Human Rights Watch (HRW) said today that it investigated three Israeli strikes during its war on Gaza in May that killed 62 Palestinian civilians where there were no evident military targets in the vicinity, which amount to war crimes.
It said Israeli forces and Palestinian armed groups carried out attacks during the May 2021 fighting in the Gaza Strip and Israel that violated the laws of war and apparently amount to war crimes, adding that the Israeli military has a long track record of failing to investigate laws of war violations in Gaza.
“Israeli forces carried out attacks in Gaza in May that devastated entire families without any apparent military target nearby,” said Gerry Simpson, associate crisis and conflict director at Human Rights Watch. “Israeli authorities’ consistent unwillingness to seriously investigate alleged war crimes, as well as Palestinian forces’ rocket attacks toward Israeli population centers, underscores the importance of the International Criminal Court’s inquiry.”
The United Nations reported that during the May fighting, attacks by the Israeli military killed 260 Palestinians, including at least 129 civilians, of whom 66 were children. The Gaza Health Ministry said Israeli forces injured 1,948 Palestinians, including 610 children. Israeli authorities said that rocket and mortar attacks by Palestinian armed groups resulted in the death of 12 civilians, including two children, one soldier, and injured “several hundred” people.
Since late May, Human Rights Watch interviewed in person 30 Palestinians who witnessed Israeli attacks, were relatives of civilians killed, or were residents of areas targeted. It focused its investigation on three Israeli attacks that resulted in high numbers of civilian casualties and where there was no evident military target. Other Israeli attacks during the conflict were also likely unlawful, it said.
On May 10 near the town of Beit Hanoun, an Israeli-guided missile struck near four houses of the al-Masri family, killing eight civilians, including six children. On May 15 a guided bomb destroyed a three-story building in al-Shati refugee camp, killing 10 civilians, two women and eight children from two related families. And on May 16 a series of Israeli airstrikes lasting four minutes struck al-Wahda Street in Gaza City, causing three multi-story buildings to collapse, killing 44 civilians. The Israeli military said it was targeting tunnels and an underground command center used by armed groups, but presented no details to support that claim.
Under international humanitarian law, or the laws of war, warring parties may target only military objectives, said HRW. They must take all feasible precautions to minimize harm to civilians, including by providing effective advance warnings of attacks. Deliberate attacks on civilians and civilian objects are prohibited. The laws of war also prohibit indiscriminate attacks, which include attacks that do not distinguish between civilians and military targets or do not target a military objective. Attacks in which the expected harm to civilians and civilian property is disproportionate to the anticipated military gain are also prohibited. Individuals who commit serious violations of the laws of war with criminal intent – that is, deliberately or recklessly– are responsible for war crimes.
On May 12, the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) indicated that it was monitoring the situation in Gaza. The prosecutor’s office should include in its Palestine investigation Israeli attacks in Gaza that resulted in apparently unlawful civilian casualties, as well as Palestinian rocket attacks that struck population centers in Israel, said HRW.
The May hostilities, like those in 2008, 2012, 2014, 2018, and 2019, among others, took place amid Israel’s sweeping closure of the Gaza Strip, which began in 2007, and discriminatory efforts to remove Palestinians from their homes in occupied East Jerusalem, policies and practices that are part of the Israeli government’s crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution, as Human Rights Watch has documented.
On May 27 the UN Human Rights Council established a Commission of Inquiry to address violations and abuses in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) and Israel, including by advancing accountability for those responsible and justice for victims. The commission should examine unlawful attacks committed by Israeli forces and Palestinian armed groups during the May fighting. It should also analyze the larger context, including the Israeli government’s discriminatory treatment of Palestinians. The commission’s findings should be shared with the ICC prosecutor and other credible judicial authorities examining the situation, Human Rights Watch said.
Judicial authorities in other countries should also investigate and prosecute under national laws those credibly implicated in serious crimes in the OPT and in Israel under the principle of universal jurisdiction. Governments should also support a strong political declaration that addresses the harm that explosive weapons cause to civilians and commits states to avoid using those with wide-area effects in populated areas.