The International Criminal Court must investigate unlawful attacks committed during Israel’s August assault on the Gaza Strip as war crimes, says Amnesty International in a major new report.
On 5 August, Israel launched what it described as a “pre-emptive” military offensive on the Gaza Strip to target Palestinian Islamic Jihad and its armed wing the Al-Quds Brigades.
Using photographs of weapons fragments, satellite imagery analysis and testimony from dozens of interviews, Amnesty’s 20-page report ‘They were just kids’: Evidence of war crimes during Israel’s August 2022 Gaza offensive has reconstructed the circumstances around three specific attacks during the offensive, two of which were carried out by Israeli forces and one likely to have been by a Palestinian armed group
According to the UN, 49 Palestinians were killed as a result of the fighting. Amnesty’s assessment is that 33 Palestinians – including 17 civilians – were killed by Israeli forces. Of the remaining 16 Palestinians killed, Amnesty concludes that 14 were civilians and has gathered sufficient evidence to assess that seven were killed by a rocket launched by Palestinian armed groups. Amnesty has been unable to conclude who was responsible for the seven remaining civilian deaths because remnants of weapons were immediately removed. This removal matches a pattern identified in past cases where Palestinian rockets have misfired.
The two Israeli attacks Amnesty examined in detail killed six Palestinian civilians. Throughout the offensive the Israeli authorities boasted about the precision of their operation, yet Amnesty found that victims of these ‘precise’ attacks included a four-year-old boy, a teenager visiting his mother’s grave, and a 22-year-old student at home with her family.
Amnesty interviewed 42 people, including survivors of the attacks, relatives of those killed or wounded, eyewitnesses and medics. Since 2012 the Israeli authorities have denied Amnesty access to the Gaza Strip, so Amnesty worked with a fieldworker who visited 17 attack sites and collected evidence such as photographs of weapons remnants. Amnesty’s weapons expert and Evidence Lab analysed this material, as well as satellite imagery and other open-source data relating to the attacks. Amnesty wrote to the Israeli authorities and to Palestinian Islamic Jihad on 30 September, providing a summary of its key findings and requesting comment. It had not received a response from either at the time of publication.
Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International’s Secretary General, said: “Israel’s latest offensive on Gaza lasted only three days, but that was ample time to unleash fresh trauma and destruction on the besieged population. The three deadly attacks we examined must be investigated as war crimes – all victims of unlawful attacks and their families deserve justice and reparations.
“The violations we documented were perpetrated in the context of Israel’s ongoing illegal blockade on Gaza, a key tool of its apartheid regime. Palestinians in Gaza are dominated, oppressed and segregated, trapped in a 15-year nightmare where recurrent unlawful attacks punctuate a worsening humanitarian crisis. As well as investigating war crimes committed in Gaza, the ICC should consider the crime against humanity of apartheid within its current investigation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.”
Killing of Duniana al-Amour
Duniana al-Amour, a 22-year-old fine arts student who lived with her family in a village near Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip, was killed in what Amnesty believes was the first Israeli attack of the weekend. At around 3.55 pm on 5 August, a projectile fired by an Israeli tank hit the al-Amour house, killing Duniana and wounding her mother, Farha, and her 25-year-old sister Areej. Duniana’s father Adnan al-Amour, who was watering olive trees in his field when he heard the strike, said his wife and children had been drinking tea inside the house at the time, as was their custom each Friday.
The al-Amour family home is located just one kilometre from Gaza’s border fence with Israel, and is also some 750 metres from a watchtower installed by the Al-Quds Brigades, and 350 metres from a watchtower belonging to the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of Hamas. Around 20 minutes after the shelling of the al-Amour house, the Al-Quds Brigades’ tower was shelled by Israeli forces.
Amnesty’s weapons expert used photographs of munitions remnants to identify the projectile that killed Duniana as a 120mm M339 tank round, manufactured by the Israeli company IMI Systems, owned by Elbit Systems. The round, which no Palestinian armed groups possess, is marketed as delivering a “high-hit probability and lethality with low collateral damage”. Photographs of the al-Amour home show the projectile punched a hole in only one wall.
An analysis of the projectile’s precision allowed Amnesty to identify its intended target. Most 120mm cannon have a circular error probability of only four metres – this means half of all rounds they fire would be expected to hit within a four-metre diameter circle if properly aimed. It is therefore unlikely that the tank was aiming at either of the watchtowers when it struck the house – it would have had to have missed by hundreds of metres. Amnesty concludes that Israeli forces appear to have deliberately targeted the al-Amour house and found no evidence that any members of the family could reasonably be believed to be involved in armed combat.
Adnan al-Amour said: “We’re on the border and [Israeli soldiers] know everything about us and know that we have nothing to do with politics, that we’re just simple farmers. Their drones monitor our every move.” The Israeli military have not commented on the shelling of the al-Amour home and have given no indication they plan to investigate the killing of Duniana al-Amour.
Attack on Al-Falluja cemetery
At around 7 pm on 7 August, a missile hit Al-Falluja cemetery in Jabalia in the northern Gaza Strip. The attack killed five children: Nadhmi Abu Karsh, aged 15, and cousins Jamil Najmiddine Nejem, four, Jamil Ihab Nejem, 14, Hamed Haidar Nejem, 16, and Muhammad Salah Nejem, 16. Amir Abu al-Mi’za, eight, was seriously injured and has shrapnel stuck near his spinal cord.
The children all lived in the severely-overcrowded Jabalia refugee camp. Haidar Nejem, Hamed’s father, said the children often played in the cemetery where there is more space. Fifteen-year-old Nadhmi Abu Karsh was visiting his mother’s grave when the attack happened. His father Fayez said: “Suddenly, we heard the sound of a missile exploding very close to us. I rushed to the cemetery like almost everyone else in the neighbourhood. People started to collect body parts, carrying shreds. Parents could not recognise the bodies of their own children. They did not know if the bits they were holding belonged to their sons.”
The Israeli military initially blamed Palestinian Islamic Jihad for the attack. But on 16 August, unnamed sources from the military told Haaretz newspaper that a preliminary investigation had found that neither Palestinian Islamic Jihad nor the Al-Quds Brigades were firing rockets at the time of the attack. Israeli forces, however, had reportedly been attacking “targets” near the area. Since publication of the article, the Israeli army has neither confirmed nor denied these reports.
Amnesty’s weapons expert determined that finely-machined metal pieces photographed by the fieldworker at the site were consistent with fragments from an Israeli guided missile. Local residents reported hearing the sound of a drone flying overhead shortly before the attack.
Amnesty was unable to find any evidence of armed groups military activity near the cemetery at the time of the attack. Satellite imagery from ten days prior showed no apparent military target in the vicinity and residents said the situation had not changed on 7 August. The absence of apparent military targets indicates the strike may have been a deliberate direct attack on civilians or civilian objects and could therefore constitute a war crime. Even if Israeli forces had been targeting Palestinian fighters or military equipment when they hit the cemetery, the horrifying outcome requires an urgent investigation into whether all feasible precautions were taken to protect civilians, said the NGO.
Attack on Jabalia refugee camp
At 9:02 pm on 6 August, a projectile struck a road in Jabalia refugee camp, killing seven Palestinian civilians: Momen al-Neirab, aged six, his brother Ahmad al-Neirab, 12, Hazem Salem, eight, Ahmad Farram, 16, Khalil Abu Hamada, 18, Muhammad Zaqqout, 19, and 50-year-old Nafeth al-Khatib.
Muhammad al-Neirab, whose children Ahmad and Momen were killed in the attack, said: “It was a hot summer evening and we had the usual power cut, so the children could not stay at home, which is very small and suffocating especially when there is no electricity […] At 9.02 pm, the street was hit. It was filled with wounded people, with blood, with shrapnel. My little son Momen died in my arms and Ahmad died just one metre away from me. We just take solace in the fact that the bodies of our children were not torn to pieces.”
Al-Neirab was one of many interviewed who referred to hardships – such as power cuts and severe lack of space – caused by Israel’s illegal blockade. The August fighting forced Gaza’s sole power station to shut down for two days, exacerbating the humanitarian crisis caused by the blockade. More than 1,700 housing units were damaged during the fighting, leading to the internal displacement of some 450 Palestinians.
Amnesty believes there is sufficient evidence to indicate the attack on Jabalia refugee camp was the result of a misfiring rocket launched by Palestinian armed groups, apparently targeted towards Israeli territory. Researchers identified several commonalities between the attack in Jabalia and previous strikes attributed to Palestinian armed groups. For example, weapons remnants had been removed – this is notable because the Palestinian authorities and armed groups in Gaza generally preserve and display remnants of Israeli weapons and munitions.
Locals interviewed by Amnesty said they had neither seen nor heard an Israeli warplane or drone before the strike. Other residents, who requested anonymity, said they believed a “local rocket” was responsible for the attack. Two minutes before the strike, the Al-Quds Brigades began sharing on social media a live video of what it described as a volley of rockets being fired towards Israel.
Like other cases in which similar Palestinian rockets allegedly caused civilian deaths and injuries, the attack on Jabalia camp should be investigated as a possible war crime, said Amnesty. Since 2008, Palestinian armed groups have fired thousands of indiscriminate rockets towards Israeli towns and cities in violation of international law, killing dozens of Israeli civilians. The unguided rockets used by Palestinian armed groups in Gaza, including the Al-Quds Brigades are inherently inaccurate. Their use in civilian areas violates international humanitarian law and may amount to a war crime.
Amnesty wrote to Gaza’s Prosecutor General raising concerns about the removal of weapons remnants from attack sites. It also requested information about any investigations into the attack on Jabalia camp and into the four attacks where it could not establish responsibility for civilian deaths. In response, the Prosecutor General said the Gaza authorities were investigating all cases of violations that occurred during the conflict, but did not mention the Jabalia attack specifically and provided no information about the investigation’s progress. To establish responsibility for the civilian deaths and injuries in the Jabalia attack, the Palestinian authorities must cooperate with independent investigators, including those from the International Criminal Court. Eyewitnesses and survivors of the attack must be allowed to speak out without fear of reprisals.
Demand for accountability
Virtually all the witnesses, survivors and victims’ relatives interviewed by Amnesty demanded accountability. As Wissam Nejem, who lost four cousins in the Israeli attack on the cemetery, put it: “Nothing can bring back our dead children, but truth and justice could at least give the families some peace.”
Amnesty has repeatedly documented unlawful killings and potential war crimes in Gaza, and Amnesty set out (in Chapter 6) of its February report, Israel’s apartheid against Palestinians: Cruel system of domination and crime against humanity, how such acts constitute the crime against humanity of apartheid.
* Read the new report, ‘They were just kids’: Evidence of war crimes during Israel’s August 2022 Gaza offensive here.
* Read the earlier report, Israel’s apartheid against Palestinians: Cruel system of domination and crime against humanity here.
Source: Amnesty International