After Islamist militants dug a tunnel near a building in Gaza, its residents were informed that the Israeli army was planning on demolishing it. However, the residents say, the army never told them when it was planning to attack the tunnel - which they claim is a violation of international law.
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In August, Gen. Yoav Mordechai, the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, warned on an Arabic-language Facebook page that the army had found two “terror tunnels”, one passing beneath a mosque and one that went next to the apartment building in the Gaza town of Beit Lahia.
He warned that Israeli army forces could attack the tunnel shafts and the surrounding buildings, and that civilian lives could be at risk.
Two days after the Facebook post, some of the building’s residents received phone calls from a person identified only as “Israeli army intelligence,” repeating the message.
Hamas and Islamic Jihad have been building tunnels under Gaza for years. They are used for either smuggling in supplies from Egypt or burrowed towards the Israeli border in hopes of using them to attack Israelis.
Now one of the building’s residents, Mahmoud Hamoud Mohammed Hamed, is arguing that the IDF’s conduct violates international law. His lawyer, Muna Haddad of the Adalah Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, argues that the Facebook post cannot serve, or be considered as, fair warning to a civilian population. In effect, the army isn’t threatening Hamas, she claims, but civilians.
Hamed lives in the building with his family, wrote Haddad, and since August the family has been living in fear for their lives, concerned that at any time the army could attack. “Following the threat, some family members left the home and moved in with relatives. Others can’t afford alternative housing and live under the threat of attack. My client doesn’t know anything about tunnels beneath him,” Haddad said.
Since 2009, the IDF has had a policy they have termed “knock on the roof”. It’s purpose is to alert civilians living in the site of a planned attack to evacuate.
Unlike previous “knock on the door" cases however, the army didn’t cite a time frame for the residents to evacuate, Haddad said.
International law forbids armies to threaten to attack civilians, but it does allow military forces to give civilians time to flee – stating the time of a planned attack and where it will take place.
But the Israeli army legal counsel claims it is obeying Israeli and international law, stating: “The publications [warnings] relate to the Hamas organization using of residential buildings for military purposes, knowingly risking the civilian population of Gaza Strip. In this state of affairs, the tunnels constitute a legitimate military target that can be attacked under the laws governing war.”
The office of the Coordinator of Israeli Army Activities in the Territories has removed the warning post from the Facebook page, stating only that the post was removed recently for reasons not connected to the complaint against its legality.