Palestinian armed groups in Gaza committed war crimes during last summer's Operation Protective Edge, which left more than 2,200 Palestinians and 72 Israelis dead. The alleged crimes include rocket fire that resulted in the deaths of six Israeli civilians, including one child, and 13 Gazans, including 11 children, according to a recently published report by Amnesty International (AI).
Operation Protective Edge was an Israeli 51-day invasion into the embattled Gaza Strip that began on July 7, 2014. Israelis say it was an effort to stop rocket fire; Palestinians say the rocket fire was a result of continued ceasefire violations committed by the Israelis.
The report, entitled "Unlawful and Deadly: Rocket and Mortar Attacks by Palestinian Armed Groups During the 2014 Gaza/Israel Conflict," came to this conclusion based on the work of researchers contracted by AI on both sides of the Gaza-Israel border.
"Palestinian armed groups, including the armed wing of Hamas, repeatedly launched unlawful attacks during the conflict," Philip Luther, Director of AI's Middle East and North Africa Program, said in a press release. "In launching these attacks, they displayed a flagrant disregard for international humanitarian law and for the consequences of their violations on civilians in both Israel and the Gaza Strip."
The briefing claims to have answered the question of who was responsible for the ghastly bombing of a playground in the al-Shati refugee camp on July 28. AI collected testimony from Palestinians who survived the bombing, including raw video footage and photographs of shrapnel, and presented the evidence to an independent munitions expert.
The expert told AI that the evidence "strongly indicated" a Palestinian rocket. The shrapnel holes in a nearby vehicles and buildings were too large to have been caused by missiles generally used by Israeli forces.
The bombing, which initially killed 10 children and two adults, and led to the death of a 5-year-old who succumbed to his wounds on July 30, was vehemently denied by both Israeli and Palestinian officials. It now appears that one of four rockets fired from Gaza toward Israeli targets fell short and ended the lives of 13 civilians.
VICE News spoke with Deborah Hyams, an AI researcher who contributed to "Unlawful and Deadly," about AI's findings.
"We are as sure as we can be… [AI] did a lot of work to assemble evidence on that case," she said in reference to the al-Shati deaths. Hyams revealed that the only issue to cast doubt is that AI was unable to have a munitions expert on the ground after the attack. AI and other rights groups were not allowed access to the besieged Gaza Strip during Operation Protective Edge.
AI also found that Palestinian armed groups launched rockets or mortars at Israeli targets from civilian locales, "including schools, at least one hospital and a Greek Orthodox church in Gaza City."
Though critical of Hamas and other armed groups in Gaza, the report also clears Hamas of using the civilian population of Gaza as human shields, an accusation commonly employed by Israeli officials.
"There is no evidence of any use of Gazans as human shields by Hamas or any other armed group," Hyams said. The AI report says that although Hamas officials told Gazans throughout the Strip to ignore Israeli warnings about forthcoming bombings, they did not direct individuals to specific areas in order to protect arms, munitions, or other military interests. Furthermore, AI contends that no place in Gaza was "truly safe" during the conflict.
Another criticism of the Hamas government is that they do not build bomb shelters for the residents of Gaza, a fact that many feel contributes greatly to the lack of safe areas. VICE News asked Hyams whether the lack of bomb shelters could be attributed to Hamas policies, or the Israeli siege of Gaza.
"It's potentially both," the researcher began. "The siege has made all construction difficult, not just in the area of bomb shelters." Hyams went on to address the common criticism that Hamas builds tunnels instead of shelters: "There's a point to be made there, but we aren't necessarily criticizing the tunnels. If they aren't used to attack civilian targets, they are a legitimate tactic. But if you can build tunnels, why not build shelters?" The most important aspect, in her view, is an end to the siege of Gaza.
The July 19 death of Ouda Jumi'an al-Waj, 32, also brings up concerns of Israeli discrimination against the Bedouin population of the Negev, a desert region in Israel's south that is home to many ethnically Arab Bedouins. Al-Waj, killed in his home by a rocket from Gaza, was a resident of Qasr al-Sir, a Bedouin village officially recognized by the Israeli state in 1999. Al-Waj did not die immediately. Along with his wife and daughter, they were taken to a nearby hospital in private cars because their family believe ambulances "won't come," according to the report.
Even though the 6,000 villagers of Qasr al-Sir are Israeli citizens, they are disconnected from services such as the electrical grid, and they are unable to obtain building permits for concrete structures such as homes or bomb shelters, a protection afforded to the overwhelming majority of Israeli citizens.
"The state did the opposite of providing protection to the Bedouins. Not only did [Israel] not allow them to build shelters, it demolished their homes," Sawsan Zaher, a representative of Adalah the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, a civil society group that advocates for Bedouin rights, said in an interview. "Throughout our work, we haven't seen any real efforts to protect the Bedouin population."
In light of the many alleged crimes committed by both sides during Operation Protective Edge, and lack of credible investigations by both Israeli and Palestinian authorities, AI recommends that issues be resolved under universal jurisdiction. A state may charge any individual, regardless of where the crime was committed, for war crimes and then have them extradited. Another avenue for potential justice is the International Criminal Court (ICC), whose Office of the Commissioner has the power to charge individuals on both sides with war crimes, as long as there has not been a valid internal investigation.
"To date, the situation with domestic investigations on both sides is not looking good. Israeli investigations are conducted by the Israeli military, and there's a huge conflict of interest there," AI researcher Hyams declared, criticizing Israel's method of inquiry. "On the Palestinian side, we just don't know of any investigations into alleged crimes," she concluded.
The Israeli military told VICENews that it was unable to comment on the report because it was a "government issue." Palestinian officials did not respond to VICE News' request for comment.