Attack on Wafa Hospital
Israeli forces struck Wafa Hospital, in the Shejai’ya neighborhood, east of Gaza City, on at least three days from July 11 to July 17, 2014. Israeli forces had also shelled the hospital before beginning its ground offensive in December 2008.
Before dawn on July 11, 2014, a possible “warning” missile, which did not explode, hit the hospital’s fourth floor. It was followed later that day by several missile strikes that caused extensive damage. After an attack at about 4 or 5 p.m. the hospital’s director, Dr. Basman al-Ashi, received a phone call from someone speaking “Hebrew-accented Arabic who asked if anyone had been injured in the attack and if we were going to evacuate,” he said. “But we couldn’t evacuate when there is no other hospital in Gaza equipped for our patients.” The hospital’s 17 chronically ill, elderly, and paralyzed patients are immobile.
Photographs of the weapons that struck the hospital on July 11, taken by a foreign volunteer and shown to Human Rights Watch, indicate that several solid-propellant missiles, approximately 170 millimeters in diameter, penetrated the hospital’s stairwell and damaged rooms on an upper floor. Many of the missiles used by Israeli air and ground forces have advanced guidance systems and can be accurately targeted.
On July 15, another phone call urged staff to evacuate by 8 a.m. the following day. That evening, the third floor of the care center for the elderly next to the main building was hit, staff and foreign volunteers told Human Rights Watch. Based on photographs of recovered munitions Human Rights Watch viewed, the remnants appear to be sabots from tank-fired projectiles. Tank fire is line-of-sight, direct fire, and Israeli tanks have accurate targeting systems. The repeated Israeli attacks using accurate missile and tank fire that hit the hospital indicate that Israeli forces targeted the hospital intentionally and not accidentally, Human Rights Watch said.
On the night of July 17, shortly before the ground invasion, a call to the hospital’s receptionist at 9 p.m. warned staff to evacuate immediately. Five minutes later, a strike on a nearby building blew out windows in the hospital and two munitions hit the hospital’s upper floors, causing a fire that filled rooms with smoke, Dr. al-Ashi said. Numerous other strikes hit the hospital shortly thereafter, he said. He and two foreign volunteers told Human Rights Watch that they evacuated while the neighborhood was under attack. Two patients were temporarily disconnected from the oxygen supply they need to breathe, and two patients and two staff were injured, but the extent of their injuries was not known.
Dr. al-Ashi told Human Rights Watch:
At 9 p.m. our receptionist got a phone call from the Israeli military. The soldier told him, “You care about your families, your patients. You need to leave the hospital now, because we will bomb it.” About five minutes later, two missiles hit the fourth floor. They continued shelling the building, and a fire started and we lost our electricity. Our nurses were unable to stand up, there was panic. Some of our patients were choking because they need oxygen and they lost the supply. The rooms were full of smoke. We evacuated all of our patients and staff, but four of them couldn’t get out.
The remaining patients and staff were able to leave later that night for al-Sahaba Medical Complex in Gaza’s middle area. The two foreign volunteers said they helped carry patients down the stairs and that they drove an ambulance with two patients in it while the group was evacuating. “They were still shelling when we drove away,” one of the volunteers said.
An Israeli military spokesperson reportedly told a journalist, “We’ve seen a lot of launches of rockets that came from exactly near the hospital, 100 meters near.” He said that “Obviously the target was not the hospital.” Given the precision weapons available to the Israeli military, a target 100 meters from the hospital provides no justification to hit the hospital. Extensive care should have been taken to avoid any attacks on the hospital.
Moreover, even if military forces misuse a hospital to store weapons or shelter able-bodied combatants, which Israel has not alleged, the attacking force must issue a warning that sets a “reasonable time limit” and can attack only “after such a warning has remained unheeded,” according to the International Committee of the Red Cross study of customary international humanitarian law. According to a media article, the Israeli military’s “News Desk,” a department in the spokesperson’s office, separately confirmed that there were no weapons inside the hospital.
Hospitals have special protections under the laws of war. While other presumptively civilian structures become military objectives if they are being used for a military purpose, hospitals only lose their protection from attack if they are being used, outside their humanitarian function, to commit acts harmful to the enemy. Attacks intended for military targets near a hospital would still need to be conducted in a manner that were not indiscriminate or did not cause disproportionate harm to the hospital or its patients. Israel has not provided enough information about the target to justify such damage to the hospital. Israeli forces repeatedly warned hospital staff to evacuate since July 11, but issuing warnings did not remedy the illegality of repeatedly striking a hospital without a lawful military justification.
Killing of Al-Bakr Cousins
At about 4 p.m. on July 16, an Israeli airstrike hit a small outbuilding on the pier of Gaza City’s port, killing four boys who had been on the pier nearby, journalists reported witnesses as saying. A second strike, less than a minute later, wounded one man and three boys who were about 50 meters from the building and running from the first strike. The strike killed Ismail al-Bakr, 9, and his three cousins, Ahed, 10, Zakariya, 10, and Mohammad, 11 – who had been near the outbuilding. News reports identified the injured man as a fisherman from the Bakr family.
In a July 16 statement, the Israeli military said, “The target of this strike was Hamas terrorist operatives,” and that civilian casualties were “tragic.” A reporter with the Israeli daily Haaretz tweeted that an Israeli military official said at a briefing that the outbuilding was an “identified Hamas installation” and that the second attack had misidentified the children running away as “fleeing fighters.” An Israeli military spokesperson, Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, told journalists on July 18 that the military was investigating the incident.
A number of foreign journalists witnessed the attack, according to their published accounts. One journalist, who asked not to be identified, told Human Rights Watch that she was in her room at the Deira Hotel, about 200 meters from the site of the attack, “when I heard an explosion”:
I ran down to the restaurant, where there’s a big patio overlooking the beach, and I saw a group of small kids running toward the hotel and shouting and waving their arms. Hotel staff were shouting to the kids to take cover, then the second strike hit. There was smoke, and several wounded kids made it to the patio, and at least three others came inside the hotel. I helped treat one of them who had a chest wound caused by shrapnel. He was about 13 years old. I saw another boy, a bit younger, with a head wound. Other journalists and hotel staff went and found the bodies of the other boys on the beach. A colleague of mine followed the three wounded boys to the hospital and said they survived.
Israel has an obligation not to attack presumptively civilian objects, such as an outbuilding on a pier, unless they can reasonably be determined to be a military objective. An attacker cannot lawfully presume that anyone seen fleeing an attack is a combatant, and in cases of doubt must presume the person is a civilian, protected from attack. Attacks that are not directed at a specific military target are unlawful.
Photographs taken by another journalist of shrapnel found at the scene indicate that Israeli forces fired Spike missiles in the attack. Spike missiles, produced by the Israeli arms company Rafael, can be launched from ships, aircraft, or ground forces. The missile has its own camera that allows the operator to observe the target from the moment of firing and to divert the fired missile if last-second doubts arise about the target. If the missile used in this attack was endowed with these visual capabilities, its operators should have been able to differentiate between fighters and young children, and to hold fire if a clear determination of fighters could not be made.
Attack Killing Media Worker Hamed Shehab, Wounding 20
An Israeli airstrike on the afternoon of July 9 killed Hamed Shehab, 32, a driver who had been working for Media24, a local Palestinian news agency, in his car while he was driving in the Rimal neighborhood in southern Gaza City, said a colleague who witnessed the attack. Shehab had purchased the car, a gray Skoda, several years ago, and had affixed “TV” in large letters to the hood.
Shehab had worked occasionally as a driver and assistant for the agency since it opened in October 2013, said the station manager, Khaled el-Ashkar, 34. “He would call us or we would call him when we needed extra help, especially during escalations [in hostilities], when we’re really busy,” el-Ashkar said:
He’d been doing this for many months now. He came to work with us full-time three days before he was killed. That same day he was working for us from 7 a.m. in the hospital, he hadn’t left the hospital all day. He went home to change his clothes because they’d been working for so many hours. I can’t understand why he was targeted. He wasn’t affiliated with Hamas.
A Media24 cameraman, Hatem Salmi, 28, said he had been working with Shehab constantly for the previous three days, and on numerous previous occasions. “He was a good friend, I know he wasn’t with any resistance” groups, Salmi said. On the afternoon of July 9, the station manager called them at the hospital to tell them to go home. They decided to go home to change their clothes, then go to the office. Salmi told Human Rights Watch:
He dropped me off at home, in Rimal [neighborhood], and was supposed to come and pick me up. Hamid was also bringing mattresses so we could sleep in the office. And he had tomatoes and potatoes, for us to break the [Ramadan] fast there too. An hour-and-a-half passed and I called him, and he said, “I am downstairs.” I was looking through the window, and I said, “I don’t see you!” He said was right around the corner, and I saw his car, so I went downstairs to quickly say goodbye to my mother, and then went outside. I took two steps outside and heard the attack.
I ran back inside for cover but I thought the attack was on a nearby neighborhood, I didn’t realize it was right in front of me. My wife shouted, “It’s outside!” so I ran out to check on Hamed. I saw that the car that had “TV” on it, Hamed’s car, had been hit. I looked in the car and I didn’t see anyone, I kept looking for Hamed, I kept asking people around me, “Have you seen the driver?” After a while somebody came and told me that there seems to be a person in the car. I had thought Hamed had run away. Then I went and looked again, and I saw only half of his body. There was no upper body, and his legs were underneath the car. I can’t sleep, now. Every time I close my eyes I see his legs under the car.
The attack wounded 20 people, including children, Salmi, news media, and local rights groups said. Another journalist working at the Media24 offices, Asmaa El Ghoul, provided Human Rights Watch with a video uploaded to the Internet that she said showed the aftermath of the attack, and that closely matched witness descriptions of the strike.
Salmi told Human Rights Watch:
There were kids who had just left the mosque on the ground, the youngest one was 6 years old. Three of my cousins were seriously injured. The youngest of them is around 12 years old, another is 17, and the other is 18. They were evacuated for [medical treatment] in Egypt.
The Israeli military has not stated why it attacked the vehicle, as far as Human Rights Watch has been able to determine. Attacks that are not directed at a military target are unlawful. A civilian vehicle, particularly one marked “TV,” is presumptively a civilian object immune from attack. Even if the target had been a military objective, and even if Shehab were the only person killed, carrying out the attack outside a mosque when the area was full of civilians, including children, would suggest a disproportionate attack and a failure to take steps to minimize civilian loss.
Attack on the Ghannam Home
An Israeli airstrike at about 5:20 a.m. on July 11 apparently targeted the home of Abd el-Razek Ghannam in the Yebna refugee camp, in the southern Gaza Strip city of Rafah. The strike killed Ghannam, 57, his wife, Ghalia, 57, their daughter Wissam, 31, and son Mahmoud, 28. The attack also killed Kifah Deeb, 33, Ghalia’s niece, who had come to stay with the family the previous night because she had been afraid to stay alone during the fighting, neighbors told Human Rights Watch. The only survivor was another son, Hossam, 21, whom a neighbor pulled from the rubble.
Hossam Ghannam, other relatives, and neighbors said that none of the residents of the home were members of any armed group. Abd el-Razek was unemployed and had formerly worked as a construction worker in Israel. Two other daughters, Sumoud, 23, and Nour, 16, had lived in the house but left on July 10 to stay at the home of their married sister, Reem.
Hossam Ghannam told Human Rights Watch that the attack occurred just after he had eaten his pre-dawn, Ramadan breakfast:
My dad and Mahmoud said they were going to pray. My mom told me to go get some sleep. I lay down, then the blast woke me up. I got up to check on my family, then the wall fell on me. I lost consciousness, woke up, and screamed. I remember how much my throat hurt from the dust, and then I lost consciousness again. I woke up in Najjar Hospital.
Hossam Ghannam was later transferred to the European Hospital in Khan Yunis and treated for burns, cuts, and blood loss, then released.
A neighbor, `Aid Ashraf, 20, told Human Rights Watch that the Ghannam home was attacked without warning:
There was no small missile or anything first. Just a huge explosion. I was at home, and for a while I didn’t see anything except dust, then I stepped outside and saw body parts. They were blown to pieces. I found pieces of flesh, hands, legs. Then I found Hossam and dug him out. The only thing that saved him was a mattress and a closet that had fallen on top of him, so they shielded him from the wall that fell on him.
The attack completely destroyed the three-story Ghannam home, which had included a storefront on the ground floor, where Ghalia sold flour, sugar, and other household goods. The explosion badly damaged four nearby houses; neighbors told Human Rights Watch that one was now too dangerous to inhabit.
Human Rights Watch could not determine the target of the attack. Several residents of the area said that some members of the extended Ghannam family, but not any of the residents of the destroyed home, belong to Islamic Jihad, a Palestinian political faction with an armed wing, the al-Quds Brigades. The al-Quds Brigades have claimed responsibility for launching thousands of rockets at Israel. Residents of the area who asked not to be identified said that a relative of Ghalia was related to the wife of a known Islamic Jihad member, named Jihad, whose own home, in a different part of Rafah, had been destroyed in a previous Israeli airstrike. Jihad had received a warning and had survived the attack, residents said. His parents lived in a building near Abd el-Razek Ghannam’s home.
Israel has provided no justification for the attack on the Ghannam home, as far as Human Rights Watch has been able to determine. If its forces struck the house without verifying a military target, the attack was an unlawful attack on a civilian structure. If the house was attacked to punish the Ghannam family for the involvement of relatives in attacks on Israel, it was a form of collective punishment in violation of the laws of war.