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Field Report: Israel’s Attacks on Civilians and Civilian Objects in the Gaza Strip (12-14 November 2019)

Introduction:

Between Tuesday and Thursday, 12-14 November 2019, the Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF) carried out intensive aerial strikes and artillery shelling across the Gaza Strip. This round of escalation broke out after the assassination of Bahaa Abu al-Ata, a senior commander of Saraya al-Quds, the military wing of Islamic Jihad. He was killed by an Israeli air strike targeting his home in Shujaeyah neighborhood, which also resulted in the death of his wife and wounded two of his children.[1] In retaliation, Saraya al-Quds responded by firing rockets into Israel, which led to the escalation of the situation in the Gaza Strip for several days. This is the third major escalation that the Strip has witnessed this year. During the reporting period, according to PCHR’s documentation, 33 Palestinians were killed by Israeli strikes including 15 civilians, of which there were 8 children and 3 women, and 61 Palestinians were injured including 54 civilians. [2]

While most of the attacks concentrated on military targets related to Islamic Jihad, the IOF targeted also targeted civilian houses, a poultry farm, a carpentry, a commercial store, police boats and agricultural lands. According to PCHR’s documentation, 8 houses were completely destroyed and 37 others were partially damaged. Moreover, 4 commercial facilities have been also been targeted. The Palestinian Ministry of Public Works and Housing estimated the total losses of the recent escalation to amount to $3.1 million. [3]

In addition, Israel took several measures aimed at collectively punishing residents of the Gaza Strip in response to the rockets fired into its territory. On 12 November 2019, the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories announced the closure of the only two border crossings between Gaza and Israel, Beit Hanoun (Erez) crossing, in northern Gaza Strip, which is used for the movement of individuals belonging to specific Israeli defined categories, including medical patients, and Karm Abu Salem (Kerem Shalom) commercial crossing, in the southern Gaza Strip.[4] The Coordinator also announced the reduction of the permissible fishing zone to 6 nautical miles until further notice.

This round of escalation is considered to be the third major escalation to have occurred this year. The last round of escalation took place between 03-06 May 2019, during which thirteen Palestinian civilians were killed as a result of Israel strikes including three women and a child.[5] The first round took place between 25-26 March 2019, in which two Palestinians civilians were wounded as a result of Israeli air strikes.[6] In both escalations, IOF continued to use its policy of targeting residential buildings and residential buildings as well as civilian houses in violation of international humanitarian law.

Israeli Attacks on Civilians and Civilian Objects:

This report focuses on IOF’s targeting of civilians as well as civilian buildings and objects across the Gaza Strip between 12 November- 14 November 2019. The information provided in this report is based on investigations and field visits conducted by PCHR team.

Gaza City:

  • On Tuesday, 12 November 2019, at approximately 4:00, IOF warplane fired a drone missile at a house belonging to Bahaa Abo al-Atta, 42, a senior member of Saraya al-Quds, the armed wing of Islamic Jihad movement. Abo al-Atta and his wife, Israa Abo al-Atta, 38, were killed during the targeted airstrike on their apartment, which is located on the second floor of a residential building. Furthermore, seven others sustained shrapnel wounds in the airstrike, including four children from Abo al-Atta family. The injuries were reported to be minor and moderate.
  • On Wednesday, 13 November 2019, at approximately 9:10, IOF warplane fired two consecutive drone missile near a carpentry belonging to Ayman Abdel-Al located in the eastern part of al-Tofah neighborhood. The attack resulted in the killing of three civilians including two children who were working in the carpentry at the time of the attack as well as two Islamic Jihad militants. The victims were Ibrahim Abdelal, 17, Ismail Abdelal, 16, and Ahmed Abdelal, 23. According to PCHR’s investigations, the IOF fired the missiles few meters outside the carpentry while the militants from Islamic Jihad were passing nearby.
  • On Wednesday, 13 November 2019, at approximately 9:30, IOF warplane fired a drone missile towards a motorcycle in al-Zaytoun neighborhood. The attack resulted in the killing of three civilians including a child: Raafat Ayyad, 54, and his two sons, Amir Ayyad, 8, and Islam Ayyad, 25. According to PCHR’s investigations, Raafat and Amir were returning from their farm on a motorcycle and stopped to greet Islam in front of their house when IOF warplanes initiated the attack. The investigations revealed that there were no militants nor any military activity conducted in the surrounding area.
  • On Wednesday, 13 November 2019, at approximately 10:00, IOF warships targeted a boat belonging to the Naval Police in the Gaza Strip near al-Baydar area, south-west of Gaza City. In the same day, at approximately 18:00 pm, the IOF attacked another boat belonging to the Naval Police in the same area. According to PCHR’s documentation, both boats were completely destroyed and no casualties were reported.

Middle Area:

  • On Tuesday, 12 November 2019, at approximately 14:10, IOF fired artillery shells at a house belonging to Hani al-Musadar east of Deir al-Balah, which partially damaged the house. The attack resulted in the wounding of a woman and her two children as well as a bystander.
  • On Wednesday, 13 November 2019, at approximately 16:00, IOF war planes fired a drone missile at a four-story house belonging to Jaber Mezher located east of al-Bureij Camp. Jaber Mezher told PCHR field researcher that at approximately 15:50, he received a call from a private number. The caller identified himself as a military intelligence officer and asked him to evacuate the house as IOF were planning to conduct a strike. Jaber and his family replied that neither he nor his family will evacuate the house. At 17:00, he received a second phone call from the military intelligence officer asking him to evacuate but he refused again. The Israeli army did not strike the place.
  • On Wednesday, 13 November 2019, at approximately 19:30, IOF fired a drone missile at a house belonging to Tareq Abu Muhareb located east of Wadi al-Salqa, east of Deir al-Balah. The attack partially damaged the house and several near houses. Tareq Abu Muhareb told PCHR that the IOF targeted the house while his family were inside of it without any prior warning. There were no civilian casualties reported.
  • On Thursday, 14 November 2019, at approximately 00:25, IOF warplanes fired four consecutive F-16 missiles without pre-warning at two barrack-type houses located in an al-Berka area in Deir al-Balah belonging to Al-Sawarkah family. The attack resulted in the killing of 8 civilians including 5 children and wounding of 13 others. According to PCHR’s investigations, approximately 21 members of al-Sawarkah family were inside the building at the time of the attack. The IDF claimed that Islamic Jihad military infrastructure in the Central Gaza Strip had been hit but following the strike the IDF admitted that the target, a military commander of a rocket squadron, was not the man killed in the strike and an investigation into the incident has been opened.[7] On 22 November, Mohammed al-Sawarka, 40, died as a result of the wounds he sustained in the attack, which increased the death toll to 9 civilians.

Khan Younis:

  • On Tuesday, 12 November 2019, at approximately 12:13, IOF war planes fired three drone missiles at a 3-donum area of agricultural land in al-Manara area, southeast of Khan Younis. Around 20 minutes later, Israeli warplanes bombarded the same area with three F-16 missiles. At approximately 18:30, IOF warplanes fired four missiles at the same area which led to the destruction of an agricultural room and a poultry farm. According to PCHR’s investigations, six civilians including a woman and a child were injured and approximately 18 nearby houses were damaged due to the impact of the explosions.
  • On Tuesday, 12 November 2019, at approximately, 12:45, IOF warplanes fired two missiles at an agricultural land north-east of al Qarara, north of Khan Younis. A 12-year-old child, Kadija Abduallah, was wounded as a result of the scattering glass of one of the windows of a house next to to targeted land.
  • On Tuesday, 12 November 2019, at approximately 17:20, IOF war planes fired two F-16 missiles at an inhabited house belonging to Al-Amor Family in al-Fokhari area, east of Khan Younis, without a prior warning. The attack resulted in the complete destruction of the house but no civilian casualties were reported. The owner of the house told PCHR’s fieldworkers that the inhabitants were outside the house when the attack occurred.
  • On Tuesday, 12 November 2019, at approximately 22:10, IOF war plane fired a drone missile at a three-story house belonging to to Monir Z’roub in al-Mawasi area, south west of Khan Younis, and few minutes later the house was targeted by an F-16 missile which led to its complete destruction.  Monir told PCHR that he received a call from a person who identified himself as an Israeli intelligence officer asking him to confirm his identity and to evacuate his family from the house without taking any of its contents. The intelligence officer told Monir to stay away around 300 meters from the house and to keep the phone line open. He was informed that the house would be shelled by a drone missile followed by an F-16 missile. There were no civilian casualties were reported.
  • On Wednesday, 13 November 2019, at approximately 19:30, IOF war planes fired a drone missile targeting an agricultural room belonging to Ahmed Naser, 58, in Qideih Neighborhood in Abasan village, east of Khan Younis. The room was targeted again on Thursday, 14 November 2019, at approximately 02:22, by two missiles which led to the complete destruction of the agricultural room.
  • On Wednesday, 13 November 2019, at approximately 23:20, IOF war planes fired a drone missile followed by an F-16 missile at a house belonging to Hamouda Abo Amra in Al-Qarara area in Khan Younis, which resulted in its complete destruction. According to PCHR’s investigations, Hamouda received a phone call at approximately 23:10 from a person who identified himself as an Israeli intelligence officer asking him to confirm his identity and evacuate his family from the house without taking any of its contents. Hamouda was asked to move to al-Smeiri family house which is located 300 meters away as the IOF warplanes are preparing to to strike his house. There were no casualties reported.
  • On Wednesday, 13 November 2019, shortly before midnight, IOF war planes fired a missile that landed in the courtyard of a house belonging to Hamdan Fayad, in al-Qarara, north-east of Khan Younis which caused small damage. The owner of the house told PCHR’s fieldworker that they were forced to evacuate the house after the attack as they thought it was a warning missile. No casualties were reported. The bombing also resulted in the complete destruction of the building and caused partial damage to 17 adjacent houses, one of which was uninhabited.

Rafah:

  • On Wednesday, 13 November 2019, at approximately 07:30, IOF warplanes targeted an agricultural land with five consecutive F-16 missiles located north of Rafah which damaged two houses in the area, one belonging to Ibrahim Abo Azra and another house belonging to Fouad Ghanam. There were no casualties reported.
  • On Wednesday, 13 November 2019, at approximately 08:30, IOF warplanes fired a drone missile at a house belonging to Adam Abu Hadayed located north of Rafah. Five minutes later, IOF war planes fired an F-16 missile which led to its complete destruction and damaged nearby houses. According to PCHR’s investigations, Adam’s neighbor received a phone call from an unknown number who identified himself as a military intelligence officer and told him to inform the inhabitants to evacuate immediately before the IOF strike the house. Adam and his family member evacuated minutes before the targeting. An under construction house nearby,  belonging  to Ismail Jaber was also attacked at the same time by IOF drone missile. No civilian casualties were reported in both incidents.
  • On Wednesday, 13 November, at approximately 22:10, IOF warplanes fired a drone missile targeting Al-Jazar Electronics Store, located on the ground floor of a building belonging to Jameel Abu Zeid in Rafah. The attack wounded 8 civilians from Abu Zeid family including two children.

Legal Analysis:

Al-Sawaraka Family

Israel’s attacks on civilians and civilian objects during the reporting period is another evidence and continuation of Israel’s complete disregard for the principles of international humanitarian law more specifically the principle of distinction. The principle of distinction entails a duty to prevent erroneous targeting, and in any event to minimize the infliction of incidental death, injury and destruction in respect of persons and objects protected against direct attacks. [8]

The targeting of al-Sawaraka family, which led to the killing of 8 civilians, including 5 children, was based on outdated intelligence which classified the building as an “infrastructure target”, meaning that it was of interest a site, although not because of an individual linked to it. [9] The targeted site was a complex of shacks, a target that even if used by the Islamic Jihad, it would not have much significance or harm its capabilities. In this case, the IOF, the attacking party, must have taken all feasible precautions prior to the attack in case civilians were present in order to avoid as much incidental harm to civilians as possible. Feasible precautions are defined as “those precautions which are practicable or practically possible taking into account all circumstances ruling at the time, including humanitarian and military considerations.”[10]  Among the factors to be taken into account are the available intelligence and urgency of military action.[11] As the information that the IOF had at the time of attack was based on outdated intelligence and the target was not of military significance, the IOF must have taken feasible precautions by giving at least an effective advance warning.

In addition, according to PCHR’s investigations, al-Sawaraka family had been living in the same place since 2005 following Israel’s disengagement from the Gaza Strip. Moreover, PCHR learned that 21 members of al-Sawarka Family were present in the building at the time of the attack. In the case IOF had conducted adequate checks before the attack, it could have found that that the building was of a civilian nature. However, Israel’s negligence to update its intelligence is an evidence of Israel’s disregard for the lives of Palestinian civilians in the Gaza Strip.

The case of al-Sawarka family is not the only case in which Israeli attacks resulted in the killing of civilians where no militants were present or any military activity conducted in the area. During the reporting period, three members of Ayyad Family, one of which is a child, were also killed while they were on motorcycle. In the previous escalation in May, the IOF failed on two reported incidents to give warning to residents of two civilian buildings, Building No.12 Sheikh Zayed Towers in the Northern Governorate and Zourob 2 building in Rafah, which resulted in the killing of nine civilians in total. According to Article 51(4) of Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions, indiscriminate attacks, which include “attacks that may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, damage to civilian objects, or a combination thereof, which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated, are prohibited”. Moreover, launching indiscriminate attacks that result in death or injury to civilians may amount to a war crime in cases in which such attacks are conducted recklessly.[12]

Attacks on civilian objects

The IOF continued its policy of carrying attacks on civilian objects during this round of escalation. Unlike the previous escalation in May, in which large commercial and residential buildings were completely destroyed, the IOF concentrated its attacks on civilian houses. This report documents the direct targeting of ten civilian houses excluding the house of Bahaa Abu al-Atta. Of those, six houses were completely destroyed and four others were partially damaged after sustaining direct strikes from IOF warplanes. PCHR’s investigation found that the IOF in the majority of the incidents, with the exception of three strikes, failed to give an appropriate an appropriate warning before conducting the strikes. A party to a conflict may not damage or destroy a civilian property if the damage is excessive compared to the military advantage gained. Article 147 of the 1949 of the Fourth Geneva Convection qualifies the extensive destruction of property “not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly” as a grave breach of the Geneva Conventions and may constitute a war crime under Article 8(2)(b)(2) of the Rome Statute.

Conclusion:

The attacks on the Gaza Strip during the reporting period constitute serious violations of international humanitarian law and may amount to war crimes, and therefore come under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (ICC). Hence, the Office of the Prosecutor of the ICC should include the attacks which occurred during this round of escalation as well as past ones in her future investigation into the situation in Palestine, which has become of absolute necessity.

As mentioned above, the Israeli military announced the opening of an investigation into the strike that killed al-Sawrka family in Deir Balah. However, based on PCHR’s experience in dealing with Israeli investigations, it is highly unlikely that accountability will be achieved. Israel has systematically failed to conduct serious investigations into wide-spread violations that occurred in the context of three bloody and destructive offensives launched on the Gaza Strip in the last six years as well as investigations into the recent Great March of Return demonstrations. As in countless other instances, Israel has tried to justify the killing and wounding of civilians as well as the destruction of civilian objects by arguing that the attacks confirm to international humanitarian law. This underscores the urgent need for the ICC to move from its preliminary investigation into the situation in Palestine and open a formal investigation into violations, which may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity, committed since 13 June 2015, the date of Palestine’s acceptance of the Jurisdiction of the ICC.[13]

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[1] PCHR, “Israeli ExtraJudicial Policy Resumed: IOF Airstrike Kills Senior Leader of Islamic Jihad, and his wife, in Gaza”, 12 November 2019, available at: https://www.pchrgaza.org/en/?p=13176

[2] PCHR, “Weekly Report On Israeli Human Rights Violations in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (07– 13 November)”, 14 November 2019, available at: https://www.pchrgaza.org/en/?p=13212

[3] Ministry of Public Works and Housing, “ Naji Sarhan: The losses of the Israeli aggression on the GazaS Strip amounted to $3.1”, 18 November 2019, available at (Arabic): http://www.mpwh.ps/article/read/508?fbclid=IwAR3Ngwz2VK_9FKOYdYZJAoT2GLNxSiuFCbyrUL6pVhDJ7WhngDFngYaHgto

[4] Haaretz, “As a Day of Violence Unfolds, Gazans and Israelis Near the Strip Gird for Escalation”, 12 November 2019, available at:  https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-as-a-day-of-violence-unfolds-gazans-and-israelis-near-the-strip-gird-for-escalation-1.8121429

[5] See, PCHR, “Field Report: Israel’s Attacks on Civilians and Civilian Buildings in the Gaza Strip (Reporting Period:03-06 May 2019), March 2019, available at: https://pchrgaza.org/en/?p=12625

[6] See, PCHR, “Weekly Report on Israeli Human Rights Violations in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (21-27 March 2019), 28 March 2019, available at: https://www.pchrgaza.org/en/?p=12214

[7] Haaretz, “Israeli Army Admits to Killing Eight Gaza Family Members: We Though the House was Empty”, 15 November 2019, available at: https://www.haaretz.com/middle-east-news/palestinians/.premium-israeli-army-admits-strike-that-killed-palestinian-family-intended-for-empty-house-1.8129435

[8] International Committee of the Red Cross, “ Interpretive Guidance On The Notion of Direct Participation in Hostilities Under International Humanitarian Law,” May 2009, available at: https://www.refworld.org/pdfid/4a670dec2.pdf

[9] Haaretz, “Outdated Intelligence, Social Media Rumors: Behind Israel’s Killing of Gaza Family”, 15 November 2019, available at: https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-outdated-intelligence-social-media-rumors-behind-israel-s-killing-of-gaza-family-1.8131101

[10] Article 3(4) of Additional Protocol on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Mines, Booby-Traps and Other Devices as amended on 3 May 1996.

[11] T. Gill & D.Fleck, ‘The Handook of the International Law of Militiary Operations’ (Oxford University Press, 2015) page 321.

[12]See, e.g., International Tribunal for the Prosecution of Persons Responsible for Serious Violations of International Humanitarian Law Committed in the Territory of the Former Yugoslavia since 1991, Prosecutor v. Stanislav Galić, Case No. IT-98-29-T, judgment of 5 December 2003, para. 54.

 439.

[13] International Criminal Court, “Palestine Declares Acceptance of ICC Jurisdiction since 14 June 2014,” 5 January 2015, available at: https://www.icc-cpi.int/Pages/item.aspx?name=pr1080