Human Rights Watch accuses Israeli army and Palestinian militants of ‘apparent war crimes’ during May fighting

·5 min read
Smoke rises following Israeli airstrikes on a building in Gaza City in May (AP)
Smoke rises following Israeli airstrikes on a building in Gaza City in May (AP)

Israeli forces and Palestinian militants in Gaza committed apparent war crimes during the recent 11-day conflict, a new report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) has found.

The New York-based rights group investigated three Israeli strikes on Gaza in May that killed 62 Palestinian civilians, concluding there were no evident military targets in the vicinity, violating the laws of war. They also accused Palestinian armed groups of committing unlawful attacks when they fired more than 4,000 unguided rockets and mortars towards Israeli towns, amounting to indiscriminate attacks against civilians.

In the Tuesday report, HRW urged the UN Human Rights Council’s Commission of Inquiry to examine the unlawful attacks, and share those findings with the International Criminal Court which since March has been investigating war crimes committed by all sides in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.

HRW also said that US-made weapons were used in at least two of Israel’s attacks investigated in the report, and urged the US to condition future security assistance to Israel on it taking “concrete and verifiable actions” to improve its compliance with international law.

“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 centres, underscores the importance of the International Criminal Court’s inquiry.”

However, the Israeli military vehemently denied the accusations of war crimes telling HRW 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”.

More than 260 people, including at least 67 children, were killed in the intense Israeli bombardment of Gaza which erupted in June, after weeks of violence in Jerusalem.

An unprecedented barrage of rocket fire from Gaza also killed 13 people in Israel, including two children and a soldier. HRW said several Palestinians also died in Gaza when rockets fired by armed groups including militant group Hamas fell short and landed in the Strip.

The Independent has reached out to the Israeli army for comment but has yet to receive a reply.

In the past military officials have told The Independent that they use precision weapons, and regularly warn those living in or around the targets about the attacks.

The Independent’s own investigation into the deadliest night of bombing on 16 May in Wehda Street found that at least 45 civilians, including 18 children, were killed in dozens of airstrikes.

At the time senior members of Amnesty International told The Independent that they appeared “severely disproportionate” and may amount to war crimes.

The war erupted on May 10 after Hamas, the militant group that runs Gaza, fired a barrage of rockets towards Jerusalem in support of Palestinian protests against Israel’s heavy-handed policing of the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, which is sacred to both Jewish people and Muslims. It had followed weeks of violence, that was partially ignited by the threatened eviction of dozens of Palestinian families by Jewish settlers in a nearby neighbourhood in Jerusalem, an action the UN said could constitute a war crime.

HRW said May’s hostilities, like those in 2008, 2012, 2014, 2018 and 2019 took place amid Israel’s blockade on the Gaza Strip, which began in 2007, and “discriminatory efforts to remove Palestinians from their homes in occupied East Jerusalem”. HRW said these policies and practices are part of the Israeli government’s “crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution”.

In their latest report, HRW zeroed in on three Israeli attacks on Gaza. The first was May 10 near the northern town of Beit Hanoun which struck near four houses of the al-Masri family, killing eight civilians including six children.

The second was a 15 May bombing that destroyed a three-story building in al-Shati refugee camp near the coast, killing 10 civilians from two related families.

The third was the 16 May bombing in al-Wehda street in the heart of Gaza’s largest city causing three multi-story buildings to collapse and killing dozens of civilians.

The Israeli military said it was targeting tunnels and an underground command centre used by armed groups, but HRW says they presented no details to support that claim.

They also examined the indiscriminate and unlawful rocket fire from Gaza which killed over a dozen people in Israel including a five-year-old, Ido Abigail. But HRW said it would publish details of those findings later on.

In a harrowing interview with HRW, survivor Alaa Abu Hattab, said his family received no warning when an airstrike destroyed their three-story building, killing his wife and four of his children, on the 15 May in al-Shati refugee camp.

Palestinian rescue a survivor from under the rubble of a destroyed residential building following deadly Israeli airstrikes in Gaza Cit (AP)
Palestinian rescue a survivor from under the rubble of a destroyed residential building following deadly Israeli airstrikes in Gaza Cit (AP)

“I felt like everything was revolving around me. I was in shock and I fainted,” he said. “When I regained consciousness, I saw rescue workers looking for bodies under the rubble and recovering body parts. The attack had shredded the bodies.”

HRW also interviewed Omar Abu Auf, 17 the sole survivor of the extended Abu Auf family after his home on Wehda Street was bombed on 16 May. Omar’s father Ayman, who was killed in the bombing, was a prominent doctor leading Gaza’s coronavirus response.

“I heard the civil defence members and ambulances. I shouted, but they didn’t hear me. I felt like I was dead,” he said about being trapped under the rubble for 12 hours.

“Why did they kill my family and leave me orphaned? Until that day, we had a house. I had a family. Each family member had a dream. It all disappeared in one second.”

HRW’s Gerry Simpson said Israel and the Palestinian authorities have “shown little or no interest” in addressing abuses by their forces.

“Global and national judicial institutions should step up to break the vicious cycle of unlawful attacks and impunity for war crimes,” he 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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