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‘Strong evidence’ of Israeli war crimes in Gaza

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The Israeli army indiscriminately and deliberately targeted civilians during a brutal 2014 assault known as “Black Friday”, according to a new report on last summer’s Gaza war.

The joint study by Amnesty International and Forensic Architecture, released on Wednesday, cites “strong evidence” of war crimes and possible crimes against humanity on August 1, 2014, as Israeli forces bombarded residential areas in Rafah in retaliation for the capture of one of its soldiers.

“There is overwhelming evidence that Israeli forces committed disproportionate, or otherwise indiscriminate, attacks which killed scores of civilians in their homes, on the streets and in vehicles and injured many more,” notes the report.

“This includes repeatedly firing artillery and other imprecise explosive weapons in densely populated civilian areas… In some cases, there are indications that they directly fired at and killed civilians, including people fleeing.”

The report relies on hundreds of videos, photos and satellite images that were analysed and cross-referenced with eyewitness testimony.

It catalogues the events of August 1-4, 2014, when a scheduled humanitarian ceasefire was derailed after Israeli soldiers clashed with Hamas fighters in Rafah, the southernmost city in Gaza. Two Israeli soldiers and one Palestinian fighter died in the ensuing firefight, and Hamas fighters captured a third soldier, Lieutenant Hadar Goldin.

Israel responded by implementing the “Hannibal Directive”, a controversial order that allowed soldiers to respond to the capture of their comrade by “unleashing massive firepower on persons, vehicles and buildings in the vicinity of the attack, despite the risk to civilians” or to the soldier himself, the Amnesty report noted.

The directive hinged on the belief that Goldin was better off dead than in the hands of enemy fighters. More than 1,000 bombs, missiles and shells were fired in Rafah within a few hours on August 1 alone, according to an Israeli military inquiry report.

“Public statements by Israeli army commanders and soldiers after the conflict provide compelling reasons to conclude that some attacks that killed civilians and destroyed homes and property were … motivated by a desire for revenge – to teach a lesson to, or punish, the population of Rafah,” the report stated, citing evidence that the attacks “were serious violations of international humanitarian law and constituted grave breaches of the Fourth Geneva Convention or other war crimes”.

The attacks continued for days, even after the Israeli army found some of Goldin’s belongings next to a trail of blood inside a tunnel, and had him officially declared dead.

In the end, at least 135 civilians died and scores more were injured. More than 2,500 homes were completely or partially destroyed. A previous United Nations commission of inquiry found that the Israeli army did not appear to have taken precautions to verify that its targets were lawful or to minimise civilian casualties.

“Even in the context of an armed conflict that saw widespread violations of international humanitarian law by both sides, the extremely heavy casualties inflicted on Palestinian civilians by Israeli forces in their attempt to foil the capture of a single Israeli soldier on August 1 are shocking,” Deborah Hyams, an Israel-Palestine researcher with Amnesty International, told Al Jazeera.

Testimonies included in the report paint a disturbing picture of the attacks, as Gaza residents described the terror and panic of August 1. They had expected a ceasefire to begin that day, but instead, missiles rained down around them.

“I fell and was injured in my right leg. When I looked next to me I found my son. He looked up at me for seconds and died… About a moment later, the second rocket fell while I sat with my dead son, and nearby a young man in a blue shirt flew in the air when a rocket hit him,” resident Abdul Rahim Lafi said.

Medic Abdel-Munim Abdel-Al recalled the bloody aftermath of a massive strike in eastern Rafah: “We couldn’t reach [the injured] as there was so much bombing. People were imploring us… After over an hour, we got there with difficulty and found severed body parts belonging to women, children, and elderly people. We carried what we could.”

A spokesperson for the Israeli army declined to comment on the report, noting she had not yet seen it, and did not respond to follow-up questions on the broader issues surrounding Israel’s conduct in Gaza last summer. The Israeli Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories also did not respond to questions about Israel’s accountability.

Noting that Israel has failed to conduct any genuine investigation into the allegations of war crimes committed on “Black Friday”, Hyams said Amnesty was urging the country to cooperate fully with the International Criminal Court’s preliminary examination of the Gaza war, along with any future investigations or prosecutions.

“One year on, the Israeli authorities have failed to conduct credible, independent, impartial investigations into violations of international humanitarian law during the conflict, including in Rafah,” she said.

“No criminal investigation has been launched [and] no one has been held accountable.”

Issam Younis, director of the Gaza-based Al Mezan Center for Human Rights, said he was confident that Israel’s actions during the assault on Rafah last year amounted to war crimes.

“No place was at all safe in the whole of Rafah… Civilians were intentionally and directly targeted by the Israeli troops. Every single object that was moving that day in Rafah was potentially a target,” he told Al Jazeera, noting some of the Israeli fire was directed at a local hospital.

Younis expressed hope that the ICC investigation would yield results, noting Palestinians need someone to be held to account.

“The people are very much yearning for justice,” Younis said. “It’s a matter of life or death.” Al Jazeera

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