Amnesty Accuses Israel of War Crimes in Damning Report on Gaza Conflict

Gaza house
Palestinian children take cover from the rain as they stand atop the ruins of a house, which witnesses said was destroyed by Israeli shelling during the most recent conflict between Israel and Hamas, on a rainy day in the east of Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip November 4, 2014. Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters

Human rights organisation Amnesty International has published a damning report into Israel’s recent military operation in the Gaza strip, saying that Israeli forces showed a “shocking disregard for the lives of Palestinian civilians” and "brazenly flouted the laws of war.”

The report, ‘Families Under the Rubble: Israeli Attacks on Unihabited Homes,’  accuses Israel of seriously violating humanitarian law in its airstrikes on Palestinian homes.

The report documents eight cases in which family homes in Gaza were destroyed by Israeli forces without warning in July and August 2014, during Operation Protective Edge. Of the 111 people killed in the incidents, which were selected based on the availability of witnesses, abundance of evidence and number of casualties, 104 were civilians, including 62 children.

Amnesty condemned the attacks, saying it believes they were war crimes. "In all the cases documented in this report, there was a failure to take necessary precautions to avoid excessive harm to civilians and civilian property, as required by international humanitarian law. In all cases, no prior warning was given to the civilian residents to allow them to escape," the report explains.

In four of the eight cases, the homes—thought to be in safe areas of Gaza—hosted more residents than usual, as the primary tenants were taking in friends and family who lived in more wartorn regions.

Amnesty's report is primarily based on the accounts of survivors of the conflict, many of whom describe the horrifying experience of digging through the rubble of their flattened houses, searching for family members, including the bodies of their children.

One man, a Palestinian doctor named Khalil Abed Hassan Ammam, described the scene shortly after he saw his family home bombed to the ground: “It was terrifying, we couldn’t save anyone…. All of the kids were burnt, I couldn’t tell which were mine and which were the neighbours’… We carried whoever we were able to the ambulance… I only recognized Ibrahim my eldest child, when I saw the shoes he was wearing… I had bought them for him two days before.”

According to the United Nations, approximately 2,192 Palestinians were killed during Operation Protective Edge, including 1,523 civilians, 519 of whom were children. Additionally, 66 Israeli soldiers were killed during the conflict, as well as six Israeli civilians who were killed by rockets fired from the strip, including one child.

Amnesty International described the attacks featured in the report as a serious violation of humanitarian law, which states that “parties to an armed conflict must at all times ‘distinguish between civilians and combatants.’”

In the most serious attack described by the report, the three-story al-Dali building in the city of Khan Yunis was obliterated by a single 2,000-pound bomb dropped by an Israeli aircraft at 7:30 a.m. The building was home to the Abu Amer, Breika, al-Najjar and Mu’ammar families. All 37 family members were killed, including 18 children. Two people in the adjacent building were also killed by the ferocity of the bomb and 21 people were injured, including four children.

Ezz Fayiz Ahmad al-Breika, who had been renting an apartment on the lower floor of the building for three years, was out at the time of the attack. When he came back, he was faced with the horrific task of identifying the dead bodies of his parents, brother, wife, daughters and older brother.

Asleep during the attack, Hana’ al-Najjar whose family lived in an apartment on the upper floor, described the aftermath of the attack: “We didn’t know what happened. I was sleeping beside my children. Suddenly we woke up and the entire house collapsed on top of us. I started yelling and screaming, I have five children, three daughters, and my sons daughter. They all died. I have no one left. I said, ‘Just save my children, save them, get them out - leave me and pull them out.’ Nothing is left for me. My husband is dead.”

The Israeli government has not given out any information concerning the attack or its target, but Amnesty identified three residents who may have been the target of the attack, one of whom is rumoured to be a member of the al-Quds Brigades, an armed wing of Islamic Jihad.

The report calls the lack of explanation for the attacks from Israeli officials, including the intended targets, as “deeply disturbing.”

Like the seven other buildings that were described in the report, no warning was given before the attack on al-Dali building that may have given the opportunity for the civilians to evacuate the building.

The report concludes by calling on Israel and Palestine to join the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), or for the U.N. Security Council to refer the situation ICC.

“The report exposes a pattern of attacks on civilian homes by Israeli forces which have shown a shocking disregard for the lives of Palestinian civilians, who were given no warning and had no chance to flee,” said Philip Luther, director of the Middle East and North Africa programme at Amnesty International.

In response to the report, the Israeli Foreign Ministry accused Amnesty of "extreme bias" and argued the report "accuses Israel of wrongdoing while producing no evidence," though detailed accounts are offered of all eight of the scenarios. "The report does not mention the word terror in relation to Hamas or other armed Palestinian groups, nor mentions tunnels built by Hamas to infiltrate Israel and perpetrate terror attacks. By ignoring the nature of the enemy Israel faced in Gaza—a terror group recognized as such by the European Union, the United States and others—Amnesty's report fails to contribute to the important discussion needed to solve the conflict. Instead, Amnesty serves as a propaganda tool for Hamas and other terror groups," the Ministry said in a statement.

Luther said that Amnesty rejected Israel’s assertions as “absurd”, telling Newsweek: “Throughout the conflict in Gaza in July and August Amnesty International has consistently condemned the firing of indiscriminate rockets by Palestinian armed groups as war crimes. We will continue to document Palestinian violations and will publish our findings on this in the coming months."

The Jerusalem Post also criticised the report for taking “hotly debated interpretations of international law (which Israel rejects) in which some assume that a sizeable volume of civilian deaths means the military advantage could not possibly have been worth it or that civilian homes do not become potential targets even when a combatant is present”.

But Amnesty stressed that Israeli forces should be differentiating between civilian and military objects: "Civilian objects, such as family homes, must not be the objects of attack. A home only loses its protection from direct attack if it is being used to make an effective contribution to military operations and its destruction or neutralization would offer a definite military advantage. The presence of a member of an armed group in a home does not make the home itself a military target. And the use of a specific room or apartment to contribute to military operations would not render the entire building a military objective." They recommend that in the event of an ongoing conflict, the  Israeli government must "explain what the intended target was in each of these attacks, in what way the target was a lawful military objective, what the means and methods of attack used were and why they were selected."

Amnesty International UK’s campaign manager Kristyan Benedict fuelled the controversy over the report by tweeting using the hashtag #JSIL, which has been used to compare Israel with ISIS.

Responding to the tweet, an Amnesty International spokesperson told Newsweek : "This tweet was made in a personal capacity by a member of staff. Amnesty International has not used the hashtag #JSIL and is not using this in relation to our latest report on Israel/Gaza, which provides details of attacks by Israeli forces during Operation Protective Edge which killed scores of Palestinian civilians by targeting houses full of families."