The Gaza “Cast Lead” Massacre

Gaza massacres (27 December 2008 – 18 January 2009)

More than 1,300 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip were killed during 22 days of Israeli shelling from sea, air and land. Palestinians in Gaza had nowhere to flee from Israel’s onslaught as the border has been closed for two years, with disastrous consequences for the 1.5 million in habitants of Gaza — the majority of them children and refugees.

On 27 December, Israel began its bombardment on Gaza and then on 3 January began its ground offensive.

Israel claims that it was targeting Hamas armed fighters and infrastructure, ostensibly in response to the firing of homemade rockets from Gaza into Israel. However, field investigations by the Gaza-based human rights organization Al Mezanshow that United Nations-administered schools, mosques, universities, emergency medical crews, private homes and other civilian objects have all been in Israel’s sights.

Among those killed on the first day of bombing, when more than 100 tons of bombs were dropped on the tiny coastal enclave, included police officers who were attending a graduation ceremony, school children heading home after a day of study, and other Gazans killed without warning as they were conducting their normal business.

Entire families have been wiped out during the air strikes and shelling, including that of Hamas leader Nizar Rayyan who was extrajudicially executed along with his family in their home in a Gaza refugee camp. More than 40 were killed on 6 January when Israeli forces shelled the United Nations-administered Fakhoura school in the Jabalia refugee camp, where families who had been displaced by the bombing were seeking shelter. The UN has demanded an independent investigation and its spokespersons assert that GPS coordinates of all UN locations were given to Israel to prevent such an atrocity. Israel recanted its claim that resistance fighters released fire on Israeli soldiers from the school, which has been categorically denied by UN officials.

The International Committee of the Red Cross protested Israeli forces preventing them from evacuating casualties. Some victims died because Gaza’s hospitals — already chronically short of medicines and supplies due to the Israeli siege — were unable to cope with the scale of the catastrophe. Medical workers faced grave danger as they responded to the sites of Israeli strikes; according to the World Health Organization, as of 8 January, 21 medical workers had been killed and more than 30 injured since 27 December.

The bloody operation in Gaza came after the expiration of a six-month-long ceasefire between Israel and resistance groups in Gaza, including Hamas. Israel had broken the ceasefire on 4 November, when it extrajudicially executed six Palestinians in Gaza whom it said was digging tunnels to Israel. During the five previous months of the ceasefire, Hamas had refrained from firing rockets and prevented other groups from doing so. However, Israel failed to ease the nearly two-year-long embargo on the Gaza Strip that has crippled economic life and brought the area to the brink of a humanitarian crisis — one of Israel’s obligations under the ceasefire.

Instead, in Israel, where the fate of the Gaza Strip has become part of politicking as the country geared up for an election, leaders blamed Hamas for the carnage and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert cynically appealed, “to the people of Gaza, you are not our enemy.” While the other three members of the so-called International Quartet for Middle East Peace criticized what they called Israel’s “excessive” use of force, the US refrained from doing so. White House spokesperson Gordon Johndroe stated from Texas, where President George W. Bush was presently vacationing: “Hamas’ continued rocket attacks into Israel must cease if the violence is to stop.”

The ongoing assault on Gaza is the largest Israeli military operation in the territory occupied during the 1967 War. Although Israel unilaterally withdrew its illegal settler population from the Gaza Strip in 2005, it remained the occupying power as it controlled the borders, sea and airspace, as well as the population registry, and regularly carried out sonic booms over the area, terrorizing the population. Israeli forces have also frequently carried out extrajudicial executions of Palestinian activists in Gaza, killing scores of bystanders as well.

Gaza hospitals were unable to cope with the situation as Israel’s closure of the Gaza Strip for a year and a half has prevented the importing of medical supplies and equipment. As the morgues filled to capacity, corpses lined the hallways of Gaza hospitals. Hospitals were forced to turn away many of the injured due to the lack of space and supplies.

The massive air strikes came after a food crisis broke out in Gaza, as Israel’s banning of imports into the Strip have depleted stocks of flour and cooking gas, causing some bakeries — the few still in operation — to resort to baking bread made out of animal feed. On 18 December, the United Nations agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA) was forced to stop its food aid delivery to 750,000 refugees in the Gaza Strip. Though it briefly resumed services in January 2009 after a “humanitarian corridor” was established, and a daily three-hour ceasefire was declared, the United Nations announced it was ceasing all services after Israeli forces targeted and killed a UN aid worker and wounded others on 8 January.

Israel’s measures of collective punishment on the Gaza Strip are resulting in “the breakdown of an entire society,” according to economist Sara Roy, who asks in a commentary published recently by The London Review of Books, “How can keeping food and medicine from the people of Gaza protect the people of Israel?”

The devastating attack on Gaza was described as “willful killing” by leading Palestinian human rights and civil society organizations, and therefore constitute “a war crime.” The organizations stated: “Both the time and location of these attacks also indicate a malicious intent to inflict as many casualties as possible with many of the police stations located in civilian population centers and the time of the attacks coinciding with the end of the school day resulting in the deaths of numerous children.”

The assault was met with loud calls for a boycott of Israel, including a boycott appeal from by the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions National Committee, which stated on the day of the massacres: “Israel seems intent to mark the end of its 60th year of existence the same way it has established itself — perpetrating massacres against the Palestinian people. In 1948, the majority of the indigenous Palestinian people were ethnically cleansed from their homes and land, partly through massacres like Deir Yassin; today, the Palestinians in Gaza, most of whom are refugees, do not even have the choice to seek refuge elsewhere. Incarcerated behind ghetto walls and brought to the brink of starvation by the siege, they are easy targets for Israel’s indiscriminate bombing.”

And while government leaders and US president-elect Barack Obama remained resoundingly silent over the ongoing massacres in Gaza (with the exception of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, which removed Israel’s ambassador from the country), millions of people around the world have taken to the streets to express their solidarity with Palestinians under siege. Analysts say that Arab regimes seen as being in collusion or supporting the siege and massacres, such as the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, will not be unscathed by the popular anger towards these policies.

Palestinian firemen try to extinguish a fire following an Israeli strike in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, 27 December 2008. (Hatem Omar/MaanImages)

Operation Cast Lead, 27 Dec. ’08 to 18 Jan. ’09

Between 27 December 2008 and 18 January 2009, the Israeli military carried out an attack on the Gaza Strip, which it called Operation Cast Lead. The magnitude of the harm to the local population was unprecedented: 1,390 Palestinians were killed, 759 of whom did not take part in the hostilities. Of these, 318 were minors under age 18. More than 5,300 Palestinians were wounded, 350 of them seriously. Israel also caused enormous damage to residential dwellings, industrial buildings, agriculture and infrastructure for electricity, sanitation, water, and health, which was already on the verge of collapse prior to the operation. According to UN figures, Israel destroyed more than 3,500 residential dwellings and 20,000 people were left homeless.

During the operation, Palestinians fired rockets and mortar shells at Israel, with the declared purpose of striking Israeli civilians. These attacks killed three Israeli civilians and one member of the Israeli security forces, and wounded dozens. Nine soldiers were killed within the Gaza Strip, four by friendly fire. More than 100 soldiers were wounded, one critically and 20 moderately to seriously.

As an Israeli organization, B’Tselem focuses on Israel’s acts and its responsibility for human rights violations. However, it should be noted that Hamas also committed serious violations of international humanitarian law during the operation. Hamas’s practice of operating within Palestinian civilian communities undoubtedly affects the legality of Israel’s attacks that caused civilian casualties. This, however, does not legitimize every military action during the operation, nor does it prove that Hamas bears sole responsibility for all the harm to civilians.

One and a half years after Operation Cast Lead, extensive areas in the Gaza Strip have yet to be rebuilt. In June 2010, Israel reduced somewhat the restrictions on entry of products, but construction materials are still subject to harsh restrictions and are only allowed for projects under international supervision. These restrictions prevent the rebuilding of houses that were destroyed and damaged, and more than 20,000 persons continue to live in overcrowded conditions in rented apartments, in tent camps, or with relatives. The restrictions also prevent rehabilitation of the infrastructure that was damaged: this summer, 90 percent of Gazans still suffered electricity blackouts of up to 12 hours a day. These blackouts, which result from the damage Israel caused to infrastructure when it bombed Gaza’s power station in 2006 and during Operation Cast Lead, increased substantially recently following a dispute between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority on who bears responsibility to cover the fuel costs. The transfer of half a million liters of fuel to the Gaza strip on August 25 2010 succeeded in reducing the duration of the electricity blackouts, that now last for 4-6 hours a day. The blackouts severely affect the quality of medical care provided in the Strip, due to the damage to medical devices and their limited availability. The health system is unable to function properly due to the lack of medical equipment, and seriously ill patients have difficulty receiving necessary medical treatment.  The lack of infrastructure also impairs access to water and wastewater treatment: some 3,000 Palestinians in the northern section of the Gaza Strip have no access to running water, and 80 million liters of raw and partially-treated sewage flow daily into open areas.

The extensive harm to the civilian population and the enormous damage to property do not indicate, in and of themselves, that the military breached international humanitarian law. However, investigations B’Tselem made during and after the operation, and information from many other sources, raise doubts regarding the declarations of Israeli officials that the military acted lawfully. The suspicions regarding breach of international humanitarian law relate not only to the conduct of one soldier or another, but primarily to policy. In some cases, there is a well-founded suspicion that the harm to civilians resulted from breach of the principles of distinction and proportionality, which are intended to ensure that civilians remain outside the cycle of the hostilities.

Armed Palestinian organizations breached international law by firing Qassam rockets at civilian population centers in Israel, by firing at Israel soldiers from inside residential areas, thereby endangering the lives of the residents, and by storing weapons in civilian buildings. In addition, Palestinian and international organizations documented at least 18 cases in which Hamas security forces or armed masked men apparently linked to Hamas executed without trial Palestinians suspected of collaboration with Israel. Thirteen of the persons executed were prisoners and detainees who escaped from the central prison, in Gaza City, after Israel bombed the prison during the operation.

Therefore, both sides are required to open an independent, credible investigation. Israel may not rely on internal operational debriefings or isolated investigations that focus on a limited number of incidents and the responsibility of relatively low-ranking commanders. Not only is an independent investigation required by law, it is necessary to meet the public’s right to know what the state did in its name in the Gaza Strip.

The Military Police investigations ignore the policy that was implemented during the operation and the responsibility of the decision-makers in the political echelon. Even should indictments be filed as a result of these investigations, they will be against low-ranking soldiers or against officers involved in the actions on the ground. The persons who drew up the policy will not be held accountable for their acts.

When the operation ended, human rights organizations, among them B’Tselem, wrote to the attorney general, demanding that he institute an independent investigation to examine the military’s conduct during the operation. The demand was rejected. In March 2009, the organizations repeated their request, but were again rejected. Following the publication of the Goldstone report, in September 2009, they made a joint call for Israel to conduct an independent and effective investigation.

To date, no independent investigation apparatus, empowered also to investigate the responsibility of the political and military decision-makers, has been established. As far as B’Tselem knows, 20 Military Police investigations have been opened into cases in which a suspicion arose that soldiers in the field violated army regulations. Four soldiers have been prosecuted for three incidents that occurred during the operation. In the first case, a soldier was convicted of stealing a credit card and sentenced to seven and a half months’ imprisonment, a conditional sentence of seven and a half months, and demotion from sergeant to private. In the second case, an indictment was filed against two soldiers alleging they used a nine-year-old child as a human shield, ordering him to open suspected booby-trapped bags. In the third case, an indictment was filed against a soldier for killing an anonymous person and conduct unbecoming a soldier. In three other cases, disciplinary proceedings were instituted against four officers. B’Tselem is aware of at least six cases in which the Attorney General decided not to indict the soldiers.

The UN Human Rights Council appointed Judge Richard Goldstone to head a fact-finding mission regarding the hostilities in Gaza. The mission demanded that the sides investigate suspicions of war crimes committed during the operation and prosecute the perpetrators to the full extent of the law. Israel condemned the Goldstone commission’s report, claiming it was misleading, tendentious, and biased. B’Tselem rejected these claims, though it criticized some of the report’s statements and conclusions. Among other things, B’Tselem thought that the report’s criticism did not reflect the severity of the breaches committed by Hamas combatants and that the claim as to Israel’s primary goal in conducting the operation was not sufficiently investigated. However, B’Tselem accepted the main recommendation of the report: Israel, as well as Hamas, must investigate the suspicions that they acted in contravention of the law.

B’Tselem again demands that Israel carry out an independent and effective investigation of the army’s conduct during Operation Cast Lead, and that the investigation be carried out by persons who were not involved in any way with the operation.