Physicians for Human Rights-Israel (PHR) has just published an important report on Operation Protective Edge (8 July-26 August, 2014), Israel’s assault on Gaza that killed more than 2,100 Palestinians, including nearly 1,500 civilians and more than 500 children. PHR’s fact-finding mission, which comprised eight independent international forensic and medical experts, is the only one to date to have been granted access to Gaza by Israel and Egypt—subsequent delegations from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the UN Human Rights Council were repeatedly denied entry.
PHR sought to accumulate evidence as to the causes and patterns of injuries suffered; attacks on medical teams and facilities; evacuation of civilians, the dead and the wounded; the impact of the conflict on Gaza’s healthcare system overall; and longer-term public health impacts of the offensive (e.g. rehabilitation of survivors). Its findings were based on several field trips to Gaza during and after the offensive; interviews with 68 patients and examination of their wounds and available medical files; visits to sites where reported incidents took place; 370 photos of the deceased from the morgue at Gaza’s Shifa hospital; and interviews with other relevant individuals (for instance, World Health Organisation officials). The report’s authors adopt a cautious and professional tone but describe the stuff of nightmares.
- Serious violations of international law including ‘heavy and unpredictable bombardments of civilian neighbourhoods in a manner that failed to discriminate between legitimate targets and protected populations and caused widespread destruction of homes and property’. These ‘must have entailed approval from top-level decision-makers in the Israeli military and/or government’. Other violations included denial of medical care to injured civilians; attacks on medical facilities and rescuers; firing on a group of civilians waving white flags; execution of a civilian at short range; human shielding; and cruel and/or inhuman treatment of detainees.
- No safe place: patient interviews revealed a consistent picture of people being ‘injured or killed while in, or very close to, their homes’.
- Multiple-casualty strikes, ‘double-tapping’: A large proportion of interviewees reported that others had been killed or wounded in the same incident as themselves. 39 of 68 patients interviewed reported that relatives had been killed or injured alongside them. This supports the UN’s finding (cited by PHR) that, as of 24 August 2014, at least 142 families had lost at least three members of the same family in a single incident. PHR adduces two explanations for this. First, many interviewees record that Israeli forces used 'double tap' strikes—that is, a strike by a missile or shell, followed by a brief interval during which time relatives, friends, neighbours and rescuers gather around the victims or targets, followed by a second strike that inflicts multiple casualties among the assembled crowd. Israeli forces also carried out consecutive strikes on multi-story buildings, which sometimes killed rescuers and those trying to flee. Second, Israeli forces used ‘exceptionally powerful and indiscriminate forms of explosives’. For instance, in an alleged attempt to assassinate Hamas militant Muhammad Deif, Israel reportedly targeted a three-story building with five missiles and additional heavy explosives, killing Deif’s wife and son and devastating the surrounding area (35 buses were reported damaged). A neighbour reported that the blast was so big that even in his adjacent house, ‘his daughter, a 2-month old baby girl, was thrown up in the air from a bed she was lying on, her head hitting the ceiling of the room, causing head trauma’. In the town of Khuza’a, PHR fact-finders discovered what appeared to be the barrel of a Tzefa Shirion (‘Viper Armour’), an Israeli mine-clearing system. As this barrel flies through the air, a line of explosives unfurls behind it like a whip; once fully unfurled and spread across the ground, the payloads detonate. As designed, its purpose is to clear a wide corridor of mines, through which troops may safely advance. PHR reports that this extremely destructive and inherently ‘indiscriminate’ weapon was used ‘in residential built-up areas’ in the 2006 Lebanon War and at least four times during Operation Cast Lead (2008-9), ‘causing the destruction of entire streets and neighbourhoods’.
- Ineffective warnings: During the massacre Israeli propaganda made much of the army’s supposed efforts to warn civilians in Gaza to flee before attacks. PHR found these warnings to be ‘highly inconsistent’ and thus ineffective. The general warnings to evacuate areas along Gaza’s northern, eastern and western borders encouraged mass internal displacement and ‘squeezed’ the population into the middle of the Strip—but even here, ‘many attacks were reported’. Of the 68 patients PHR interviewed, 63 said they’d received ‘no prior warning’. Given the number of people attacked while fleeing, some chose to stay put even having received a warning. In the aftermath of attacks, coordination with Israeli authorities (via the ICRC) for safe evacuation of civilians, the wounded and the dead took an average of up to ten hours, and in some cases seven or eight days. (Prior to the war, evacuation through this mechanism took an average of 10-20 minutes).
- Healthcare stretched to breaking: Gaza’s hospitals were completely ‘overwhelmed’. With capacity strained beyond coping, surgeons resorted to using unsterile gloves, while paramedics and nurses recycled stretchers without washing them and conducted triage on mattresses outside. Patients may have died as a result. The European Hospital in Khan Younis went at least one day without food; WHO staff checked on patients after one week and found that some hadn’t had their injuries re-dressed, and ‘maggots were swarming in the wounds’. In the early phase of the war Israeli propaganda trumpeted its establishment of a ‘field hospital’ to treat Palestinians. WHO officials interviewed by PHR described the hospital as ‘a joke’, a ‘waste of time whose sole purpose was to implement a process for control’.
Khuza’a: ‘epitomising the failings of Israeli policy’
PHR devoted two field visits to the town of Khuza’a, near Khan Younis. Below are summaries of the two incidents the report describes in-depth.
Firing on white flags
On 17 July, Israel sent mass SMS messages to residents to evacuate the town. Many left; others could not or chose not to, having heard of the terrible, overcrowded conditions that awaited them. Some left and returned a few days later, believing the area to be safe. On 20-23 July, Israeli forces isolated the town and commenced heavy shelling. Tanks and ground forces invaded. About 200 elderly and chronically ill people took refuge in a clinic belonging to Dr. Kamal Qdeih. Having tried and failed to arrange with Israel an evacuation via the ICRC, and as bombing intensified, they resolved to collectively march out of the town together with others trapped in the town. On 23 July, 500-3,000 people marched towards Khan Younis, waving white flags and calling out, ‘peaceful, peaceful’. The group came under fire from Israeli soldiers, which according to Dr. Qdeih injured about 31 people. A relative of Qdeih’s, a wheelchair-bound 16 year-old girl being pushed by her brother, was among the marchers. When the shooting began the brother fled, leaving her behind. ‘[Her] charred body was found by her family on 1 August 2014 in the street’. The crowd retreated under fire to the clinic; once inside, Dr. Qdeih set about treating the injured, with anaesthetic while it lasted. The clinic was then struck by two missiles, which injured several people including the doctor, and killed his brother. An hour later, a missile hit the brother’s house, injuring 20-25 people. About 200 of those hiding in the clinic fled to the basement of a neighbouring house. PHR sought without success to coordinate their evacuation with the Israeli authorities, and an ambulance was reportedly prevented by Israeli forces from approaching. The following day, the basement was attacked with teargas and a missile, before the group was finally permitted to evacuate—although at least three more were killed by a tank as they did so.
As they left the town, several interviewees recalled seeing the mortally wounded six year-old Bader Qdeih approach them ‘holding his intestines with his hands, pleading “take me with you, take me with you”’. One interviewee recalled,
I was so weak and terrified myself that we ran for our lives leaving the child behind. This scene now tortures me and I feel guilty. He was like my son—the same age. He could have been my own son, and I left him there to die.
PHR concludes that Israeli soldiers must have seen Bader, yet did not secure his evacuation. He later died of his injuries.
Execution; human shielding
Ramadan Qdeih and 60 members of his extended family waited the bombardment out in the basement of Muhammad Tawfiq Qdeih, his father. They tried to leave it to join the first exodus march described above, but were forced back by gunfire. On the night of 23 July, Israeli soldiers fired teargas into the basement, but people didn’t dare leave. On 24 July, most left to join the second exodus. But Ramadan’s father was terrified and returned to the house, and 26 relatives stayed with him. The next day, Israeli soldiers used a bulldozer to knock down the garage door and entered the house. Muhammad, the father, shouted in Hebrew to the soldiers that civilians were present; they were all ordered to climb up the stairs. Muhammad was then shot twice at close range; ‘he died immediately in front of his family’. The soldiers ordered the women, children and elderly to leave, but detained and blindfolded seven younger men, including Ramadan. The men were beaten and interrogated, and then used as human shields—the soldiers firing guns from behind them, the barrels resting upon their shoulders.
Just another report
The fact-finding team encountered a pervasive sense of isolation and abandonment in Gaza. ‘Feeling cut off from the rest of the world was psychologically challenging for many people… The teams were questioned repeatedly about what they were doing to stop the war… Many felt that “another report” documenting their pain and suffering would be ineffective’. If no pressure is brought to bear to pursue accountability and end Israel’s siege of Gaza and occupation of Palestinian territory, they are tragically but surely correct. At this point, the world is not short on evidence or even popular knowledge of the horrors inflicted on the people of occupied Palestine. Nor does it want for proposals to bring them to an end. What it lacks is the organised will to have them implemented.
PHR’s report ends, correctly, with a demand for international legal accountability. But whatever the Palestinian Authority may have fooled itself into believing, the legal process is not a sphere apart from politics. Its decision to sign the Rome Statute is welcome, but the bureaucratic process that lies between us and a trial is so long and so tortuous that the most concerted and sustained political pressure will be required to extract anything concrete from it. Accountability for Gaza and for Palestine requires reports like these, to document the criminality and to remember the dead. But most of all, it requires a mass Palestinian movement.
 You can watch a similar system in action here.
 Cf. this, p. 20; and this, p. 92.
 So far as I can discover, the Tzefa Shirion (צפ”ש) was first used in a populated area in the first Lebanon War, which saw a much storied incident in which Pinhas Dagan, faced with a mined street in Beirut, ordered its firing to avoid risking his troops. All the houses on both sides of the street were destroyed; after the war, Dagan was promoted. The weapon was used in the Second Lebanon War to attack the Casbah of Maroun al-Ras (to ‘destroy’ it, in the boastful words of the IDF’s military engineering corps website). In Operation Cast Lead (2008-9), Tzefa Shirion was used at least four times in built-up areas of Gaza. Yedioth Aharonoth military analyst Alex Fishman wrote at the time that the use of a weapon designed to clear mines in the wide-open spaces of the Golan Heights against booby-trapped houses in urban Gaza revealed much about Israel’s doctrine of urban warfare: to use massive firepower ‘just in case’, in order to minimise the risk to its own soldiers. It is certainly ‘efficient’, he wrote, but comes at a huge cost in lives and property for those targeted. PHR was unable to determine how frequently Tzefa Shirion had been used in Khuza’a or elsewhere during Operation Protective Edge. For analysis of Israel’s policy of massive infrastructure destruction in Lebanon and Gaza, see Norman G. Finkelstein, Method and Madness: The hidden story of Israel’s assaults on Gaza (OR Books, 2015), pp. 13-16, 128-29, 137.
 PHR's account supplements and reinforces HRW’s report on Khuza’a, Gaza: Israeli Soldiers Shoot and Kill Fleeing Civilians (4 August, 2014). HRW accused Israel of ‘apparent violation of the laws of war’ which, if deliberate, would amount to ‘war crimes’.
 In Operation Cast Lead as well as Operation Protective Edge, Israel alleged human shielding by Hamas to justify the level of Palestinian casualties. In both cases, human rights organisations found no evidence to support the charges against Hamas, but were able to document the use of human shields by Israel.