The prominent humanitarian organization Human Rights Watch alleged on Sept. 11 that three Israeli attacks on Gaza schools caused numerous civilian casualties in violation of the laws of war. In the first in-depth documentation of the alleged violations, Human Rights Watch investigated the three attacks on schools that had been sheltering families displaced by the conflict, which occurred on July 24 and 30, and August 3, 2014, killing 45 people, including 17 children.
"The Israeli military carried out attacks on or near three well-marked schools where it knew hundreds of people were taking shelter, killing and wounding scores of civilians,” said Fred Abrahams, special adviser at Human Rights Watch. “Israel has offered no convincing explanation for these attacks on schools where people had gone for protection and the resulting carnage.”
HRW reports that two of the three attacks it investigated—in Beit Hanoun and Jabalya—did not appear to target a military objective or were otherwise unlawfully indiscriminate. The third attack in Rafah was unlawfully disproportionate if not otherwise indiscriminate. According to the HRW statement, "Unlawful attacks carried out willfully—that is, deliberately or recklessly—are war crimes."
“Israel should go beyond sweeping justifications and provide detailed explanations for its attacks in and around these three schools housing hundreds of displaced people,” Abrahams said. “And it should end its practice of impunity by punishing those who violate the laws of war.”
At a press briefing, officials from the Israel Defense Forces showed photographs of what they said were rockets hidden in and fired from school compounds. But according to HRW, none of the photographs were from the three UN-run schools that it investigated and where many civilians died.
Meanwhile the Associated Press is reporting that Hamas officials are acknowledging a long-standing accusation from Israeli military that it deploys weapons in residential areas. According to the AP report: "Even Hamas now admits 'mistakes' were made. But Hamas says it had little choice in Gaza's crowded urban landscape, took safeguards to keep people away from the fighting, and that a heavy-handed Israeli response is to blame for the deaths of hundreds of Palestinian civilians."
"Gaza, from Beit Hanoun in the north to Rafah in the south, is one uninterrupted urban chain that Israel has turned into a war zone," Ghazi Hamad, a senior Hamas official in Gaza told AP.
The precise location of such missile or mortar launches could be significant as a UN Commission of Inquiry begins into allegations of war crimes by both parties to the 50 day conflict.
According to the United Nations, 2,131 Palestinians died in the latest fighting, 501 were children and about 70 percent of the children killed were under 12. The number of combatants killed in Gaza is a matter of ongoing dispute, but most observers acknowledge that the toll on Gaza noncombatants was significant, perhaps as many as 65 to 75 percent of the total casualties. (IDF reports 50 percent.) Entire neighborhoods and thousands of homes in Gaza were leveled in the air, land and sea assault by the IDF, and more than 100,000 have been left homeless. According to UN officials, restoring Gaza could take decades. Water and electricity capacity in Gaza was severely degraded during the conflict. On the Israeli side, 72 people were killed, including six civilians.
In the first school attack investigated by HRW, at about 3 p.m. on July 24, apparent IDF mortar shells struck a coeducational elementary school in Beit Hanoun run by the United Nations, killing 13 people, including six children, and wounding dozens of others.
Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that days of fighting in the area had caused most of the people staying at the school to leave, but several hundred remained. "Most were awaiting transport to a safer area when two munitions, probably 81mm or 120mm mortar shells, hit inside the school compound," HRW reports.
A witness interviewed by HRW investigattors, Jamal Abu `Owda, 58, said he was sitting outside a classroom when one of the munitions struck. “Most people got killed in the middle of the courtyard,” he said. There were “shredded bodies, a mix of everything, boys, men, girls, women, a mix of different faces and bodies.” Witnesses said a second shell hit the courtyard shortly after the first, followed in quick succession by two more just outside the school compound.
The Israeli military alleged that Hamas fighters had “operated adjacent to” the school. After coming under fire with anti-tank missiles, soldiers responded by “firing several mortars in their direction.” The military said a “single errant mortar” hit the school courtyard, which was “completely empty”—a claim disputed by seven witnesses who separately spoke to Human Rights Watch.
Witnesses described at least four shells striking in and around the compound within a few minutes—"a precision that would be extremely unlikely for errant Palestinian munitions," according to HRW investigators.
On July 30, at least 10 Israeli munitions hit in and around the UN-run girls’ elementary school in Jabalya, then sheltering more than 3,200 people. The shelling killed 20 people, including three children. An inspection of the damage and photographs of munition remnants found at the site, according to the report, suggest that Israe forcesl fired 155mm artillery rounds, including smoke, illumination, and standard high explosive shells, the last of which produces extensive blast and fragmentation damage.”
The Israeli military said that Palestinian fighters had fired mortars “from the vicinity” of the school, but provided no information to support that claim. In any event, according to HRW, the use of high-explosive, heavy-artillery shells so near a shelter filled with civilians constitutes an indiscriminate attack.
At about 10:45 a.m. on August 3, an apparent Israeli Spike guided missile hit directly outside a UN-run boys’ school in Rafah, killing 12 people, including 8 children, and wounding at least 25. About 3,000 people were taking shelter in the school at the time.
Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that many civilians, including children, were near the school’s front gate buying sweets when the missile struck directly across the street, about 10 meters away. According to the HRW statement, "The Israeli military said it had targeted three Islamic Jihad members on a motorcycle “near” the school, but provided no further information, including why it attacked the men in front of a school sheltering thousands of displaced people rather than before they arrived or after they drove away."