Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Targeting Civilians in Gaza

- by Stephen Lendman

The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR) is an "independent legal body dedicated to the protection of human rights, the promotion of the rule of law, and the upholding of democratic principles in the Occupied Territories." It issues frequent press releases, statistics, fact sheets, documents, and reports like its October 22, 2009 English version of "Targeted Civilians: A PCHR Report on the Israeli Offensive against the Gaza Strip (27 December 2008 - 18 January 2009)."

Its 184 pages comprise a comprehensive, conclusive, and damning account of Israel's war crimes, along with numerous others, including:

-- PCHR's "Through Women's Eyes" on the war's effect on women;

-- B'Tselem's "investigation of fatalities in Operation Cast Lead;"

-- Amnesty International's "Operation 'Cast Lead': 22 days of death and destruction;"

-- several Human Rights Watch reports, including "White Flag Deaths" and Rain of Fire: Israel's Use of White Phosphorous in Gaza;"

-- former UN Special Human Rights Rapporteur for Occupied Palestine, John Dugard's "Independent Fact-Finding Committee (IFFC)....investigations of Israeli conduct during the war in Gaza;" and

-- the UN Human Rights Council (HRC)'s "Human Rights in Palestine and Other Occupied Arab Territories: Report of the United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict" - the prominent Goldstone report that has Tel Aviv and Washington officials scrambling to diffuse its extensive Israeli war crimes evidence. The report's conclusion was that:

"....the Israeli military operation was directed at the people of Gaza as a whole, in furtherance of an overall and continuing policy aimed at punishing (humiliating and terrorizing) the Gaza population, and in a deliberate policy of disproportionate force aimed at the civilian population."

In a September 17 New Times op-ed, Goldstone said "Israel willfully killed hundreds of civilians as a result of 'disproportionate attacks (and repeatedly) failed to adequately distinguish between combatants and civilians, as the laws of war strictly require....Pursuing justice in this case is essential because no state or armed group should be above the law....the perpetrators of (these) violations must be held to account."

Israel's "Dahiya Doctrine"

For over six decades, targeting civilians and inflicting collective punishment have been standard Israeli practice. But after the 2006 Lebanon war, it was named "Dahiya" after the Beirut suburb the IDF destroyed in the conflict. Later, Northern Command General Gabi Eisenkot explained:

"What happened in the Dahiya quarter of Beirut in 2006 will happen in every village from which Israel is fired on. We will apply disproportionate force at the heart of the enemy's weak spot (civilians) and cause great damage and destruction. From our standpoint, these are not civilian villages (towns or cities), they are military bases. This is not a recommendation. This is a plan. And it has been approved."

Israel's 2006 chief of staff, Dan Halutz, said Lebanon's bombing would "turn back the clock 20 years." In October 2008, Col. Gabriel Siboni added that:

The idea is to use enough "disproportionate force (to inflict) damage and met(e) out punishment to an extent that will demand long and expensive reconstruction processes....With the outbreak of hostilities, the IDF will need to act immediately, decisively, and with force that is disproptionate to the enemy's actions and threat it poses....The strike must be carried out as quickly as possible, and must prioritize damag(ing) aimed at decision makers and the power elite (and at) economic interests and the centers of civilian power."

Applied to Operation Cast Lead, General Yoav Galant called it "send(ing) Gaza decades into the past," with no regard for the safety or welfare of civilians. The Goldstone report referred to the "military doctrine that views disproportionate destruction and creating maximum disruption in the lives of many people as a legitimate means to achieve military and political goals."

It quoted retired Major General Giora Eiland's war strategy of eliminating the military threat as well as destroying "the national infrastructure and (inflicting) intense suffering among the population." It concluded from facts on the ground that this was "precisely what (Israel did, and the responsibility for these actions lies) in the first place with those who designed, planned, ordered and oversaw the operations."

Dahiya tactics were central to the overall war strategy to inflict mass civilian deaths, injuries, destruction, and human suffering on 1.5 million Gazans. PCHR's report documents what it calls "the most extensive and brutal offensive in (the) history of Israeli occupation (constituting) clear and flagrant violations of IHL (international humanitarian law)."

Background to the War

Throughout 2008, Israeli crimes escalated in what "was the bloodiest year since the beginning of the" 1967 occupation, particularly while Gaza's been under siege since mid-2007 "in violation of all relevant international human rights instruments."

Besides closure, Israel conducted willful killings, extra-judicial assassinations, targeted civilian property and vital infrastructure destruction, and deliberate razing of agricultural land. From February 28 - March 5, 2008 alone, a planned air and sea operation caused extensive property destruction and killed 110 Palestinians, including 27 children, six women, and a paramedic. During the first six months of 2008, over 440 Palestinians were killed, mostly civilians, including 65 children and six women.

On June 19, 2008, Egyptian mediators negotiated a six-month truce with the possibility of renewal. It stipulated that attacks by both sides would cease. Israel would gradually reopen crossings. Then life in Gaza would begin to be normalized.

Israel reneged despite the deteriorating humanitarian conditions, yet Hamas and other Palestinian factions committed no major violations during the first five months.

As the six month anniversary approached, repeated IDF violations interrupted the truce throughout November and December in what clearly were planned provocations to encourage a response and provide justification for an all-out attack.

On December 18 alone, Israeli warplanes bombed a Khan Yunis workshop destroying it as well heavily damaging nearby houses. For weeks, attacks escalated. Palestinians were being killed and many other wounded. Property was being destroyed. The siege remained fully in force. In desperation, Palestinian resistance factions responded in self-defense as international law allows.

Israeli officials hyped the danger to create popular outrage and enlist international community support. On December 25, prime minister Ehud Olmert demanded that rocket attacks stop, saying "otherwise, I will use power (to do) it." In Egypt, foreign minister Tzipi Livni said Israel intended to topple Hamas through a planned operation, whether or not calm returned, and deputy defense minister Matan Vilnaei told Israeli radio that "Israel is about to take a cabinet decision of waging a wide scale military campaign against the Gaza Strip." On December 27, Operation Cast Lead followed, an operation six months in the planning to reign terror on a defenseless civilian population.

For eight days, indiscriminate land, sea and air bombardment was intensive against civilian infrastructure targets, including homes, schools, mosques, hospitals, municipal buildings, UN facilities, charitable foundations, fishing boats, and civilians visible in public.

On day eight, a ground operation followed despite international appeals for a halt. Indiscriminate bombing and shelling continued. Hundreds of deaths and injuries were reported. Thousands sought shelter for their safety, but all targets were fair game making no place off-limits to attack. Human shields were used. Snipers shot civilians waving white flags in cold blood, including women and children. Entire families were killed. The Al-Samounis lost 29 members when Israeli forces shelled their house, leveled the property, and massacred them.

On January 18, when hostilities officially ended, 1,413 Palestinians were killed. An estimated 922 were unarmed civilians, including 313 children and 118 women. Another 255 were police officers, not involved in hostilities, and at least 5,300 Palestinians were wounded, many seriously enough to lose limbs, suffer brain damage, and/or experience severe psychological trauma.

Under the Hague Regulations of 1907, Fourth Geneva, Geneva's Common Article III, and various other international laws, civilians are protected persons. So is civilian property. Attacking them is prohibited. War crimes are clearly defined. The principles of distinction and proportionality apply:

-- distinction between combatants and military targets v. civilians and non-military ones; attacking latter ones are war crimes except when civilians take direct part in hostilities; and

-- proportionality prohibits disproportionate, indiscriminate force likely to cause damage to or loss of lives and objects.

In addition, precautions must be taken to avoid and minimize incidental loss of civilian lives, injuries to them, and damage to non-military sites. Under Fourth Geneva, they must be given "effective advance warning" and "neutralized zones" where they can be as protected as possible.

Fourth Geneva also prohibits collective punishment; the use of human shields; private property destruction; torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment; denying the population adequate amounts of food and medical supplies; and assuring free passage of all "consignments" intended for civilian purposes.

Under international law, Israel willfully and repeatedly committed grievous crimes of war and against humanity and must be held accountable. The Goldstone and other reports demand it.

Illegal White Phosphorous and Flechette Shells Used

Israeli forces illegally used both weapons in densely populated residential areas. Flechettes are 4cm-long metal darts used as anti-personnel weapons that can penetrate human bone and inflict horrific injuries. One artillery shell contains from 5,000 - 8,000 of them. After firing, the shell ruptures, releasing them at high speed in a funnel-shaped pattern over a range of about 300 meters.

White phosphorous is a flammable chemical used both as an incendiary weapon and a smoke screen. When exposed to air, it spontaneously ignites and keeps burning until either all of it is consumed or it's deprived of oxygen. On human flesh it causes severe second and third degree chemical burns that are extremely hard to treat as well as suffocation, convulsions, severe eye pain and inhalation complications. Head of Al-Shifa Hospital's burn unit, Dr. Nafez Abu Sha'gan, said persons were admitted with "severe burns due to which (their) muscles and body cells (were) completely destroyed." In some cases, amputations were necessary. Others sustained fractures, internal hemorrhaging, and three patients died after surgery.

Using Civilians as Human Shields, Holding Others in Their Homes as Hostages

Fourth Geneva's Article 28 and Article 8(2)(b) of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court explicitly prohibit both practices. Yet Israeli troops repeatedly forced civilians to walk in front of them as they searched houses. They also held them involuntarily during clashes with Palestinian resistance fighters. Others were subjected to various humiliations and cruel treatment in their homes.

Attacking Medical Crews and Humanitarian Relief Personnel

Dozens were killed or wounded. Many of the wounded were denied health care. As a result, dozens bled to death in close proximity to soldiers. Medical personnel, ambulances, and fire fighters were prevented from helping them. In total, two doctors, five paramedics and one driver were killed. Another 50 were wounded. Shelling destroyed or heavily damaged dozens of hospitals and medical centers.

Fourth Geneva's Articles 14 - 23 explicitly protect medical personnel and facilities. Article 20 states:

"persons regularly and solely engaged in the operation and administration of civilian hospitals, including the personnel engaged in the search for, removal and transporting of and caring for wounded and sick civilians, the infirm and maternity cases, shall be respected and protected."

Israel's non-compliance caused widespread suffering throughout Gaza, especially affecting those who lost loved ones or were denied proper treatment for their wounds. Many died as a result.

Targeting Journalists and the Mass Media

International human rights laws protect journalists as civilians and ensure their right of free expression, opinion, access to information, and freedom to report it. Nonetheless, Israeli forces fired indiscriminately at them, killed two, wounded nine more, detained others, shelled five media offices, and denied international journalists access to Gaza for a month before the war and throughout hostilities by declaring the Strip a closed military zone.

Attacking Educational Institutions

The attacks were heavy enough to bring the "entire educational a halt," depriving half a million students one month's education or more. Many of them and their teachers were also killed, many others wounded, and public, private, and UNRWA schools were either partially or entirely destroyed. Universities were also attacked with the same disturbing results.

"Israel's conduct of hostilities seriously affected the educational sector, violating Palestinian civilians' right to education, life and security. The Israeli offensive violated numerous (international laws), including the right to education" as affirmed by Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as well as Fourth Geneva.

Violations of the Right to Life

Israeli attacks killed or wounded many children and young men and women at school, including on the offensive's first day when air strikes coincided with the end of the first school day shift and beginning of the second when most students were on Gaza's streets.

HIgher educational institutions were also struck, damaged and in some cases heavily. Included were the Islamic University, al-Azhar University's Faculty of Agriculture in Beit Hanoun, the University College for Applied Sciences, al-Aqsa University, Palestine University, al-Quds Open University and the College of Science and Technology.

Attacking NGOs

The Palestine Red Crescent Society (PRCS), Union of Agriculture Relief Committees, al-Karama Society for Children of Martyrs, Union of Medical Care Committees, and other NGO and charitable groups were directly targeted and heavily damaged.

Arrests, Torture, and Other Forms of Cruel and Abusive Treatment

Israeli forces made large numbers of arbitrary arrests, transferred those seized to Israeli detention facilities, and subjected them to harsh torture and abuse that included violent beatings, exposure to severe cold, starvation, and sleep deprivation. The "majority of those (arrested) were civilians taken from houses stormed by Israeli troops," including children and the elderly, some of whom were used as human shields.

Destruction of Civilian Facilities

Ones targeted, destroyed or damaged included government buildings, homes, businesses, mosques, hospitals and medical clinics, graveyards, schools, media institutions, agricultural land, irrigation networks, fishing harbors and boats, animal and bird farms, beehives, sports clubs, and more.

The destruction of houses and residential buildings created an unprecedented state of forced migration, affecting thousands of Palestinian civilians. As many as "450,000 individuals had to leave their homes" to seek shelter. As a result, thousands of families lost everything - their homes, property, personal belongings, identity cards, passports, birth certificates, and worst of all husbands, wives, children and other extended family members.

Destruction of Government Ministries, Local Councils, and Other Facilities

Attacks targeted the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) building, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Planning, Ministry of Public Works, Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Education, police stations and compounds, municipality structures, and numerous other facilities.

Infrastructure Destruction

Infrastructure affected included main and secondary roads, water and sewage networks, power transformers, high and low pressure power networks, communication networks, and more, causing serious disruptions to vitally needed services.

Economic Infrastructure Destruction

The entire economy was severely impaired after a nearly two and a half year total import and export ban, yet air and ground attacks destroyed industrial, agricultural, commercial, tourist, service and construction facilities, including concrete and brick factories and material storage facilities. It was pre-planned, systematic, of course, illegal under international law, and it devastated the entire economy already reeling under siege.

Destruction of Cultural Property

Included were archaeological buildings, museums, historic sites, religious ones, ancient buildings, heritage centers, the Tourism and Antiquities Ministry, and more such as invaluable art works, manuscripts, books, and other objects of historic, cultural, religious or scientific value.

Aggravating an Already Severe Humanitarian Crisis

Already in dire need, the conflict caused a far greater crisis, leaving many thousands of Gazans without essentials for their health, well-being or safety. Most lack everything, including enough food, medical care, shelter, clean water, power, and virtually everything normal societies need. Rampant poverty and unemployment make it worse and deter their ability to survive under conditions that for many are impossible.

Targeting Humanitarian Organizations and Personnel

Ones struck were distributing food, medicines, fuel, blankets, and other essentials. In addition, basic services providing water, sanitation, power and much more were disrupted or destroyed.

Tightened Restrictions on Free Movement

The siege was further tightened to a degree PCHR called "unprecedented" to halt deliveries of food, medicine, fuel, and other essentials.

Final Comments

"PCHR strongly condemns all war crimes committed during" Operation Cast Lead. It "also condemns the international community's silence," including its failure to exert enough pressure to halt the fighting and hold Israel accountable. PCHR and others demand more, including:

-- ending the Gaza siege;

-- holding Israel responsible for rebuilding Gaza and making proper redress to the victims;

-- effectively investigating its crimes of war and against humanity; disseminating the findings widely, and holding those responsible to the highest levels accountable;

-- assuring non-compliance with international laws no longer will be tolerated;

-- denying Israel weapons and munitions; halting all financial aid; cutting diplomatic ties; and supporting and strengthening the global BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement; and

-- exerting pressure to insure all the above measures are implemented and enforced, with enough teeth to compel Israel to obey the law and face punishment for its crimes against Gazans.

The time for accountability is now.

Stephen Lendman is a Research Associate for the Centre for Research on Globalization. He lives in Chicago and can be reached at

Also visit his blog site at and listen to The Lendman News Hour on Monday - Friday at 10AM US Central time for cutting-edge discussions with distinguished guests on world and national issues. All programs are archived for easy listening.