Human Rights Watch has accused the Israeli military of carrying out attacks that “apparently amount to war crimes” during an 11-day offensive on the Gaza Strip that began on May 10.
The international human rights organisation issued its conclusions on Tuesday after investigating three Israeli air raids that it said killed 62 Palestinian civilians. It concluded that “there were no evident military targets in the vicinity” of the attacks.
The report also accused Palestinian armed groups of apparent war crimes by launching more than 4,000 unguided rockets and mortars at Israeli population centres. Such attacks, it said, violate “the prohibition against deliberate or indiscriminate attacks against civilians”.
The report focused on Israeli actions during the fighting, and the group said it would issue a separate report on the actions of Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups in August.
“Israeli forces carried out attacks in Gaza in May that devastated entire families without any apparent military target nearby,” said Gerry Simpson, associated crisis and conflict director at HRW on the organisation’s website.
He said Israel’s “consistent unwillingness to seriously investigate alleged war crimes”, coupled with Palestinian rocket fire at Israeli civilian areas, underscored the importance of an ongoing investigation into both sides by the International Criminal Court (ICC).
There was no immediate reaction to the report by the Israeli military, which has repeatedly said its attacks were aimed at military targets in Gaza.
Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip, fired rockets towards Israel after the latter ignored an ultimatum demanding Israel stand down its security forces from the Al Aqsa Mosque compound in occupied East Jerusalem after days of violence against Palestinian protesters.
Israeli security forces had been violently suppressing demonstrations against Israel’s raids and attacks on worshippers in the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, and the threatened expulsion of dozens of Palestinian families in favour of Jewish settlers in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood.
In all, Hamas fired more than 4,000 rockets and mortars towards Israel, while Israel says it struck more than 1,000 targets linked to the armed groups in Gaza.
According to Gaza’s health ministry, some 260 people were killed in Gaza, including at least 67 children and 39 women. Twelve civilians, including two children, were killed in Israel, along with one soldier.
Three attacks investigated
The HRW report said the most serious Israeli air attack, on May 16, involved a series of attacks on al-Wahda Street, a central thoroughfare in Gaza City. The air raids destroyed three apartment buildings and killed a total of 44 civilians, HRW said, including 18 children and 14 women. Twenty-two of the dead were members of a single family, the al-Kawlaks.
Israel has said the attacks were aimed at tunnels used by Hamas fighters in the area and suggested the damage to the homes was unintentional.
In its investigation, HRW concluded that Israel had used US-made GBU-31 precision-guided bombs and had not warned any of the residents to evacuate the area ahead of time. It also it found no evidence of military targets in the area.
“An attack that is not directed at a specific military objective is unlawful,” it wrote.
The investigation also looked at a May 10 explosion that killed eight people, including six children, near the northern Gaza town of Beit Hanoun. It said the two adults were civilians.
Israel has said the explosion was caused by a misfired Palestinian rocket. But based on an analysis of munition remnants and witness accounts, HRW said evidence indicated the weapon had been “a type of guided missile”.
“Human Rights Watch found no evidence of a military target at or near the site of the strike,” it said.
The third attack it investigated occurred on May 15, in which an Israeli air raid destroyed a three-storey building in Gaza’s Shati refugee camp. The attack killed 10 people, two women and eight children.
HRW investigators determined the building was hit by a US-made guided missile. Israel has said that senior Hamas officials were hiding in the building but HRW said it found no evidence of a military target at or near the site and called for an investigation into whether there was a legitimate military objective and “all feasible precautions” were taken to avoid civilian casualties.
Conditioning US aid to Israel
The May conflict was the fourth between Israel and Hamas since the latter began governing Gaza in 2007. Human Rights Watch, other rights groups and UN officials have accused both sides of committing war crimes in all of the conflicts.
Early this year, HRW accused Israel of being guilty of international crimes of apartheid and persecution because of discriminatory policies towards Palestinians, both inside Israel as well as in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. Israel rejected the accusations.
In Tuesday’s report, HRW called on the US to condition security assistance to Israel on its taking “concrete and verifiable actions” to comply with international human rights law and to investigate past abuses.
It also called on the ICC to include the recent Gaza assault in its ongoing investigation into possible war crimes by Israel and Palestinian armed groups. Israel does not recognise the court’s jurisdiction and says it is capable of investigating any potential wrongdoing by its army and that the ICC probe is unfair and politically motivated.