Israeli Airstrikes on Gaza 'Apparently' Broke International Law, Human Rights Watch Says

The prominent rights group calls on Israel to produce evidence justifying the strikes that demolished four high-rise building in Gaza during the latest round of fighting

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Smoke rises following Israeli airstrikes on a building in Gaza City, May 13, 2021.
Smoke rises following Israeli airstrikes on a building in Gaza City, May 13, 2021.Credit: AP Photo/Hatem Moussa

Israeli airstrikes that demolished four high-rise buildings in the Gaza Strip during the war in May apparently violated international laws of war, a leading international human rights group said Monday, calling on the Israeli military to produce evidence justifying the attacks.

Human Rights Watch noted that although no one was harmed in the airstrikes, the attacks damaged neighboring buildings, left dozens of people homeless and destroyed scores of businesses.

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“The apparently unlawful Israeli strikes on four high-rise towers in Gaza City caused serious, lasting harm for countless Palestinians who lived, worked, shopped or benefited from businesses based there,” said Richard Weir, crisis and conflict researcher for Human Rights Watch. “The Israeli military should publicly produce the evidence that it says it relies on to carry out these attacks.”

In response to the report, the Israeli military accused Hamas and other militant groups of using the buildings for military purposes and turning their occupants into human shields.

“The assets Hamas tried to hide inside these multistory buildings ... were often of particularly high military value, and successfully striking them was of strategic importance,” it said.

It was the New York-based group’s third report on the 11-day war. It has previously accused Israel of apparent war crimes for attacks that it said had no clear military targets but killed dozens of civilians. It also has said that Hamas' rockets were fired indiscriminately at Israeli cities, constituting a war crime. Both sides denied the accusations.

The war erupted on May 10 after Hamas fired a barrage of rockets toward Jerusalem in support of Palestinian protests against Israel’s heavy-handed policing of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third-holiest site in Islam, and the threatened eviction of dozens of Palestinian families by Jewish settlers in a nearby neighborhood.

Palestinians inspect their destroyed houses following overnight Israeli airstrikes in town of Beit Hanoun, Gaza, May 14, 2021.Credit: AP Photo/Khalil Hamra

In all, some 260 people were killed in Gaza, including at least 66 children and 41 women, according to UN figures. Hamas has acknowledged the deaths of 80 militants, though Israel says that number is much higher. Twelve civilians, including two children, were killed in Israel, along with one soldier.

Israel’s destruction of Palestinian high-rises was one of its most controversial wartime tactics. Among the targets was the 12-story al-Jalaa building, which housed the local offices of The Associated Press. The building was also home to dozens of families.

The AP has called on Israel to make public the evidence it used to justify the demolition of the al-Jalaa building. Israel has said Hamas operatives were using the building for a sophisticated effort aimed at disrupting Israel’s Iron Dome rocket-defense system. But it has refused to share its intelligence, saying it did not want to reveal its sources of information.

HRW said it interviewed 18 Palestinians who were either witnesses or victims of the airstrikes. It said it also reviewed video footage and photos after the attacks, as well as statements by Israeli and Palestinian officials and militant groups.

Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar is greeted by supporters in Gaza City on May 22, 2021.Credit: Hatem RAWAGH / AFP

It said it found no evidence that militants involved in military operations had a current or long-term presence in the buildings when they were attacked. It also said that even if militants were using the buildings, making them legitimate targets, Israel is obligated to avoid disproportionate harm to civilians.

“The proportionality of the attack is even more questionable because Israeli forces have previously demonstrated the capacity to strike specific floors or parts of structures,” it said.

In its statement, the Israeli military said that in all the cases cited by Human Rights Watch, it provided “significant advance warnings and took efforts to ensure civilians had evacuated.”

It said that whenever possible, it struck specific floors of buildings. But in some cases, it had to destroy “the entire target” when it believed a pinpoint strike could cause an uncontrolled collapse or if the building was of high military value. “This was the case in a handful of cases,” it said, “and is the case in all the buildings mentioned in the report.”

The May conflict was the fourth war between Israel and Hamas since the Islamic militant group, which opposes Israel’s existence, seized control of Gaza in 2007, a year after winning Palestinian elections. Human Rights Watch, other rights groups and UN officials have accused both sides of committing war crimes in all the conflicts.

Early this year, HRW accused Israel of being guilty of international crimes of apartheid because of discriminatory policies toward Palestinians, both inside Israel and in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. Israel has rejected the accusations.

It also has called on the International Criminal Court to include the recent Gaza war in its ongoing investigation into possible war crimes by Israel and Palestinian militants. Israel does not recognize the court’s jurisdiction and says it is capable of investigating any possible wrongdoing by its army. It says the ICC probe is unfair and politically motivated.

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