'Operation Protective Edge', was the Israeli military incursion into the Gaza Strip during July and August of 2014. Following that operation the leading human rights organization 'Human Rights Watch' (HRW for short), published several accounts accusing Israel of War Crimes and indiscriminate killing of civilians. One of these accounts covered the alleged attacks on 3 UN run schools, in Beit Hanoun, Jabalya, and Rafah. Places that served as shelters for hundreds of civilians seeking refuge from the fighting and enjoyed the protection of international law. This paper is a critical review of that account. This critic bases itself on information available online from professional sources regarding international law, weapons and munitions. However, most of the information comes from HRW themselves, as published in this account and elsewhere.
Before reviewing this account we need to remember two important facts. The first is that the Israeli military operation followed a month long bombing of Israeli citizens by Hamas; a bombardment that placed over a million Israeli civilians in constant danger. The bombardment itself was an assault that followed the abduction, and murder, of 3 Israeli teens in the West Bank on July 20th of that year. This was a crime committed by local Hamas activists, supported and encouraged by the leadership of Hamas in the Gaza Strip. The second important reminder is that alongside 'Amnesty International' HRW is one of the two most respected human rights organizations in the world today. Due to this high statue HRW is trusted by many and its word valued by various segments of the global society. This includes people of influence in democratic countries; especially in the media, academia, and judiciary. But a careful reading and rereading of their allegations suggests that they have violated that trust and abused the power of their words. A power generated by their reputation and the high value our democratic civil societies give to the subject of human rights.
The short comings of this report center around three underline faults. These are, lack of evidence, holding a controversially strict interpretation of international law, and creating false expectations.
The false expectations begins where all writers create expectations, the headlines. 'In-depth look at Gaza school attacks.' It is not an in-depth look! Whatever the word 'look' supposed to refer to, an investigation, an examination, a general overview, or a brief skim through, in-depth it is not.
An In-depth investigation cannot contain a rich presence of expressions that suggest a lack of clarity. These are words and sentences such as "…could not identify the exact location of the fighting", "they believed it was at least a few hundred meters away," "The tanks demonstrate the presence of Israeli troops in the vicinity who could have been the source of the mortar rounds." And the general expression, "directly outside;" which can relate to any scale of a distance, near as well as far. Headlines and titles that contain the words in-depth create the expectation of an accurate and clear description of alleged crimes. The seriousness of the accusations alone, war crimes and crimes against humanity, which are the most serious accusations in international law, demand an accurate and clear language. Clearly, that is not the case.
But this inaccurate language does have a role. It acts as acknowledgement, evidence. Evidence demonstrating that a condition known as the chaos of war had existed. The fact that war is chaotic is common knowledge. But when it comes to reports covering the Israeli Palestinian conflict, made by human rights investigators from both HRW and Amnesty International, this inevitable reality of all armed conflicts does not exist. Here however, inadvertently or not, they acknowledge its existence. Because it is the only factor that could prevent them and their witnesses from getting and giving accurate accounts of the incidents reported. And since they are influenced by its uncertainty and confusion so were the Israeli troops caught in the heat of battle, battles. The very nature of the chaos of war is an indiscriminate one. All those caught in a battle are affected by it, soldiers and civilians from both sides. And once HRW had acknowledged its existence their burden of proof has changed dramatically. From here on, anyone accusing Israel of war crimes, unlawful killings, and indiscriminate use of fire power, has to show that in each of these horrific tragedies the causes of the civilian casualties and injuries went beyond the inevitable realities of the chaotic nature of the urban battle field. And when it comes to this reviewed account HRW falls short by over a mile.
Acknowledging the existence of the chaos and uncertainty of war is acknowledging that some civilian deaths are unavoidable. The causes are plenty, bad intelligence, failures in communication between various units, and all sorts of malfunctions with the technologies deployed. The slightest computer glitch can bring about unbearable sights of death and misery. Of course that does not exclude the belligerent parties from doing their outmost to avoid inflicting such harm on the civilians caught in between. On the contrary, it imposes on them the duty to go above and beyond in protecting non-combatants. But the same reality imposes on any human rights activist critical of a military campaign the need to accept that some civilian deaths will occur. It is a dreadful thing to do, especially for a human rights activist, but that is what they are investigating, a war, a violent chaos. And once they made the accusation of unlawful killings of civilians they immediately acknowledged the existence of lawful killings of civilians alongside it. These are death caused by known factors such as accidents and collateral damage, and lesser known factors, such as the inability to evacuate injured casualties because of the fighting or its consequences. Ignoring that runs the risk of developing interpretation of international law so strict and rigid; they will grant all forms of self-defense illegal. In an era when civilians are deliberately targeted by terror organizations this is a violation of the greatest of all human rights, the right to live and to be safe from harm. It is a right every sovereign country is committed to protect.
What is that acceptable death toll of enemy civilian population? Preferably and most preferably it is the lowest minimum possible. And possible is a key word here, because circumstances dictate possibilities, and circumstances change from one situation to the next. They don't always bring about the possibilities that facilitate our desired outcome. To those of us with a moral conscious, attempting to find an answer to this horrific question, this is an unbearable dilemma. This is a dilemma that is slicing us from within, because we do not want to see any civilian getting hurt; from either side.
Bringing that question to an open public debate will bring about countless of answers. Different people, with different backgrounds will give different answers. Human rights advocates, military experts, international law experts, politicians, journalists, ideologues, and opportunists. They all represent a wide array of different points of view, disciplines and expertise, opinions and convictions. All of which are probably very important in their own right, but are irrelevant to the issue at hand, since from a mathematical point of view the lowest minimum will always be one. One attack out of many in the general vicinity of a UN administrated school that happened to hit it. And one attack is exactly what HRW is presenting, one attack in Beit Hanoun, one attack in Jabalya, and one attack in Rafah. In actuality they have much less.