Nearly three months have passed since the latest conflict came to an end, but the piles of rubble and empty shells of family homes in Gaza serve as painful reminders of the death and destruction that resulted from Israel’s latest military operation there in July and August.
Mohammad Akram al-Hallaq’s three grandchildren were watching cartoons in the television room when three missiles struck on July 20. The walls collapsed in an avalanche of rubble, crumbling into piles of dust and rocks above and below them. None of the children survived. Eight people, all civilians, including four children from another family living in the building were also killed.
Across Gaza, similar scenes were repeated. At least 18,000 homes were destroyed or damaged beyond repair and more than 1,500 Palestinian civilians were killed during Operation Protective Edge. In Israel, at least six civilians, including one child, were killed as Palestinian armed groups fired indiscriminate rockets across the border.
In our report published on Wednesday, Amnesty International discloses the details of a series of Israeli attacks carried out in Gaza on Palestinian family homes. Many of the homes attacked were crammed full of people who had sought safety with relatives after fleeing other war-ravaged areas of Gaza.
With this evidence we can now say with certainty that Israeli forces displayed an appalling disregard for civilian life, levelling entire buildings housing dozens of residents in several grossly disproportionate attacks carried out without warning. The evidence clearly points to the fact that some of these unlawful attacks are war crimes.
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In total, at least 104 civilians, including 62 children, were killed in unjustified attacks on eight different homes. Such deaths could have and should have been prevented. Civilians were given no warning and had no chance to flee.
Under the laws of war (international humanitarian law) deliberately attacking civilians is strictly prohibited. And all feasible precautions, including warning civilians, must be taken to minimise the risk to civilians.
Attacks which are anticipated to cause large numbers of civilian casualties are likely to be disproportionate and should be cancelled. Yet in several cases these fundamental obligations were ignored.
Israeli officials have failed to answer the difficult questions raised by these attacks. In fact they have not even acknowledged that they were responsible. Israel has the technical capability to carry out precise strikes on specific targets causing far less devastation – why did its forces repeatedly choose to level entire buildings full of civilians instead? What were the intended targets? Why didn’t they issue effective warnings?
These were not isolated incidents, but part of a pattern of attacks on inhabited homes carried out throughout the operation, displaying an indifference to the suffering of Palestinian civilians and disregard to its obligations under international humanitarian law.
In this decades-old conflict, both sides have shown scant regard for civilians. Palestinian armed groups have fired indiscriminate rockets into Israel, stored weapons in schools, and launched rockets near civilian homes. So far there is no indication that violations by either side have brought their people safety or security.
This year’s war was the third major conflict in Gaza since 2008. The world has grown too accustomed to images of bodies of Gazans being pulled from beneath the rubble and of Israeli civilians running for bomb shelters.
It seems the wounds barely have time to heal before a fresh round of fighting breaks out.
But neither the Palestinian authorities nor Israel have conducted independent, impartial investigations into allegations of war crimes during past hostilities.
Cycle of impunity
To put an end to this ever worsening devastation and destruction, the cycle of impunity must be stopped. Serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law must be independently and impartially investigated and those responsible for crimes must be brought to justice.
At present, the prospects for justice look slim. Israel has announced a series of inquiries that do not meet international standards and have no prospect of ensuring justice and reparation for victims.
Israel must lift the siege of Gaza and ensure that it never again relies on tactics that violate the fundamentals of international humanitarian law. And Hamas and Palestinian armed groups for their part, must end indiscriminate and deliberate attacks on civilians.
At present, the prospects for justice look slim. Israel has announced a series of inquiries that do not meet international standards and have no prospect of ensuring justice and reparation for victims. Neither Hamas nor the Palestinian authorities are likely to do any better. Israel has pointedly refused to cooperate with the UN Commission of Inquiry to investigate alleged human rights abuses in the latest conflict and it has continued to deny access to Gaza for Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
The International Criminal Court (ICC) is crucial to bringing those responsible for crimes under international law in current and previous Israeli-Palestinian conflicts to justice. The Israeli and Palestinian authorities and the international community alike must take all measures to give the ICC prosecutor authority to do what national authorities have failed to do: independently and impartially investigate crimes by all parties.
The international community must not be allowed to fail the victims of these violations once more. Those who order or commit war crimes must be brought to justice or civilians are likely to pay an even higher price in the next round of fighting.
Salil Shetty is the secretary-general of Amnesty International. A long-term activist on poverty and justice, he leads the movement’s worldwide work to end the abuse of human rights. Prior to joining Amnesty International, he was the director of the United Nations Millennium Campaign.