GAZA — Palestinian human rights organizations have used the truce in Gaza to begin their difficult investigation work on a war that has already killed more than 2,000 people. They are among the few NGOs on the ground while global organizations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, await permission to enter the enclave, which they have been asking of Israel since July 8.
It will take months to substantiate allegations from both sides of international humanitarian law violations. Hundreds of stories, that sometimes mix experienced horrors with overheard rumors, need to be confirmed, and some jealously guarded secrets must be unveiled. On July 23, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said that "war crimes" may have been committed by both Israel and Hamas. Legal responsibility will be judged by the principles of the Geneva conventions.
International humanitarian law requires that warring parties distinguish between combatants and civilians and between civil and military targets, and that they take all necessary precautions to avoid civilian casualties and that they respect the principle of proportionality. Attacking a military target is illegal if it risks hitting civilians, unless civilian casualties are considered proportional to the direct and concrete military advantage expected from the attack.
"International humanitarian law applies to parties regardless of whether the other party abides by it," notes Haggai Elad, executive director of Israeli NGO B'Tselem. Le Monde carried out its own initial investigation, with a preliminary list of the allegations.
Civilian homes turned into military targets. On the evening of July 12, in the Shejaiya neighborhood east of Gaza City, Hamas Police Chief Tayseer Al-Batsh was targeted in front of his cousin's home. At least 18 members of his family, including four women and six children, were killed in the bombing that blew up six houses. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) attacked the homes of Hamas and Islamic Jihad members, which it defined as military targets, at the cost of many civilian lives.
Mahmoud Abu Rahma from the al-Mezan Center For Human Rights says the presence of a fighter in a home does not justify it being considered a military target. "A house can lose its civilian status if it is used to store weapons and is used as an operations center," he says. And, even in that case, "the principle of proportionality must be respected and the number of civilian victims limited."
Insufficient preventive measures. "You have five minutes to leave. Take the children." This July 8 IDF message to the al-Kaware family in Khan Younis was not enough. Eight family members were killed as the house was bombed. Human rights organizations consider these warnings to be too little too late, like the "knock on the rooftop" missile warning technique and evacuation orders for entire neighborhoods. "To be in accordance with international humanitarian law, warnings and evacuation orders must include precise indications on how and where to take shelter," the Israeli B’Tselem organization concludes.
Entire neighborhoods as military targets. "On Aug. 1, at 9:50 a.m., the Israelis started to bomb the eastern neighborhoods in Rafah with F-16 fighter jets, drones and armored vehicles," says Mohammed Abdallah, an investigator for al-Mezan. "Ambulances couldn't drive. Locals received text messages telling them not to leave their homes. The al-Najjar hospital was targeted and had to be evacuated. Almost 200 people were killed."
According to Israeli journalist Amos Harel, Rafah's bombing came after the launch of the secret Hannibal Directive to find second lieutenant Hadar Goldin, abducted that morning by Palestinian fighters. In three hours, the town was hit by 1,000 artillery shells and 40 airstrikes, without any evacuation order.
Humanitarian and health workers targeted. Salem, a Palestinian Red Crescent instructor in Khan Younis, recalls: "On July 25, we got a call from one of our ambulances. The Israeli soldiers had fired on the driver, Mohammed al-Abadla, in al-Qarara. Three teams dispatched there were shot at. We asked the International Red Cross to organize a coordination with the Israeli army. It took 20 minutes. He died."
Several medical teams and hospitals were targeted. The bombings also hit six UN schools. The attack of the school in Rafah, on Aug. 3, which the UN's Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) blames on Israel, killed nine refugees and one guard.
Israeli civilians deliberately targeted. More than 3,500 rockets and mortar shells were fired on Israeli territory, killing three civilians. Hamas said that "all Israelis," civilians and troops alike, were potential targets.
Gaza's population in danger. The IDF claims, providing video evidence, that at least 1,600 of the 3,500 rockets were fired from residential areas, including mosques and schools. Tunnel entries were found in civilian buildings. The UNRWA said it found rockets in two of its vacant schools. Journalists from France 24 and Indian broadcaster NDTV filmed, on Aug. 1 and 5, the setting-up of a rocket launcher by men dressed as civilians and rockets being fired near a hotel in central Gaza where international news organizations were staying.
Either out of solidarity with the resistance or by fear of retaliation, few Palestinians are willing to talk about these "war secrets." A man from Shejaiya says that a workshop adjoining his building where rockets are made was destroyed in an air raid, while explosives were later stored in his courtyard.
No proof of human shields. On July 9, a Hamas spokesman hailed a family's decision to stay on their roof to protect the buildings from an Israeli attack and called on the population to "take on this practice." Three days later, the Palestinian interior minister, who is close to Hamas, urged the population not to obey the IDF's evacuation orders for "closed military zones."
No testimony, however, has so far suggested that the population was under coercion. Thousands of people did flee combat zones. Those who stayed said they did so because they were afraid they would endanger themselves more by leaving, feared being unable to find their homes when they returned and did not feel safe anywhere, not even in UNRWA schools.
Threats and executions of suspected Israeli collaborators. On Aug. 21, after the targeted killing of three Hamas military officials in Rafah, Gaza security sources told Palestinian website al-Majd that seven people had been arrested for "helping the enemy locating targets." Eighteen suspects were executed. Also suspected of collaborating with Israel, members of Hamas rival party Fatah were placed under house arrest at the beginning of Israel's Operation Protective Edge. On July 28, militant Sami Abu Lashin was wounded in his home by gunmen for not following that order.