Israel/Gaza: Prevent further war crimes after Israeli ground assault

Israel’s ground assault on the Gaza Strip, which began on 17 July after 10 days of attacks by Israeli forces and Palestinian armed groups, accentuates the need for urgent international action to protect civilians in Gaza and Israel from further war crimes by both sides, Amnesty International said today. 

“Israel’s relentless air assault on Gaza has seen its forces flagrantly disregard civilian life and property, which must be protected under international humanitarian law,” said Philip Luther, Middle East and North Africa Programme Director at Amnesty International. 

Some 240 Palestinians had already been killed before the ground operation began, at least 171 of them civilians, including 48 children and 31 women, up to 3pm on 17 July, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. One Israeli civilian was killed by mortar fire from Gaza on 15 July. 

At least 30 more Palestinians have reportedly been killed in the Gaza Strip since the ground assault was launched. 

“Targeting civilians and direct attacks on civilian property cannot be justified. Both sides, which have repeatedly violated international law with impunity, must be held accountable, and the first step towards that is a UN-mandated international investigation,” said Philip Luther. 

More than 1,780 homes have also been completely destroyed or rendered uninhabitable by Israeli attacks, leaving at least 10,600 Gazan residents homeless. Israeli civilian property has also been damaged by indiscriminate rockets fired from Gaza. 

Eight members of one family were killed in an air strike in the early hours of 10 July on the home of Mahmoud Lutfi al-Hajj in the Gaza Strip’s Khan Younis refugee camp. More than 20 neighbours were also injured in the attack, which was not preceded by a specific warning. 

Yasser Mahmoud Lutfi al-Hajj, one of two surviving members of the family, told Amnesty International: “I saw my uncle coming out of the house with my mother’s body in his arms. He was running, I was yelling that I wanted to see my mother… then I then went to the hospital to see if anyone survived… I found out that Tareq, my brother, was still alive, but he later died. I broke down in panic and they gave me injections to calm me down.” 

“This is an extremely crowded area, the strike was not on one house but the entire community, and it was total destruction,” Mahmoud Atamneh, a neighbour, told Amnesty International. 

“Deliberately attacking a civilian home is a war crime, and the overwhelming scale of destruction of civilian homes, in some cases with entire families inside them, points to a distressing pattern of repeated violations of the laws of war,” said Philip Luther. 

The Israeli authorities have not provided information on specific cases to justify such attacks. Unless they can do so, any such attacks constitute war crimes and amount to collective punishment. 

Even if someone in the house is a member of a Palestinian armed group, a strike on a civilian home in which an entire family is present is likely to be a disproportionate attack. 

In some cases Israeli forces have launched air strikes on civilian homes without any type of warning whatsoever or not leaving residents enough time to evacuate. In other cases, civilians were struck and killed by Israeli missiles outdoors and when there had been no apparent activity by Palestinian armed groups in the area. 

Israeli air strikes and shelling have also caused devastating damage to water and sanitation infrastructure across the Gaza Strip. Three workers have been killed trying to make critical repairs and continuing hostilities have made such work too dangerous in many areas. On 16 July, the UN reported that at least half of Gaza’s population – some 900,000 people – were not receiving water. Damage to sewage and pumping facilities and the resulting potential for contamination of water supplies has created a public health emergency. 

“Gaza’s infrastructure is on the verge of collapse and the consequences of a continuing lack of clean water could be catastrophic,” said Philip Luther. 

Since the conflict began, at least 84 schools in Gaza have been damaged and at least 13 health facilities have been forced to close. When the al-Wafa rehabilitative hospital in Shuja’iyyeh came under fire for a second time on 17 July, staff were forced to evacuate all the patients, reportedly under fire, and then the hospital was destroyed. 

“Instead of targeting medical facilities in violation of international law, Israeli forces must protect medics and patients, and ensure that people wounded can safely reach medical facilities in Gaza and, when necessary, outside the Strip,” said Philip Luther. 

Israel and Egypt must both ensure that urgently needed medical and relief supplies, as well as sufficient amounts of fuel, are allowed into the Gaza Strip on a continual basis. 

Hamas and Palestinian armed groups are also disregarding international law and endangering civilians. On 16 July, UNRWA, the UN agency responsible for Palestinian refugees, discovered around 20 rockets hidden in a vacant school in the Gaza Strip. At least 22,900 civilians are displaced and many are sheltering in 24 schools run by UNRWA across Gaza. 

“Palestinian armed groups in the Gaza Strip must not store munitions in or launch attacks from residential areas,” said Philip Luther. 

“The military wing of Hamas and other armed Palestinian groups in Gaza, which have fired more than 1,500 indiscriminate rockets into Israel, must immediately stop such war crimes,” said Philip Luther. 

Amnesty International again calls on the UN to impose an arms embargo on all parties to the conflict to prevent further serious violations of international law.