B’Tselem accuses IDF of violating laws of war in Gaza

Israeli rights group says military illegally targeted homes of Hamas leaders who hid behind civilians; NGO Monitor disputes findings

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

Palestinians walk in front of buildings destroyed by the Israeli military in the northern Gaza Strip town of Beit Lahiya, Monday, August 4, 2014. (Emad Nasser/Flash90)
Palestinians walk in front of buildings destroyed by the Israeli military in the northern Gaza Strip town of Beit Lahiya, Monday, August 4, 2014. (Emad Nasser/Flash90)

An Israeli human rights organization accused the Israeli government and the military on Wednesday of violating international humanitarian law during last summer’s war against Hamas, by allegedly adopting a deliberate policy of launching air strikes on homes and other civilian buildings in Gaza — strikes that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of civilians.

“A hallmark of the fighting in Gaza this summer was the numerous strikes on residential buildings, destroying them while their occupants were still inside,” a 49-page report by B’Tselem read.

“This aspect of the fighting was particularly appalling” and was “the result of a policy formulated by government officials and the senior military command.”

B’Tselem acknowledged that Hamas and other Palestinian terror operatives had fired at Israeli civilians from within civilian-populated areas, and frequently did their utmost to entrench themselves within the Palestinian civilian population. Yet even in such a situation, the organization argued, Israel is obliged to abide by international norms, “because violations of international humanitarian law by one party do not grant the other party permission to breach them as well.”

B’Tselem said that it had not received a response to the report from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office.

The Jerusalem-based NGO Monitor — a watchdog group that says it provides information and analysis on NGOs that claim human rights mandates, with a focus on groups that receive funding from European and other governments — claimed that B’Tselem’s report was marked by “major omissions and distortions,” while failing to “present definitive evidence that would justify the allegations.”

“Once again, and regardless of the circumstances and available evidence, B’Tselem has contorted the facts in order to pronounce Israel guilty,” said Anne Herzberg, NGO Monitor’s legal adviser, in a statement to the press. “Contrary to such claims, Hamas is morally and legally responsible for civilian deaths in Gaza: Hamas systematically conducts military operations from within civilian areas and stores its rockets in schools, mosques, and private homes.

“B’Tselem’s claims regarding international law are marked by major omissions and distortions. It notably fails to state that under the laws of war, the presence of civilians does not render military objectives immune from attack,” she said.

Israel says it launched Operation Protective Edge on July 8 to stop Hamas and other groups’ rocket fire on Israeli cities and to destroy a network of cross-border tunnels that were used to launch attacks against Israelis. The war lasted 50 days, during which Hamas and other terror organizations in Gaza fired more than 4,000 rocket and mortar shells at Israel. The army attacked 5,226 targets, including rocket launchers, command and control centers, weapons depots, operatives and commanders.

On the Israeli side, 67 soldiers and five civilians were killed; among Palestinians, 2,200 people were killed. The number of civilian dead is difficult to discern, and the process is still ongoing, but the final count is expected to hover at between two-thirds and half – a gruesome figure that is in line with the toll inflicted by the actions of other Western armies during similar asymmetric conflicts.

The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terror Information Center researched 54 percent of the names of the Palestinian dead in its last report in December and found that at least half were combatants.

The civilian dead, many hundreds of whom were children, lost their lives, B’Tselem asserted in its report, not merely because of Hamas’s flagrant disregard for its own civilians but also because Israel failed to correctly define what constitutes a military target, did not adhere to the principle of proportionality, and was negligent in its early warning system.

At the heart of the controversy is the issue of bombing civilian homes belonging to terror operatives and leaders. A military objective, according to the language of the Geneva Conventions, is a legitimate target only if it makes “an effective contribution to military action” and only if its neutralization “offers a definite military advantage” to the attacking side.

The army strayed from this practice, the report said, when announcing strikes on the homes of Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders. On the first day of the operation, the army said in a statement, according to the report, that it had struck the homes of those commanders “who are involved in terrorism and in firing and directing fire toward the territory of the State of Israel.”

Only the following day did the army state that the homes were being used as operational centers and command and control rooms.

The language was changed, B’Tselem said, in order to “obscure the fact that Israel’s security establishment considered these residential buildings to be legitimate targets solely because of the identity of their occupants.”

B’Tselem based its charge on precedent, particularly the December 27, 2008, strike that killed 42 police cadets and signaled the onset of Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s previous large-scale offensive in Gaza. Lt. Col. (res) Avital Leibovich, a chief foreign media spokesperson for the army at the time, was quoted as saying that “anything affiliated with Hamas is a legitimate target.”

The commander of the IDF MAG Corps, Maj. Gen. Dani Efroni, stated publicly after the war last summer that the homes were not targeted as a punitive measure but because they were used as “operational centers” from which intelligence was received and orders were given.

After examining 70 cases resulting in 606 deaths, in which 70 percent of the dead were either under 18, over 60, or female, B’Tselem acknowledged the “extremely challenging” predicament of trying to avoid civilian deaths while fighting an enemy that fires from within civilian centers, but said that it does not “purport to offer the Israeli government or the military any operative plans for conducting armed conflict in Gaza.”

Instead, it said that the current policy of striking homes even if there are civilians present “is not a legitimate response” and that it is one that has the “black flag of illegality flying over it.”

AFP contributed to this report.

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