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The shocking Truth of Israel's War Crimes

This report is by Steve Kamlish QC who is just back from the FIDH

[International Federation for Human Rights] mission to Gaza

31 January 2009

I was in Gaza earlier this week as a member of a human rights mission
focussed on gathering evidence of war crimes followed by preparing
cases for court in a number of jurisdictions. This involved our
delegation visiting several sites of massacre and mass destruction in
company with a military expert and listening to the eye witness
accounts of the carnage wreaked upon the Palestinian people by the
Israeli Defence Forces.

Several of you will clearly know a good deal about what has been going
on in Gaza both recently and prior to the latest attack by Israel.
Forgive me if some of what I say seems obvious or trite but there are
certain things that merit repetition.


Firstly, the current onslaught must be understood in the context of the
wider history of the Palestinian Territory. As many of you know, over
75 % of the over 1.5 million people living in Gaza are refugees from
1948 and 1967, many of them refugees twice over. A huge number have now
been internally displaced once again. Gaza has been occupied since
1967, and has remained so despite the withdrawal of Israeli troops and
settlers in 2005. Since that withdrawal, Gaza has effectively been
blockaded to varying degrees, amounting to a strangulation of the
territory since Hamas came into power in 2007. The citizens of Gaza
have been living in a de facto prison in which they have been deprived
of basic amenities, of access to clean water, food aid, work and of any
hope. They cannot get out, and for months before their long-planned
onslaught, few were allowed in to help them.

Here are just some aspects of the way the blockade impacted on the
people of Gaza, even before the current attacks.

1. Palestinians were and remain trapped in Gaza. Scores of chronically
ill Palestinians have died, due to Israel’s refusal to allow them to
travel to Israel, the West Bank or Egypt for treatment. Students with
scholarships to study abroad have been denied exit permits. Families
were separated, those on the outside unable to get in and those in Gaza
unable to leave.

2. 90 percent of Gazan industry had collapsed as a direct result of the
blockade, from the construction industry to the fishing industry to the
export and agricultural industry. Prior to the bombing, 70 percent of
Gazans were unemployed:

• No construction materials have been allowed into Gaza for several
years. Thousands of building projects were unfinished and
uninhabitable, including the half-finished wing of a hospital in Gaza
City and many large apartment blocks intended as housing for the worst
off. The two remaining cement factories in Gaza were attacked and
destroyed 3 weeks ago.
• The blockade has devastated agriculture in the territory. The export
industry on which a significant proportion of the population was
dependent is now non-existent. Israel has also put a stop to imports of
farming tools, equipment and fertilisers etc, crippling in the process
Gaza’s ability to produce food even for its own citizens. Instead Gaza
is now forced to buy surplus (and often low grade) meat, chicken and
fruit from Israel’s own producers as a consequence of preventing people
from producing their own.
• Israel also imposes tight restrictions on fishing, illegal under
signed agreements and international law, effectively decimating the
industry and depriving 40,000 people of their livelihoods and depriving
the population of access to food not-dependent on border openings.
Even when permitted, fishing is limited to 300 meters from the coast in
waters grossly contaminated by the untreated sewage being pumped into
the sea, due to lack of electricity and Israel’s refusal to allow vital
spare parts for the sewerage system into Gaza. Fishermen are regularly
shot and wounded or killed, and their boats damaged beyond repair, even
when within the 300 meter line.
• Israel controls all the water, gas, electricity and fuel coming into
Gaza. Even prior to bombing and destroying water mains across the
strip, it had deliberately run down the infrastructure and reduced the
supply to well below the needs of the population. Damaged water mains
and insufficient electricity for the waste treatment plants mean that
the mains water is undrinkable. The sewers are breeding grounds for
death and disease.
• The Gaza economy has been further decimated by appropriation by
Israel all the customs duty on imported goods. To this day the Israelis
take for themselves the hundreds of millions of dollars of import tax
due to the Palestinian Authority.

This is the background against which rockets have been launched into
Israel from Gaza. It is important to note, however, that in the five
month ceasefire that preceded the December 27 onslaught, Hamas did not
fire a single rocket from Gaza into the West Bank, as acknowledged by
the Israeli administration. However, rather than ameliorating the
blockade during that time, as agreed under the ceasefire provisions,
the restrictions on the strip intensified.

In the context of the above, has the Israeli response to the renewed
rocket attacks that followed the killing of six Hamas members by the
Israeli Army been lawful, necessary or proportionate?

1. The Israeli Army has destroyed with mortar, artillery and tank
shelling much of what remained of Gaza’s already devastated
agricultural production and food industry. They specifically targeted
chicken, cattle and sheep farms. In one large area two of my colleagues
on the human rights mission saw hundreds of dead cows with their heads
and limbs blown off lying in fields. All the farmhouses in the
surrounding area had been bombed and then bulldozed. The families are
now forced to live in the open with the stench of death permanently in
their nostrils. Some said that relatives of theirs are still buried
beneath the rubble because there is no way currently of getting the
bodies out. I saw a chicken factory that had been razed to the ground,
leaving the buildings flattened and the dead animals in piles in their
cages or strewn on the ground. I also saw orchards of orange and lemon
trees and seas of poly-tunnels that had been shelled out of existence.
This level of destruction and the use of the untargeted weaponry that
caused it, some in built up areas, undoubtedly amounts to a war crime,
as confirmed by the military expert in our delegation.

2. The Israeli Army has systematically used inaccurate and highly
destructive weapons in Gaza City, one of the most densely populated
areas in the world. They have deliberately targeted blocks of flats and
multi-occupation houses, killing over 1,000 civilians and wounded
thousands of others. One man told us his story. He went to the mosque
for morning prayers leaving his wife and four children in bed in the
fourth floor of their apartment block. His two brothers and their
families lived on the same block. On his way back from the mosque
mortars and bombs began to fall. He ran home to find the entire block
had become a pile of rubble. Of his family only one child and one of
his brothers survived. 22 others were killed. I climbed to a high point
of the rubble and watched the man standing and staring silently into
the crater that had destroyed his entire existence.

3. Despite its denials, it is now clear that the Israeli Army has used
white phosphorous in contravention of the laws of war. The use of
phosphorus is only lawful under international rules of engagement when
used as a smokescreen cover in open areas for combatants who are caught
in the open and are under fire. However, the evidence on the ground
makes clear that the Israeli Army systematically and unlawfully fired
phosphorus shells directly over and into populated urban areas. We
visited the site of a family devastated by the illegal use of
phosphorous. The man we spoke to told us how his wife and three
children were asleep in a bedroom of their house. A phosphorous shell
came through the roof of the house exploding in the room where the
family was sleeping. On impact the mother and children were engulfed
in toxic flames smoke and fumes. They died an unimaginable death in
that room. I stood in it and saw the traces of white phosphorus on the
walls in the otherwise completely blackened room. A woman came into the
room and held up a piece of child’s clothing covered in phosphorus
burns. The man next to me then showed us a picture of the body of a
10-month old child who had been in the room during the attack. The heat
had been so intense that it had burned the baby’s legs off. The child’s
uncle just stared at the ground for a while before he went on to tell
us what happened next.
As in many sites of death and injury, the Israelis were not allowing
ambulances or doctors into the area even when there were many injured
people in need of urgent medical attention. In this case a man who had
a tractor offered to take some of the injured to hospital in his
trailer. As men, women and children were being placed on the trailer
IDF troops came up the street and first shot the tractor driver dead.
They then shot and killed two people who were tending to the wounded in
the trailer. The remaining wounded were left there to die.

4. Zaytoun. The district of Zaytoun covers a large area on the edge of
Gaza City. Yesterday the Times reported that Israeli soldiers were
being quoted as saying they had been ordered to “fire on everything
that moves” in Zaytoun. That is all too evident from the situation on
the ground. The Israeli Army clearly did indeed attempt to kill
everyone and everything in the area. There can be no other explanation
for what we all saw. From the border with Israel to the sea, not a
single house has escaped unscathed. There are flattened buildings as
far as the eye can see.
This is the story of the Al Samouni family told by several eye
witnesses. The Al Samouni family area contained about 15 houses, each
surrounded by a plot of land which was used as a smallholding for
subsistence farming chickens, goats and small industry. On 5th January
a brigade of tanks surrounded the area. A large number of soldiers
ordered people out of one house in particular, shouting at them from
outside. The woman who told us this story said that her husband had
been the first one out, and was holding their baby as he went. The
soldiers told him to put his hands in the air and he protested that he
was holding his baby. They screamed at him to obey them. His hands went
up and the baby fell to the ground. Within seconds the soldiers had
fired at least 30 bullets into his head and body. They stepped over him
and entered the house. A soldier than fired automatic rounds into the
walls above the heads of several people who were sitting or lying on
the floor. They were not hit but were told to leave and go into a
neighbouring building. They then ordered other people in other houses
to leave and go into the same neighbouring building. Over sixty people,
including a large number of children, were gathered in the house
without food or water.. After two days, a number of men decided to
leave the building to try to get food and water, but quickly retreated
on seeing the Israeli soldiers still in close proximity. Some five
minutes later, the building was shelled, killing a large number of the
family members gathered in the house, including women and children, and
wounding many others. Approximately 20 of the survivors left, raising
white flags and carrying the bodies of four of the dead. Despite being
shot at, they continued to walk and to try to contact medical services
to come and save them and those remaining in the house. The Red
Crescent was only permitted access to the house a number of days later,
where they found starving children next to the bodies of their dead
parents. When they returned a short while later to collect further
casualties, the building into which the people had been herded was now
a pile of rubble. In total, 29 members of the Al Samouni family were
slaughtered, including over 10 children and seven women, many of whom
lay dead beneath the rubble. This time the Red Crescent were refused
access to the site when they tried to enter. Our military expert was
present when many of the bodies were eventually pulled out of the
rubble. He confirmed that none of them were in any kind of combat
uniform and that none appeared to be militants.
Prior to the massacre the IDF took over the first house as a command
post. I went inside and saw that it was a highly strategic location
from which a large area could be monitored and operations controlled.
They had blasted holes for their machine guns in each of the upstairs
rooms. The military expert told us that it looked as if most of the
buildings had been destroyed by anti-tank mines and then finished off
by bulldozers. People have set up small tents on the rubble of their
houses, but aid has yet to reach them. A child told us that every child
in the settlement is now either an orphan or has lost at least one
parent. The woman whose husband was shot at near point blank range also
lost both her mother and father.
Inside their command post the Israelis have scrawled graffiti on some
walls which says things like ‘1 Arab down, 999,999 to go’, alongside
Stars of David, slogans such as ‘make war not peace’ and a chilling
drawing of a tombstone on which it is written Arabs 1948-2008. When
they exited the house they started fires in the remaining rooms and
left human shit in many of the rooms.

5. The use of flechette missiles. These are projectiles the size of
4-inch nails with four tail fins. They work by being jettisoned
sideways from a missile before it hits a target. Each missile contains
80,000 flechettes. On impact these lethal items tend to bend rather
than go straight into their target so when they hit people the wound is
over a wider area. On the 6th January a family were holding a wake for
an ambulance worker killed as he tried to access the victims of an
Israeli attack. Traditional mourning tents had been erected and a large
number of people were milling around in a wide residential street with
a couple of shops in it and houses on both sides. As the local
population were paying their respects to the mourning family a missile
was launched at low level from the Israeli border about 800 meters
away. It was aimed directly at the crowded street. Its forward
trajectory ejected its flechettes over its range of about 100m and 150m
either side. A large number of people in the crowd were hit. Many were
injured, including the teenager who gave us this account, who was hit
by three flechettes, one of which was still embedded in his leg. Given
the extent and nature of injuries in Gaza, he is still not considered a
high enough priority for it to be removed. He showed us his brother’s
X-rays, which showed a flechette embedded in his right lung. He is
still ill in hospital. A number of others were killed, including a
pregnant mother and two young members of this young man’s family. I saw
several flechettes still buried in the walls of the houses. Photographs
of the deceased victims show dozens of flechettes deeply embedded in
their faces and bodies.

The objective of the 22-day attack seems to have been to kill, destroy
and disable as much of the population and infrastructure of Gaza as was
possible. The Israeli Army targeted the essential services and
institutions with astonishing accuracy, leaving the buildings on either
side untouched in most cases. Over 60 mosques in Gaza were hit. Some
are still standing, some reduced to rubble. Nearly every Palestinian
Authority ministry was destroyed, including the Ministry of Justice and
the Ministry of the Interior. This means that all records in Gaza have
been destroyed, all records of births and deaths, all records of
entitlements and finances. The territory has been reduced to chaos. All
13 police stations in Gaza City were destroyed in one 3-minute strike.
The policy cadet school was struck during a graduation parade. Some 40
teenage cadets were killed. We saw their hats and boots, riddled with
shrapnel and bullet holes, lying strewn over the parade ground. Shell
after shell rained down on those participating in and watching the
parade, as they attempted to flee, as demonstrated by the craters in
the ground, the last one striking just by the gate.

Every aspect of Gazan society was hit, including money changers,
ambulance stations, hospitals, schools. I saw a number of the 40+
schools that had been attacked by missiles, including two schools -
one of them the American school, whose students were some of the elite
of the youth of Gaza – which had been razed to the ground. Over 50 UN
installations were also hit, including two schools where children were
beheaded by the force of the blasts, and of course, the UNWRA compound
warehouse which had contained a significant quantity of medical
supplies for those injured in the attacks.

These are only a fraction of the atrocities the Palestinian population
has endured at the hands of the Israelis.

Nowhere in Gaza was safe during the bombings. There was nowhere to go.
Every adult in Gaza contemplated not only their own death but that of
their children, and made the decision about where and when they should
die. Many uprooted their families from one area to another in a vain
attempt to find safe haven. Others remained at home as the bombs rained
down, preferring to die where they lived, rather than face the prospect
of being shot as they fled. Although children were some of the greatest
casualties of the war, adults have had to face up to their total and
utter impotence and their inability to protect their children and those
they love. The long term impact will be huge. As a start, Gaza needs an
army of psychiatrists.

There is a dire need for aid in Gaza. Unfortunately and despite claims
by Israel and its friends the aid is coming in far too slowly at all
crossing points. The Israeli Army, again despite the claims to the
contrary, is actually attacking authorised supply lines. On Tuesday
night, still during the ceasefire, missiles whistled over the flat I
was staying in followed by dull thuds in the distance. The next morning
the TV news media reported missile attacks on supply lines. Shelling is
also continuing from gunboats off the Gazan shore, unreported in the
media. Egypt is refusing to allow food in. Many of the areas of Gaza
most affected by the attacks have yet to be accessed by humanitarian

Please forgive the roughness of this diatribe, I am writing on the
plane on the way back from Cairo. Please give generously to Interpal,
UNWRA and any other relevant aid providers. If you have time the
Lawyers for Palestinian Human Rights welcome all who are willing or
able to assist in whatever way they can. Membership forms can be
downloaded from .

Steve Kamlish QC