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Will Israel be held accountable for war crimes?

Like tens of thousands of people in Gaza, Aymen al-Djaroucha had to flee his home with his family last month during the 11 days of fighting between the Israeli military and Palestinian armed groups, mainly Hamas, which controls the blockaded enclave.

Birds sing outside the window of his office as the father of three explains what it feels like to leave the place where you’ve spent the last 12 years – without any of your belongings.

“You have all your memories there, it’s where our children grew up, where we spent time with each other and shared happy moments and difficult moments. All my life was there.”

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But, he had to leave. The Israeli military phoned the apartment block’s caretaker on May 14 to warn families to evacuate. They bombed it less than an hour later, destroying several flats and causing a fire that ripped through the building.

He has since been back to assess the scale of the damage and to “try to return to my normal life”, he says.

“The flats above the eighth floor were badly destroyed by the fire and it was very hard for the civil defence to extinguish it. We have a lot of repairs to do inside and on the stairwell and a lot of cleaning.”

‘Get back to normal’

It was one of several high-rise buildings in Gaza City targeted by Israeli air strikes, including the al-Jalaa building that housed several media organisations, such as Al Jazeera and The Associated Press bureaus.

The skyline of the metropolis – home to almost 600,000 people – has been significantly altered since May 10 when hostilities escalated.

Along with at least 2,000 housing units destroyed and more than 15,000 other units damaged, Gaza’s already run-down infrastructure was also badly hit.

The United Nations reported that six hospitals, nine healthcare centres and a water desalination plant were damaged during the fighting.

Al-Djaroucha, who works as the project coordinator in Gaza for Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières, or MSF), says their burns and trauma clinic was damaged by an air strike.

“Not only the whole waiting area was affected but also one of the main sterilisation rooms, which we use to prepare materials and to sterilise the tools which we use in all our outpatient departments. So it’s vital that we are able to get back to normal as quickly as possible.”

Roads leading to Al-Shifa Hospital, the largest medical facility in the Gaza Strip, were also damaged, along with the only COVID-19 testing laboratory in the enclave.

Israel’s military claims it was only targeting buildings with links to Hamas and other armed groups. However, Raji Sourani, director of the Palestinian Human Rights Centre based in Gaza, refutes this.

“It wasn’t Hamas targeted; it wasn’t PFLP [Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine] targeted; it wasn’t Islamic Jihad targeted. I believe it was civilians targeted,” he says.

“From the first hour of the first day [of the recent escalation], civilians were the targets of these most high-tech airplanes – F16 and F35 – with rockets designed for military targets and you see these things targeting precisely. Tens of children and women killed. Nothing can justify that,” he adds.

Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, accused Hamas of using civilians as “human shields”. But, addressing the United Nations Human Rights Council last week, the UN human rights chief, Michelle Bachelet, said they have not seen evidence to support Israel’s claims that the buildings they bombed in Gaza were “hosting armed groups or being used for military purposes”.

Even before the recent eruption of violence, the International Criminal Court (ICC) had opened an investigation into previous bouts of the continuing conflict, and last month the ICC’s chief prosecutor said she was closely monitoring what was happening on the ground.

Both sides have been accused of committing war crimes; Hamas for firing rockets indiscriminately into civilian areas in Israel – although out of more than 2,000 rockets, about 640 fell short into the Gaza Strip and 90 percent that crossed the border were intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome missile defence system – and Israel for repeatedly bombing densely populated civilian areas within Gaza.

A legal attack?

At this stage, information is still being gathered, but Yael Stein, research director at B’Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, believes that Israel’s bombardment of civilian structures within Gaza violates international law.

“In order for an attack to be legal, it has to be both directed at a military target and be proportionate,” she explains.

For a building to be a military target, the destruction of it should give a military advantage to Israel. To be proportionate, you have to judge whether the military advantage you anticipate to receive from the bombing is higher than the loss to the civilian population.

Stein adds even when civilians were given some warning about when to evacuate, which saved lives, civilian property was still demolished and that “is still part of the calculation”.

“I think that the past proves that the Israeli army is interpreting this principle in a much wider way that the drafters of international law never expected, and that it is far from what can be considered to be proportionate,” she says.

Netanyahu has accused the ICC of “pure anti-Semitism” for investigating attacks and has said Israel does not accept the ICC’s jurisdiction, however, it does not have to. Stein says the court can work without Israel’s acceptance.

But, it will be a long time until anybody – whether Hamas leaders and/or Israeli officials – will be held accountable for their actions by the ICC.

“We’re just starting the procedure which will take years until the investigation will actually take place and then more years until somebody will be charged and then more years until somebody will be in jail,” she says.

The lack of enforcement mechanisms within international humanitarian law is a problem, she adds. “So states can violate the basic norms of international law and nothing will happen.”

Unforgiving siege

Eric Goldstein, acting executive director for the Middle East and North Africa at Human Rights Watch, says there has been a shift in international awareness and willingness to look at Israeli war crimes.

The UN Human Rights Council’s recent decision to launch a continuing inquiry into human rights abuses in Israel and Palestine is a “welcome step”, which he urged Israel to cooperate with.

“We’re going to push hard at the ICC so that they look at war crimes committed by all parties,” Goldstein says.

But, long-term peace will not be possible unless the “underlying root causes are addressed”, the main one being that Gaza is viewed as the largest open-air prison in the world – the enclave has been under an unforgiving siege imposed by Israel for more than 14 years, ever since Hamas took control of Gaza.

“That leaves people there with no future, with no hope and with their rights being violated almost on a daily basis,” says Stein, adding the international community needs to put pressure on Israel to stop this.

“You have to treat those people as human beings, as equal people that deserve the same rights as every other people in the territory under Israeli control.”

Goldstein adds the oppression of Palestinians, which “amounts to a situation of apartheid”, feeds into the conflict and gives Hamas “certain political support”. The United States, in particular, needs to “take a harder look at its unconditional support for Israel”, and parties helping Hamas “commit their war crimes, logistically or providing material” should stop, he says.

Both Israel and Hamas announced victories at the end of the 11 days of fighting, with Israel saying they killed nearly 30 senior Hamas commanders and destroyed 340 of their rocket launchers, as well as 130km (60 miles) of underground tunnels.

But at what cost?

The number of Palestinians killed last month in Gaza stands at 256, including 66 children. In Israel, 13 people were killed, including two children.

The Palestinian Human Rights Centre’s Sourani, who has lived through the previous three wars, says he has never experienced anything like this latest period of violence. “I’m honestly telling you that for 11 days I never thought dawn would come and I would see the sun rise again.”

Every family in Gaza has been affected: many loved ones lost, livelihoods destroyed and homes reduced to rubble, Sourani says.

“What did the al-Hadidi family do [to deserve this]?” he asks, referring to the family that lost 10 members in an Israeli air strike – only the father and baby boy survived.

Accountability, he says as the call to prayer echoes in the background, “means that this will not be repeated once again”.

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