Has Israel committed war crimes in Rafah, Gaza’s southernmost city?

Amnesty International warns Israel has already violated international law in Rafah in four assaults since December.

Palestinians search for their belongings in a building hit by an Israeli bombardment in Rafah on February 12, 2024 [Hatem Ali/AP]

At least 95 people, including 42 children, have been killed in four attacks by Israeli forces in Gaza’s southernmost city of Rafah, according to Amnesty International. Victims include a newborn girl who was so young her birth had not even been registered, the human rights organisation said.

So far, there have been four assaults on the city beginning in December after a week-long humanitarian pause to allow the passage of aid and release of hostages and prisoners.

Israeli authorities said the attacks are justified because Hamas operatives are hiding in the city. Israel has repeatedly stated that it does all it can to avoid civilian casualties despite the death toll in Gaza having surpassed 28,000 in only four months with many thousands more lost under the rubble and believed to be dead.

United States President Joe Biden has warned Israel against carrying out military attacks at the expense of civilian lives. He met with Jordan’s King Abdullah at the White House on Monday and stated: “A major military operation in Rafah should not proceed without a credible plan for ensuring the safety and support of more than one million people sheltering there.”

Timeline of the attacks

  • December 12: Attack on two houses belonging to the Harb family in al-Zuhour district killed 25 civilians, including 10 children.
  • December 14: Attack on the house of Dr Abdallah Shehada in Brazil district killed 30 people, including 11 children.
  • December 19: Attack on the Zu’rub family home in western Rafah killed 22, including 11 children.
  • January 9: Attack on the home of the Nofa family in Tal as-Sultan district killed 18, including 10 children.

What does the Amnesty International report show? 

Its investigation into Israel’s actions in Gaza is ongoing, but Amnesty International’s latest report shows evidence of possible war crimes in Rafah.

Its senior director of research, advocacy, policy and campaigns, Erika Guevara Rosas, said: “Entire families were wiped out in Israeli attacks even after they sought refuge in areas promoted as safe.”

Photographs, video recordings and satellite imagery have been taken from all four attack sites by Amnesty to verify destruction. The organisation has also interviewed 18 people – 14 survivors and four rescuers.

This investigation found no legitimate military targets that would warrant an attack of this scale, it said.

Amnesty said it had sent questions about the attacks to the Israeli authorities on January 19 and January 30 but received no response.

Palestinians sit in the rubble of an Israeli bombardment of Rafah on February 12, 2024 [Hatem Ali/AP]

Has Israel carried out assaults on Rafah before? 

Yes. In August 2014, Israel carried out a four-day air and ground attack on the city, in which 135 civilians, including 75 children, were killed. Amnesty International said Israel had violated international law that time as well.

That assault was launched in response to the capture and presumed killing of an Israeli soldier, Lieutenant Hadar Goldin, who was declared dead on August 2.

In 2015, Amnesty International and the investigative journalism unit, Forensic Architecture, released a report titled Black Friday: Carnage in Rafah during 2014 Israel/Gaza conflict. Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa director, Philip Luther, stated at the time: “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.”

In its statement, Amnesty International called on the international community to support the role of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in examining allegations of war crimes “including those documented in this report”.

It added: “All states should oppose punitive measures against Palestine for joining the International Criminal Court or for submitting information on Israeli violations to the Court or taking other steps to activate international justice mechanisms.”

Is Israel trying to avoid civilian deaths as it claims? 

Despite the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on January 22 ordering Israel to comply with the 1948 Genocide Convention, the rate of civilian casualties in Gaza has not abated.

The international community continues to put pressure on Israel to limit or avoid civilian casualties. Israel’s staunchest ally, the US, has also advised caution.

Matthew Miller, spokesmen for the US Department of State, said: “We do not support any military campaign in Rafah going forward as long as they cannot properly account for the 1.1 million people, by some estimates, who are in Rafah today, some of whom have already been displaced, some of whom have been displaced multiple times.”

Egyptian officials have also made it clear that civilian casualties should be avoided at all costs.

Source: Al Jazeera