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Israeli war crimes apparent in Gaza: HRW

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Update: Wednesday, July 28, 2021

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Israeli war crimes apparent in Gaza: HRW

Israeli forces and Palestinian armed groups carried out attacks during the May 2021 fighting in the Gaza Strip and Israel that violated the laws of war and apparently amount to war crimes, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has said.

The Israeli military and Palestinian authorities have a long track record of failing to investigate laws of war violations committed in or from Gaza.

The international human rights organization in its report published on Tuesday said that it investigated three Israeli strikes that killed 62 Palestinian civilians where there were no evident military targets in the vicinity.

It also accused Palestinian armed groups that also committed unlawful attacks, launching more than 4,360 unguided rockets and mortars toward Israeli population centers, violating the prohibition against deliberate or indiscriminate attacks against civilians.

“Israeli forces carried out attacks in Gaza in May that devastated entire families without any apparent military target nearby,” said Gerry Simpson, associate crisis and conflict director at Human Rights Watch. “Israeli authorities’ consistent unwillingness to seriously investigate alleged war crimes, as well as Palestinian forces’ rocket attacks toward Israeli population centers, underscores the importance of the International Criminal Court’s inquiry.”

The United Nations reported that during the May fighting, attacks by the Israeli military killed 260 Palestinians, including at least 129 civilians, of whom 66 were children. The Gaza Health Ministry said Israeli forces injured 1,948 Palestinians, including 610 children. Israeli authorities said that rocket and mortar attacks by Palestinian armed groups resulted in the death of 12 civilians, including two children, one soldier, and injured “several hundred” people. Several Palestinians also died in Gaza when rockets fired by armed groups fell short and landed in Gaza.

Since late May, Human Rights Watch interviewed in person 30 Palestinians who witnessed Israeli attacks, were relatives of civilians killed, or were residents of areas targeted. Human Rights Watch also visited the site of four strikes, inspected remnants of munitions, and analyzed satellite imagery, video footage, and photographs taken following the attacks.

Human Rights Watch focused its investigation on three Israeli attacks that resulted in high numbers of civilian casualties and where there was no evident military target. Other Israeli attacks during the conflict were also likely unlawful.

On May 10 near the town of Beit Hanoun, an Israeli-guided missile struck near four houses of the al-Masri family, killing 8 civilians, including 6 children. On May 15 a guided bomb destroyed a three-story building in al-Shati refugee camp, killing 10 civilians, 2 women and 8 children from two related families. And on May 16 a series of Israeli airstrikes lasting four minutes struck al-Wahda Street in Gaza City, causing three multi-story buildings to collapse, killing 44 civilians. The Israeli military said it was targeting tunnels and an underground command center used by armed groups, but presented no details to support that claim.

On July 13 the Israel Defense Forces Spokesperson replied to a June 4 Human Rights Watch letter that had summarized our findings on the above cases and requested specific information. The Israeli military said in part that it “strikes military targets exclusively, following an assessment that the potential collateral damage resulting from the attack is not excessive in relation to the expected military advantage, … makes concerted efforts to reduce harm to uninvolved individuals [and] in many of the [May] strikes … when possible … provided civilians located within military targets with prior warning.” The military also said that it was investigating a number of attacks that took place during the May fighting to determine whether its “rules had been breached.”

Human Rights Watch on May 30 requested permits for senior Human Rights Watch researchers to enter Gaza to conduct further investigation of the hostilities, but Israeli authorities on July 26 rejected the request. Israeli authorities have since 2008 refused access to Gaza for Human Rights Watch international staff, except for a single visit in 2016. Israel’s allies should push for access to Gaza for human rights organizations to investigate and document human rights abuses.

Israel’s partners, particularly the United States, which supplies significant military assistance and whose US-made weapons were used in at least two of the attacks investigated by Human Rights Watch, should condition future security assistance to Israel on it taking concrete and verifiable actions to improve its compliance with the laws of war and international human rights law, and to investigate past abuses.

Human Rights Watch is conducting research and will separately report on rocket attacks by Palestinian armed groups that unlawfully killed civilians in Israel and Gaza between May 10 and 21. During that period, more than 3,680 rockets struck Israel, according to the Israeli military. Lacking guidance systems, the rockets are inherently indiscriminate when directed toward areas with civilians.

The Israeli military said that victims of Palestinian rocket and mortar attacks included 5-year-old Ido Abigail, killed in an attack in Sderot on May 12; Khalil Awad, 52, and his daughter Nadine, 16, both Palestinian citizens of Israel, killed on May 12 in the village of Dahmash; and Gershon Franco, 55, killed in Ramat Gan by a rocket on May 15 when for health-related reasons he could not reach a bomb shelter after sirens sounded.

Under international humanitarian law, or the laws of war, warring parties may target only military objectives. They must take all feasible precautions to minimize harm to civilians, including by providing effective advance warnings of attacks. Deliberate attacks on civilians and civilian objects are prohibited. The laws of war also prohibit indiscriminate attacks, which include attacks that do not distinguish between civilians and military targets or do not target a military objective. Attacks in which the expected harm to civilians and civilian property is disproportionate to the anticipated military gain are also prohibited. Individuals who commit serious violations of the laws of war with criminal intent – that is, deliberately or recklessly– are responsible for war crimes.

On May 12, the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) indicated that it was monitoring the situation in Gaza. The prosecutor’s office should include in its Palestine investigation Israeli attacks in Gaza that resulted in apparently unlawful civilian casualties, as well as Palestinian rocket attacks that struck population centers in Israel.

The May hostilities, like those in 2008, 2012, 2014, 2018, and 2019, among others, took place amid Israel’s sweeping closure of the Gaza Strip, which began in 2007, and discriminatory efforts to remove Palestinians from their homes in occupied East Jerusalem, policies and practices that are part of the Israeli government’s crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution, as Human Rights Watch has documented.

On May 27 the UN Human Rights Council established a Commission of Inquiry to address violations and abuses in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) and Israel, including by advancing accountability for those responsible and justice for victims. The commission should examine unlawful attacks committed by Israeli forces and Palestinian armed groups during the May fighting. It should also analyze the larger context, including the Israeli government’s discriminatory treatment of Palestinians. The commission’s findings should be shared with the ICC prosecutor and other credible judicial authorities examining the situation, Human Rights Watch said.

Judicial authorities in other countries should also investigate and prosecute under national laws those credibly implicated in serious crimes in the OPT and in Israel under the principle of universal jurisdiction. Governments should also support a strong political declaration that addresses the harm that explosive weapons cause to civilians and commits states to avoid using those with wide-area effects in populated areas.

“Israel and the Palestinian authorities have shown little or no interest in addressing abuses by their forces, so global and national judicial institutions should step up to break the vicious cycle of unlawful attacks and impunity for war crimes,” Simpson said. “These investigations should also address the larger context, including the Israeli government’s crushing closure of Gaza and its crimes of apartheid and persecution against millions of Palestinians.”

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