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Witness to a shelling: first-hand account of deadly strike on Gaza port

There is a deafening explosion, then a second. Four children are dead. Four survivors reach the safety of our hotel

by Peter Beaumont  in Gaza       17 July 2014         The Guardian  


The first projectile hit the sea wall of Gaza City's little harbour just after four o'clock. As the smoke from the explosion thinned, four figures could be seen running, ragged silhouettes, legs pumping furiously along the wall. Even from a distance of 200 metres, it was obvious that three of them were children.

Jumping off the harbour wall, they turned on to the beach, attempting to cross the short distance to the safety of the Al-Deira hotel, base for many of the journalists covering the Gaza conflict.

They waved and shouted at the watching journalists as they passed a little collection of brightly coloured beach tents, used by bathers in peacetime.

Smoke billows from a beach shack following an Israeli military strike - gaza port shelling
Smoke billows from a beach shack following the in Gaza City which killed four children. Photograph: Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images

It was there that the second shell hit the beach, those firing apparently adjusting their fire to target the fleeing survivors. As it exploded, journalists standing by the terrace wall shouted: "They are only children."

In the space of 40 seconds, four boys who had been playing hide and seek among fishermen's shacks on the wall were dead. They were aged between seven and 11; two were named Mohammad, one Zakaria and the youngest Ahed. All were members of the extended Bakr family.

Three others who were injured made it to the hotel: Hamad Bakr, aged 13, with shrapnel in his chest; his cousin Motasem, 11, injured in his head and legs, and Mohammad Abu Watfah, 21, who was hit by shrapnel in his stomach.

A man who had been near them reached the hotel terrace first, scrambling up a steep sandy bank. A skinny man in his 30s, he groaned and held up a T-shirt already staining red with blood where he was hit in the stomach. He fainted and was carried to a taxi waved down in the street as he grew pale and limp.

The children were brought up next. Pulling up the T-shirt of the first boy, journalists administering first aid found a shrapnel hole, small and round as a pencil head, where he had been hit in the chest. Another boy, a brother or cousin, who was uninjured, slumped by the wall, weeping.

Employees of Gaza City's al-Deira hotel take care of a wounded boy -  gaza port shellingEmployees of Gaza City's al-Deira hotel take care of a wounded boy. Photograph: Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images

The injured boy cried in pain as the journalists cleaned and dressed the wound, wrapping a field dressing around his chest. He winced in pain, clearly embarrassed too as a colleague checked his shorts to look for unseen femoral bleeding. A waiter grabbed a table cloth to use as a stretcher, but a photographer took the boy in his arms to carry him to the ambulance.

The Israeli military said it was looking into the incident. The IsraelDefence Force told the AFP in a statement: "Based on preliminary results, the target of this strike was Hamas terrorist operatives. The reported civilian casualties from this strike are a tragic outcome."

The Islamist group Hamas, which controls Gaza, on Wednesday formally rejected Egypt's ceasefire proposal that had been accepted by Israel to end the nine-day-old conflict that has left at least 213 Palestinians and one Israeli dead. In a text message to the Associated Press, a senior Hamas figure, Sami Abu Zuhri, said: "We informed Cairo today officially that we don't accept the proposal they made."

He added that Hamas felt "alone in the field" with little support from the Arab world and called on the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, of the rival Fatah faction in the West Bank, to support Hamas's refusal of the ceasefire deal.

Diplomatic sources told the Guardian that they did not believe that a serious new ceasefire proposal was likely to emerge for several days and, even then, securing a deal looked very difficult.

Hamas's rejection came as an Israeli official said Israel's defence minister had asked prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu's security cabinet to authorise the mobilisation of another 8,000 reserves. The military has said about 30,000 reservists have been called up since the Israeli offensive began last week.

Israeli experts have been predicting in recent days that any ground attack, which Israel has threatened, may involve overland raids in the Gaza Strip to destroy command bunkers and tunnels that have allowed the outgunned Palestinians to withstand air and naval barrages and keep the rockets flying. Hamas continued to fire dozens of rockets into Israelon Wednesday.

Palestinian al-Deira hotel employees carry a wounded boy - gaza port shellingPalestinian employees of Gaza City's al-Deira hotel carry a wounded boy following the shelling nearby on the beach. Photograph: Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images

Hamas views a significant easing of the Israeli blockade as key to its survival, but does not believe Egypt's current rulers – who deposed a Hamas-friendly government in Cairo last year – can be fair brokers.

The Egyptian proposal called for a halt in hostilities by Tuesday night to be followed by talks on the terms of a longer-term ceasefire, including easing Gaza's seven-year-old border blockade by Israel and Egypt. Israeli air raids on Gaza on Wednesday saw the targeting of 30 houses, including those of senior Hamas leaders, most notably Mahmoud Zahar, Hamas's former foreign minister.

Alongside the air strikes, Israel told tens of thousands of residents of the northern town of Beit Lahiya and the Zeitoun and Shujai'iya neighbourhoods of Gaza City– all near the Israel border – to evacuate their homes by 8am. The warnings came by automated phonecalls, texts and leaflets dropped from planes.

The Israeli military said in its message that large numbers of rockets were being launched from these areas and that Israel planned to bomb these locations.

"Whoever disregards these instructions and fails to evacuate immediately endangers their own lives, as well as those of their families," the message said.

At the Shifa hospital on Wednesday afternoon, Hamad Bakr was conscious and waiting for surgery to remove the shrapnel from his chest and drain fluid from his chest cavity. "My father has a fishing boat there. We were playing hide and seek when we were hit. I didn't hear the first one which killed one of us but I heard the second as we were running along the beach. That one killed three more."

His mother Taghrid, 35, came into the room. "Why did you go out of the door?" she demanded of Hamad.

She said that his brother, Younis, who was with Hamad, while he was being treated, "is so scared that he is shaking".

Suddenly angry and grief stricken, she said: "They killed my nephew. Who does that? Who fires on children?"

As the reporters left, Mohammad Abu Watfah was wheeled out of a lift after surgery to remove the shrapnel in his stomach. As relatives gathered not far from the Al-Deira hotel to bury the four dead boys, barely 90 minutes after the attack on the beach, the boys' uncle, Abdel Kareem Baker, 41, said: "It's a cold-blooded massacre. It's a shame they didn't identify them as kids with all of the advanced technology they claim they're using."


Israel Inflicts Illegal Collective Punishment on Gaza

By Marjorie Cohn          

Israel has commenced full-scale warfare on the people of Gaza. The recent tensions began about six weeks ago when Israeli forces abducted 17 Palestinian teenage boys in the occupied West Bank. Then, on June 12, three Israeli teenagers were abducted in the southern West Bank; Israel blamed Hamas. After the three youths were found dead, a group of Israelis tortured and killed a Palestinian teenager in Jerusalem. Finally, on July 7, Israel launched a large military operation dubbed “Operation Protective Edge” in the Gaza Strip.

During the past week, Israel has killed 162 Palestinian civilians and counting, including 34 children. In addition to more than 1,200 Israeli airstrikes, Israel has threatened to launch a ground invasion of Gaza. Israel attacked a center for the mentally and physically disabled in Beit Zahiya, killing three patients and a nurse. In addition, Israel has stepped up demolitions of Palestinian homes, and administrative detentions of Palestinians without charge or trial.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported that 77 percent of the people Israel has killed in Gaza were civilians. Although Hamas has launched about 1,000 rockets into Israel in the past week, no Israelis have been killed.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay expressed alarm at the Israeli military operations as well as the indiscriminate firing of rockets from Gaza into Israel. “For its part, the Government of Israel must take all possible measures to ensure full respect for the principles of distinction, proportionality and precautions in attack, during the conduct of hostilities, as required by international humanitarian law. In all circumstances, they must avoid targeting civilians,” she said. In light of “deeply disturbing reports that many of the civilian casualties, including of children, occurred as a result of strikes on homes,” Pillay continued, “serious doubt [has been raised] about whether the Israeli strikes have been in accordance with international humanitarian law and international human rights law.”

The principle of distinction forbids deliberate attacks on civilians or civilian objects. The proportionality principle forbids disproportionate and excessive civilian casualties compared to the claimed military advantage gained in the attack. Precaution requires that measures be taken in advance to ensure compliance with the principles of distinction and proportionality, to minimize incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians and damage to civilian objects, and requires taking all feasible precautions in the choice of means and methods of warfare.

Collective Punishment by Israel

Headlines in the mainstream media falsely portray an equivalence of firepower between Israelis and Palestinians in Gaza. But Israel’s use of force greatly exceeds that of the Palestinians, and the asymmetric warfare continues to escalate. The Obama administration and Congress have condemned the rocket fire into Israel by Hamas and the “deliberate targeting of civilians.” But Washington says Israel has a right to defend itself, justifying Israel’s bombing campaign in Gaza and blaming Hamas, while minimizing Israel’s role in creating and escalating the violence.

Israel’s overwhelming use of military force constitutes collective punishment, which is a war crime. The laws of war, also known as international humanitarian law, are primarily found in the Geneva Conventions. Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, to which Israel is a party, specifically forbids collective punishment. It says, “No protected person [civilian] may be punished for an offense he or she has not personally committed . . . Reprisals against protected persons and their property are prohibited.”

Israel’s collective punishment of Palestinians in Operation Protective Edge constitutes a deliberate policy to punish the entire population of Gaza. Since the Palestinians concluded a unity agreement between Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza in June, Israel has stepped up the construction of illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Jerusalem. Richard Falk, former UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied by Israel since 1967, noted that Israel broke off the peace talks with the Palestinians before the formation of the Palestinian unity agreement.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has blamed Hamas for the kidnapping and killing of the three Israeli teens in order to discredit the new Palestinian unity agreement. In what amounts to a catch-22, Netanyahu has cynically stymied the peace negotiations because, he said, there was no unified voice to speak for the Palestinians. But now that the Palestinians have a unity agreement, Netanyahu is driving a wedge between Fatah and Hamas in an effort to justify and maintain Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory.

The 140 square-mile Gaza Strip, home to 1.7 million people (half of whom are children), is one of the most densely populated areas in the world. It is often described as the world’s largest “open air prison,” as Israel maintains a tight blockade, restricting all ingress and egress. Since mid-2013, unemployment has dramatically increased and delivery of basic services has decreased. More than 90 percent of the water in Gaza is unsuitable for drinking. The health system is close to collapse, according to the World Health Organization. Last year, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child reported, “Palestinian children arrested by [Israeli] military and police are systematically subject to degrading treatment, and often to acts of torture.” The committee also concluded that Israel’s “illegal long-standing occupation” of Palestinian land, continued expansion of “unlawful” Jewish settlements, construction of the barrier wall into the West Bank [found by the International Court of Justice 10 years ago to violate international law], and the confiscation of land and demolition of homes and livelihoods “constitute severe and continuous violations of the rights of Palestinian children and their families.”

After Israel’s 2008 to 2009 Operation Cast Lead, in which nearly 1,400 Palestinians (82 percent of whom were civilians) and 13 Israelis were killed, a UN Human Rights Council report by a commission headed by Justice Richard Goldstone concluded, “Disproportionate destruction and violence against civilians were part of a deliberate policy [by Israel].”

In its 2009 report, the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel (PCATI) found, “During Operation Cast Lead no type of property was left untouched: residences, hospitals, schools, mosques, factories and agricultural fields were demolished by the IDF.”

Israel, according to PCATI, employed “a coherent strategy that incorporated two major elements into the planning of Operation Cast Lead: 1) The implementation of the ‘Dahiye Doctrine,’ the principal tenet of which was to cause intentional suffering to civilians so that they would bring pressure to bear on those who were fighting against the IDF [Israel Defense Forces], and 2) The ‘No Risk’ policy, which placed absolute priority on preventing harm to IDF soldiers, even at the cost of greater danger to Palestinian civilians.” Israel is apparently pursuing the same policy in Operation Protective Edge.

In 2013, Falk said, “the people of Gaza have endured the unendurable and suffered what is insufferable for six years. Israel’s collective punishment of the civilian population in Gaza must end today.” He added, “Israel has the responsibility as the Occupying Power to protect the civilian population.”

“In circumstances of prolonged occupation and state terrorism,” Falk observed, “Hamas is entitled to claim rights of resistance, although their precise contours are not clearly established by international law. Hamas is certainly entitled to act in self-defense within the constraints of international humanitarian law.”

International Reaction

On July 12, 2014, the UN Security Council issued a unanimous statement calling for an immediate ceasefire and “de-escalation of the situation, restoration of calm, and reinstitution of the November 2012 ceasefire.” That ceasefire ended eight days of bombings of Gaza by Israel that killed 140 Palestinians, and rocket attacks by Hamas along the border that killed five Israelis. In its July 12 statement, the Council expressed “serious concern regarding the crisis related to Gaza and the protection and welfare of civilians on both sides” and called for respect for international humanitarian law, including the protection of civilians.

Hanna Amira, a member of the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization in the West Bank, said of the Council’s statement, “This announcement deals with the oppressor and the victim in the same way; it is a general call to end the fighting, without setting any mechanism to end the fighting. What is needed is an end to the aggression against the Palestinian people in Gaza.”

The Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) National Committee has called on “international governments to impose a two-way arms embargo immediately and to suspend bilateral agreements until Israel fully complies with international law.” Indeed, US military aid to Israel also violates US law. The Human Rights and Security Assistance Act requires that the United States halt all military aid to Israel because the latter has engaged in a consistent pattern of gross violation of internationally recognized human rights.

“Because collective punishment is a war crime under the Geneva Conventions, [the Palestinian BDS National Committee] urge[s] the international community to pressure Israel to end its all-out military assault aimed against the total population of Gaza, open the Rafah crossing [between Egypt and Gaza] permanently and heed our call for boycotts, divestment and sanctions.” Organizations such as the Bill Gates Foundation, the Presbyterian Church USA and the United Methodist Church are divesting from companies that profit from Israel’s occupation, including Hewlett Packard, Motorola Solutions and Caterpillar.

“Israel is able to act with utter impunity because of the military, economic and political support it receives from governments around the world,” according to Zaid Shuaibi, a spokesperson for the Palestinian BDS National Committee. Indeed, Israel would be unable to carry out its policies of aggression in Gaza without the support of the United States, which gives Israel more than $3 billion per year.

The United States should demand an immediate ceasefire from both Israel and Hamas. The US government should condemn Israel’s escalation, bombing and collective punishment of civilians just as forcefully as it has condemned Hamas’ firing of rockets. The Gaza blockade and limitations on freedom of travel of Gazans should be lifted and Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories should be ended.

Marjorie Cohn is a professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law.

Copyright Marjorie Cohn 2007. All rights reserved.


Israel’s incremental genocide in the Gaza ghetto

Ilan Pappe          The Electronic Intifda          13 July 2014

A mother hugs her adolescent son in a bombed-out living room

In Gaza, the implementation of the Zionist vision takes its most inhuman form. (Ezz Zanoun / APA images)

In a September 2006 article for The Electronic Intifada, I defined the Israeli policy towards the Gaza Strip as an incremental genocide.

Israel’s present assault on Gaza alas indicates that this policy continues unabated. The term is important since it appropriately locates Israel’s barbaric action — then and now — within a wider historical context.

This context should be insisted upon, since the Israeli propaganda machine attempts again and again to narrate its policies as out of context and turns the pretext it found for every new wave of destruction into the main justification for another spree of indiscriminate slaughter in the killing fields of Palestine.

The context

The Zionist strategy of branding its brutal policies as an ad hoc response to this or that Palestinian action is as old as the Zionist presence in Palestine itself. It was used repeatedly as a justification for implementing the Zionist vision of a future Palestine that has in it very few, if any, native Palestinians.

The means for achieving this goal changed with the years, but the formula has remained the same: whatever the Zionist vision of a Jewish State might be, it can only materialize without any significant number of Palestinians in it. And nowadays the vision is of an Israel stretching over almost the whole of historic Palestine where millions of Palestinians still live.

The present genocidal wave has, like all the previous ones, also a more immediate background. It has been born out of an attempt to foil the Palestinian decision to form a unity government that even the United States could not object to.

The collapse of US Secretary of State John Kerry’s desperate “peace” initiative legitimized the Palestinian appeal to international organizations to stop the occupation. At the same time, Palestinians gained wide international blessing for the cautious attempt represented by the unity government to strategize once again a coordinated policy among the various Palestinian groups and agendas.

Ever since June 1967, Israel searched for a way to keep the territories it occupied that year without incorporating their indigenous Palestinian population into its rights-bearing citizenry. All the while it participated in a “peace process” charade to cover up or buy time for its unilateral colonization policies on the ground.

With the decades, Israel differentiated between areas it wished to control directly and those it would manage indirectly, with the aim in the long run of downsizing the Palestinian population to a minimum with, among other means, ethnic cleansing and economic and geographic strangulation.

The geopolitical location of the West Bank creates the impression in Israel, at least, that it is possible to achieve this without anticipating a third uprising or too much international condemnation.

The Gaza Strip, due to its unique geopolitical location, did not lend itself that easily to such a strategy. Ever since 1994, and even more so when Ariel Sharon came to power as prime minister in the early 2000s, the strategy there was to ghettoize Gaza and somehow hope that the people there — 1.8 million as of today — would be dropped into eternal oblivion.

But the Ghetto proved to be rebellious and unwilling to live under conditions of strangulation, isolation, starvation and economic collapse. So resending it to oblivion necessitates the continuation of genocidal policies.

The pretext

On 15 May, Israeli forces killed two Palestinian youths in the West Bank town of Beitunia, their cold-blooded slayings by a sniper’s bullet captured on video. Their names — Nadim Nuwara and Muhammad Abu al-Thahir — were added to a long list of such killings in recent months and years.

The killing of three Israeli teenagers, two of them minors, abducted in the occupied West Bank in June, was perhaps in reprisal for killings of Palestinian children. But for all the depredations of the oppressive occupation, it provided the pretext first and foremost for destroying the delicate unity in the West Bank but also for the implementation of the old dream of wiping out Hamas from Gaza so that the Ghetto could be quiet again.

Since 1994, even before the rise of Hamas to power in the Gaza Strip, the very particular geopolitical location of the Strip made it clear that any collective punitive action, such as the one inflicted now, could only be an operation of massive killings and destruction. In other words, of a continued genocide.

This recognition never inhibited the generals who give the orders to bomb the people from the air, the sea and the ground. Downsizing the number of Palestinians all over historic Palestine is still the Zionist vision. In Gaza, its implementation takes its most inhuman form.

The particular timing of this wave is determined, as in the past, by additional considerations. The domestic social unrest of 2011 is still simmering and for a while there was a public demand to cut military expenditures and move money from the inflated “defense” budget to social services. The army branded this possibility as suicidal.

There is nothing like a military operation to stifle any voices calling on the government to cut its military expenses.

Typical hallmarks of the previous stages in this incremental genocide reappear in this wave as well. One can witness again consensual Israeli Jewish support for the massacre of civilians in the Gaza Strip, without one significant voice of dissent. In Tel Aviv, the few who dared to demonstrate against it were beaten by Jewish hooligans, while the police stood by and watched.

Academia, as always, becomes part of the machinery. The prestigious private university, the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya has established “a civilian headquarters” where students volunteer to serve as mouthpieces in the propaganda campaign abroad.

The media is loyally recruited, showing no pictures of the human catastrophe Israel has wreaked and informing its public that this time, “the world understands us and is behind us.”

That statement is valid to a point as the political elites in the West continue to provide the old immunity to the “Jewish state.” However, the media have not provided Israel with quite the level of legitimacy it was seeking for its criminal policies.

Obvious exceptions included French media, especially France 24 and the BBC, that continue to shamefully parrot Israeli propaganda.

This is not surprising, since pro-Israel lobby groups continue to work tirelessly to press Israel’s case in France and the rest of Europe as they do in the United States.

The way forward

Whether it is burning alive a Palestinian youth from Jerusalem, or the fatal shooting of two others, just for the fun of it in Beitunia, or slaying whole families in Gaza, these are all acts that can only be perpetrated if the victim is dehumanized.

I will concede that all over the Middle East there are now horrific cases where dehumanization has reaped unimaginable horrors as it does in Gaza today. But there is one crucial difference between these cases and the Israeli brutality: the former are condemned as barbarous and inhuman worldwide, while those committed by Israel are still publicly licensed and approved by the president of the United States, the leaders of the EU and Israel’s other friends in the world.

The only chance for a successful struggle against Zionism in Palestine is the one based on a human and civil rights agenda that does not differentiate between one violation and the other and yet identifies clearly the victim and the victimizers.

Those who commit atrocities in the Arab world against oppressed minorities and helpless communities, as well as the Israelis who commit these crimes against the Palestinian people, should all be judged by the same moral and ethical standards. They are all war criminals, though in the case of Palestine they have been at work longer than anyone else.

It does not really matter what the religious identity is of the people who commit the atrocities or in the name of which religion they purport to speak. Whether they call themselves jihadists, Judaists or Zionists, they should be treated in the same way.

A world that would stop employing double standards in its dealings with Israel is a world that could be far more effective in its response to war crimes elsewhere in the world.

Cessation of the incremental genocide in Gaza and the restitution of the basic human and civil rights of Palestinians wherever they are, including the right of return, is the only way to open a new vista for a productive international intervention in the Middle East as a whole.

The author of numerous books, Ilan Pappe is professor of history and director of the European Centre for Palestine Studies at the University of Exeter.