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As Palestinians Go to ICC, Human Rights Watch Alleges Israeli War Crimes for Shooting Fleeing Gazans

Human Rights Watch accused Israeli soldiers of shooting and killing fleeing civilians in Gaza, citing interviews with seven Palestinians in the village of Khuza’a.

Part of the Series

As the 72-hour ceasefire in Gaza enters its second day, Palestinian officials have been meeting with prosecutors at the International Criminal Court to push for a probe of alleged war crimes committed by Israel during the 29-day offensive that left nearly 1,900 Palestinians dead. Israel has said it attempted to avoid civilian casualties in Gaza and accused Hamas of putting its people in harm’s way by launching rockets from within densely populated districts. In a report this week, Human Rights Watch accused Israeli soldiers of shooting and killing fleeing civilians in Gaza, citing interviews with seven Palestinians in the village of Khuza’a. We air testimony from Khuza’a residents who survived the attacks, and speak to Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth.


NERMEEN SHAIKH: As the 72-hour ceasefire in Gaza enters its second day, Palestinian officials have been meeting with prosecutors at the International Criminal Court to push for a probe of alleged war crimes committed by Israel during the 29-day offensive that left nearly 1,900 Palestinians dead. On Tuesday, Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki said his administration was making efforts to have Palestine become a member of the ICC, a legal step that would grant the court jurisdiction over war crimes in the territory.

RIYAD AL-MALIKI: Well, of course, from our part, everything that has happened in the last 28 days is clear evidence of war crimes committed by Israel, that really tantamount to crimes against humanity. It’s not that, you know, I am saying that as a Palestinian; it was being really said by many observers, international experts on international law, who has really described this as war crimes. And as a result, you know, there is no difficulty for us to show a case or to build a case. Evidence is out there just, you know, for people to see and to collect.

AMY GOODMAN: Israel has said it attempted to avoid civilian casualties in Gaza and accused Hamas of putting its people in harm’s way by launching rockets from within densely populated districts. Last month, Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer, dismissed the charges of Israeli war crimes. He said, quote, “Some are shamelessly accusing Israel of genocide and would put us in the dock for war crimes. But the truth is that the Israeli Defense Forces should be given the Nobel Peace Prize … a Nobel Peace Prize for fighting with unimaginable restraint,” he said. Those the words of Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer speaking last month at the Christians United for Israel Summit in Washington, D.C.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, earlier this week, Human Rights Watch released a report accusing Israeli soldiers of shooting and killing fleeing civilians in Gaza. The group based its reports on interviews with seven Palestinians who fled fighting in the village of Khuza’a. The report was based in part on testimony from Ashraf Ibrahim al-Najjar, who was trapped in his house by shelling for three days, then shot at when he tried to leave.

ASHRAF IBRAHIM AL-NAJJAR: [translated] They were shelling us, artillery shells and missiles, while we were inside the house. We tried to get out and contact the Red Cross. No one responded. They said there was no coordination with Israeli authorities. So the shells fell down on our heads, on the building where we were staying, about 40 or 50 of us. We stayed there for three days under missiles and shelling.

At the time, since there was no Israeli coordination with the Red Cross, we decided to go out at our own risk. We said, “That’s it. We have to leave before the house falls on us.” We got out to the street. We took the mothers and the children with us. We raised up the white flag and continued walking at our own risk. We were shot at about 400 or 500 meters from our house. We were shot at. We didn’t know if the shooting was by a tank or the special forces. God only knows.

AMY GOODMAN: Ashraf Ibrahim al-Najjar, speaking to Human Rights Watch.

For more, we’re joined in Washington, D.C., by Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch.

We welcome you to Democracy Now!, Ken. Can you talk about this finding of Human Rights Watch in Khuza’a?

KENNETH ROTH: Yeah, I mean, this was a truly tragic case, I mean, as your introductory segment showed. Khuza’a is a small town in the southern part of Gaza. Beginning on about July 21st, it was the subject of fairly relentless bombardment. Finally, after a couple of days, on July 23rd through July 25th, families slowly tried to leave Khuza’a for their larger city of Khan Younis nearby, hoping to find refuge there. And as you would do in a situation like this, they raised white flags. They did everything they could to make clear that they were not militants. But on several different occasions, Israeli forces shot at them and actually killed some among the people who were fleeing. And so it was as if, you know, they’re damned if they stayed, damned if they fled, their lives very much in jeopardy each step of the way.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Kenneth Roth, can you explain why Human Rights Watch has advised the Palestinians to go to the International Criminal Court about these war crimes? What would be the advantage of doing so?

KENNETH ROTH: Well, you know, despite the Israeli ambassador’s claim that Israel deserves the Nobel Peace Prize for its extraordinary restraint and its extraordinary care to spare civilian lives, Human Rights Watch has seen from the ground, based on our investigations in Gaza, that that’s anything but the case. And no matter how many times the Israeli military spokesmen scream, “Human shields! Human shields!” most of the people being killed in Gaza are being killed because Israel is paying insufficient care to saving civilian lives. There’s been case after case in which Israel has used the wrong weaponry or has shot at people with many civilians around. And these, in our view, are war crimes.

Now, neither Israel nor Hamas has any record of bringing its war criminals to justice. And to be fair here, we should note that Hamas is also committing war crimes by indiscriminately sending rockets into populated areas of Israel. And so, given that complete impunity within Israel and Gaza, the only real recourse that we see is to the International Criminal Court.

Now, Palestine, having now been recognized by the U.N. General Assembly as a state, actually is entitled to ratify the International Criminal Court treaty, or even short of that, to simply invite the International Criminal Court to come in and conduct an investigation. I don’t quite understand what the Palestinian representative was doing in The Hague, because this is not just a matter of going and discussing whether maybe the International Criminal Court might get involved. You know, they should stop the charade and just invite the International Criminal Court in. It’s a simple thing to do.

Now, of course, the reason they’re not doing it is probably twofold. I mean, one is that the U.S. government and certain Western governments are shamefully putting pressure on the Palestinian Authority not to do that, threatening to withhold aid and all kinds of severe consequences. And this is their effort to protect Israel from a proper war crimes investigation. The other factor which may be playing a part is, of course, Hamas’s vulnerability to prosecution, as well. And we don’t know to what extent Hamas is telling the Palestinian Authority, you know, “Don’t you dare really bring in the International Criminal Court, because we’re at jeopardy, as well.”

But, you know, the bottom line is that this charade is not real, and we hope that the Palestinian Authority will get off the fence and go forward and actually invite in the International Criminal Court as the only realistic prospect for bringing justice to the many, many victims of these war crimes.

AMY GOODMAN: Ken Roth, I want to go back to another one of the Palestinians that your group, Human Rights Watch, interviewed about the attacks on civilians in Gaza. This is Kamel Ibrahim al-Najjar.

KAMEL IBRAHIM AL-NAJJAR: [translated] I was safe at home when the bombs rained down on us for no reason. I don’t have any fighters or anything in the house. It was just me and my family in the house. We decided that this situation wasn’t going to work. There was a lot of shelling. We needed to get shelter under anything, anywhere. We went to our neighbor’s house, and we found out that they had a basement. The basement was full, about a hundred people.

The next day at 6:00 a.m., an F-16 strike hit us. Shrapnel fragments entered the basement through the windows, and the basement collapsed. There were 120 people in the basement; 90 percent were women and children. There were only about 10 men. I didn’t know where I was. Shrapnel went into my eye and my head. I couldn’t see anything because of the smoke from the F-16 strike.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Kamel Ibrahim al-Najjar. Ken Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, talk about the significance of what Kamel is saying.

KENNETH ROTH: Well, you know, one thing that Israel keeps stressing is that they are issuing warnings to people to flee their homes as a way of protecting them from this kind of bombardment. And to Israel’s credit, that’s a good to do. The problem is that merely issuing a warning doesn’t make it fair game to then attack or ignore anyone who remains, because civilians remain at home for lots of reasons. Many just can’t bear to leave their home. Some are infirm. Some don’t know where to go. Some are simply paralyzed by fear. So, you know, what we stressed over and over to the Israelis, even going back to the war with Hezbollah, is that issuing warnings is not enough. They still have a duty to spare civilians, do everything they can to avoid civilian casualties.

But instead, what we’re finding is that once these warnings are issued, it’s almost like it’s fair game. And they use, for example—The New York Times did an interesting study yesterday—heavy artillery, 155-millimeter artillery, which is utterly inappropriate in a densely populated area, because this kind of artillery is considered accurate if it lands anyplace within a 50-meter radius. You know, you can imagine there are a lot of civilians in that area. It has a fragmentation and blast effect of 300 meters. And nonetheless, Israel lets off barrages of these heavy artilleries. The New York Times documented that yesterday. Or they’ll bring in their air force and simply bomb, even though there are many, many civilians in these areas. And it’s almost as if, you know, once they issue the warning, they feel it’s fair game to simply level the neighborhood, despite the many civilians who are still there.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk about the categories of war crimes that you’re looking at? I mean, when you talk about civilians who were being shot while they’re fleeing, like we just heard earlier and that your report is all about in Khuza’a, fleeing civilians.

KENNETH ROTH: Yeah. Yeah, well, I mean, fleeing civilians—to shoot at a fleeing civilian is an obvious war crime. That’s deliberately killing a civilian, a noncombatant.

We’re also looking at situations in which the Israelis are using indiscriminate means, such as heavy artillery in heavily populated areas. The laws of war require you to use discriminate means, to focus very narrowly on a military target.

We’re looking at other instances where Israel has targeted a structure which is not a legitimate military target, it’s a civilian home. Often what they’ll say is, “Oh, this was the home of a Hamas commander,” and then they’ll blow it up, even though it was the family home and there’s no evidence the commander is even there. That often results in civilian casualties, and that, too, is a war crime.

And finally, we’re looking at cases in which there may well have been a militant there, but Israel fires even though there are many civilians around. And so, you know, for example, when they hit the beach cafe killing nine people watching the World Cup, we don’t even know if there was a militant there, but that was a wholly inappropriate time to shoot. Or when they claimed to have been going after a militant, hit his family home and killed 25 civilians who were breaking the Ramadan fast. These are clearly disproportionate harm to civilians, a war crime regardless of whether there might have been a militant in the vicinity or not.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Kenneth Roth, is this the first time that Human Rights Watch has accused Israel of war crimes since 2002?

KENNETH ROTH: And I wish that were the case, but unfortunately, no. They seem not to learn. I mean, we’ve gone through this in the prior Gaza efforts. We went through it with the Hezbollah war. I actually, you know, after the Hezbollah war, went and briefed the senior Israeli lawyer for the military, describing many of these same problems, the fact that you can’t just issue a warning and assume that everybody left, in that case, is Hezbollah. So, you know, they are completely on notice. We’ve accused them of this in the past. They just keep repeating it. And it seems to be almost by design to try to make the people of Gaza pay a price because Hamas is ruling over them. But, of course, you know, that’s the same logic that they criticize Hamas for, where Hamas will say, “Oh, well, you know, Israel elected Netanyahu, therefore any Israeli civilian is fair game,” or, “All Israeli males might go into the military, so therefore we can fire indiscriminate rockets.” I mean, that’s a war crime logic, and Israel is oftentimes acting according to the same logic in Gaza.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to this discussion. Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. It’s published a new report, “Gaza: Israeli Soldiers Shoot and Kill Fleeing Civilians.” We’ll be back with him in a moment.

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