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Amnesty details Gaza ‘war crimes’

amnesty-intThe BBC reported on 2nd July on the new Amnestry Internional report on Israel/Gaza

Hundreds of Palestinian civilians were killed using high-precision weapons, while others were shot at close range, the group Amnesty International says..

The 117-page report by Amnesty International says many of the hundreds of civilian deaths in the conflict “cannot simply be dismissed as ‘collateral damage’ incidental to otherwise lawful attacks – or as mistakes”.

It says “disturbing questions” remain unanswered as to why children playing on roofs and medical staff attending the wounded were killed by “highly accurate missiles” whose operators had detailed views of their targets.

The Amnesty Report Israel/Gaza: Operation ‘Cast Lead’: 22 Days of Death and Destruction, can be downloaded from the Amnesty website. Here is an extract.


“Until now we don’t understand why. We want peace; and we want an investigation; we want to know why me and my sisters have been orphaned. Why did they kill our parents, our family?”

Fathiya Mousa, whose parents and siblings were killed in an Israeli air strike while sitting in their yard (see Chapter 1.1.2).

At 11.30am on 27 December 2008, without warning, Israeli forces began a devastating bombing campaign on the Gaza Strip codenamed Operation “Cast Lead”. Its stated aim was to end rocket attacks into Israel by armed groups affiliated with Hamas and other Palestinian factions. By 18 January 2009, when unilateral ceasefires were announced by both Israel and Hamas, some 1,400 Palestinians had been killed, including some 300 children and hundreds of other unarmed civilians, and large areas of Gaza had been razed to the ground, leaving many thousands homeless and the already dire economy in ruins.

Much of the destruction was wanton and resulted from direct attacks on civilian objects as well as indiscriminate attacks that failed to distinguish between legitimate military targets and civilian objects. Such attacks violated fundamental provisions of international humanitarian law, notably the prohibition on direct attacks on civilians and civilian objects (the principle of distinction), the prohibition on indiscriminate or disproportionate attacks, and the prohibition on collective punishment.

Hundreds of civilians were killed in attacks carried out using high-precision weapons – airdelivered bombs and missiles, and tank shells. Others, including women and children, were shot at short range when posing no threat to the lives of the Israeli soldiers. Aerial bombardments launched from Israeli F-16 combat aircraft targeted and destroyed civilian homes without warning, killing and injuring scores of their inhabitants, often while they slept. Children playing on the roofs of their homes or in the street and other civilians going about their daily business, as well as medical staff attending the wounded were killed in broad daylight by Hellfire and other highly accurate missiles launched from helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, and by precision projectiles fired from tanks.

Disturbing questions remain unanswered as to why such high-precision weapons, whose operators can see even small details of their targets and which can accurately strike even fast moving vehicles,1 killed so many children and other civilians.

Scores of civilians were also killed and injured by less precise weapons, such as artillery shells and mortars, and flechette tank shells, which can be accurately aimed but which disperse thousands of deadly metal darts at great velocity over a large area.

White phosphorus, a highly incendiary substance, was repeatedly fired indiscriminately over densely populated residential areas, killing and wounding civilians and destroying civilian property. It was often launched from artillery shells in air-burst mode, which aggravated the already devastating consequences of the attacks. Each shell ejected over a hundred felt wedges impregnated with highly incendiary white phosphorus, which rained down over houses and streets, igniting on exposure to oxygen and setting fire to people and property. Once their incendiary content had been discharged, the artillery shells often crashed into buildings causing further deaths and injuries. Repeated denials of the use of white phosphorus by Israeli officials during the conflict delayed or prevented appropriate treatment for people suffering agonizing burns. Some who died might otherwise have been saved.

Artillery in general and white phosphorus shells in particular should never be used in populated areas.2 Yet in Gaza Israeli forces repeatedly fired them into densely populated residential areas, knowing that such imprecise weapons would kill and injure civilians. Such attacks were indiscriminate and as such unlawful under international law. The scale and intensity of the attacks were unprecedented, even in the context of the increasingly lethal Israeli military campaigns in Gaza in previous years.3 More Palestinians were killed and more properties were destroyed in the 22-day military campaign than in any previous Israeli offensive.

Israeli forces could not conceivably have been unaware of the presence of civilians in locations which were repeatedly attacked, including with white phosphorus and other imprecise weapons, given that these areas were under close surveillance by Israeli drones.

Even though Israeli officials knew from the first days of Operation “Cast Lead” that civilians were killed and wounded in significant numbers, Israeli forces continued to employ the same tactics for the entire duration of the 22-day offensive, resulting in growing numbers of civilian casualties. The pattern of attacks and the resulting high number of civilian fatalities and casualties showed elements of reckless conduct, disregard for civilian lives and property and a consistent failure to distinguish between military targets and civilians and civilian objects.

Thousands of civilian homes, businesses and public buildings were destroyed. In some areas entire neighbourhoods were flattened and livestock killed. Much of the destruction was wanton and deliberate, and was carried out in a manner and circumstances which indicated that it could not be justified on grounds of military necessity. Rather, it was often the result of reckless and indiscriminate attacks, which were seemingly tolerated or even directly sanctioned up the chain of command, and which at times appeared intended to collectively punish local residents for the actions of armed groups.

Throughout Operation “Cast Lead” Israeli forces frequently obstructed access to medical care and humanitarian aid for those wounded and trapped. They prevented ambulances and medical staff from attending to the wounded and transporting them to hospital and in several cases targeted ambulance and rescue crews and others who were trying to evacuate the wounded. As a result people who could have been saved died and others endured needless suffering and a worsening of their injuries. Children, women and elderly people were among those trapped and refused access to medical care and/or passage out of areas which had been taken over by Israeli forces. Medical and humanitarian vehicles and facilities were also destroyed or damaged as a result of both targeted and indiscriminate Israeli attacks.

In several cases Israeli soldiers also used civilians, including children, as “human shields”, endangering their lives by forcing them to remain in or near houses which they took over and used as military positions. Some were forced to carry out dangerous tasks such as inspecting properties or objects suspected of being booby-trapped. Soldiers also took position and launched attacks from and around inhabited houses, exposing local residents to the danger of attacks or of being caught in the crossfire.

Israel and Egypt kept Gaza’s borders sealed throughout Operation “Cast Lead” and its 1.5 million inhabitants could neither leave nor find a place in Gaza where their safety could be guaranteed. Unlike in southern Israel, where the Israeli authorities have built bomb shelters to protect local residents from rocket attacks by Palestinian armed groups, in Gaza there are no bomb shelters and none can be built because Israel has long forbidden the entry of construction material into Gaza.

Randomly placed telephone calls with recorded warning messages, radio broadcasts and leaflets dropped by the Israeli army all over Gaza telling people to leave their homes and neighbourhoods caused widespread panic but offered little protection. In some areas residents were trapped in their homes, hearing the Israeli army broadcasts warning people to leave but unable to do so because Israeli forces in the area were not allowing any movement and therefore anyone who went out risked coming under fire.4 Others who fled their homes were killed or injured when UN schools and other places where they had sought shelter came under Israeli attack.

In southern Israel civilians also continued to come under attack from rockets fired daily by Palestinian armed groups throughout the 22-day conflict. The armed wing of Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups launched several hundred rockets and mortars into southern Israel, killing three civilians and injuring dozens of others. Several civilian homes and other structures were damaged, some extensively. Six Israeli soldiers were also killed in Palestinian attacks.5

Mortars and so-called Qassam rockets, which are locally made in Gaza, and longer range Grad-type rockets smuggled into Gaza via the tunnels from Egypt, are unguided projectiles which cannot be directed at specific targets. Attacks using such rockets are indiscriminate and hence unlawful under international law. Though in most cases these rockets explode in empty areas, without causing casualties, each rocket is potentially lethal and the intensified barrage of such rockets throughout the 22 days of Operation “Cast Lead” caused panic among the civilian population of southern Israel. Thousands of families fled to other parts of the country and those who remained in their homes in the south had to run for cover every time the alarm sounded, warning of an incoming rocket.

Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups also violated international humanitarian law in their conduct within Gaza. They launched rockets and located military equipment and positions near civilian homes, endangering the lives of the inhabitants by exposing them to the risk of Israeli attacks. They also used empty homes and properties as combat positions during armed confrontations with Israeli forces, exposing the inhabitants of nearby houses to the danger of attacks or of being caught in the crossfire.

However, contrary to repeated allegations by Israeli officials of the use of “human shields”, Amnesty International found no evidence that Hamas or other Palestinian fighters directed the movement of civilians to shield military objectives from attacks. It found no evidence that Hamas or other armed groups forced residents to stay in or around buildings used by fighters, nor that fighters prevented residents from leaving buildings or areas which had been commandeered by militants. Throughout Operation “Cast Lead”, and for several weeks prior to start of the Operation, the Israeli army refused to allow into Gaza independent observers, journalists, international human rights monitors and humanitarian workers – effectively cutting off Gaza from the outside world and hindering independent monitoring and reporting of the conduct of its forces there.6 Even after the ceasefire was declared on 18 January, the Israeli army continued to deny access to Gaza to many human rights and humanitarian workers and journalists. Some continued to be refused entry into Gaza four months later.7

To date, five months after the end of Operation “Cast Lead”, the Israeli authorities have failed to establish any independent and impartial investigation into the conduct of their forces and actively oppose any such investigations being established. They have refused to co-operate with and to grant access to the country to an international independent factfinding mission set up by the UN Human Rights Council and headed by Justice Richard Goldstone,8 undermining its ability to fulfil its mission. They have also rejected the finding s of a UN Board of Inquiry, which investigated nine attacks on UN facilities and personnel during Operation “Cast Lead.9

The Israeli authorities have rejected allegations of war crimes and other serious violations of international law committed by Israeli forces during Operation “Cast Lead” published by Amnesty International and numerous other human rights organizations and media – international, Israeli and Palestinian – claiming that Hamas prevents any independent investigations and forces people to make untrue allegations. However, such claims do not stand up to scrutiny. Amnesty International’s delegates who visited Gaza during and after Operation “Cast Lead”, as on many other occasions in recent years, were able to carry out their investigations unhindered and people often voiced criticisms of Hamas’ conduct, including rocket attacks. While in Gaza Amnesty International delegates also investigated crimes and human rights abuses committed by Hamas forces and militias against fellow Palestinians, including deliberate killings, torture, abductions and arbitrary detention. The findings were published on 10 February 2009 in a report entitled: Hamas’ deadly campaign in the shadow of the war in Gaza.10 As of 18 June 2009 the Israeli authorities had not responded to Amnesty International’s repeated requests, first made in early February, for meetings to discuss its findings and concerns, nor to the requests for information concerning many of the cases mentioned in this report.

At the same time the Hamas de facto administration in Gaza has not only failed to investigate rocket attacks by its own and other armed groups, but has persisted in justifying such unlawful attacks.

Amnesty International believes that the deaths of so many unarmed civilians and the manner in which they came under attack demand a thorough, independent and impartial investigation into the conduct of all parties in the conflict, in order to establish the truth and so that those responsible for unlawful attacks against civilians and civilian property can be held accountable and that reparation can be ensured for the victims.

To this end, Amnesty International calls, on the one hand, on the international community to provide full support to the international independent fact-finding mission established by the UN Human Rights Council and, on the other, on the Israeli authorities and the Hamas de facto administration to co-operate with the mission, including by giving its members access to Israel as well as Gaza. The Israeli authorities need, in addition, to ensure impartial and thorough investigations, at a national level, of the evidence indicating that its forces committed serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law during the conflict and to provide full reparations for the consequences of its unlawful acts and omissions. At the international level, individual states should exercise universal jurisdiction wherever there is sufficient evidence of war crimes or other crimes under international law on either side.

Finally, both the Israeli authorities and the Hamas de facto administration need to take a series of additional measures to prevent civilian deaths in the future. The Israeli military must, for instance, comply fully with the duty to take precautionary measures when carrying out attacks and publicly commit not to use artillery, white phosphorus and other indiscriminate weapons in densely populated areas. The Hamas de facto administration, for its part, must ensure that no armed group operating in areas under its control carries out unlawful rocket attacks against civilian population centres in Israel. (See Conclusions and Recommendations for a fuller set of Amnesty International’s recommendations to the international community, the Israeli authorities and the Hamas de facto administration.)

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