By Garry Walsh.
One year on, over 100,000 people still remain displaced in Gaza. Some people are living with extended families, others in temporary accommodation and UN schools. The ongoing economic blockade of Gaza by Israel and Egypt means that reconstruction can’t begin in earnest. Yet for many people in Gaza, the greatest challenges are those of having lost loved ones in the conflict and the difficulty of seeking justice.
I visited ruined neighbourhoods in Gaza, in February. The scenes reminded me of images of European cities devastated after World War II. The 50-day Israeli military operation, ‘Protective Edge’, in the summer of 2014 saw whole neighbourhoods in Gaza destroyed. 1,462 Palestinian civilians were killed, a third of them children. Palestinian militant rockets into Israel killed six Israeli civilians including one child.
The international community, including states like Ireland, have a role to play in seeking justice and accountability in Gaza. Any potential war crimes need to be adequately investigated by credible and independent investigations. Those in command who may have been responsible for undertaking war crimes must face justice. The UN Human Rights Council established a Commission of Inquiry into the conflict and its report finds evidence that war crimes may have been committed by both Israel and Hamas.
I met Rawda Al-Astal, who lost two sons who were watching the World Cup semi-final in a beach-side café on 9th July 2014. Eight people were killed when an Israeli airstrike hit the café. Rawda asked me plaintively, “What do these children have to do with anything? 18 and 16 years old, what did they do to deserve this?” .
On the 21st July, heavy shelling provoked Nabil Siyam’s family to flee their house. While on the street an Israeli drone launched a missile which hit the family. Nabil was seriously injured and lost his arm. However, his wife and four of his five children, along with two of his brothers and five other members of his extended family, were killed in the attack. Nabil said, “I am hopeful that an international court can restore our rights and prosecute Israel”.
The UN Commission of Inquiry, chaired by Justice Mary Davis, has recommended that both Israeli and Palestinian authorities improve the stringency of their investigations and bring perpetrators to justice. The report highlights that: “questions arise regarding the role of senior officials who set military policy” and that “individual soldiers may have been following agreed military policy, but it may be that the policy itself violates the laws of war”.
We have been here before. Operation Pillar of Defence in 2012, Operation Cast Lead in 2009, Operation Warm Winter in 2008 and so on. These cycles of military operations in Gaza happen with alarming regularity. Without accountability for grave breaches of international law, a climate of impunity exists. We see history repeating.
One of Trócaire’s Israeli partner organisations, Breaking the Silence, is a movement of veteran Israeli soldiers that collect testimonies about soldiers’ conduct while serving in Israeli military operations. Their most recent report, ‘How we fought in Gaza’, details the permissive rules of engagement used in last summer’s conflict. The report exposes soldiers’ admissions of shooting at civilians and ambulances, and of firing tank shells at buildings in revenge fire. It goes some way towards explaining why 70% of the Palestinian casualties were civilians and not combatants.
The UN Commission of Inquiry report paves the way for the further pursuit of justice if domestic investigations continue to lack credibility and teeth. It calls on the international community to “to support actively the work of the International Criminal Court in relation to the Occupied Palestinian Territory”. The International Criminal Court (ICC) has opened a preliminary investigation into Gaza, and could potentially provide an avenue for prosecutions of Israelis and Palestinians responsible for grave breaches of international law.
If action is not taken to challenge impunity, another round of conflict in Gaza in the coming years is all but guaranteed. We need meaningful pressure to be put on Israel and the Palestinian Authority. It is time for the international community to galvanise. •
Garry Walsh is Trócaire Programme Officer for Israel and occupied Palestinian territory (www.trocaire.org/Palestine)