Israeli bombing of Gaza houses seen violating international law

In the most extensive report yet on Israel’s policy of bombing homes during last summer’s war in Gaza, the Israeli human rights group B’tselem said Wednesday that some of the attacks violated international law while others raised “grave concern” of such violations.

The study, which examined 70 incidents in which 606 Palestinians were killed, noted that despite the “foreseeable, horrifying consequences” of the bombing of homes filled with civilians, top Israeli government and military officials continued the policy for weeks.

B’tselem, the most prominent Israeli rights group documenting alleged violations by security forces in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, said it had sent the report to the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but there was no immediate public comment from the government or the military.

Responding to similar reports in the past, Israeli officials have asserted that Hamas militants in Gaza deliberately operated from civilian neighborhoods, using residents as human shields as they fired rockets at Israel.

The army has said it is reviewing dozens of cases of suspected violations by troops during the Gaza war, and that it is conducting criminal investigations into 13 incidents, including one of the deadliest house bombings mentioned in the B’tselem report.

The bombing of houses was the signature tactic of Israel’s 50-day war against Hamas in July and August, targeting what the army described as buildings used by militants to plan and direct their activities. More than a quarter of the more than 2,200 Palestinians killed in the war died in such strikes. In many cases, the strikes killed multiple members of the same family, B’tselem said.

Even after the “inevitable outcomes” of the policy became clear, with extensive loss of civilian lives, the bombing of homes “continued relentlessly until the end” of the fighting, said Hagai El-Ad, executive director of B’tselem.

“The ultimate responsibility lies with the government of Israel,” El-Ad said. “It is the government that needs to provide answers to the Israeli public.”

The B’tselem study looked into incidents in which at least three people were killed in a home targeted by the military. In the cases it investigated, B’tselem estimated that more than 70 percent of the dead were not involved in hostilities: nearly half were women, 93 were infants and children under the age of 5, and 129 were aged 5 to 14.

In most of the cases studied in the report, the military provided no explanation of why a specific building was targeted, making it difficult to determine whether it was a legitimate target, B’tselem said.

Yael Stein, the group’s research director, said that the military had made “instrumental use” of the laws of war to justify illegal attacks.

Israel expanded the definition of legitimate military targets to include the family homes of militants from Hamas and Islamic Jihad, without an explanation of how the buildings served their military activities, the report said.

“In the absence of specific information about the effective contribution a given house made to military action, and the clear advantage gained by destroying it, the fact that a Hamas or Islamic Jihad military operative lived in it is insufficient grounds to make the house a legitimate military target,” the report said.

Many cases also did not meet the standard of proportionality required by international law, which prohibits attacks in which the projected civilian casualties would be excessive in relation to the expected military advantage, B’tselem said.

In one attack documented in the report, a Hamas operative and 24 members of the extended Abu Jama family were killed when a three-story house was bombed in the village of Bani Suheila. In another strike on an office building Gaza City, 11 members of two families who’d fled fighting elsewhere were killed along with an Islamic Jihad operative.

Despite the legal requirement to give warning to civilians before an attack, some residents reported that they received no warnings before their homes were hit, others had insufficient time to evacuate, and in other cases it was unclear to residents which house was to be targeted, according to the report.

During and after the war, Netanyahu and other senior officials blamed Hamas for Palestinian deaths, accusing it of hiding behind civilians.

The B’tselem report argued that while Hamas fundamentally violated the laws of war by firing rockets at Israeli civilians from within a civilian population, its actions did not grant Israel a free hand.

“Attacking homes from the air and the ground, resulting in their collapse with residents still inside, is not a legitimate response to these challenges,” the report concluded. “Even if political and military leaders thought this policy would bring an end to attacks on Israeli communities, they should not have implemented it, both because of its foreseeable horrifying consequences, and because of the black flag of illegality flying over it.”

Greenberg is a McClatchy special correspondent.