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Palestinian man sits in rubble in Gaza

A Palestinian man sits on the rubble of a destroyed house in the Gaza Strip after 11 days of violence in May. (Photo: Mahmoud Issa/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Human Rights Watch Accuses Israel of 'Apparent War Crimes' During May Assault on Gaza

"Israeli forces carried out attacks in Gaza in May that devastated entire families without any apparent military target nearby."

Jessica Corbett

Human Rights Watch on Tuesday issued a damning report that accuses Israeli forces of committing "apparent war crimes" during an 11-day assault of the occupied Gaza Strip in May.

" Imagine carrying your own child and feeling his body flop because his spine was broken. There was smoke coming out of my children's mouths and from their clothes. It was horrible."
—Youssef al-Masri, Gazan

"Israeli forces carried out attacks in Gaza in May that devastated entire families without any apparent military target nearby," said Gerry Simpson, associate crisis and conflict director at Human Rights Watch (HRW).

"Israeli authorities' consistent unwillingness to seriously investigate alleged war crimes, as well as Palestinian forces' rocket attacks toward Israeli population centers, underscores the importance of the International Criminal Court's inquiry," Simpson added.

The ICC probe, which outgoing Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda confirmed in March, covers any relevant crimes committed by Israeli authorities as well as members of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), Hamas, and Palestinian armed groups since June 13, 2014.

In the midst of the recent violence on May 12, Bensouda said that "my office will continue to monitor developments on the ground and will factor any matter that falls within its jurisdiction." A few days later, Amnesty International flagged some specific attacks from Israel's devastating air and artillery bombardment of Gaza that the group urged the ICC to investigate.

"There is a horrific pattern emerging of Israel launching airstrikes in Gaza targeting residential buildings and family homes," Saleh Higazi, Amnesty's deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa, said in May. "Under international humanitarian law, all parties must distinguish between military targets and civilian objects and direct their attacks only at military objectives."

For the report released Tuesday, HRW "investigated three Israeli strikes that killed 62 Palestinian civilians where there were no evident military targets in the vicinity."

From May 10 to May 21, 260 Palestinians were killed in Gaza, according to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. While 64 were deemed members of armed groups, at least 129 were civilians, including 66 children.

HRW focused on three Israeli strikes that killed high numbers of civilians in Gaza and where there was no clear military target, but its report notes that "other Israeli attacks during the conflict were also likely unlawful."

The U.S.-based human rights group interviewed 30 Palestinians who witnessed Israeli attacks, resided in targeted areas, or had relatives killed; visited the sites of four strikes; and inspected the remnants of munitions as well as photos, videos, and satellite imagery.

Youssef al-Masri, who was with his brother about 650 feet from their homes, recalled a May 10 attack, telling HRW that "we immediately ran to our houses. I saw my two dead sons, Marwan and Ibrahim."

"Imagine seeing your child's brain on the ground," he continued. "Imagine seeing your children's eyes outside their heads. Imagine carrying your own child and feeling his body flop because his spine was broken. There was smoke coming out of my children's mouths and from their clothes. It was horrible."

Omar Abu al-Awf, who said he was trapped beneath rubble for 12 hours, lost his father—the head of internal medicine at Gaza City's al-Shifa hospital—mother, and two siblings in an attack during the early hours of May 16.

"I heard the civil defense members and ambulances. I shouted, but they didn't hear me. I felt like I was dead. They finally found me," he said. "Why did they kill my family and leave me orphaned? Until that day, we had a house. I had a family. Each family member had a dream. It all disappeared in one second."

As the report details:

On May 10 near the town of Beit Hanoun, an Israeli-guided missile struck near four houses of the al-Masri family, killing eight civilians, including six children. On May 15 a guided bomb destroyed a three-story building in al-Shati refugee camp, killing 10 civilians, two women and eight children from two related families. And on May 16 a series of Israeli airstrikes lasting four minutes struck al-Wahda Street in Gaza City, causing three multi-story buildings to collapse, killing 44 civilians. The Israeli military said it was targeting tunnels and an underground command center used by armed groups, but presented no details to support that claim.

One June 21, HRW sent a letter (pdf) to the IDF about its findings. In its response (pdf), the IDF said that it "strikes military targets exclusively, following an assessment that the potential collateral damage resulting from the attack is not excessive in relation to the expected military advantage" and "makes concerted efforts to reduce harm to uninvolved individuals."

Israel's response also said that "when possible, the IDF provided civilians located within military targets with prior warning so they may evacuate and has employed various measures to ensure civilians had, in fact, evacuated," adding that it is conducting its own investigations into various incidents in May "to assess whether the obligatory rules had been breached."

In the section on the al-Wahda Street attacks, Tuesday's report says that "none of the witnesses that Human Rights Watch interviewed said they had received or heard about any warning issued by the Israeli authorities to evacuate their buildings before the Israeli strikes."

"Israel's partners, particularly the United States... should condition future security assistance to Israel on it taking concrete and verifiable actions to improve its compliance with the laws of war and international human rights law, and to investigate past abuses."

HRW also points out that Israeli authorities rejected permits for the group's researchers to conduct further investigations in Gaza, noting that has been a trend in recent years, with one exception for a single visit in 2016.

"Israel's partners, particularly the United States, which supplies significant military assistance and whose U.S.-made weapons were used in at least two of the attacks investigated by Human Rights Watch, should condition future security assistance to Israel on it taking concrete and verifiable actions to improve its compliance with the laws of war and international human rights law, and to investigate past abuses," the report says.

In addition to noting the ICC probe, the report highlights that less than a week after the cease-fire in May, the U.N. Human Rights Council established a Commission of Inquiry to address violations and abuses in the occupied Palestinian territory and Israel.

HRW called for the commission to examine unlawful attacks; for judicial authorities in other countries to investigate and prosecute anyone credibly implicated in crimes in the region; and for governments to support a strong political declaration regarding civilians and the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.

"Israel and the Palestinian authorities have shown little or no interest in addressing abuses by their forces, so global and national judicial institutions should step up to break the vicious cycle of unlawful attacks and impunity for war crimes," said Simpson. "These investigations should also address the larger context, including the Israeli government's crushing closure of Gaza and its crimes of apartheid and persecution against millions of Palestinians."

Israel and Egypt have imposed an air, land, and sea blockade of the Gaza Strip since 2007. The violence in May drew fresh attention to the blockade and resulting humanitarian crisis, Israel's decadeslong occupation, and U.S. complicity in human rights abuses and potential war crimes.

HRW said it will release a separate report on attacks by Palestinian armed groups focused on the 11-day period in May. Though most rockets were stopped by Israel's air defense system, attacks by Palestinians killed one soldier and 12 civilians in Israel, including two children.

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