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Premeditated murder: the Shuja'iyya massacre and Israeli criminality

July 22, 2014 at 5:53 pm

65-year-old Ahmed Suleiman Akram al-‘Atawai and his 10-year-old grandchild Tala were running from Israel’s onslaught on Shuja’iyya. As they fled, they were hit by Israeli artillery shells, and died.

They were among the dozens of victims Sunday, when Israeli forces pulverised the Gaza City district. Some, like Ahmed and Tala, were cut down in the streets; others were killed when shells hit their homes. A paramedic, killed as he attempted to rescue the wounded. The ‘Ayad family, hit by a missile from an Israeli warplane, killing ten, including three children.

Palestinians and reporters who visited the scene reported scenes of total devastation. An estimated 72 were killed Sunday in Shuja’iyya, including “at least 17 children“. Amnesty International described the impact of “intense Israeli bombardment”, with “more than 200” wounded as “civilians were forced to flee under fire“. A man who went back to look for his family was shot dead by Israeli forces in front of human rights observers.

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) doctors working in Al Shifa hospital in Gaza City reported that “women and children comprised most of the wounded” arriving Sunday morning. Audrey Landmann, MSF medical coordinator in Gaza, said Israel’s ground offensive has meant “indiscriminate” bombing, and noted that “those who die are civilians”.

The shocking fact is that these dozens, hundreds, of personal horror stories are the result of deliberate decisions taken by the Israeli army. On the day of the attack, IDF officers boasted that they were “taking off the gloves“. Even as the ground offensive got underway late Thursday, Israeli tanks had “received an order to open fire at anything that moved“.

The targeting of Shuja’iyya, according to veteran military analyst Ron Ben-Yishai, was about the Israeli army “cementing itself in the enemy’s psyche as a beast one should not provoke”. It is this “objective”, he wrote, that “is the essence of the deterrence” sought by Israel.

As images emerged of the massacre, an Israeli army officer “expressed concern that the level of casualties in Shuja’iyya could erode [international support]…and create diplomatic pressure to end the operation sooner than expected”. A similar sentiment was expressed by Israel Hayom’s military correspondent, who admitted that the “high civilian death toll” in Shuja’iyya could have a detrimental effect on the Israeli operation’s “international legitimacy”.

Even as Haaretz military correspondent Amos Harel tried to dismiss claims of a “massacre”, he acknowledged that “the intensity of [Israeli] fire increased only after the force had sustained many casualties”. This echoes a report by right-wing Israeli news service Arutz Sheva, that “heavy casualties” dealt to Israeli soldiers contributed to “a furious response by the IDF“. In other words, the killing of civilians in the name of revenge and deterrence.

Israeli “commanders in the field” predicted that “if fighting continues”, the “level of destruction” in Shuja’iyyeh “may reach that seen in the Dahiyeh neighborhood in Beirut in 2006”. There, Israeli forces deliberately targeted civilian infrastructure in what became known as the ‘Dahiyeh doctrine‘. Note that the day before, Harel had called Shuja’iyya “not particularly significant from a military perspective“.

The Israeli media blithely dismissed any concerns about the massacre “from a legal standpoint”, on the basis that the army had warned Shuja’iyya’s residents in advance. This is not just grossly inadequate – it is itself evidence of war crimes. As Amnesty International stated yesterday, “issuing warnings to evacuate entire areas does not absolve Israeli forces of their obligations to protect civilians under international humanitarian law”.

This point was also made by Israeli NGOs in a joint statement which emphasised how “sending alerts or providing warnings to residents does not transform them, or their homes, into legitimate military targets, and does not exempt the army from its duty to avoid executing indiscriminate attacks in the area”. Israel’s “cynical use of legal terms” to justify “death and destruction” received further specific condemnation by Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem.

In fact, those groups had warned ahead of time, even as the IDF was dropping leaflets and issuing evacuation orders, that such a step could very likely presage an attack that would “cause extensive, mortal harm to civilians and much property damage”. The military, they wrote, “must not assume that all residents have indeed left their homes”, as they said was done during Operation Cast Lead.

There is also a similarly disturbing precedent from Israel’s attack on Lebanon in 2006, when Israel justified an attack in Qana on the basis that Hezbollah used the area for missile launches, and, that the IDF had warned residents in advance to leave. Human Rights Watch, among others, slammed this argument, saying that notice of an impending bombardment “does not give [the IDF] carte blanche to blindly attack”.

Thus whether it is the targeting of family homes, or the indiscriminate shelling of neighbourhoods like Shuja’iyya, Israel’s attacks on Gaza – including the justifications for them – are taking the shape of repeated war crimes and urgently need to be treated as such.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.