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Human Rights Watch Accuses Israel of Apparent War Crimes in Gaza Assault, Urges ICC Probe

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Human Rights Watch is calling on the International Criminal Court to open a probe into apparent Israeli war crimes committed during its recent 11-day assault on Gaza that killed 260 Palestinians, including 66 children. We discuss a major report HRW released this week that closely examines three Israeli strikes that killed 62 Palestinians civilians in May. U.S.-made weapons were used in at least two of the attacks investigated. Human Rights Watch concluded Israel had committed apparent war crimes. “You had people’s entire lives — their homes, their businesses, their wives, their children, their husbands — gone in a flash,” says Omar Shakir, Israel and Palestine director at Human Rights Watch, who helped lead the investigation. “The international community focuses on Gaza maybe when there are armed hostilities. But two months later these families continue to deal with the aftermath of the devastation wrought upon their lives.”

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Human Rights Watch is calling on the International Criminal Court to open a probe into apparent Israeli war crimes committed during its recent 11-day assault on Gaza that killed 260 Palestinians, including 66 children. Human Rights Watch concluded Israel had committed apparent war crimes, after closely examining three Israeli strikes that killed 62 Palestinian civilians in May. U.S.-made weapons were used in at least two of the attacks investigated.

Human Rights Watch released this video to accompany its new report. A warning to our audience: The video contains graphic content, including the sounds of military attacks on civilians.

NARRATOR: On May 10, 2021, 11 days of hostilities began between the Israeli military and Palestinian armed groups, including Hamas, in the Gaza Strip and Israel. The fighting took place amid escalating repression in occupied East Jerusalem and the prolonged closure of the Gaza Strip. These policies and practices reflect the Israeli government’s crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution.

Human Rights Watch conducted in-depth investigations into three Israeli strikes that killed 62 Palestinian civilians and involved serious violations of the laws of war and apparent war crimes.

ON-SCREEN TEXT: Human Rights Watch will be reporting in August 2021 on Palestinian armed group attacks that caused civilian casualties.

NARRATOR: In the northeastern corner of the Gaza Strip, outside Beit Hanoun town, shortly after 6 p.m. on May 10, a guided missile struck near four houses belonging to the extended al-Masri family. Members of the family were packing processed barley for animal feed into sacks at the time.

YOUSSEF ATALLAH AL-MASRI: [translated] My brother Ibrahim and I were around 150 to 200 meters away. When they struck our children, we were facing the events. We saw it with our own eyes when they were hit. I ran to them right away. I found our children scattered. They were scattered on the floor, ripped to pieces, blood and brain fragments.

NARRATOR: Israeli authorities have said that the attack involved a misfired Palestinian rocket coming from the west, but have produced no evidence to back up this claim. Witnesses saw a munition approaching them from the east, from Israel. Based on munition remnants found at the scene of the attack and witnesses’ descriptions, we determined that the six children and two adults were most likely killed by a type of guided missile used to attack military vehicles or personnel in the open. Six days after the attack, the Israeli authorities also included the photo of one man killed in the Beit Hanoun attack on a list of militant group activists they said had been killed in unspecified locations. Human Rights Watch’s interviews with witnesses who knew him indicate the man was a civilian. Our research uncovered no evidence of a military target at or near the site. We therefore found the attack to be unlawful.

MOHAMMAD ATTALAH AL-MASRI: [translated] It was a scene I could never expect. Everyone cries and screams every day. Do you know what my wife wants? She wants me to sell the house. She cannot accept how her children were all killed.

NARRATOR: Al-Shati refugee camp, located northwest of Gaza City, is one of the most densely populated places in the world. At about 1:40 a.m. on May 15, an Israeli airstrike destroyed a three-story building in the camp, killing two women and eight of their children.

ALAA ABU HATTAB: [translated] I lived with my wife and five children in the house. Our home was filled with love, peace and happiness. We had been living here for 30 years. There was no prior notice, no phone call, no order to vacate. That night I went to buy bread for dinner. All of a sudden there were sounds of explosions in the air. I found that my own home had been struck.

NARRATOR: The Israeli military said it struck the building because senior Hamas officials were there. It also separately said that they had targeted a bunker under or near the building. None of the witnesses Human Rights Watch interviewed were aware of any militants or other military targets in or near the building. The Israeli authorities have presented no such evidence.

ALAA ABU HATTAB: [translated] I had a reality. I had a dream here. I had a family here. Now I have no family and no home. My only daughter and I are on the street. They destroyed everything in my life. They destroyed my life entirely.

NARRATOR: At about 1 a.m. on May 16, the Israeli military launched a four-minute attack in the heart of Gaza City along five streets including al-Wahda Street, causing three multistory residential buildings to collapse.

OMAR ABU EL-OUF: [translated] Me, my father and mother, and my brother and sister, we started hearing the sound of loud explosions. After the second missile landed, the house started to sway right and left as if it were about to fall down and collapse. I pulled my sister by the arm towards the hallway and held her in order to shield her. And suddenly we saw the third missile coming from the window, and the hallway’s entire wall collapsed, and the whole floor suddenly disappeared, and everything fell on us. And afterwards, the fourth missile came down on us and destroyed everything.

NARRATOR: Human Rights Watch determined that the three buildings collapsed after missiles struck the road or sidewalk next to the buildings. The Israeli military said that they targeted tunnels used by armed groups. Later they said the attack had targeted an underground command center, but without providing any details or evidence.

OMAR ABU EL-OUF: [translated] Why did they kill my family? Why did they kill my mother and father? Why did they turn me into an orphan? Who will in the end give me justice?

NARRATOR: The attacks killed 44 civilians, including 14 women, 12 men and 18 children. It also injured about 50 others. The Israeli military used powerful weapons in a heavily populated residential area, putting the lives of scores of civilians at risk. Since then they have produced no evidence of a military target in the vicinity to justify the attack. If there was a military target, they have also not shown that it was important enough to justify the risk to civilians. As a result, these attacks were unlawful.

The U.N. says that Israeli airstrikes in May killed at least 129 civilians, including 66 children. The Israeli military said that Palestinian armed groups in Gaza fired more than 4,360 rockets and mortars towards Israel between May 10 and 21, resulting in 12 civilian deaths, including two children. Several Palestinians also died in Gaza when rockets fired by armed groups fell short and landed in Gaza. Rockets that Palestinian armed groups fire at Israel are inherently indiscriminate when directed toward areas with civilians. Their use in such circumstances violates the laws of war and amounts to war crimes.

For years, Israeli and Palestinian authorities have systematically failed to credibly investigate alleged war crimes. The International Criminal Court prosecutor should investigate Israeli attacks in Gaza that evidently killed civilians unlawfully, rocket attacks by Palestinian armed groups against Israel that violate the laws of war, and other grave abuses, including the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution.

AMY GOODMAN: That new video produced by Human Rights Watch. The video was released along with a new report titled “Gaza: Apparent War Crimes During May Fighting.”

We’re joined now by Omar Shakir, Israel and Palestine director at Human Rights Watch. He’s joining us from Amman, Jordan.

What were you most shocked by in these interviews, in this investigation into what happened in Israel’s last attack on Gaza?

OMAR SHAKIR: Amy, some of the testimonies that we collected are among the most harrowing I have ever come across in my four-and-a-half years working on Israel-Palestine. You had strikes that wiped out entire families. You had cases where families were reduced from having seven, eight kids to having one surviving member of their family. You had people’s entire lives — their homes, their businesses, their wives, their children, their husbands — gone in a flash.

And those testimonies are so important for us to discuss today, because the international community focuses on Gaza maybe when there are armed hostilities, but two months later these families continue to deal with the aftermath of the devastation wrought upon their lives. And it’s critically important to them and to all victims of grave human rights abuse that there is accountability for these serious abuses and that steps are taken by the international community to prevent yet another cycle of bloodshed and repression. This wasn’t the first, and it won’t be the last, unless we take grave, definitive action.

AMY GOODMAN: What has been the response of the Israeli government to your report, Omar, to Human Rights Watch’s report?

OMAR SHAKIR: Human Rights Watch wrote to the Israeli government in June. We specified the strikes that we were looking into. We sent them a number of detailed questions. They replied to our letter saying that they were not obligated under Israeli law to answer our questions and providing a list of general assertions, stating, for example, that they took measures to minimize the impact from their strikes, that fault belongs to Hamas because, according to them, they fire from populated areas, and saying that, of course, they would investigate these strikes. But these are the same allegations, these are the same claims they trot out each time. They did so in 2008, in 2012, in 2014, in 2018, in 2019. And they’re doing so again today. The reality is that there is a whitewash mechanism within Israel that ensures that these abuses are not investigated, that impunity is the norm. And that’s why it’s so important that the International Criminal Court include these attacks, as well as their larger context, including apartheid and persecution, in the formal probe that they are currently working on.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about the change in perception in the United States about what’s happening with the Israeli government and the occupation. I remember that front-page photo display. It was Friday, May 28th. And the headline was, “They were just children.” And it shows scores of more than 65 children’s faces in Gaza who died in the attack.

OMAR SHAKIR: That sort of reporting should be the norm, Amy, and it’s unfortunate, for too many years, that has not been the case. You know, the reality here is for too often Palestinian deaths, when they’re covered — I mean, just this week, as you mentioned in the lede to the news program today, you had a 20-year-old Palestinian who was killed, killed while in a protest over the killing of a 12-year-old. And an organization, whose work is — the Defense for Children International Palestine — to document children’s deaths, had their offices raided this week by the Israeli army. You know, too often these sorts of events don’t make the international news cycle. These sorts of events highlight the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution.

There is certainly, Amy, growing awareness, I think, that apartheid and persecution are the reality for millions of Palestinians. I think we saw a shift in the latest hostilities, including members of the U.S. Congress, who didn’t just focus on the latest Palestinian rocket or Israeli airstrike, but looked at what they described as root causes of the conflict, looking at the larger context, the discriminatory treatment of Palestinians. That’s so important, because the first step to solving any problem is to diagnose it correctly. So recognition needs to happen, and then the action needs to be taken that’s commensurate with that problem, in this case ending complicity with grave crimes, as well as ensuring accountability for them.

AMY GOODMAN: You talked about the killing of the 12-year-old Palestinian boy. He was named Mohammed al-Alami, sat in the backseat of his father’s car at an Israeli checkpoint north of Hebron, the 11th Palestinian child killed by Israeli forces in the occupied West Bank this year. That’s according to Defense for Children International, which publicized Mohammed’s killing on Wednesday. Yesterday, Israeli forces raided the group’s main office, seizing files about Palestinian children in Israeli detention. Can you comment on this?

OMAR SHAKIR: Absolutely. Look, Amy, there has been a systematic assault on human rights advocacy, on the individuals and groups that are reporting, documenting, speaking out against the reality of Israeli repression. You know, for international groups, that can take the form of denials of entry or deportation. For Israeli groups, it can be smear campaigns. But Palestinian groups face it the worst. This is not the only example of the army raiding a human rights organization. It happened a couple years ago with the group Addameer. And it’s not limited to that. As we speak, there are Palestinian human rights defenders that are sitting in an Israeli prison over their activism and advocacy. There are Palestinian human rights defenders who face a travel ban, a punitive ban that seems linked to the work they do promoting awareness and calling for an end to Israeli repression.

So it’s important for the international community to speak out to defend the space for human rights advocacy and human rights groups to operate, because if the international community cannot protect the space for human rights groups to report on human rights abuse, how are they ever going to stop human rights abuse in the first place? These are not one-offs. This is part of a systematic practice, and it must end.

AMY GOODMAN: Omar Shakir is Israel and Palestine director at Human Rights Watch. We’ll link to your report, “Gaza: Apparent War Crimes During May Fighting.” And, Omar, we’re going to ask you to stay with us for our next segment as we look at the fallout from Ben & Jerry’s decision to halt ice cream sales in Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank. The Israeli government claims the move is antisemitic, but many Jewish groups, including J Street, support Ben & Jerry’s decision. Stay with us.

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