In a post on July 25, I mentioned early reports of a possible massacre by Israeli troops in the town of Khuza’a near the Israeli border, with social media providing gruesome stories. In a new report, Human Rights Watch confirms it, saying that between July 23 and 25, Israeli troops deliberately targeted civilians, killing them as they walked with their hands up or carrying white flags or were running away.
Israeli forces in the southern Gaza town of Khuza’a fired on and killed civilians in apparent violation of the laws of war in several incidents between July 23 and 25, 2014. Deliberate attacks on civilians who are not participating in the fighting are war crimes.
Khuza’a, which has a population of about 10,000, was the scene of fighting between Israeli forces and Palestinian armed groups during an Israeli ground offensive in the area on July 23, Israeli news media reported. Israeli forces provided general warnings to Khuza’a residents to leave the area prior to July 21. While the laws of war encourage “advance, effective warnings” of attacks, the failure of civilians to abide by warnings does not make them lawful targets of attack – for obvious reasons, since many people do not flee because of infirmity, fear, lack of a place to go, or any number of other reasons. The remaining presence of such civilians despite a warning to flee cannot be ignored when attacks are carried out, as Israeli forces have done previously.
“Warning families to flee fighting doesn’t make them fair targets just because they’re unable to do so, and deliberately attacking them is a war crime,” Whitson said.
Human Rights Watch investigated several incidents between July 23 and 25 when, local residents said, Israeli forces opened fire on civilians trying to flee Khuza’a, but no Palestinian fighters were present at the time and no firefights were taking place.
On the morning of July 23, Israeli forces ordered a group of about 100 Palestinians in Khuza’a to leave a home in which they had gathered to take shelter, family members said. The first member to leave the house, Shahid al-Najjar, had his hands up but an Israeli soldier shot him in the jaw, seriously injuring him.
Israeli soldiers detained the men and boys over age 15 in an area close to the Gaza perimeter fence. Based on statements from witnesses and news reports, some were taken to Israel for questioning. Israeli forces released others that day, in small separate groups. As one group walked unarmed to Khan Younis, Israeli soldiers fired on them, killing one and wounding two others.
Two older men whom Israeli forces briefly detained near the perimeter fence had been seriously wounded in earlier Israeli bombardments and died soon after being released, two witnesses said. The laws of war provide that wounded civilians and combatants should be given necessary medical care to the fullest extent practicable and with the least possible delay.
In another incident on July 23, Israeli soldiers fired on a group of civilians who had been told to leave their home in Khuza’a, killing Mohammed al-Najjar, a witness said.
One case illustrates the dangers facing civilians both who remain in place and who heed Israeli orders to leave. On July 25, an Israeli strike killed three civilians – Motassem al-Najjar, 5; Kamel al-Najjar, 62; and Salim Qdeih, around 70 – who were among 120 people sheltering in the basement of a home, witnesses said. Another 15 people were wounded. The local Red Cross had difficulty reaching people wounded by shellings in the town. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) reported that on July 25, a Red Crescent volunteer was mortally wounded in an Israeli attack in Khuza’a, and other volunteers who tried to rescue him were fired on. Under the laws of war, medical workers are civilians who may not be targeted for attack.
Those who had survived the attack on the basement fled after the strike and walked to Khan Younis, carrying white flags and raising their hands when they came across Israeli soldiers. An Israeli missile strike hit one group of them, killing a man and wounding his cousin, the cousin told Human Rights Watch.
The Palestinian authorities seem to be on the verge of taking Israel to the International Criminal Court on war crimes. The Israeli prime minister has turned to his most loyal supporters in the US, members of Congress, for help to avoid being put on trial for war crimes.