UN Report Finds: Israel's 'Roof-knock' Warning No Way to Prevent Civilian Casualties

For many Gazans, there's no way to tell an Israeli warning from the real thing, not to mention the little time left to flee before airstrike comes.

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A ball of fire rises from an explosion on al-Zafer apartment tower following an Israeli air strike in Gaza City, in the northern Gaza Strip, Aug. 23, 2014.
A ball of fire rises from an explosion on al-Zafer apartment tower following an Israeli air strike in Gaza City, in the northern Gaza Strip, Aug. 23, 2014.Credit: AP
Ilene Prusher
Ilene Prusher

A knock on the roof. It almost sounds like a courtesy, a warning at take-off: In the event we decide to reduce the building in which you reside to rubble, you will hear a knock on the roof advising you to move to your nearest exit.

The Israel Defense Forces, Israeli politicians and others who engage full time in “hasbara,” that problematic art of explaining Israel’s point of view, argue that the IDF is the most moral army in the world, and that it goes above and beyond other militaries at war to avoid civilian casualties. One proof of this is the “roof-knock” procedure, in which a building is subject to a minor missile strike, followed by a truly destructive one a few minutes later.

The problem is, if you were a Gazan and the IDF gave your building a little rap on the head, would you necessarily know that this was your personal warning to get out? Or would think that you’re already done for? Would you perhaps crouch in the bathroom with your family hoping that if you stay away from the windows, you’d be safe? Would you worry that if you were seen fleeing in panic, you’d be treated as fair game – as anyone moving in the middle of the fighting often is, according to anonymous soldiers’ reports published by Breaking the Silence? And if you understood that this was the knock you’d heard about and you had minutes to get out of the building, would you be able to pull everyone together in time? Would you know which direction to run in? Would you even be sure whether your building was actually hit, as opposed to your neighbor’s?

I ask this honestly, as a reporter who was once working in Gaza during a round of tension. My colleagues and I were sure the tall building we were in was hit because it shook so violently. It was just an IAF plane breaking the sound barrier, it turned out, as it struck a target elsewhere. And I write this after speaking to colleagues in Gaza, who say average people were often confused and couldn’t tell the difference between a knock and an attack already underway.

According to the commission of inquiry formed by the UN Human Rights Council, which on Monday released its report into the last conflict in Gaza, known in Israel as Operation Protective Edge, many Palestinians did not understand the “knock” when it came, nor did they know which direction to run in. How many? It’s difficult to know, because the people who didn’t comprehend the arrival of the knock or who otherwise failed to act in time are no longer with us.

The compilers of the report note that this knock on the roof “may have been effective” in minimizing civilian casualties. But in many cases, it was meaningless as a tool for getting people to flee.

“In a number of incidents examined, the concerned persons either did not understand that their house had been the subject of a 'roof-knock', or the time given for evacuation between the warning and the actual strike was insufficient,” the report summary states. “In one case examined by the commission, a 22-member family, including nine children, were given just a few minutes to evacuate their home after a 'roof-knock' in the early hours of the morning, while they were asleep; 19 of the 22 people present in the house died. The commission concluded that 'roof-knocks' cannot be considered an effective warning given the confusion they often cause to building residents and the short time allowed to evacuate before the actual strike.”

(The report did not mention the family name, location or date of this case; a Palestinian journalist in Gaza says it is a reference to the Abu Jamaa family in  Khan Younis.)

The commission says that Israel should have noticed early in the war that its roof-knock warnings were not nearly effective enough.

“The limited effectiveness of the above-mentioned precautionary measures must have become abundantly clear in the early days of the operation, given that many buildings were destroyed, together with their inhabitants. The apparent lack of steps to re-examine these measures in the light of the mounting civilian toll suggests that Israel did not comply with its obligation to take all feasible precautions before the attacks,” the report said.

The authors of the report then go on to indicate that Israel’s failure to adjust its approach could point to a broader war-time strategy for which political officials at the highest levels could be held responsible – in other words, right up to the prime minister’s office.

“The fact that Israel did not revise its practice of air-strikes, even after their dire effects on civilians became apparent, raises the question of whether this was part of a broader policy which was at least tacitly approved at the highest level of government,” the report summary states.

Of course, much of what we’ll see in the next few days will be a depressing déjà vu of the aftermath of Operation Cast Lead in 2009 and the Goldstone Report. The Palestinian side will say the evidence points to war crimes, and will continue to pursue trying Israel in the International Criminal Court, of which it is now a member. In fact, the summary ends with an exhortation to “cooperate fully with the preliminary examination of the International Criminal Court and with any subsequent investigation that may be opened.” But Hamas, far more so than in 2009, is also taken to task in many places throughout the report  - as it should be - for deliberately targeting Israeli civilians, discouraging Palestinians to flee from areas the IDF advised people evacuate from, and sometimes killing its own people when rockets fell short and landed on Palestinians. What changed was the scale: Hamas had longer-range rockets and an extensive system of tunnels into Israel. What’s also new and untested is the role of the ICC, which could be a forum to try not just Israel but the Palestinian Authority and Hamas as well.

The report is not gospel – it is one attempt at creating a comprehensive report of the war. The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in its response Monday that “the entire process that led to the production of this report was politically motivated and morally flawed from the outset.” But Israel could have enabled the accuracy of the fact-finding mission by allowing the commission of inquiry access to Israel and to Gaza, which it did not. Even the Egyptian government collaborated in keeping the gates to Gaza closed as part of this inquiry by refused to facilitate entry to the Strip through the Rafah crossing. The report’s note: “The commission wishes to thank the Government of Jordan for facilitating its two visits to Amman.” In short, this is a commission of inquiry that was as thorough as it could manage to be, given that it was operating from the Jordanian capital.

Israel has a mess to contend with in the wake of the report into the war that didn’t really end last summer. There are questions that it will likely have to address in legal, diplomatic and political forums. Perhaps one of the questions it must address for its own sake is whether it is possible to go on explaining that the roof-knock and other methods of urging people to flee really minimize the deaths of innocent men, women and children. 

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