Report: Israel gave Gazans no way out in summer war

A report by Physicians for Human Rights-Israel said Israeli policy did not allow sufficient protection for Palestinian civilians in last summer’s Gaza war. File photo

A report by Physicians for Human Rights-Israel said Israeli policy did not allow sufficient protection for Palestinian civilians in last summer’s Gaza war.
File photo

The findings of an independent investigation into Israel’s actions during last summer’s Gaza war need to be followed up by an official Israeli commission of inquiry, a spokesman for the group that carried out the investigation said during a U.S. visit. The findings were rejected by the Israeli military.

The report by Physicians for Human Rights-Israel outlined what it said were numerous Israeli failures in protecting Gaza civilians during 50 days of intense fighting last summer. It concluded that Israel’s early warning mechanism failed, that there were no escape routes for Gaza civilians to flee Israeli attacks, and that in at least one instance Israeli soldiers used Palestinians as human shields.

“This is the testimony we collected,” said Ron Goldstein, executive director of Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, in a phone interview from New York on Feb. 20. “We’re not claiming we know the whole picture. There needs to be a commission to inquiry to establish what happened there.”

Eight international medical experts collected evidence from 68 Palestinians in Gaza who were injured during the conflict between Israel and Hamas. In the fighting, more than 2,100 Palestinians were killed, most of them said to be civilians. Sixty-seven Israeli soldiers and six civilians
were killed.

The IDF rejected the report, which was released last month, saying in a statement that it was “based on one-sided and incorrect data assumed from biased sources and portrays an incomplete and inaccurate picture.”

“The IDF, in accordance to international law, went to extensive and unprecedented lengths in order to minimize civilian collateral damage,” the IDF statement added. “The report seems to neglect the overarching context of the heavy fighting that occurred on the ground throughout the operation and the significant challenges Hamas posed to the Israel Defense Forces in light of their lack of respect to and abuse of international law.”

According to the report, Israel’s much-publicized “knock on the roof” of buildings about to be bombed and text warnings were not the lifesavers they were made out to be. The warnings were “inconsistent and unclear,” said Jennifer Leaning, a professor of health and human rights and a veteran human rights investigator, who traveled with Goldstein to Washington, D.C., and New York to discuss the report with non-governmental organizations and European diplomats.

Another reason the warnings failed was the absence of escape routes.

“If all of Gaza is being bombed, there is no escape route,” Goldstein said.

The report also documented “double tap” or consecutive strikes. These often led to casualties among medical teams that arrived at the scene of an airstrike only to be injured or killed in a subsequent strike of the same location.

In the town of Khuza, the international group of investigators were told of IDF soldiers who shot dead one resident of a home, interrogated the others, forced them to strip and ordered them to stand at the windows while the Israelis stood behind them with their rifles and fired outside.

Investigators concluded that such incidents “were based on policy decisions, not of failings of individual soldiers.” For that reason, “we shouldn’t discuss only the war, we should discuss the whole policy,” Goldstein said.

When contacted, Israel’s embassy in Washington referred WJW to the IDF statement, which said that Hamas and other groups made “cynical and criminal use of the Palestinian civilian population as a human shield against IDF operations. Among other things, the terrorist organizations deliberately placed weaponry, armed terrorists, tunnel openings, command and control centers and other military infrastructure inside civilian buildings and objects like hospitals, clinics, shelters holding civilians evacuated from their houses, and ambulances. By so doing, the terrorist organizations put the population under their direct responsibility in danger.”

Goldstein said investigators were not given access to United Nations Relief Works Agency sites in Gaza, where Israel accuses Hamas of storing weapons and launching rockets. This is another reason a national commission of inquiry is needed, he said.

The United Nations Human Rights Council is wrapping up its investigation of the Gaza war. To head off an International Criminal Court inquiry, Israel’s state comptroller ordered an investigation of decisions Israel’s leaders made during the war. The International Criminal Court generally takes on cases where countries are unwilling or unable to conduct their own investigations, The New York Times reported.

Dan Arbell, former deputy chief of mission at the Embassy of Israel in Washington, D.C, who is now a scholar-in-residence at the Center for Israeli Studies at American University, said the jury is still out on Israel’s conduct of the Gaza war. “If there are cases that need Israel’s attention or, if need be, prosecution, Israel will do so.”

Goldstein believes his government has its priorities wrong.

“We think the situation in Gaza is something that affects people in Israel and the Palestinians – more than the threat of Iran,” he said, adding that Israelis need to be asking questions about the suffering that the war caused them.

“Three-hundred thousand people fled the south of Israel for 50 days, six were killed and more than 700 were wounded,” he said. “Israelis deserve explanations from politicians about how they’re going to prevent the next war.”

dholzel@washingtonjewishweek.com        @davidholzel

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