On November 5th, 2014, Amnesty International released a controversial report that stated “Israeli forces have brazenly flouted the laws of war by carrying out a series of attacks on civilian homes, displaying callous indifference to the carnage caused.” The report, which spanned 49 pages in length, primarily consists of anecdotal evidence based on eyewitness testimonies and undisclosed “military analysts” related to eight Israeli strikes. The strikes in question killed 104 Palestinians, most of which were allegedly not affiliated with Hamas in any official capacity but may or may not have resided in the vicinity of terrorist operatives. Perhaps most tragic, was the fact that 59 of those killed in the before mentioned military operations were under the age of 18. Beyond the scope of these specific operations, it is important to note that almost 2,200 Palestinians, including 500 children, were killed during the 50-day war in Gaza.
Predictably, the report was repudiated by Israeli’s foreign ministry, who stated, “The report does not mention the word terror in relation to Hamas or other armed Palestinian groups, nor mentions tunnels built by Hamas to infiltrate Israel and perpetrate terror attacks.” The Israeli Government has a long history of controverting the claims of not only Amnesty International but also like-minded groups like Human Rights Watch and it’s own domestic organization, B’Tselem. One should note, that the Israeli Government is not alone in disputing the narratives of groups like Amnesty International. Political organizations and pundits have routinely taken the organization to task for what they perceive as an inherent bias in their reporting. Last week, noted lawyer and political commentator, Alan Dershowitz wrote an article describing his experience of being disinvited by the Columbia University chapter of Amnesty International to deliver a talk on human rights in the Middle East. He went on to state:
“Amnesty International has become an apologist for terrorism and an enemy of democracy. Its failed effort to stifle my free speech and the rights of Columbia students to listen to me is symbolic of what a once great organization has become: a cheerleader for human wrongs rather than human rights.”
Undoubtedly, both anti-Israeli activists and Israeli apologists alike will exploit the report to further their own political agendas. The statistics and graphic accounts will provide plenty of fodder for the subsequent writings of leftist scholars. Consequently, defenders of the Israeli government’s narrative will inevitably cite the reports omissions as yet another example of Amnesty’s uneven-handed approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As time goes by and the report passes through the filters of ideology, it will be harder and harder to ascertain an impassive view of what the actual report states. What follows is an attempt to present a brief summation of the most important aspects of the report in chronological order.
Introduction and Methodology
The introductory remarks of the report describe how the Israeli military targeted multi-story homes that were inhabited by families that included many women and children. In addition to the statistics I have previously outlined, the report goes on to claim that “Operation Protective Edge” led to the destruction of approximately 18,000 housing units. According to the report, this has led to the homelessness of 108,000 Gaza residents. Three sentences are dedicated to the actions of “Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups” in Gaza. While the report does pay lip service to the fact that these groups fired rockets and mortar rounds into Israel indiscriminately, it does not attempt to estimate how many such weapons were fired during the recent conflict. There also no estimated numbers presented in terms of the Israeli area’s population density.
The report goes on to state that it focuses on eight cases in which Israeli strikes resulted in the deaths of 111 people. Amnesty claims that of the 111, 104 were civilians. The cases were chosen for the following reasons: availability of eyewitness testimony, strength of evidence, and the number of civilians killed. Amnesty readily admits that they lack certainty in regards to whether or not a military target was being targeted in these strikes due to the fact that Israeli authorities have not been forthcoming with this information. Furthermore, Amnesty admitted that they were unable to send a delegation of researchers to Gaza due to the fact that Israeli and Egyptian authorities refused to grant the organization access through either the Erez or Rafah crossings. Instead, the organization depended upon the work of two Gaza-based fieldworkers who were contracted by the organization for several weeks. Amnesty’s most presumptuous statement in the opening remarks reads as follows:
“Governments who wish to hide their violations of human rights from the outside world have frequently banned Amnesty International accessing the places in which they have been committed.” (5)
Amnesty concludes its opening remarks by stating that the organization sent its findings to Israeli authorities on October, 8, 2014. Specifically, the organization sent a memorandum to Israel’s State Comptroller, the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, as well as the army’s Chief of General Staff, Prime Minister, and Minister’s of Defense Justice, and Foreign Affairs. Amnesty International had received no response from Israeli Authorities at the time the report was concluded.
Israeli Air Strikes on Inhabited Homes
The report dedicates 29 pages to eight case studies in which Israeli forces launched air strikes on inhabited homes. Amnesty asserts that in at least four of these cases, the number of civilian residents in these homes had multiplied due to the fact that many people had fled their previous residence in order to seek safety. The largest of these attacks took place on the “Al-Dali building”, which resulted in the death of 36 people. Amnesty claims that of the 36, 18 were children. The second largest attack took place on the Abu Jame family home and resulted in the deaths of 26 people. Amnesty claims that 25 of these individuals were civilians, including 19 children.
The following assertions outline the philosophical foundations of Amnesty’s thesis:
“The mass casualties and extensive destruction of civilian objects that could have been foreseen were in excess of the military advantage anticipated by these attacks.” (9)
“Civilian objects, such as family homes, must not be the objects of attack. A home only loses its protection from direct attack if it is being used to make an effective contribution to military operations and its destruction or neutralization would offer a definite military advantage.” (9)
“In all cases, the Israeli army should have made sure to regularly review and verify intelligence information obtained to ensure that the attack was conducted against a military objective. The attacking party must suspend or cancel attacks when in doubt as to whether the target is indeed a military objective or if it is likely to be disproportionate.” (9)
“In a number of the cases, it is apparent that the Israeli army could have delayed the attack or taken additional precautions by choosing weapons that were less likely to cause excessive harm to civilians and civilian property as it has done in previous attacks, including by launching surgical strikes on specific persons or apartments.” (10)
Each of the cases provided follows a similar pattern: a civilian family is at home in their residence, an air strike occurs without prior warning or expectation, and finally, the surviving members struggle to make sense of the attack and retrieve fellow residents. Many of the testimonies contain graphic descriptions of the newly deceased children. One of the victims, Khalil Abed Hassan Ammar, stated:
“All of the kids were burnt. I couldn’t tell which were mine and which were the neighbors’ – they were all in my apartment. Some of them were blown outside of the building through the windows and balconies. It was impossible to recognize them or their features. We carried whoever we were able to the ambulance. I got to the hospital and I felt that not all my kids were there and someone was missing. I only recognized Ibrahim, my eldest child, when I saw his leg and the shoes he was wearing. I had bought them for him two days before everything happened. It wasn’t the whole body; it was only pieces but I recognized his leg from his trousers.” (13)
In four of the cases presented, Amnesty identified potential military targets but argued that Israel’s use of force was disproportionate. Throughout the report, the organization continues to insist that the “onus is on Israel to provide information as to who was the intended target.” Of course, Israeli authorities do not share intelligence information with Amnesty International and are under no legal obligation to answer to the organization. Still, one wonders whether or not Amnesty’s reporting may influence Israel’s own internal investigations and to what degree?
International Humanitarian Law
As anticipated, Amnesty runs through the familiar exercise of reviewing the standards of International humanitarian law based on the Hague Regulations and the Geneva Conventions. Discussions related to International law require a nuanced understanding of legalese and the fine line proponents of a particular position walk between subjective and objective arguments. In short, Amnesty repeats it’s main assertions and renders them applicable to the previously cited protocols and treaties.
One should note that Amnesty does not discuss the application of these standards to Hamas’s conduct in regards to the conflict. Israeli apologists will surely cite the following legal defenses in response to this omission:
Israel’s right to self-defense
United Nations Charter Article 51:
“Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defense if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security. Measures taken by Members in the exercise of this right of self-defense shall be immediately reported to the Security Council and shall not in any way affect the authority and responsibility of the Security Council under the present Charter to take at any time such action as it deems necessary in order to maintain or restore international peace and security.”
Hamas’s use of civilian areas for military actions
Geneva Convention Article 51 of Protocol I:
“7. The presence or movements of the civilian population or individual civilians shall not be used to render certain points or areas immune from military operations, in particular in attempts to shield military objectives from attacks or to shield, favor or impede military operations. The Parties to the conflict shall not direct the movement of the civilian population or individual civilians in order to attempt to shield military objectives from attacks or to shield military operations.”
Geneva Convention Article 51 of Protocol I:
“In so far as objects are concerned, military objectives are limited to those objects which by their nature, location, purpose or use make an effective contribution to military action and whose total or partial destruction, capture or neutralization, in the circumstances ruling at the time, offers a definite military advantage.”
Accountability, Conclusions, and Recommendations
Amnesty’s accountability section places no demands upon Hamas or any other Palestinian terrorist group. Instead, the report outlines three internal Israeli investigations, which the organization ultimately describes as neither “independent, thorough, nor impartial.” Since the appearance of the report, this claim has gained a considerable amount of traction. Recently, B’Tselem also issued a statement which asserted that the human rights watch group would not participate with the Israeli government in any internal investigations until, “the existing whitewashing mechanism be replaced with an independent investigative body.” Finally, Israeli’s Foreign Ministry announced today that it would not cooperate with the United Nation’s Human Rights Council investigation into Gaza due to it’s own qualms regarding the body’s partisanship.
Ironically, Amnesty’s first recommendation to Israeli authorities is that they should “cooperate with the Commission of Inquiry set up by the UN Human Rights Council and offer them complete access to relevant personnel, documents and other material.” In regards to Israel, Amnesty goes on to make the following recommendations:
“They should also allow Amnesty International and other human rights organizations access to Gaza to investigate suspected violations of international law by all parties to the conflict.
They should ensure that the Israeli military revises its doctrine and tactics for fighting in densely populated areas such as Gaza so that they fully adhere to international humanitarian law, in particular the prohibition of indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks, and the requirement to take precautions in attack.
They should accede to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court and issue a declaration accepting the International Criminal Court’s jurisdiction since 1 July 2002.
They should provide full reparation to all victims of serious violations of international humanitarian law, including individuals whose homes and property were unlawfully destroyed or damaged during Operation Protective Edge.” (43)
In relation to the so-called “Palestinian authorities”, Amnesty makes a single one-sentence declaration that reads as follows:
“The Palestinian authorities should issue a declaration accepting the International Criminal Court’s jurisdiction over crimes committed since 1 July 2002 and accede to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.” (43)
Finally, the report draws to its final conclusion by recommending that all states suspend the transfer of weapons, arms, etc. to Israel until it has taken “substantive” steps to achieve accountability for “previous violations.”
*Those wishing to read the entire report can do so HERE.