Israeli arrogance and Gaza suffering

Urgently lift the blockade of Gaza, which constitutes a form of collective punishment that disproportionately impacts the lives of innocent civilians and children.

29 Maret 2015 20:03
Makarim Wibisono
Makarim Wibisono

the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967


As many Gazans reminded me as a United Nations Special Rapporteur, the seven-year Israeli blockade, coupled with the access restricted areas along its border often imposed with excessive use of force by the Israeli Defense Forces, has forced the Palestinian people living in Gaza to live in a perpetual humanitarian crisis. At the most basic level, this has restricted Palestinian agriculture and fishing, and all too frequently impinged upon the right to life of Palestinian farmers and fishermen.

The severe restrictions on imports and exports have also denied Palestinians in Gaza the right to meaningful economic development and have instead led Gaza backwards toward a state of de-development leaving 80 per cent of the population chronically dependent on aid. Frequent power shortages and periodic winter flooding has further exacerbated living conditions for Palestinians in Gaza.

Moreover, before the escalation of hostilities during the summer of 2014, Gazans had lived through two previous conflicts with Israel in 2008-9 and 2012, causing destruction and devastation. Israel may have withdrawn its soldiers from Gaza in the context of its unilateral disengagement in 2005, but in terms of the control over the territory it exercises, it remains the occupying power.

According to the United Nations, the latest round of violence between Israel on the one hand, and Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups on the other, from 7 July to 26 August 2014 (referred to by the Israeli Defense Forces as “Operation Protective Edge”) killed an estimated 2,256 Palestinians of whom 1,563 were civilians, including 538 children. This surpassed the combined number of casualties of the two previous conflicts in Gaza. On the Israeli side, 66 soldiers and five civilians were reportedly killed.

I am aware that thousands of indiscriminate rockets were reportedly fired by Palestinian armed groups from Gaza. However, the stark disparity in casualty figures on the two sides reflects the skewered balance of power and the disproportionate cost borne by Palestinian civilians, raising questions as to whether Israel adhered to the international law principles of distinction, proportionality and precautions.

The most striking aspect of Israel’s military operations was its apparent deliberate targeting of civilian homes and multi-storey apartment blocks that resulted in entire families buried under the rubble of their homes. In what many witnesses cited as the most egregious example of disproportionality, a multi-storey apartment block known as the “Gaza Twin Towers” was flattened to the ground towards the end of Israel’s military operations. There were also countless reports of schools, mosques, and hospitals allegedly targeted during the military operations.

Prominent human rights defenders based in Gaza observed that, “never in our lives have we seen that level of destruction”, referring to certain neighbourhoods and towns that were particularly hard hit, such as Shuja’iya, Khuza’a, and Rafah. Even experienced humanitarian workers, exposed to some of the worst conflict zones across the world, informed me that what they saw in Gaza was “shocking, by all accounts”.

Three months after the ceasefire, the impact of Israel’s strikes on Gaza’s water and sanitation facilities are still being felt, with an estimated 20 to 30 per cent of households, or 450,000 people, still unable to access municipal water due to the damages.

UNRWA schools serving as emergency shelters for internally displaced persons, and whose exact position had been notified to the Israeli Defense Forces, were allegedly targeted by shells or other munitions on at least seven separate occasions resulting in at least 42 deaths, including 11 UNRWA staff members.

I note that the Secretary-General in November 2014 established a Board of Inquiry to review and investigate a number of specific incidents in which death or injuries occurred at, and/or damage was done to United Nations premises. I am also aware that Israel has established its own Fact Finding Assessment Mechanism and has opened a number of criminal investigations into certain selected cases of alleged violations of international law. It remains to be seen if this can bring any measure of meaningful accountability to Palestinian victims in light of the criticism levelled by observers so far.

At the height of the escalation of hostilities, an estimated 500,000 people were internally displaced across Gaza, many of them forced to take shelter in UNRWA schools, government-run schools or with extended family or friends. Many of the school buildings were not designed to serve as shelters, and the sheer numbers of internally displaced persons seeking shelter reportedly resulted in severe overcrowding and put a considerable strain of sanitation facilities.

Israel reportedly gave warning prior to some airstrikes through telephone calls, text messaging and leaflet drops across the Gaza Strip, but Palestinian human rights defenders explained that in such a confined and densely populated area, for many people there was simply nowhere to run, no safe passage, and no safe haven, not even in the United Nations shelters. This was particularly the case for the most vulnerable residents: young children, the elderly, pregnant women, and the physically disabled.

According to the United Nations, an estimated 69 per cent of the Palestinians killed during the hostilities in Gaza were civilians. The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, an Israeli organization compiling its own statistics on Palestinian fatalities has so far found the Palestinian civilian to combatant casualty ratio to be somewhat lower at 48 per cent. On both counts, serious questions arise in relation to Israel’s adherence to the principles of international humanitarian law.

The most striking aspect of the latest conflict was the way in which most civilian victims were not simply bystanders on the street in the wrong place at the wrong time. As I heard time and again, the majority of victims were families killed in missile strikes on their own homes, usually at night. Palestinian human rights defenders noted that some entire extended families, including the Najar and Abu Kaware families were “simply wiped off the registries”.

Among other casualties, there was at least one or more infant or child killed in every family, as well as pregnant women and the elderly. Overall, at least 999 family members were reportedly killed inside their houses, including 329 children. A further 233 people were killed in the vicinity of their houses, in some cases while attempting to flee.

The latest round of conflict was in fact far deadlier for children than previous hostilities in 2008/9 and 2012 – ten children on average died every day during 50 days; an appalling statistic by any measure, which cannot be dismissed as collateral damage. According to UNRWA, the conflict over the summer resulted in up to 1,500 new orphans, including at least 560 UNRWA students, who were in need of sustained child protection and welfare support.

Palestinian human rights organizations have described the reported high civilian toll as “a direct consequence of Israel’s large scale, deliberate and systematic military attacks against family homes”. All the information received to date by the Special Rapporteur supports the validity of this claim.

Israel has justified its use of force against civilian infrastructure by noting that Palestinian armed groups had fired indiscriminate rockets from those facilities. However, the testimonies heard by the Special Rapporteur from human rights defenders and victims from Gaza, collaborated by the sheer scale of destruction that can be seen in satellite imagery made available by the United Nations, raises serious questions as to whether the Israeli Defense Forces adhered to principles of proportionality and discrimination.

Following my consideration of the situation in Gaza, i make the following recommendations: a) Implement in good faith the Gaza reconstruction mechanism brokered by the United Nations and allow delivery of construction materials, including cement. b) Urgently lift the blockade of Gaza, which constitutes a form of collective punishment that disproportionately impacts the lives of innocent civilians and children, in accordance with Security Council resolution 1860. c) Conduct prompt, thorough, effective, independent, impartial and transparent investigations into all alleged incidents of killing of civilians during the hostilities, and to make public the findings and any steps regarding accountability that are taken.

The opinion was sent by the writer to Albalad.co via faisalassegaf@yahoo.com

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