Two members of the Al Dalu family, Mohammad and Raneen Al Dalu were found under the rubble four days after the Israeli military airstrike that killed nine members of the same family, Gaza, November 22, 2012. (Photo by: Anne Paq/Activestills.org)
One of the most enduring images from the latest Israeli attack on Gaza is the picture of four dead children from the al-Dalou family. The Israeli airstrike on the al-Dalou home in central Gaza was one of the deadliest single attacks during the Gaza assault, killing 10 members of the family as well as two of their neighbors.
And now, 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 scrambling to find a line of reasoning to sell to the international community is indicative of how much attention has been given to the strike, and how much attention it will continue to command in the weeks ahead as human rights groups issue reports on the latest assault. Questions have been raised as to whether Israel committed a war crime in this specific case (though there are plenty more allegations of war crimes that will be aired as a result of the overall Israeli assault, too).
The bombing occurred on November 18. The Israeli air force strike brought the three-story home of the family crashing down, as Reuters reported. Four children and four women were among the dead. It quickly became a symbol of the effects of Israel’s bombardments, which on the whole largely harmed civilians during the one week assault.
At first, the Israeli military claimed they were targeting the commander of Hamas’ rocket launching operations, a man supposedly named Yihia Abayah. But the al-Dalou family knew nothing of this person.
After it became clear that the strike had wiped out an entire family, Israel’s story was scrutinized. Haaretz reported November 18 that the air force “mistakenly bombed the home of one of [Rabiah's] neighbors, Mohammed a-Dallo, killing 10 members of his family and two of his neighbors. Rabiah seems to have survived the attack.”
But Israel shifted its explanation again. The latest 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.”
This explanation raises some important questions. Under the rules of international law, the Israeli military is only permitted to target combatants, meaning those engaged in fighting. While Israel claims that any member of any Hamas institution–and this means many people in Gaza, given that Hamas is the ruling party there–is a legitimate target, international lawyers reject that premise. So the fact that Mohammed al-Dalou was a policeman in Gaza does not mean that he could be legitimately targeted. Under the laws of war, police are considered civilians. As a Human Rights Watch Q and A on the Gaza fighting noted:
Under international humanitarian law, police are presumed to be civilian – and thus immune from attack – unless formally incorporated into the armed forces of a party to a conflict or directly participating in the hostilities. Thus, police only engaged in ordinary police roles, such as ordinary law enforcement or regulating traffic, would not be subject to lawful attack, while those who are fighters for Hamas and other armed groups are subject to attack. Police who engage in both ordinary law enforcement and at times in the fighting would, like other civilians, be subject to attack whenever and for such time as they were actively participating in the hostilities.
Police stations are presumptively civilian objects. However, if a police station is being used for military purposes, such as a military headquarters or a place to store weapons for use in fighting, that station could be subject to lawful attack. Such attacks in any case must not cause disproportionate civilian loss, and so must factor in any reasonably anticipated harm to police or others who are not participating in the hostilities.
Even if we take the Israeli military at its word that their target was a legitimate one because Mohammed al-Dalou was “a known terror operative,” critical questions remain.
If we accept the Israeli army’s premise, this becomes a question of what is known in international law as proportionality. Whether an attack that kills civilians is justified depends on the military value of the intended target. In other words, if we take the Israeli army at its word, the question becomes whether the death of the Hamas policeman was justified by military necessity given that 11 other civilians were killed.
“The fact that Israel changed its position begs the question whether they are now calling one man a legitimate target to justify a strike that killed 12 people. And even if Mohamed Dalu was a combatant, was it a proportionate attack?” one researcher currently in Gaza told Mondoweiss.
The full facts of the case have yet to come out, so it’s impossible to definitively say whether Israel committed a war crime during their attack on the al-Dalou house. But what is clear is that serious questions as to whether Israel violated the laws of war in this case have to be looked at by the world.