Saturday, September 13, 2014
HRW: Israeli attacks on Gaza schools were war crimes
The attack on the school in Jabaliya. Palestinians are looking for body parts in a damaged classroom. (Photo AP, 30 July 2014)
Three Israeli attacks that damaged Gaza schools housing displaced people caused numerous civilian casualties in violation of the laws of war, Human Rights Watch said in a report publihe on Thursday. In the first in-depth documentation of the violations, Human Rights Watch investigated the three attacks, which occurred on July 24 and 30, and August 3, 2014, and killed 45 people, including 17 children.
“The Israeli military carried out attacks on or near three well-marked schools where it knew hundreds of people were taking shelter, killing and wounding scores of civilians,” said Fred Abrahams, special adviser at Human Rights Watch. “Israel has offered no convincing explanation for these attacks on schools where people had gone for protection and the resulting carnage.”
Two of the three attacks Human Rights Watch investigated – in Beit Hanoun and Jabalya – did not appear to target a military objective or were otherwise unlawfully indiscriminate. The third attack in Rafah was unlawfully disproportionate if not otherwise indiscriminate. Unlawful attacks carried out willfully – that is, deliberately or recklessly – are war crimes.
In a briefing to media, the Israeli military showed photographs of what it said were rockets hidden in and fired from school compounds. None of the photographs were from the three UN-run schools that Human Rights Watch investigated where many civilians died.
In the first attack, at about 3 p.m. on July 24, apparent Israeli mortar shells struck a coeducational elementary school in Beit Hanoun run by the United Nations, killing 13 people, including six children, and wounding dozens of others.
Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that days of fighting in the area had caused most of the people staying at the school to leave, but several hundred remained. Most were awaiting transport to a safer area when two munitions, probably 81mm or 120mm mortar shells, hit inside the school compound.
The Israeli military alleged that Hamas fighters had “operated adjacent to” the school. After coming under fire with anti-tank missiles, soldiers responded by “firing several mortars in their direction.” The military said a “single errant mortar” hit the school courtyard, which was “completely empty” – a claim disputed by seven witnesses who separately spoke to Human Rights Watch.
Witnesses described at least four shells striking in and around the compound within a few minutes – a precision that would be extremely unlikely for errant Palestinian munitions. And there were no reports of Israeli troops near the school that might have led the Palestinians to fire mortar rounds there.
On July 30, at least 10 Israeli munitions hit in and around the UN-run girls’ elementary school in Jabalya, then sheltering more than 3,200 people. The shelling killed 20 people, including three children. An inspection of the damage and photographs of munition remnants found at the site suggest that Israel fired 155mm artillery rounds, including smoke, illumination, and standard high explosive shells, the last of which produces extensive blast and fragmentation damage.
The Israeli military said that Palestinian fighters had fired mortars “from the vicinity” of the school, but provided no information to support that claim. In any event, the use of high-explosive, heavy-artillery shells so near a shelter filled with civilians constitutes an indiscriminate attack.
At about 10:45 a.m. on August 3, an apparent Israeli Spike guided missile hit directly outside a UN-run boys’ school in Rafah, killing 12 people, including 8 children, and wounding at least 25. About 3,000 people were taking shelter in the school at the time.
Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that many civilians, including children, were near the school’s front gate buying sweets when the missile struck directly across the street, about 10 meters away. The Israeli military said it had targeted three Islamic Jihad members on a motorcycle “near” the school, but provided no further information, including why it attacked the men in front of a school sheltering thousands of displaced people rather than before they arrived or after they drove away.
The laws of war prohibit attacks that deliberately target civilians or civilian property; that do not target a specific military objective or are otherwise indiscriminate; or that cause civilian harm disproportionate to the anticipated military gain. Schools are presumptively civilian objects that may not be attacked unless they are being used for military purposes, such as a military headquarters or to store weapons.
The Israeli military informed Human Rights Watch that it had created a Fact-Finding Assessments Committee to “examine exceptional incidents” during the seven-week conflict, headed by Maj. Gen. Noam Tibon, commander of the Israel Defense Forces North Formation, and staffed by personnel who were not in the chain of command during the fighting. The military said 44 incidents had been referred to the committee as of September 10.
The Military Advocate General’s office announced on September 10 that it had opened criminal investigations into five incidents, including a July 24 attack on an UNRWA school that killed 15 people. The military said the attack was “in the vicinity of an UNRWA school in Khan Yunis” but Israeli media reported that the incident was the Beit Hanoun school.
Previous inquiries by the Israeli military of alleged war crimes committed by its forces have not met international standards for credible, impartial and independent investigations, Human Rights Watch said.
The Commission of Inquiry recently appointed by the UN Human Rights Council should investigate the attacks striking schools that resulted in civilian deaths and make recommendations for follow-up by the Security Council.
Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas should also promptly ask the International Criminal Court to extend its jurisdiction to the West Bank and Gaza to allow prosecution of serious international crimes by both sides, Human Rights Watch said.