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Amnesty: 'Strong evidence' of Israel war crimes on 'Black Friday'

JULY 29, 2015 7:13 P.M. (UPDATED: JULY 29, 2015 9:57 P.M.)

More than 2,251 Palestinians were killed in the 50-day war between Israel and Hamas. (AFP/Mahmud Hams, File)

JERUSALEM (AFP) -- An analysis of an Israeli assault in the Gaza Strip following the capture of one of its soldiers during last year's war in the blockaded Palestinian territory shows "strong evidence" of war crimes, Amnesty International said Wednesday.

The London-based rights group called for those responsible for the alleged offences to be prosecuted as it published a detailed analysis of the Israeli military operation using eyewitness accounts, satellite imagery, photos and videos.

"There is strong evidence that Israeli forces committed war crimes in their relentless and massive bombardment of residential areas of Rafah in order to foil the capture of Lieutenant Hadar Goldin, displaying a shocking disregard for civilian lives," Philip Luther, director of the Middle East and North Africa Program at Amnesty International, said in a statement.

"They carried out a series of disproportionate or otherwise indiscriminate attacks, which they have completely failed to investigate independently."

The incidents addressed in the report centered on August 1, 2014, which has become known as "Black Friday," when Goldin was captured shortly after a ceasefire was announced. He was later declared dead.

In response, the military was said to have implemented the so-called Hannibal Directive -- a controversial procedure which allows for an intensive military response to secure the rescue of a captured soldier.

Israel bombed the city of Rafah and the surrounding area in the southern Gaza Strip near the border with Egypt.

According to Amnesty, at least 135 Palestinian civilians were killed in the air and ground assault.

Civilians had begun to return home due to the ceasefire announcement, Amnesty said.

"Massive and prolonged bombardment began without warning while masses of people were on the streets, and many of them, especially those in vehicles, became targets," Amnesty said.

"Eyewitness accounts described horrifying scenes of chaos and panic as an inferno of fire from F-16 jets, drones, helicopters and artillery rained down on the streets, striking civilians on foot or in cars, as well as ambulances and other vehicles evacuating the wounded. 


Debate over 'Hannibal'

A UN report in June said both Israel and Palestinian militants may have committed war crimes during the Gaza war, while decrying "unprecedented" devastation and human suffering.

The UN report condemned the "indiscriminate" firing of thousands of rockets and mortars at Israel by Palestinian militants as well as the "huge firepower" Israel used in Gaza.

The Palestinian enclave of 1.8 million people, under an Israeli blockade, has seen three wars in six years, killing over 4,000 Palestinians.

Amnesty partnered with researchers from Forensic Architecture, based at Goldsmiths, University of London, for its report.

Eyal Weizman, director of Forensic Architecture at Goldsmiths, told reporters that access to high-resolution satellite footage of the conflict was crucial to forensic and legal investigations into war crimes.

“The (Israeli) military is used to having a monopoly of vision over what is happening in the battlefield. What we are trying to do is to break that monopoly," he said.

“Before, information was based on people’s memories collected after the conflict. Now we have access to real-time documentation.”

Israel strongly denied the accusations of war crimes, calling Amnesty's report "fundamentally flawed in its methodologies, in its facts, in its legal analysis and in its conclusions".

"When one reads the report, the impression is given that the (Israeli military) was fighting against itself -- as there is almost no mention of the military actions of Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist organisations," the foreign ministry said in a statement.

"It seems that Amnesty forgot that there was an ongoing conflict – during which the IDF was operating to stop rocket fire and neutralize cross-border assault tunnels, and Palestinian terrorist organisations were actively engaging in intensive conflict against the IDF from within the civilian environment."


'Conflict of interests'

Deborah Hyams from Amnesty told journalists however that the Hannibal Directive "is a policy and those who ordered it should be prosecuted."

The report called for the establishment of an independent body to replace the current military investigation into the war, noting that an army investigation into military actions suffers from a "fundamental conflict of interests."

“All states have the obligation to conduct credible, independent investigations into war crimes, possible crimes against humanity, and other violations of international humanitarian law,” Hyams said.

“The criteria for this type of investigation are independence, impartiality, effectiveness, thoroughness, and transparency. In our analysis, Israel’s system of military investigation fails to meet all of those standards.”

Last summer's 50-day war took a heavy toll on Gaza, killing 2,251 Palestinians, including more than 500 children. Seventy-three people were killed on the Israeli side, including 67 soldiers.

Vast swathes of the besieged territory were destroyed, with tens of thousands of Palestinians displaced at the height of the conflict.

The eight-year blockade of the Gaza Strip by Israel has led to a humanitarian catastrophe in the coastal territory, with high unemployment, power cuts, and a lack of access to basic services.


 Ma'an staff in Jerusalem contributed to this report.