Israel/Palestine: Unlawful Israeli Airstrikes Kill Civilians

Human Rights Watch

Bombings of Civilian Structures Suggest Illegal Policy
Bombings of Civilian Structures Suggest Illegal Policy

Israel’s rhetoric is all about precision attacks but attacks with no military target and many civilian deaths can hardly be considered precise. Recent documented cases in Gaza sadly fit Israel’s long record of unlawful airstrikes with high civilian casualties.
-Sarah Lea Whitson

(Gaza) – Israeli air attacks in Gaza investigated by Human Rights Watch have been targeting apparent civilian structures and killing civilians in violation of the laws of war. Israel should end unlawful attacks that do not target military objectives and may be intended as collective punishment or broadly to destroy civilian property. Deliberate or reckless attacks violating the laws of war are war crimes, Human Rights Watch said.

Israeli attacks in Gaza since July 7, 2014, which Israeli officials said delivered more than 500 tons of explosives in missiles, aerial bombs, and artillery fire, killed at least 178 people and wounded 1,361 as of July 14, including 635 women and children, according to the United Nations. Preliminary UN reports identified 138 people, about 77 percent of those killed, as civilians, including 36 children, and found that the attacks had destroyed 1,255 homes, displacing at least 7,500 people.

“Israel’s rhetoric is all about precision attacks but attacks with no military target and many civilian deaths can hardly be considered precise,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Recent documented cases in Gaza sadly fit Israel’s long record of unlawful airstrikes with high civilian casualties.”

Palestinian armed groups also should end indiscriminate rocket attacks launched toward Israeli population centers. Israeli media reported that Palestinian armed groups have launched 1,500 rockets at Israel, wounding five Israeli civilians and destroying property.

Israeli forces and Palestinian armed groups conducted fewer attacks and rocket launches in May and early June. An Israeli airstrike killed an alleged member of an armed group and his son on a motorcycle in Gaza on June 11, sparking rocket launches by Palestinian armed groups, and leading to a massive escalation of Israeli attacks on July 7. Israel also blamed Hamas for the abduction and murder of three Israeli teenagers near a West Bank settlement on June 12 and launched a military operation in the West Bank on June 13, killing at least six Palestinians. Hamas had praised the kidnappings but denied responsibility.

Human Rights Watch investigated four Israeli strikes during the July military offensive in Gaza that resulted in civilian casualties and either did not attack a legitimate military target or attacked despite the likelihood of civilian casualties being disproportionate to the military gain. Such attacks committed deliberately or recklessly constitute war crimes under the laws of war applicable to all parties. In these cases, the Israeli military has presented no information to show that it was attacking lawful military objectives or acted to minimize civilian casualties.

Israel has wrongly claimed as a matter of policy that civilian members of Hamas or other political groups who do not have a military role are “terrorists” and therefore valid military targets, and has previously carried out hundreds of unlawful attacks on this basis. Israel has also targeted family homes of alleged members of armed groups without showing that the structure was being used for military purposes.

On July 11, an Israeli attack on the Fun Time Beach café near the city of Khan Yunis killed nine civilians, including two 15-year-old children, and wounded three, including a 13-year-old boy. An Israeli military spokesman said the attack was “targeting a terrorist” but presented no evidence that any of those at the café, who had gathered to watch a World Cup match, were participating in military operations, or that the killing of one alleged “terrorist” in a crowded café would justify the expected civilian casualties.

In another July 11 attack, an Israeli missile struck a vehicle in the Bureij refugee camp, killing the two municipal workers inside. The men were driving home in a marked municipal vehicle after clearing rubble from a road damaged in an airstrike. Their relatives said that neither man was affiliated with an armed group, and that the driver had followed the same daily routine in the same vehicle every day since July 7. The explosion blew the roof off the vehicle and partly disemboweled a 9-year-old girl and wounded her sister, 8, who were sitting in front of their home nearby. Human Rights Watch found no evidence of a military objective in the vehicle or in the area at the time.

An Israeli airstrike on July 10 on the family home of Mohammed al-Hajj, a tailor, in the densely crowded Khan Yunis refugee camp killed seven civilian family members, including two children, and wounded more than twenty civilians. An eighth fatality, al-Hajj’s 20-year-old son, was a low-ranking member of the Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of Hamas, residents told Human Rights Watch. The Israeli military said the attack was being investigated. Even if the son was the intended target, the nature of the attack appears indiscriminate and would in any case be disproportionate.

“The presence of a single, low-level fighter would hardly justify the appalling obliteration of an entire family,” Whitson said. “Israel would never accept an argument that any Israeli home of an Israel Defense Force member would be a valid military target.”

A fourth Israeli airstrike, on July 9, killed Amal Abed Ghafour, who was 7-months pregnant, and her 1-year-old daughter, and wounded her husband and 3-year-old son. The family lived across the street from an apartment building that was struck with multiple missiles, according to witnesses. Residents of nearby homes said Israeli forces fired a small non-explosive “warning” missile at the apartment building minutes before the main missile strikes. However, the family did not know of the warning or have time to flee. Israeli officials have not said why they targeted the apartment building.

A brief initial statement on July 8 by the Israeli military spokesperson’s office asserted that military attacks had targeted “four homes of activists in the Hamas terror organization who are involved in terrorist activity and direct and carry out high-trajectory fire towards Israel,” without any further qualification. In subsequent statements, the military said that its policy is to attack homes used as “command and control” centers or “terrorist infrastructure” after warning residents to leave, but has provided no information to support these vague claims.

The Israeli rights group B’Tselem said on July 13 that the Israel Defense Forces spokesperson had changed the wording of statements concerning such attacks over the course of the current military offensive, but that in only one specific case did the military claim that weapons were hidden in a home it had attacked. An Israeli military official stated on July 12 that the military has targeted “more than 100 homes of commanders of different ranks” in Gaza, the Israeli news website Ynet reported.

Civilian structures such as residential homes become lawful targets only when they are being used for military purposes. While the laws of war encourage the use of effective advance warnings of attacks to minimize civilian casualties, providing warnings does not make an otherwise unlawful attack lawful.

For warnings to be effective, civilians need adequate time to leave and go to a place of safety before an attack. In several cases Human Rights Watch investigated, Israel gave warnings, but carried out the attack within five minutes or less. Given that Gaza has no bomb shelters, civilians realistically often have no place to flee.

Attacks targeting civilians or civilian property are unlawful, as are attacks that do not or cannot discriminate between civilians and combatants. Attacks intended to punish the family members of an enemy commander or fighter would also constitute unlawful collective punishment. Attacks causing the extensive destruction of property carried out unlawfully and wantonly are also prohibited.

“Warning families to flee might reduce civilian casualties but they don’t make illegal attacks any less illegal,” Whitson said. “The Israeli failure to demonstrate why attacks that are killing civilians are lawful raises serious questions as to whether these attacks are intended to target civilians or wantonly destroy civilian property.”

The United Nations Human Rights Council should hold a special session to address violations of international human rights and humanitarian law in the context of the conflict, Human Rights Watch said. The Council should mandate the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to form a fact-finding mission to impartially investigate, report promptly and publicly on violations by all sides, and issue recommendations to the parties and the UN.

The European Union and its member countries should support convening a special session and formation of a fact-finding mission. They should also work for a resolution that:
 

  • Stresses the conflicting parties’ obligations under international law to protect civilians;
  • Stresses the need for borders to be kept open for humanitarian and medical assistance to reach those in need and permit them to leave;
  • Condemns violations of international human rights and humanitarian law by all parties; and
  •  Stresses the need for accountability for grave violations.
     

Neither Israeli nor Palestinian authorities have ever taken serious action to investigate alleged war crimes by members of their forces in previous armed conflicts. Human Rights Watch has documented numerous serious violations of the laws of war by Israeli forces in the past decade, particularly indiscriminate attacks on civilians.

From 2005 to the end of 2012, Israeli military operations in Gaza resulted in the deaths of 1,474 civilians and the destruction of thousands of buildings. In the same period, Hamas and other armed groups in Gaza fired some 8,734 rockets at Israeli population centers, killing 38 civilians, including 26 Israelis, 2 foreign nationals, and 10 Palestinians when rockets fell short of their intended targets.

The Palestine Liberation Organization should direct President Mahmoud Abbas to seek the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court to investigate and prosecute serious international crimes committed by all parties on Palestinian territory.

Governments that are providing weapons to Israel, to Hamas, or to armed groups in the Gaza Strip should suspend transfers of any materiel that has been documented or credibly alleged to have been used in violation of international humanitarian law, as well as funding or support for such material, Human Rights Watch said. The US supplies Israel with rotary and fixed wing military aircraft, Hellfire missiles, and other munitions that have been used in illegal airstrikes in Gaza.

“The longstanding failure of either side to prosecute war crimes in Gaza means that the only meaningful option for justice and accountability is legal proceedings before the International Criminal Court,” Whitson said. “How many more civilians will die as a result of unlawful Israeli attacks before President Abbas submits Palestine to this court?”

For details of the four attacks Human Rights Watch investigated, please see below.

Attack on the Fun Time Beach Café
At 11:30 p.m. on July 11, 2014, an Israeli attack on the Fun Time Beach coffee shop on the beach near Khan Yunis, in southern Gaza, killed nine civilians, including two 15-year-old boys, and wounded three, including a critically injured 13-year-old, survivors and family members told Human Rights Watch.

The New York Times reported that an Israeli military spokesperson, Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, said that the military had fired a “precision strike” with a missile and was “targeting a terrorist,” but did not provide information about the target’s identity or the timing of the attack on a crowded café.

Human Rights Watch found no evidence that any of the victims was a member of an armed group or that there was a military objective in the area.

About an hour before the attack, patrons and workers saw a small missile strike a second beach establishment, the Layali Café, about 150 meters away. They walked over and put out the small fire that was burning there, and returned to the Fun Time Beach café, where they planned to watch a broadcast of the World Cup at midnight. The patrons assumed that the small missile strike was a mistake or random shooting from Israeli naval forces, said survivors and relatives who had spoken to the victims shortly before the strike.

Relatives and survivors said the victims frequently went to the beach café. Khaled Qanan, 30, told Human Rights Watch that the attack killed two of his brothers, Mohammed, 25, a master’s degree student in Arabic, and Ibrahim, 28, who sold fish. Ramadan Sabbah, 37, the two victims’ brother-in-law, said:

They went to the beach café all the time, including every day since this operation started [on July 8]. They said they felt safer there than they did in Khan Yunis. But there was nothing to shelter them; it was just chairs and fabric. When we found the bodies, they didn’t have visible injuries. Ibrahim had only a small cut, but we found his body almost 200 meters away. Mohammed was found on the asphalt. The road is cracked from the explosion.
 

Human Rights Watch visited the site on July 12 and 13 but could not determine the weapons used in the attack due to extensive digging by relatives searching for the missing body of one of the victims.

The attack killed three members of the Astal family: Ahmad, 18, Suleiman, 15, and Mousa, 15, who died while being taken to the hospital, and severely wounded Mousa’s brother Naim, 13, relatives said. Human Rights Watch spoke briefly to Naim, who had extensive injuries, “I woke up in the hospital. I don’t know why they hit us,” he said.

Ramadan al-Astal, 19, Suleiman and Ahmad’s brother, told Human Rights Watch:

I was on the way to the café to watch the game but my motorcycle stalled. I called them at exactly 11:07 p.m. to tell them. They said there were four people there playing cards, and the three [relatives from the Astal family who died]. So I started to walk back home, and then I heard the explosion. I called my brothers, but they didn’t answer. I went there with my uncle. Three of the victims were still alive, but they died on their way to the hospital. There was a huge crater where the coffee shop was; the sea water was seeping into it. When we dug up the bodies the clothes had been burned off. I can’t understand why they targeted the café. Maybe they saw the lights go on when the guys turned on the generator, after they came back from [putting out the fire at] the Layali Cafe.
 

Family members said the other two survivors included Tamer al-Astal, 27, a construction worker whose back was broken; and Bilal al-Astal, the café owner.

Kamel Sawali, 37, said that the attack killed his brothers Ibrahim, 28, Homdi, 20, and Salim, 24, but that Salim’s body had not been found. The four men had worked together to run the café, which they had rented from Bilal al-Astal for the past five years. Sawali said:

I spoke to them 15 minutes before the strike, at 11:15 p.m., and they told me about how they’d gone to the Layali but that everything was fine. There was no reason to attack them. The café was just normal; some people went there to break the [Ramadan] fast, some were fishermen, some kids. The worst thing is that Salim is missing. We’ve called the Red Cross to coordinate with the Israeli military to search the beach again.
 

The brothers’ father, Bedaya Sawali, 61, said, “I lost my three youngest sons; I don’t care about the money we have lost on the café but one of them is still missing.”

Amna Serwana, 45, said that her son Mohammed, 18, was working at the coffee shop when he was killed. “He went there every summer to work for the last three years,” she said. “We tried to keep him home with us for Ramadan, but he said he liked the atmosphere there and that a lot of people were going to come to watch the game.”

Bureij Refugee Camp Killings
At around 12:30 p.m. on July 11, an Israeli airstrike with what witnesses and physical evidence indicate was a small missile struck a municipality vehicle from the Bureij refugee camp. The strike killed both of the municipal workers inside – Mazen Aslan, 52, and Shaharam abu al-Qaz, 43 – and badly injured Shaheed Girnawi, 8, and her sister Salwa, 9, who were in the front entry of their nearby home, witnesses and relatives told Human Rights Watch. Family members and witnesses said neither man was affiliated with any armed group. Human Rights Watch found no military objective in the vicinity of the attack.

Aslan worked for the municipality, his wife, Umm Khaled, 45, told Human Rights Watch. “In normal times he turned off and on the water valves to regulate the flow of water to different parts of the camp,” she said. “And during emergencies, he would go out in the municipality jeep to oversee the workers who cleared up the rubble from Israeli attacks.” Aslan had begun work at 10 a.m. every day since July 7, when the Israeli military offensive began, and used a Jeep Magnum painted white with a municipal logo and small flag, his wife said.

On July 11, Aslan drove the jeep to escort a bulldozer, operated by Abu Qaz, to a road that needed to be cleared of rubble from a prior airstrike. Aslan’s wife said:

But he had forgotten his official municipality employment paper, which he’s supposed to carry with him, so he called me to say he was coming to get it. He was driving back home in the Jeep and had brought [Abu Qaz] with him. I was just going outside to hand him the paper, but he went down the street a bit and then the missile hit. The Jeep flipped over. The missile hit my husband directly. There was nothing left to recognize him by. There was no reason to hit him. He would go out to work during every war; this is his third war [including the conflicts in 2008-09 and in 2012].
 

Human Rights Watch observed Aslan’s employment document [photo] and inspected the scene of the attack. A small crater was visible in the road where witnesses said the missile struck the Jeep, and there was what appeared to be dried blood on the outside walls of houses facing the street.

Abu Qaz’s brother Ismail said that he had spoken to his brother earlier that morning:

He and Mazen went out to clear the rubble. Shaharam drove the digger behind the jeep, and then they were coming back. My brother parked the digger in its municipality parking spot, and got into the Jeep. That was the routine: he would be driven back by whoever was in charge of overseeing the clearing work. There was nothing unusual that day.

Witnesses said that the force of the explosion blew the roof off the vehicle and into the doorway of a home where Shaheed and Salwa were sitting. Their older brother, Iyad Hilme Girnawi, 22, said in an interview on July 12:

My sisters were sitting in the corridor when the blast blew the roof into them. Shaheed was badly injured; everyone assumed she was dead. Her intestines were outside her body, and her head was open. She’s had three operations and is in the ICU [intensive care unit] but somehow she is still alive. They transferred her from Al Aqsa hospital in Deir al Balah to al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City. Salwa was injured but should be discharged from the hospital in a day or two.

A third witness, Salem abd-Khalil Girnawi, a 20-year-old university student, said the explosion wounded him while he was walking nearby: “At around 12:30 p.m. a Jeep Magnum drove past, and suddenly I found myself with blood all over. I saw some shrapnel in my body, washed myself, and someone took me to al-Aqsa hospital. There was nothing going on. I don’t know why they attacked.” Human Rights Watch observed injuries to Girnawi’s throat and head.

Al-Hajj Family Killing
At around 1:15 a.m. on July 10, an Israeli airstrike in the Khan Yunis refugee camp destroyed the home of Mahmud Lotfi al-Hajj, 57, and killed all those inside: al-Hajj, a tailor, his wife Basma, 48, and their children Fatmeh, 12, Saad, 17, Tarek, 18, Omar, 20, Asmaa, 22, and Nijleh, 29, relatives told Human Rights Watch.

The Associated Press quoted Lt. Col. Lerner, the Israeli spokesman, as saying the incident was under investigation, but that Israeli forces did not provide warnings before targeting members of armed groups who “use civilian premises to perpetrate attacks.” Human Rights Watch found no evidence that any of the victims used the Hajj family home to perpetrate attacks.

Omar al-Hajj had joined Hamas’s armed wing, the Qassam Brigades, several months earlier, though he did not yet have a rank in the group, one of his relatives told Human Rights Watch. Even if Omar al-Hajj was the intended target, Israeli forces should reasonably have known that the harm to civilians and property from the attack outweighed any expected, direct military advantage, making the attack disproportionate if not indiscriminate.

A neighbor, Abdallah Kulab, told Human Rights Watch that two missiles struck the Hajj family home. Other residents of the refugee camp said they believe three missiles hit the house. Another neighbor, Hossein Nadi, said he was standing at his window “when I saw an explosion and then the force of it sucked me out of the window” and knocked him unconscious.

Al-Hajj’s son Yazid, 24, said that he had lived in the home but was out walking when the attack occurred: “As I was walking back home, the explosion happened. I was just a few hundred meters away. The house was still crumbling when I made it back.” Yazid said he had received an automated phone call from Israeli security forces earlier that same day. “It was one of the generic, robot messages, that just said, ‘Stay away from Qassam,’ so I ignored it,” he said.

UN officials told Human Rights Watch that they estimated several hundred thousand Gaza residents have randomly received similar automated phone calls since July 7, which warn residents not to store weapons in their homes, blame Hamas for the conflict, and state that the Israeli military does not want to harm civilians.

Yazid al-Hajj said he had been employed by the Hamas government – which recently dissolved with the formation of a Palestinian “unity” government – as a civilian security guard in Rafah, at the smuggling tunnels underneath the Egyptian border, but that he is not part of Hamas’s military wing and has not participated in any military activities. Armed groups have used tunnels to smuggle weapons into Gaza, but Yazid’s account is consistent with the fact that the former Hamas government, which created a “tunnels authority” in control of security and taxation at the smuggling tunnels, employed civilian guards at other tunnels used to smuggle consumer goods. Israel has not identified who, if any of the victims, was a target of the strike.

Al-Hajj’s daughter Fida, who lives in Rafah and was not at her parents’ home on the night of the attack, told Human Rights Watch: “That night, they all went over to my uncle’s house after iftar [the meal during which a Ramadan fast is broken], had tea and coffee, and went home at around 12:15 or 12:30 in the morning, and half an hour later they were all killed. We didn’t have any photographs to show at the funeral. They were all burned up.”

The blast damaged buildings up to 30 meters away, and sent concrete, metal doors, and part of a wall flying, wounding people in the street. Muna al-Halabe, 42, who lives next door, said she and her four children were at home when the Hajj home was attacked:

Some of the kids were watching TV, some were on the computer, everything seemed normal. But then, I felt a large blast, and something fell on me. I was screaming and afraid because I couldn’t find my daughter. My 18-year-old, we found her trapped under rubble and got her out. We were lucky that we were in the back part of the house. We only lived because of that. One of the kids had just called my 17-year-old daughter to come to look at something on the computer. That’s exactly when airstrike happened, and a wall collapsed right where she had been. We couldn’t open the door because of the blast. The men from the neighborhood came in and kicked down the door so we could get out.

The explosion blew out the front walls of al-Halabe’s home, which is now uninhabitable. The National newspaper quoted another neighbor, Tawfiq al-Halabe, stating that he found body parts from victims on his property, and that the explosion caused his wife, Nidaa, 28, to miscarry in her fifth month of pregnancy.

Hospital officials at the European Hospital and the Nasser Clinical Center in Khan Yunis told Human Rights Watch that they had treated around 23 people wounded in the attack.

Abed Ghafour Family Killings and Home Destruction
At around 12:35 p.m. on July 9, Israeli forces struck the home of Said Ghafour, in Khan Yunis, and killed his relatives Amal Abed Ghafour, 30, who was 7-months pregnant, and Nirmeen, her 1-year-old daughter, who lived in a home across the street. Relatives found their bodies in the back of the house, beneath two walls that the force of the blast had knocked over, they told Human Rights Watch. The explosion wounded Amal’s husband, Joudah Abed Ghafour, 47, and their 3-year-old son, Mohammed.

Shortly before the airstrike, an Israeli military aircraft fired a small non-explosive missile at Said Ghafour’s home, in a procedure the Israeli military refers to a “knock on the roof” warning, witnesses said.

Human Rights Watch visited the area on July 13. The airstrike had completely destroyed Said Ghafour’s home, and severely damaged two homes on its left- and right-hand sides as well as the home opposite. Residents said that another Israeli airstrike hit the open field behind Ghafour’s home on July 11.

Ghafour’s brother Mazen, 40, a former employee of the Palestinian Authority, said that a warning missile struck his brother’s home at around 12:30 p.m. “We had less than five minutes before four missiles hit the house. It’s not enough time for a whole block to clear out. I ran to my parents’ home, which is next door, because it’s stronger and deeper than my home.”

Human Rights Watch could not confirm whether Said Ghafour is a combatant with an armed group. Because there were civilian casualties, Israel should provide information as to why the attack on the home was a military objective.

Mohammed Ghafour, 19, said that he was at home, about 30 meters from Said Ghafour’s building, at the time of the attack: “The missiles blew out our windows. This is a very crowded block, everything is apartment buildings with five or six apartments per building, and every family has five or six children. They hit Said’s house four times [on July 9]. We were surprised by the amount of damage. We thought that when they target a house, they only destroy it, not the ones around it.”

Several videos posted online appear to show small missiles striking the roofs of buildings shortly before large explosions, destroying buildings. One such video, which appears to have been filmed in Block 12 of al-Bureij Refugee Camp, a densely crowded are in Gaza, shows a small explosion followed less than one minute by a massive explosion. Human Rights Watch could not verify the date of the video. 

Mirrored from Human Rights Watch

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Related video added by Juan Cole:

Truce talks crumble as Israel bombs Gaza