeli officials have said they will not cooperate with that inquiry either.

"Failing to allow independent human rights monitors into Gaza smacks of a deliberately orchestrated attempt to cover up violations or hide from international scrutiny," Luther said, calling on the international community to support the involvement of the International Criminal Court.

Amnesty has long documented abuses against civilians carried out by Israeli forces as well as by Hamas and other armed Palestinian groups, which they accused of firing "thousands of indiscriminate rockets and mortar rounds into civilian areas of Israel" during this summer's war. 

But the report repeatedly slams Israel's response as "excessive."

"The onus is on Israeli officials to explain why they chose to deliberately flatten entire homes full of civilians, when they had a clear legal obligation to minimize harm to civilians and the means of doing so," Luther said. "What is crucial now is that there is accountability for any violations of international humanitarian law that have been committed. The Israeli authorities must provide answers."

Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi