Leading Palestinian human rights activists have said the Israeli bombardment of Gaza’s Shujayea neighbourhood amounted to a war crime.
Scenes of people forced to flee their homes under the heaviest bombardment of the 15-day Israeli assault on Gaza was, according to one Palestinian human rights activist “the largest exodus wave” since the Palestinian Nakba in 1948.
“I’m 60 years old and I have never seen such a thing,” said Raji Sourani, a leading rights activist and director of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR).
Both Sourani and another colleague, Issam Younis of the Gaza-based al-Mezan Centre for Human Rights, are certain the shelling, mass warnings, and forcing people to flee under fire amount to a war crime.
“The war crime happening in Shujayea is a model and example like those being taught in universities,” Younis said. Indiscriminate fire, targeting of civilians and absence of proportionality requirement indicate “war crime evidences”.
On Sunday July 20, Israeli military pushed ground forces into east Gaza City after days of heavy aerial bombardment. As troops advanced into Shujayea, one of the largest neighbourhoods in the Strip, artillery shelling that night did not come to even a brief halt.
In the morning, at first light, horrific images emerged of residents fleeing their homes towards west of Gaza City, some walking barefoot, others clinging onto vans, carrying mattresses and handbags of their important documents. Others just escaped without anything, seeking refuge at schools or the main hospital in the city, al-Shifa.
“So far, we have counted 74 dead and 380 injured from that night alone. We have assessments that there are more bodies and remains under the rubble,” Sourani said, noting that the area is still closed.
The war crime happening in Shujayea is a model and example like those being taught in universities.
Sourani said forcing people to evacuate their home under fire “is beyond a war crime”. He said that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his army have no right to demand people to vacate their homes and having demanded the people to do so, “proves the willful war crime”.
Israel says it warned residents via leaflets, flyers, and pre-recorded messages sent to their phones but they did not heed the warnings.
With UN-run schools, acting as temporary shelters, full, people from Shujayea took refuge in the hospital. In interviews there, many said they did not leave because they did not know where they would go and that there was no safe place in Gaza.
The so-called Israeli warnings for the areas people should’ve evacuated, Younis said, encompassed 43 percent of the Gaza Strip, which is only 360sq km. “This is all red herrings, because forcing people to vacate is a war crime on its own.”
Status no protection?
In November 2011, the United Nations General Assembly upgraded the status of Palestine to a non-member state.
For human rights advocates like Sourani and Younis, this was a historic moment to hold Israel accountable before international justice for the violations it committed in the Palestinian territories, including the building of settlements, arrests, raids, killings, and the siege on the Gaza Strip.
More than three years after the recognition of the status of Palestine, the Palestinian Authority did not seek to join the International Criminal Court or to sign the Rome Statute, which enables Palestine to join the court.
Analysts say the PA appeared to be using the right of the Palestinian people to join international treaties and institutions as a card to press for a negotiated agreement with Israel. The lack of action on the part of the PA and the international community “made Israel immune from any punitive measures and [made it think] that it is above the law,” according to Younis.
“Two wars have passed and the Israeli war criminals are not yet prosecuted,” Younis said, referring to the Israeli ground invasion of Gaza in January 2009, where more than 1,400 Palestinians were killed, and the eight-day offensive of 2012.
For his part, Sourani said that the PA blocks efforts to making Israel accountable. “It’s the PA’s duty to defend its people. If it doesn’t do so [by signing of Rome Statute], then it is not defending its people.”
He said that the Palestinian rights groups understand the political pressure on the PA to not go to the ICC. But all human rights activists are asking for is the PA to sign the Rome Statute.
“We just want them to sign the Rome Statute and we will do the rest of the work. We have all the files ready and documented. Sign the statute and the files will be at the ICC automatically.”
Follow Fares Akram on Twitter: @faresakram