Human Rights Watch accuses IDF, Palestinians of war crimes in May Gaza conflict

Israeli forces struck civilian buildings with no military targets nearby, group charges in report; will release separate report on Palestinian rocket attacks

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

In this May 19, 2021, photo, an Israeli artillery unit fires shells toward targets in Gaza. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)
In this May 19, 2021, photo, an Israeli artillery unit fires shells toward targets in Gaza. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)

Both Israeli forces and Palestinian terrorist groups committed war crimes during the May 2021 conflict between Hamas and Israel, the international group Human Rights Watch charged on Tuesday.

According to HRW, it looked into three Israeli strikes that killed 62 Palestinian civilians.

“There were no evident military targets in the vicinity,” said the report.

“Israeli forces carried out attacks in Gaza in May that devastated entire families without any apparent military target nearby,” argued Gerry Simpson, HRW’s associate crisis and conflict director. “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.”

HRW investigated a May 10 Israeli strike near Beit Hanoun, a May 15 strike on a building in the al-Shati refugee camp, and a series of May 16 strikes in Gaza City that caused three buildings to collapse.

From May 10 to 21 Hamas and other terror groups fired some 4,300 rockets at Israeli towns and cities. In response, Israel conducted heavy airstrikes against terror targets. The fighting ended with an Egypt-mediated ceasefire but not before 13 people were killed in Israel and over 240 in Gaza. The Israeli army said most of those killed in Gaza were terrorists.

An Israeli firefighter walks next to cars hit by a missile fired from Gaza Strip, in the southern Israeli town of Ashkelon, Tuesday, May 11, 2021. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

HRW’s Middle East and North Africa Division acting executive director, Eric Goldstein, wrote to Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Israel Defense Forces spokesman Ran Kochav on June 21, laying out a series of questions into eight strikes during the 11-day Operation Guardian of the Walls.

In its response on July 13, the IDF rejected the claim that it had an obligation to respond to the HRW questionnaire under the 1998 Freedom of Information Act, but did point out that “in many of the IDF strikes during Operation Guardian of the Walls, when possible, the IDF provided civilians located within military targets with prior warning so they may evacuate and has employed various measures to ensure civilians had, in fact, evacuated — all with the object of avoiding harm to uninvolved individual.”

The Israeli response also maintained that “the IDF is making inquiries and investigations into various incidents that took place during Operation Guardian of the Walls to assess whether the obligatory rules had been breached and to draw conclusions. Cases of Palestinian fatalities and other sensitive cases known from various sources (the media, complaints and reports by international organizations, social media and more) have been forwarded to General Staff Mechanism for Fact-Finding Assessments, which operates independently and professionally to best assess the facts. Inasmuch as breaches of the obligatory rules are uncovered, appropriate steps will be taken according to the relevant considerations and the circumstances of the matter.”

A Palestinian woman walks past a destroyed building in the al-Rimal commercial district in Gaza City on May 22, 2021, following a ceasefire between Israel and Palestinian terror groups. (Emmanuel Dunand/AFP)

HRW called on the US to condition its security assistance to Israel on Jerusalem taking action “to improve its compliance with the laws of war” and investigate past allegations.

It also called on the International Criminal Court to investigate Israeli strikes during the May operation.

“These investigations should also address the larger context, including the Israeli government’s crushing closure of Gaza and its crimes of apartheid and persecution against millions of Palestinians,” said Simpson.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry did not provide a response at the time of publication.

NGO Monitor, an Israeli group that investigates the activities of non-governmental organizations and foreign governments in the framework of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, blasted the HRW report.

Palestinian supporters of Hamas celebrate at the end of an 11-day conflict with Israel, in Khan Younis, in the southern Gaza Stip, on May 21, 2021. (Photo by SAID KHATIB / AFP)

“Human Rights Watch has a long history of false accusations targeting Israel, and this pseudo-report adds to the collection,” said NGO Monitor president Gerald M. Steinberg. “Following the standard pattern, the war crimes of Hamas are largely ignored; identification of Palestinian casualties as ‘civilian’ and victims of Israeli responses are unsubstantiated; ‘testimonies’ from Palestinians in Gaza cannot be verified, and references to international law are invented or distorted.”

HRW also accused Palestinian groups of violating the laws of war by launching thousands of rockets and mortars at Israeli civilians, and said it would release a separate report on Palestinian rocket attacks.

“Lacking guidance systems, the rockets are inherently indiscriminate when directed toward areas with civilians,” the report said.

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