Briefing for Gaza war crimes debates


In the week of the first anniversary of last summer’s Gaza war both the Lords and the Commons have opportunities this week to highlight the findings of the United Nations report by the American judge Mary McGowan Davis into possible war crimes committed during the 51-day conflict.
There will be a Short Debate in the Lords on Monday July 6th, to be introduced by Baroness Jenny Tonge, and there will be a Westminster Hall debate in theCommons from 2.30 to 4 pm on Wednesday July 8th, the day of the anniversary, introduced by the new MP for Wakefield, Holly Lynch.
The UN has produced two reports, a 22-page ‘Report of the Independent Commission of Inquiry on the 2014 Gaza Conflict’  which you can download from the UN website Click here to get to the UN website
And a 183-page report contained the detailed findings and the testimony of witnesses presented to the commission, which you can find on the same website.
The UK government has already endorsed the report in a 41-1 vote at the UN Human Rights Council at Geneva on Friday – in what appears to have been a last-minute decision of the European members of the Council, Britain, France and Germany, to line up behind the report, leaving the US as the only country to vote against.
For most of last week it was feared the UK would abstain – as it did on the last four UN votes on Palestine (Security Council, General Assembly, Unesco and the Goldstone Report on the last Gaza war) but intensive diplomatic lobbying appears to have had an effect.
The first task of the report is to establish whether the two sides have conducted their own inquiries into possible breaches of the law during th conflict.  It finds that Israel has a “lamentable track record in holding wrongdoers accountable” and that investigations by Hamas were “woefully inadequate”.  It therefore recommends that the international community should support the work of the International Criminal Court who are currently conducting a preliminary examination into the war.
The report identifies many possible war crimes committed during the 51-day war, including air strikes on residential buildings, the use of wide-area shells and heavy artillery in densely populated areas and the targeting of civilians by Israelis and the use of human shields and the execution of collaborators by Hamas and other armed Palestinian groups.
International law crimes is not about why wars take place, but how they are conducted, so the main issues addressed by the report are whether the military tactics – such as attacks on residential buildings, roof-knock warnings, wide-area explosives, sterile zones, the Hannibal doctrine – constituted war crimes.
Is the report balanced?
The report fails to highlight the asymmetry between the occupier and the occupied in such an unbalanced conflict.
A review by Professor Norman Finkelstein, a prominent American critic of the Israeli government, said the report “grossly understates” the case against Israel and strains so hard to be ‘fair’ to Israel that it ceases to be serious.
The raw data of the war are that 20,000 tons of explosives were used by the Israelis and 20-40 tons by Hamas (a ratio of 500:1), 1,462 Palestinians were killed and six Israelis (244:1), 551 Palestinian childred died and one Israeli, 18,000 Palestinian houses were made uninhabitable and one Israeli, 1,500 Palestinian children were orphaned and over 1,000 Palestinian children will be disabled for life.
In the conclusions of the report 60% is devoted to what Gaza endured and 40% to what Israel endured. “You decide whether the proportions match the reality,” he says.
Air strikes on residential buildings in Gaza
from page 9 of the report
During the 51-day operation, the Israel Defense Forces carried out more than 6,000 air strikes in Gaza, many of which hit residential buildings. The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs found that at least 142 Palestinian families had three or more members killed in the same incident, amounting to a total of 742 fatalities. Tawfik Abu Jama, a Gazan father of eight, recalled: “I was sitting with my family at the table, ready to break the fast. Suddenly we were sucked into the ground. Later that evening, I woke up in the hospital and was told my wife and children had died”.
The commission investigated 15 cases of strikes on residential buildings across Gaza, in which a total of 216 people were killed, including 115 children and 50 womenThe commission found that the fact that precision-guided weapons were used in all cases indicates that they were directed against specific targets and resulted in the total or partial destruction of entire buildings. This finding is corroborated by satellite imagery analysis.
Many of the incidents took place in the evening or at dawn, when families gathered for iftar and suhhur, the Ramadan meals, or at night, when people were asleep. The timing of the attacks increased the likelihood that many people, often entire families, would be at home. Attacking residential buildings rendered women particularly vulnerable to death and injury.
Given the absence of information suggesting that the anticipated military advantage at the time of the attack was such that the expected civilian casualties and damage to the targeted and surrounding buildings were not excessive, there are strong indications that these attacks could be disproportionate, and therefore amount to a war crime.
Roof-knock warnings
From page 10 of the report
Given the absence of information suggesting that the anticipated military advantage at the time of the attack was such that the expected civilian casualties and damage to the targeted and surrounding buildings were not excessive, there are strong indications that these attacks could be disproportionate, and therefore amount to a war crime.
The Israel Defense Forces used so-called “roof-knock” warnings, strikes by small missiles before the real strike. In a number of incidents examined, the concerned persons either did not understand that their house had been the subject of a “roof-knock”, or the time given for evacuation between the warning and the actual strike was insufficient. In one case examined by the commission, a 22-member family, including nine children, were given just a few minutes to evacuate their home after a “roof knock” in the early hours of the morning, while they were asleep; 19 of the 22 people present in the house died.
The commission concluded that “roof knocks” cannot be considered an effective warning given the confusion they often cause to building residents and the short time allowed to evacuate before the actual strike.
Wide-area shells
From page 11 of the report
During the ground operations, the Israel Defense Forces used explosive weapons extensively in densely populated areas of Gaza. These weapons included artillery and tank shells, mortars and air-dropped high-explosive munitions. The Forces reported that, during the operation, 5,000 tons of munitions were supplied, and that 14,500 tank shells and approximately 35,000 artillery shells had been fired.
One non-governmental organization reported a 533 per cent-increase in highly explosive artillery shells used in 2014 in comparison to the hostilities in 2008 and 2009. Many explosive weapons, in particular artillery and mortars, have a wide-area effect, meaning that anyone or anything within a given area is likely to be killed, injured or damaged, owing to the scale of their blast and their imprecise nature. While not illegal as such, the use of these weapons in densely populated areas poses a high risk to the civilian population.
According to official Israeli sources, artillery was used in urban areas only on an exceptional basis, when these areas were known to have been largely evacuated. The incidents examined by the commission, however, demonstrate that artillery and other heavy weapons were widely used in residential neighbourhoods, resulting in a large number of casualties and extensive destruction.
For instance, in Shuja’iya, the sheer number of 155 mm shells fired, the reported dropping of 120 one-ton bombs in a short amount of time in a densely populated area, and the use of a creeping artillery barrage raise questions with regard to the respect by the Israel Defense Forces of the rules of distinction, precaution and proportionality.
The extensive use by the Israel Defense Forces of explosive weapons with wide-area effects, and their probable indiscriminate effects in the built-up neighbourhoods of Gaza, are highly likely to constitute a violation of the prohibition of indiscriminate attacks. Such use may, depending on the circumstances, qualify as a direct attack against civilians, and may therefore amount to a war crime.
From paragraph 408 in the full report
During Operation “Protective Edge,” 14 500 tank shells and approximately 35 000 artillery shells were fired. Haaretz quoted IDF information indicating that, before the end of July, after three weeks of fighting, 30 000 shells had been discharged, “four times as much as in Cast Lead in 2008”. The NGO “Action on Armed violence” (AOAV) observes that, while in Operation Cast Lead in 2008 3000 high-explosive artillery shells were fired, in 2014 there were 19 000, a 533% increase. Based on figures suggesting that over the course of 2014’s fifty-day operation, a daily average of 680 artillery shells were fired in Gaza by the IDF (compared to 348 per day in the 2008-09 operation), AOAV questions whether the IDF policies regulating the use of artillery in densely populated areas may be too flexible and allow too much leeway to commanders on the ground.
Weapon 2009 2014 %
Artillery shells 12,500 50,000 +400%
High-ex shells 3,000 19,000 +533%
Shells per day 348 680 +99%
Warnings and the protected status of civilians 
From page 13 of the report
In many cases during the ground operations, the Israel Defense Forces warned the population of impending attacks by means of leaflets, loudspeaker announcements, telephone calls, text messages and radio announcements. In many instances, however, inhabitants did not leave their homes.
For instance, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported on 20 July that the majority of the 92,000 inhabitants of Shuja’iya had remained in their neighbourhood despite repeated warnings to evacuate. Witnesses pointed to several reasons for staying, including not knowing in which direction to go, given that intense shelling and air strikes were under way in many parts of Gaza; lack of clarity of and unclear time frames indicated by the warnings; the fact that many places considered safe were already overcrowded; and the poor conditions in shelters, which themselves came under attack.
Statements by officials of the Israel Defense Forces indicated that, in some cases, warnings to evacuate were meant to create “sterile combat zones”, and the people remaining in the area would no longer be considered civilians and thus benefit from the protection afforded by their civilian status. For example, the Head of the Doctrine Desk at the Infantry Corps Headquarters, Major Amitai Karanik, reportedly stated: “We try to create a situation whereby the area where we are fighting is sterile, so any person seen there is suspected of engaging in terrorist activity. At the same time, we make the utmost effort to remove the population, whether this means dropping flyers or shelling [.] We don’t want to confuse the troops […] In peacetime security, soldiers stand facing a civilian population, but in wartime, there is no civilian population, just an enemy.”
On the basis of soldier testimony, one non-governmental organization concluded that “the soldiers were briefed by their commanders to fire at every person they identified in a combat zone, since the working assumption was that every person in the field was an enemy.”
These warnings were often used in a context where people fleeing were unable to identify a safe place to go owing to the unpredictability of many attacks over a lengthy period of time. Most importantly, inferring that anyone remaining in an area that has been the object of a warning is an enemy or a person engaging in “terrorist activity”, or issuing instructions to this effect, contributes to creating an environment conducive to attacks against civilians.
Human shields
A 60-year old woman from a village outside of Dier al-Balah said she was detained on July 24th and forced to become a human shield:
“The soldiers interrogated me repeatedly and detained me in the house for three days, guarding me with a gun. They did not let me use the restroom and they didn’t give me food or water. They took off my veil. I told them I was a widow from a long time and they told me that no one loved me, and that no one would ask about me if I disappeared. I was scared.  I was told that I would remain with the soldiers, and I protested, telling them I was a woman and they were all men.”
Other Palestinians reported they were taken into Israeli custody and transferred to prisons inside of Israel:
“[T]he witness was taken to a small room and interrogated about tunnels and weapons caches. The witness claims to have been beaten during the interrogation. He was then given a nylon uniform to wear and transferred to another location where he spent two weeks. He was reportedly held in a room with no windows and interrogated repeatedly about the same issues. At one point, the witness claims to have been forced to sit in a small seat, which he described as being approximately 20cm x 20cm. The soldiers then placed a bag on his face, which carried a terrible stench. He stated that for three days, the soldiers would throw cold water on his head whenever he tried to sleep. The witness fell unconscious at some point and woke up several hours later, finding himself in a bigger cell with about ten other people. Finally, the witness was transferred to a court in Azabal Ashel [Eshol Prison in Beersheva], where he was sentenced to 28 days in prison. Having served his sentence, he was taken to the Erez crossing. When he asked about the 8500 shekels that had been confiscated earlier, he was told: ‘Ask Ismail Haniya.’”
A man from Khuza’a who was also detained said when soldiers took him into custody they abused his son. They “put a casserole on the boy’s head and four of them started kicking and punching him.  Then one of the soldiers began shooting between the legs of the boy.”
See more at:
Civilians were also subjected to a barrage of fire during the war. The United Nations found 44% of the Gaza strip was embattled in heavy bombing or shelling, thus dubbed a “no-go” zone, or was designated an evacuation area.  An Israeli member of Knesset, Ofer Shelah, explained the scale of force in Gaza to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq:
“In the first three weeks of the conquest of Iraq, in 2003, the U.S. armed forces captured cities and destroyed 1,600 armored vehicles of the Iraqi army, half of them tanks. In Gaza, the IDF fought against an enemy that had no armored vehicles, and Israeli soldiers probably saw no more than a few hundred armed Hamas militants. On average, an Israeli tank fired seven times as many shells a day as an American tank in Iraq. We fired more antitank missiles from the ground than the Americans, and twice as many Hellfire rockets from helicopters. On average, an Israeli tank fired seven times as many shells a day as an American tank in Iraq. We fired more antitank missiles from the ground than the Americans, and twice as many Hellfire rockets from helicopters.”
– See more at:
Doctor’s eye-witness
It was within Rafah where the war saw its heaviest bloodshed. Israeli forces killed 100 in a single day.
A doctor at Rafah’s al-Najjar Hospital said: “Hundreds of people had returned to their homes because of the declaration of ceasefire. They have been unexpectedly confronted with a barrage of missiles so most of them started fleeing from the eastern parts. They were fleeing in the hundreds, on motorcycles, cars or simply on foot. Entire families, including elderly, women and children were being attacked by tanks. The attacks were indiscriminate. A lot of these attacks happened in Bildesi Street, where many of the people were fleeing. There was an explosion about every 10 seconds. During these hours, we came across hundreds of corpses that had been torn into pieces.”
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