Human Rights Watch (HRW) today published a vitally important report on the deadly Israeli airstrike on the al-Dalou home in central Gaza–an attack that resulted “in the largest number of civilians killed in a single attack during the Gaza fighting in November.” Their conclusion is that the attack was a clear violation of the laws of war.
The strike killed 12 people in total, including 10 members of the al-Dalou family. It also killed two neighbors of the al-Dalou family, and “wounded at least nine civilians in the area, and badly damaged or destroyed three other homes,” HRW says.
“The Israeli claim that the attack on the Dalu home was justified is unsupported by the facts,” HRW’s Fred Abrahams said in a statement. “The onus is on Israel to explain why it bombed a home full of civilians killing 12 people.”
The report comes on the same day that Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal, who has not stepped foot on Palestinian soil since 1975, visited Gaza and the Dalou family home.
The respected human rights group states that even if the Israeli military was targeting who they said was a Hamas “terror operative,” the attack was still disproportionate and unlawful. The report reads: “Even if Mohamed al-Dalu were a legitimate military target, an attack on his crowded home would be unlikely to meet the requirement of proportionality, Human Rights Watch said. Under the laws of war, the expected military gain from an attack must outweigh the anticipated civilian harm.”
But HRW also casts doubt on the official Israeli story, which has changed considerably from their original line on why the airstrike happened. I reported last Sunday on what the latest Israeli explanation was:
Israel is shifting their explanation as to how the deadly strike that caused the most controversy during the fighting happened. The latest explanation is that the attack was a deliberate one, the target of which was a Hamas member…
The latest [explanation] comes courtesy of Israeli army spokeswoman Avital Leibovich. The strike was deliberate, Leibovich told the Agence France-Presse in a story published November 27. AFP reports that “Mohammed Jamal al-Dallu, 29, a member of the Hamas police unit charged with protecting important people, was…killed in the strike, and the Israeli army said on Tuesday that he was the target of the raid.” Leibovich told AFP that “the father was a known terror operative affiliated with the military wing of Hamas” and that “there was no mistake from the IDF. It’s tragic when a terror operative is hiding among civilians but unfortunately it is part of Hamas and Islamic Jihad tactics.”
What does HRW say about this Israeli reasoning, which the military is now sticking to? They say, based on evidence they collected on the ground in Gaza, that it’s probably bogus:
Members of the Dalu family and neighbors interviewed separately said that Mohamed al-Dalu was not a member of any Palestinian armed group. He was a lieutenant in the civilian police under the Interior Ministry, they said, specializing in VIP protection.
The website of the al-Qassam Brigades regularly posts the names and biographies of its killed fighters, including 20 men from the eight days of fighting in November, but as of December 6 it had not posted any mention of Mohamed al-Dalu. At the site of the Dalu house, Human Rights Watch saw two posters, one from Hamas and one from the al-Israa Mosque, which called Mohamed al-Dalu a “martyr” and “fighter” for the al-Qassam Brigade and showed him respectively with an assault rifle and a pistol. The family and Palestinian journalists in Gaza said this was common for killed police and employees of the government, especially if Hamas covered the costs of the funeral.
Mohamed al-Dalu’s commander in the police, Maj. Refa’at al-Wali, who heads the Security and Protection Force at the Interior Ministry, told Human Rights Watch that since 2006 al-Dalu had been in a unit responsible for protecting Gaza government officials and visiting dignitaries. Major al-Wali said that al-Dalu had worked every day during the latest fighting, and that he was not a member of any armed group.
Police spokesman Ayman al-Batnigri also told Human Rights Watch that al-Dalu was a member of the Security and Protection Force, which he called a purely “civilian department.” In the Interior Ministry, Human Rights Watch saw a poster with 25 policemen who were killed in the November fighting that included Mohamed al-Dalu. The circumstances of each of the policemen’s deaths are not known. Eight of the killed policemen also appear on the al-Qassem Brigades’ list of killed fighters, but not Mohamed al-Dalu. None of them appeared on the lists of killed fighters from Islamic Jihad or the Popular Resistance Committees.
Under international humanitarian law, or the laws of war, which were applicable during the November fighting in Gaza, civilans and civilian objects may not be targets of attack. Police are presumed to be civilian, and thus immune from attack, unless they are formally incorporated into the armed forces of a party to the conflict or are directly participating in the hostilities.
Israel has not provided any information to support the claim that Mohamed al-Dalu was directly participating in hostilities, Human Rights Watch said.
“Israel’s belated effort, once it could scour the list of victims, to defend the attack by naming a civilian police officer found among the dead suggests an after-the-fact attempt to justify the unjustifiable,” Abrahams said
The HRW report also includes some harrowing testimony by survivors the airstrike. 16-year-old Nasser Saluha, the brother of 27-year-old Samah Abdul Hamid al-Dalu, told HRW:
My sister was bringing the food for lunch and we were about to start. I thought that something hit the house strongly. I didn’t hear anything. I felt a shock and pressure and something was pulling me into the ground. I found myself lying on my back with dust and sand all over my body. I managed to get out of the rubble and run into the street. I felt pain in my leg; my whole body was cut up and needed stiches.
The Israeli airstrike on the Dalou home is only the latest reminder of why, now that they have access due to their change in United Nations status, Palestine should join the International Criminal Court. The victims of the Dalou family clearly need justice. But it remains unlikely that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will take that step given intense European and American pressure on the West Bank-government. Abbas’ track record on pushing for justice for Israeli war crimes is poor.