A new report by Physicians for Human Rights accuses Israel of using human shields and attacking medical workers and facilities during last summer’s war in the Gaza Strip.
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The report is based on testimony from eight overseas medical experts who made three visits to Gaza and interviewed doctors and wounded Palestinians.
Several incidents described in the report took place in Khuza’a, which was under Israeli attack from July 21-25. In one, Ramadan Qdeih accused Israeli soldiers of killing his 65-year-old father, Muhammad, by shooting him twice at close range as he stood in his own doorway.
Afterward, Ramadan said, the soldiers used him as a human shield, forcing him to walk ahead of them down the stairs of the house and threatening that if anyone was hiding there, the soldiers would kill Ramadan immediately.
“At the door to the basement, one soldier placed the barrel of his rifle on Ramadan’s shoulder and fired into the basement,” the report said. “When Ramadan began to shout in fear, he was struck with the rifle butt and insulted by the Israeli soldiers.”
There is no documentation of the foreign doctors’ interview with Ramadan, but based on the report’s description, it seems this incident is one already being investigated by the Military Police.
Shortly after this incident, the report said, seven blindfolded young men were taken to the second floor of the Qdeih house and two were placed at windows from which the glass had been removed. “The Israeli soldiers placed the rifle barrels onto the men’s shoulders and fired out the windows,” it said. “They did not fire continuously, but now and then over approximately one hour.”
Two days earlier, on July 23, several hundred Khuza’a residents had tried to leave the town, carrying white flags. Dr. Kamal Qdeih, who was in the front row, told the foreign doctors that when they reached a group of Israeli tanks, the soldiers ordered them to go back.
Qdeih also claimed the soldiers shot at the residents who tried to leave. He said 31 people were injured by bullets or shrapnel, and he showed the foreign visitors pictures and x-rays of some of the injuries.
The wounded were taken to a nearby clinic, which according to both Qdeih and another Palestinian, was clearly marked as a medical facility. Despite this, the two claimed, Israel fired two missiles at the clinic. Several people, including Qdeih, suffered shrapnel wounds, and Qdeih’s brother Ahmad was killed, the report said.
On July 24, Khuza’a residents again attempted to leave en masse. Three witnesses, including Qdeih, related that a 6-year-old boy with shrapnel wounds in his stomach begged them to take him with them. Qdeih said he was carrying his own son and couldn’t carry the boy too, so he called the Red Cross to come get him. But the ambulance crew claimed they were held up at an army checkpoint for three hours, and the boy died of his wounds after reaching the hospital.
The report also discussed several incidents where medical personnel or facilities came under fire. Altogether, 23 medical workers were killed, 16 while doing their jobs, and 83 wounded, it said. Most were ambulance drivers.
The Palestinian Health Ministry said 45 ambulances were damaged or destroyed, some by direct hits. The Military Police are currently investigating the deaths of two ambulance drivers in Khan Yunis and Beit Hanun.
Medical workers interviewed for the report said the system to evacuate the wounded, set up by the Red Cross and the Israel Defense Forces, failed repeatedly, and many ambulances were hit by IDF fire even though the Red Cross had coordinated their passage.
“The risks and the attacks we were subjected to during this war were much more serious than any previous one,” the report quoted paramedic Yousef al-Kahlout as saying. “Normally we follow strictly the rule: ‘protect yourself, protect the place.’ We wouldn’t go out without coordination. But this time coordination too often took ages or failed to arrive, so we were going out in any case, even if we were aware that we were putting our lives at risk.”
During the assault on Gaza City’s Shujaiyeh neighborhood, the report added, many requests to evacuate the wounded were turned down.
The foreign doctors interviewed 68 Palestinians injured during the war, and many said they felt there was no safe place in the entire Gaza Strip. Moreover, only five of the 68 said they had received IDF warnings of an impending strike.
The foreign doctors also accused the IDF of using powerful explosives in an indiscriminate fashion that destroyed large residential areas instead of only the specific houses targeted and produced mass casualties.
The IDF said in a statement that PHR hadn’t shown it the report before publishing it, and had it done so, ”This would have led to the removal of the many erroneous and tendentious pieces of information it contains. The report is based primarily on one-sided, thin and imprecise information from sources biased against Israel from the start. The report’s sweeping conclusions and the problematic methodology it uses cast a heavy shadow over its contents and credibility.”
Throughout the war, the IDF statement continued, terrorist organizations like Hamas made “cynical and criminal use of the Palestinian civilian population as a human shield against IDF operations. Among other things, the terrorist organizations deliberately placed weaponry, armed terrorists, tunnel openings, command and control centers and other military infrastructure inside civilian buildings and objects like hospitals, clinics, shelters holding civilians evacuated from their houses, and ambulances. By so doing, the terrorist organizations put the population under their direct responsibility in danger.”
The statement maintained that the IDF, in contrast, tried to refrain from harming civilians, insofar as possible under the circumstances. It took various measures to warn civilians that the army was about to begin operations in their neighborhood or attack a nearby target. It maintained constant contact with Palestinian and international medical personnel in Gaza, among other reasons to coordinate evacuations, and tried, subject to the constraints imposed by intensive fighting, to allow medical personnel to treat and evacuate the wounded as quickly as possible, it said.
The statement also noted that a special General Staff committee investigated all claims of irregularities, in line with the recommendations of the Turkel Committee, a public committee that examined whether the IDF’s investigative system complied with international law.