The human rights community’s consensus: Israel is committing war crimes in Gaza

Alex Kane on July 17, 2014

A Palestinian family leaves its house in Gaza City after it was damaged in an Israeli airstrike. (Photo: MOHAMMED ABED / AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

When the Israeli military wages assaults on Gaza, their spokesmen, former officials and sympathetic journalists blanket the airwaves to justify their military policies as targeted and precise. But during this attack on Gaza–and previous assaults–a consensus among human rights groups has emerged: Israel is committing war crimes in strikes that are wiping out civilians.
Since the start of Israel’s “Operation Protective Edge,” Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and United Nations officials–the heavyweights when it comes to interpreting international law–have all issued reports and statements slamming Israel for violations of international law. Those organizations have also said Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups firing rockets are committing war crimes since their volleys are indiscriminately aimed at Israeli civilians.
Israeli spokespeople have pointed to a number of military policies they say are aligned with international law to deflect criticism from the growing civilian death toll in Gaza, which is at 164, according to the UN. One policy frequently cited is the so-called “knock on the roof,” when Israel launches a less-lethal projectile to warn the inhabitants of a home in Gaza that they are about to be attacked with munitions. Another policy Israel says is justified is attacks on the homes of Palestinian militants, with Israeli spokespeople claiming that homes store armaments in them.
An Israeli army Twitter post

And Israel has also pounded home the message that civilian deaths are occurring because Hamas uses Palestinians as “human shields.” No evidence has been presented that Hamas does so.
“We’re doing everything to keep civilians out of harm’s way,” Ron Dermer, Israel’s ambassador to the U.S., said today during a Twitter Q and A on the conflict. “No country in history has more rigorously upheld international law when its homeland under attack.”
But human rights organizations have dismissed many of Israel’s claims. In response to Israel’s “roof knocking” and warning policies, Amnesty International’s Philip Luther, the Director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme, said that “There is no way that firing a missile at a civilian home can constitute an effective ‘warning’. Amnesty International has documented cases of civilians killed or injured by such missiles in previous Israeli military operations on the Gaza Strip.” In addition, some accounts from Palestinians in Gaza indicate that families “warned” of an airstrike were not given enough time to evacuate–or that there was no warning at all.
Yesterday, Human Rights Watch published the results of their investigation into four separate strikes in Gaza that they say amount to war crimes. The organization laid into Israel’s practice of bombing the homes of alleged Palestinian militants.
“Civilian structures such as residential homes become lawful targets only when they are being used for military purposes,” the report states. “Attacks targeting civilians or civilian property are unlawful, as are attacks that do not or cannot discriminate between civilians and combatants.” Israel has claimed that these attacks on civilian homes occur because they are used as “command and control” centers by Hamas and other groups–but Human Rights Watch dismissed those claims, saying there was no evidence to justify them.
Sarah Leah Whitson, Human Rights Watch’s Middle East director, said in a statement that “the presence of a single, low-level fighter would hardly justify the appalling obliteration of an entire family. Israel would never accept an argument that any Israeli home of an Israel Defense Force member would be a valid military target.” Whitson echoed what UN human rights chief Navi Pillay said when the assault on Gaza began.
“We have received deeply disturbing reports that many of the civilian casualties, including of children, occurred as a result of strikes on homes. Such reports raise serious doubt about whether the Israeli strikes have been in accordance with international humanitarian law and international human rights law,” said Pillay.
Tellingly, there has only been one instance of the Israeli military claiming that a strike was on a home that stored weapons, according to Israeli human rights group B’Tselem. The group also documented the military’s changing explanations of strikes on homes.
On July 8th, the Israeli army said that they bombed the homes of Hamas activists “involved in terrorist activity”–a clear violation of international law, since mere involvement in “terrorism” in the past does not allow an army to legally bomb their house. The next day, the army changed the wording of statements concerning the bombing of houses, stating, with no evidence, that houses they hit “functioned as command and control infrastructure for the organization.”

Alex Kane
Alex Kane is an assistant editor for Mondoweiss and the World editor for AlterNet. Follow him on Twitter @alexbkane.