'Strong Evidence' of Israeli War Crimes in Gaza, Says New Amnesty Report

New evidence has emerged that indicates Israeli forces perpetrated war crimes and possibly crimes against humanity against Palestinians on 'Black Friday', the deadliest day of last summer's Gaza conflict, according to a new report released by rights group Amnesty International on Wednesday.

'Black Friday: Carnage in Rafah during 2014 Israel/Gaza conflict,' a joint report conducted with Forensic Architecture, a research team at London's Goldsmiths University, alleges that the killing of 135 Palestinian civilians, including 75 children, in an air and ground attack in Rafah, southern Gaza, following the capture of an Israeli soldier was of a "systematic and apparently deliberate nature."

"There is strong evidence that Israeli forces committed war crimes in their relentless and massive bombardment of residential areas of Rafah in order to foil the capture of Lieutenant Hadar Goldin, displaying a shocking disregard for civilian lives," says Philip Luther, director of Amnesty's Middle East and North Africa Programme.

Shortly after the announcement of a ceasefire between the Israeli military and Palestinian militant groups on August 1 last year, Givati Brigade officer Hadar Goldin was captured in a tunnel raid carried out by Hamas fighters. It was later revealed that Goldin had died in the raid but the Israeli military believed his captors had fled with the soldier still alive in the immediate vicinity of the border area.

A series of deadly bombing raids on Rafah's neighbourhoods followed the raid in an apparent attempt to target the various escape routes of Goldin's captors. The Israeli bombardment was carried out by F-16 jets, drones, helicopters and artillery, striking civilians as well as ambulances and vehicles evacuating those wounded in the attacks.

The Israeli military, believing Goldin to be alive, reportedly invoked "the controversial and secretive Hannibal Directive procedure" which allows commanders to take necessary action to prevent the abduction of a soldier and the escape of the captors, putting the soldier and surrounding civilians in mortal danger.

Amnesty's report alleges that this implementation of the directive - named after the Carthaginian general who committed suicide with poison rather than be captured by the Romans - resulted in the "ordering of unlawful attacks on civilians" in Gaza.

"After Lieutenant Hadar Goldin was captured, Israeli forces appear to have thrown out the rule book, employing a 'gloves off' policy with devastating consequences for civilians. The goal was to foil his capture at any cost," Luther says of the employment of the Hannibal Directive.

"The ferocity of the attack on Rafah shows the extreme measures Israeli forces were prepared to take to prevent the capture alive of one soldier – scores of Palestinian civilian lives were sacrificed for this single aim," he continues.

In its findings, the report utilised eyewitness accounts, satellite imagery and innovative techniques such as geo-synching to investigate potential crimes in the conflict, analysing shadows and smoke plumes to determine the time and location of attacks.

In the most "grossly disproportionate" attack noted by the report, researchers and military experts confirmed that two one-ton Israeli bombs - the largest in the Israeli air force's arsenal - were dropped on a single-storey building in eastern Rafah despite scores of civilians residing in the immediate vicinity.

In another attack, an ambulance carrying a wounded elderly man, a woman and three children was struck by a drone-fired missile, which set it alight and resulted in those inside, including medical workers, burning to death, according to eyewitnesses.

"They carried out a series of disproportionate or otherwise indiscriminate attacks, which they have completely failed to investigate independently," Luther adds. "This report's findings add compelling evidence to an already large body of credible documentation of serious violations during the Gaza conflict, which demand independent, impartial and effective investigations. Those suspected of ordering or committing war crimes must be prosecuted."

The commanders in charge of implementing the directive, were Lt. Col. Eli Gino and Col. Ofer Vinter. The officers below Gino were two commanders and a senior officer, named as Captain Shmuel Bitran, Major David Chen and Major Nir Ben-Hemo, according to Israeli press reports.

In an interview with Israeli daily Ynet News following Black Friday, Gino said he was "proud" of his unit and did not fear an investigation. "There was no recklessness and we only attacked suspicious targets. I am proud of my soldiers and their conduct," he insisted.

In response to the report, a statement issued by an Israeli spokesman says its findings are "fundamentally flawed" as it gives the impression that "the IDF was fighting against itself as there is almost no mention of the military actions of Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist organisations."

"Amnesty alleges that the IDF has a policy of using indiscriminate and disproportionate force, a conclusion it draws based on the tragic results of civilian casualties," the statement reads. "Yet such a conclusion is not based on international law and merely reflects the political bias of Amnesty towards Israel."

"In contrast to Amnesty's claims, the IDF – as the military of a democratic state committed to the rule of law – conducts all its operations in accordance with international law," it continues. "Where allegations of misconduct arise, the IDF maintains a robust, effective and thorough mechanism for addressing them."

The statement confirms that the alleged Rafah incidents covered by the report are under examination by the IDF and will be considered by the Israeli Military Advocate General in deciding whether to open a criminal investigation or not.

Last month, the UN Human Rights Council released a report on last summer's Gaza conflict accusing both Israel and Hamas of war crimes and saying that those responsible for such crimes be "brought to justice". In the seven-week war 2,200 Palestinians - of which 1,585 were civilians and 530 were children - were killed and 72 Israelis - of which five were civilians - were killed.

In another Amnesty report published in March, the rights group accused Palestinian militant groups of committing direct and indiscriminate killings of civilians and endangering Palestinian civilians with unlawful rocket and mortar fire in the conflict, in acts that "amount to war crimes."

At the time of writing, an Israeli government and Israeli military spokesperson were not immediately available for comment.