Remembering the dead

January 12, 2009

In News

Demands grow for Gaza war crimes investigation

01.13.2009 | The Guardian
By Chris McGreal in Jerusalem

A freelance filmmaker in Gaza shot this material for Save the Children at a

UN-supported school for pupils displaced from their homes by the Israeli bombings

Link to this video Israel is facing growing demands from senior UN officials and

human rights groups for an international war crimes investigation in Gaza over

allegations such as the “reckless and indiscriminate” shelling of residential areas

and use of Palestinian families as human shields by soldiers.

With the death toll from the 17-day Israeli assault on Gaza climbing above 900,

pressure is increasing for an independent inquiry into specific incidents, such as

the shelling of a UN school turned refugee centre where about 40 people died, as

well as the question of whether the military tactics used by Israel systematically

breached humanitarian law.


o report

The UN’s senior human rights body approved a resolution yesterday condemning the

Israeli offensive for “massive violations of human rights”. A senior UN source said

the body’s humanitarian agencies were compiling evidence of war crimes and passing

it on to the “highest levels” to be used as seen fit.

Some human rights activists allege that the Israeli leadership gave an order to keep

military casualties low no matter what cost to civilians. That strategy has directly

contributed to one of the bloodiest Israeli assaults on the Palestinian territories,

they say.

John Ging, head of the UN Palestinian refugee agency in Gaza, said: “It’s about

accountability [over] the issue of the appropriateness of the force used, the

proportionality of the force used and the whole issue of duty of care of


“We don’t want to join any chorus of passing judgment but there should be an

investigation of any and every incident where there are concerns there might have

been violations in international law.”

The Israeli military are accused of:

  • Using powerful shells in civilian areas which the army knew would cause large

    numbers of innocent casualties;

  • Using banned weapons such as phosphorus bombs;
  • Holding Palestinian families as human shields;
  • Attacking medical facilities, including the killing of 12 ambulance men in

    marked vehicles;

  • Killing large numbers of police who had no military role.

Israeli military actions prompted an unusual public rebuke from the International

Red Cross after the army moved a Palestinian family into a building and shelled it,

killing 30. The surviving children clung to the bodies of their dead mothers for

four days while the army blocked rescuers from reaching the wounded.

Human Rights Watch has called on the UN security council to set up a commission of

inquiry into alleged war crimes.

Two leading Israeli human rights organisations have separately written to the

country’s attorney general demanding he investigate the allegations.

But critics remain sceptical that any such inquiry will take place, given that

Israel has previously blocked similar attempts with the backing of the US.

Amnesty International says hitting residential streets with shells that send blast

and shrapnel over a wide area constitutes “prima facie evidence of war crimes”.

“There has been reckless and disproportionate and in some cases indiscriminate use

of force,” said Donatella Rovera, an Amnesty investigator in Israel. “There has been

the use of weaponry that shouldn’t be used in densely populated areas because it’s

known that it will cause civilian fatalities and casualties.

“They have extremely sophisticated missiles that can be guided to a moving car and

they choose to use other weapons or decide to drop a bomb on a house knowing that

there were women and children inside. These are very, very clear breaches of

international law.”

Israel’s most prominent human rights organisation, B’Tselem, has written to the

attorney general in Jerusalem, Meni Mazuz, asking him to investigate suspected

crimes including how the military selects its targets and the killing of scores of

policemen at a passing out parade.

“Many of the targets seem not to have been legitimate military targets as specified

by international humanitarian law,” said Sarit Michaeli of B’Tselem.

Rovera has also collected evidence that the Israeli army holds Palestinian families

prisoner in their own homes as human shields. “It’s standard practice for Israeli

soldiers to go into a house, lock up the family in a room on the ground floor and

use the rest of the house as a military base, as a sniper’s position. That is the

absolute textbook case of human shields.

“It has been practised by the Israeli army for many years and they are doing it

again in Gaza now,” she said.

While there are growing calls for an international investigation, the form it would

take is less clear. The UN’s human rights council has the authority to investigate

allegations of war crimes but Israel has blocked its previous attempts to do so. The

UN security council could order an investigation, and even set up a war crimes

tribunal, but that is likely to be vetoed by the US and probably Britain.

The international criminal court has no jurisdiction because Israel is not a

signatory. The UN security council could refer the matter to the court but is

unlikely to.

Benjamin Rutland, a spokesman for the Israeli military, said an international

investigation of the army’s actions was not justified. “We have international

lawyers at every level of the command whose job it is to authorise targeting

decisions, rules of engagement … We don’t think we have breached international law

in any of these instances,” he said.