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Questions of war crimes remain as Israel shifts explanation on strike that killed 10 people from same family

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Gaza buffer
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/

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.

Alex Kane

Alex Kane is a freelance journalist who focuses on Israel/Palestine and civil liberties. Follow him on Twitter @alexbkane.

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16 Responses

  1. DICKERSON3870 on December 2, 2012, 7:31 pm

    RE: “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.” ~ Alex Kane

    MY COMMENT: In (un)reality, many Israelis consider all men, women and children in Gaza to be terrorists.
    There are precedents for this kind of thinking, but it’s probably best not to go there.

    SEE: “‘You are fighting a religious war against gentiles’: What rabbis told Israeli soldiers in Gaza war”, By Mail Foreign Service, The Daily Mail, 3/20/09

    [EXCERPTS] Rabbis in the Israeli army told battlefield troops in January’s Gaza offensive that they were fighting a ‘religious war’ against gentiles, it has been revealed.
    An army commander wrote of the shocking command in an Israeli newspaper today – one day after it emerged that Israeli soldiers were told they could kill innocent civilians during the war.

    ‘Their message was very clear: we are the Jewish people, we came to this land by a miracle, God brought us back to this land and now we need to fight to expel the gentiles who are interfering with our conquest of this holy land,’ the commander said.
    The account by Ram, a pseudonym to shield the soldier’s identity, was published by the left-leaning Haaretz newspaper in the second day of revelations that have rocked the Israeli military.
    They were leaked from a February 13 meeting of armed forces members to share their Gaza experiences.

    Some veterans, alumni of an Israel Defence Force (IDF) military academy, told of the killing of civilians and their impression that deep contempt for Palestinians pervaded the ranks of the Israeli forces.
    The institution’s director, Danny Zamir, confirmed that Thursday’s published accounts were authentic.
    In longer excerpts in its Friday ‘Week’s End’ edition, the daily quoted ‘Ram’ as saying his impression of the 22-day operation was ‘the feeling of an almost religious mission’. . .
    . . . [T]he rabbinate’s message imparted to many soldiers the sense that “this operation was a religious war”.

    A squad commander from Ram’s Givat Brigade, named as Aviv, recounted his misgivings about orders to break down doors with armoured vehicles and shoot anyone inside, floor by floor. In the event, the order was amended to include ‘operating megaphones’ so advancing troops could tell people they had five minutes to get out or be killed.
    Aviv said ‘there was a very annoying moment’ when he briefed his men and one challenged that order, saying: ‘Yeah? Anyone who is in there is a terrorist, that’s a known fact. . .
    ‘And then his buddies join in: “We need to murder any person who’s in there, yeah, any person who’s in Gaza is a terrorist’ and all the other things that they stuff our heads with, in the media,’ Aviv said. . .


  2. tear-stained uzi on December 2, 2012, 9:08 pm

    @Alex –

    Has the IDF ever given an explanation for why their story has ‘evolved’ so much?

    • HemiFaulk on December 3, 2012, 12:02 pm

      Certainly we have all eve’loved, sorry(whups) evolved to some degree, while we did not rise up from a Primordial Ooze in my opinion, nor did my ancestors agitate theirselves from Paramecium or my all time favorite the ever present Amoeba, we have and continue to try and make improvements w\out too much intervention.

      the IDF evolution is coming and it is much harder to explain the time frame…
      a Gate Delay is one thing whilst the on going delay in changing the global Viewpoint(s) on Israeli intent and aggression must be the underliner for emphasis and further examination in order to develop working solutions versus the ongoing evolving day to day script that is probably run thru 750 very important people before it hits the streets.

  3. DaveS on December 2, 2012, 9:21 pm

    Of course this is nothing new. The IDF kills Palestinians, and in those few instances in which they are called to account for the killing, they offer whatever excuse is handy. When that doesn’t work, they just offer a new excuse that is entirely contradictory to the first one, and don’t even bother to explain how they were so wrong the first time. I wrote about this with respect to another incident a couple of years ago in which three civilians were killed – – and also with respect to using white phosphorous on a UN food storage facility –

    As Alex points out, this latest excuse raises other questions. The IDF does not claim to have targeted someone engaged in terrorist activity, but only someone who acted as a bodyguard. If Israel feels that all members of Hamas in any capacity have committed a capital offense, what about members of the IDF? Are they all legitimate targets for death wherever they might be? If so, Gilad Shalit got off quite easy. He was only “kidnapped” whereas his abductors would have been well within their rights to slaughter him and any civilians in the immediate vicinity.

    Of course, the IDF uses this opportunity to trot out its favorite mantra: Palestinians hide among civilians, thereby inviting their deaths. Even Emily Hauser, the rather mild-mannered columnist at Open Zion, asks: is it really “hiding among civilians” to go to your own house? Is it really “hiding among civilians” to drive down a residential street? And what if the shoe were on the other foot? Are we willing to say that Israeli soldiers are “hiding among civilians” when they ride city buses, or that Israel’s Defense Ministry is “hiding among civilians” because it’s located in the very heart of Tel Aviv?

    The death toll in this incident is not quite as high as the 15 people slaughtered when Israel dropped a bomb on Salah Shehade in his home 10 years ago. At least then, their explanation was consistent, and even true: they wanted to kill the guy, and didn’t care how many civilians would be killed along with him. My guess is that here, they came up with the targeting-the-neighbor excuse before they discovered that one of the dead was a Hamas bodyguard (if that’s even true); then, they thought it would be better to claim that they targeted this family member.

    One might be tempted to think that Israel should be embarrassed about such shenanigans. But they are speaking to a very small, powerful, and willingly gullible audience – US opinion-makers. They understandably have no fear of being held to account for their outrageous conduct and transparently false excuses. Hopefully the tide is indeed turning.

    • tear-stained uzi on December 2, 2012, 10:54 pm

      You raise good points, David.

      “If Israel feels that all members of Hamas in any capacity have committed a capital offense, what about members of the IDF? Are they all legitimate targets for death wherever they might be?”

      Since (most) every Israeli citizen has mandatory service requirements, doesn’t that make them all ‘legitimate’ targets by their same twisted logic?

  4. Dexter on December 2, 2012, 9:48 pm

    Anyone know if there are plans to take Israel to the ICC immediately, or is this going to be a two-decade process, like the peace-process…

    • tear-stained uzi on December 2, 2012, 11:04 pm

      Good news! The liberal usage of preservatives and trans-fats enables Processed Peace™ to have an almost indefinite shelf-life!

      • Dexter on December 3, 2012, 8:24 pm

        did you really trademark “processed peace?” haha

    • Accentitude on December 4, 2012, 6:47 am

      ‘can’t take a country to the ICC…but you could take individuals. Perhaps Netanyahu for Ok’ing the attack, Ehud Barak as Defense Minister who technically initiated the attack on Gaza…maybe the person or persons responsible for the faulty intel that led to the attack which killed civilians, The General or Commander that gave the order for the attack based on the faulty intel. It’s a longshot but it’s possible. Of course, I’m sure America would raise hell and do everything in its power to circumvent such a situation…not to mention the U.S. Senate and Congress would drive Washington to place more sanctions on the PA, threaten to cut funding, etc, etc, etc, blah, blah, blah…no one cares about the U.S. anymore…rabble rabble rabble….

  5. G. Seauton on December 3, 2012, 4:50 am

    What? The IDF committed a war crime? After all this time? That’s amazing, don’t you think? This is a testament to the fact that Israel has such precision weapons that can make such surgical strikes, that after all this time, only ONE war crime has been committed. Any other country (and G-d knows there are plenty of other ones) would have committed MANY MORE war crimes already. So we should all be happy that the only existing democracy in the Middle East has committed ONLY ONE war crime, because it could have been a lot worse, you know, given Palestinians and terrorism and anti-Semitism, and all that.

    Go Israel!

  6. amigo on December 3, 2012, 5:59 am

    The good news.

    Israel,s ambassadors to the UK and France have been summoned.

    It is also possible the UK/FRANCE will recall their ambassadors to Israel.

    Oooooh, how does that grab you bibi.Right in the family jewels.

    I guess that UN Vote was far more meaningful than you thought.

    More to come.

  7. chinese box on December 3, 2012, 7:42 am

    The media has already moved on to the “fiscal cliff”. I didn’t see any mention of Gaza on Meet the Press or those other shows on Sunday morning this week.

  8. Pamela Olson on December 3, 2012, 9:32 am

    Tracks pretty closely with Israel’s usual PR tactics, though not exactly is this order (this is from a Facebook status I saw recently):

    Israeli PR methods

    1. We haven’t heard reports of deaths, will check into it
    2. People were killed, but by a faulty Palestinian rocket/bomb
    3. Ok we killed them, but they were terrorists
    4. Ok they were civilians, but they were being used as human shields
    5. Ok there were no fighters in the area, so it was our mistake. But we kill civilians by accident, they do it on purpose
    6. Ok we kill far more civilians than they do, but look at how terrible other countries are!
    7. Why are you still talking about Israel? Are you some kind of anti-Semite?
    8. Repeat from step 1

    • Mooser on December 3, 2012, 2:52 pm

      Those eight steps to Hasbara Heaven, although excellent in themselves, have sometimes been reduced to four, to achieve ritual symmetry with “the four questions” at Seder, I suppose.

    • piotr on December 4, 2012, 9:26 pm

      Actually, in case of terro-journalists, according to Lt. Col. Whatever they were terrorists AND used as human shields.

      I think excuse 5. is rare, and it is never used in the context of a larger action when fighters are presumed to be everywhere, store ammunition everywhere and command centers are more numerous that vegetable stands. 6 and 7 are the domain of amateurs, the volunteers who grace the comment sections, also commentators in our media like TV. If we consider such comment, it is also worth to remember the frequent argument that may be called WMMS, Weapons of Massive Moral Superiority. It is a very rational argument, namely it uses the ratio
      . . . . . . . . . shit that could be done
      morality = ——————————-
      . . . . . . . . . shit that was done

      Hamas: killed 3 civilians and 2 innocent soldiers (nobody is more innocent than our soldiers). They could not kill any more, we know that they kill as many as they can. Ratio: 1

      IDF: killed 160 terrorist and terror supporters (like wee children of so-called terror facilitating journalists). They have nukes, so they could wipe them all, say, 1, 600,000. Ratio: 10,000.

      Now imagine the calamity that would happen if Islamist had some nukes. Then THEY could kill say 1,600 while being capable of wiping out American East Cost, for morality ratio of 50,000, or being capable to wipe out all Christian and Jews, for morality ratio of 1,000,000. Massive Moral Superiority would be gone. (I am waiting for Bill Maher praising Islamic Republic of Pakistan.)

  9. piotr on December 4, 2012, 7:05 pm

    Clearly, IDF is the most moral military organization in the world, and maintaining this exalted status is not easy. In 2008 the top story was that IDF used unprecedented measures to spare innocent lives, but how many times can you used unprecedented measures? I guess in 2012 there was time for true and tried method.

    And the number one method is to find out the just explanation. If two weeks of research following the death of the entire family leads to the information that the father was a member of the police, then further discoveries follow: “charged with protecting important people”, “known terrorist operative”, etc. What acts of terrorism did the terrorist operative plan, executed, or helped with shall probably remain secret, but it would be foolish to endanger the security of the State by revealing such secret too hastily. A jaded person like myself would glimpse the proverbial bottom of the barrel: why he was not at least a “terrorist mastermind”, a category that covers thousands upon thousands?

    The answer seems to be that this time GoI made a big show of “taking the gloves off” and thus expanding the list of “terror targets” to all and sundry, like “propagandists of terror”. Altogether, 1500 targets (or 1450, I have seen both numbers). And they even did not go after chicken farms, which suggests to me that the operation was interrupted.

    In the spirit of the spokesperson of IDF, I can offer explanation why IDF was forced to interrupt the operation. My first theory is that Israel did not really need much persuasion, yes, they had some much more elaborate plans, but not really in earnest. Sending 30 to 50 thousands of ground soldiers to Gaza could lead to casualties, and as far as air war was concerned, they felt a bit jaded themselves. The second theory is that Morsi, Erdogan and possibly even Qataris conveyed some discrete threats. At which point USA could make some threats on its own: like discretely convincing Czech republic and Panama not to vote against the Palestinians in UN (something like 90% of the national budget of Palau and two other “freely associated” states is decided by US Congress, so those 3 pro-Israel votes are as solid as the vote of Israel ).

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