Witness to Israel's war crimes

James Leas is a lawyer and longtime activist in Burlington, Vt. He works with Vermonters for a Just Peace in Palestine-Israel, and he recently traveled to Gaza with a National Lawyers Guild (NLG) delegation to investigate the impact of Israel's 22-day offensive against Gaza. He spoke with Leah Linder Siegel about what he witnessed there.

A man looks out over the wreckage left by Israeli air strikes in Gaza City (Amir Farshad Ebrahimi)A man looks out over the wreckage left by Israeli air strikes in Gaza City (Amir Farshad Ebrahimi)

DID YOUR observations and experiences on the ground in Gaza confirm that Israel committed war crimes during its attack?

WE SAW an enormous amount--with our own eyes. We saw the aftermath of the war, but there were a few bombs that went off during the time we were there, because Israel was bombing the tunnels. When we were crossing into Gaza from Egypt, we heard an explosion.

Most of what we actually saw was the destruction of buildings and rubble--in residential areas as well as government buildings and humanitarian supplies. We also saw the aftermath of the bombing of the UN compound, where we saw residue of white phosphorous [weapons] on the floor. These buildings had been gutted--they had been destroyed by fire.

We saw the rubble of schools and medical facilities that had been attacked. We saw a number of ambulances and United Nations vehicles that had been destroyed.

We also interviewed people who had been victims or whose families had been victims of attacks. In one neighborhood, where many of the houses included people from the same extended family, we interviewed a woman whose two daughters had been killed and whose two sons and husband were wounded severely.

The sons and husband are now receiving medical care in Saudi Arabia. She told us how the Israelis fired tank shells at her house after telling people in all the neighboring houses to come to her house. There were over 100 people in her house, and they stayed there all night.

Then, in the morning, the Israelis fired tank shells at the house. They must have known there were civilians in there because they weren't getting any resistance; they had control of the neighborhood. And then, when people tried to escape from the house, after the tank started shelling, the Israelis shot at the people running away. Many of them did get away.

There were some left in the house who were too wounded to escape. The Israelis didn't allow humanitarian aid workers or ambulances to come get them for days. One of her sons was left with the dead and wounded for four days until the Israelis finally allowed aid workers to come get him.

The Israelis didn't even allow the ambulance to come close; the aid workers had to actually walk a couple of kilometers and remove the wounded on donkey carts. And they couldn't use the donkeys; they had to actually pull the carts themselves. So it was humiliation on top of interference with humanitarian aid. It was just one violation of international law after another.

We also talked to numerous people who had experiences consistent with Israel targeting civilians. In one case, tanks came up to a family's house, and the family was told to get out of the house. The family was standing outside the house for five or seven minutes, while Israeli soldiers were nearby, eating chips and chocolate--indicating that they couldn't have been under attack.

But then, another member of the tank unit came out and started firing at the family, killing a young child and wounding other children in the family. We found seven or eight of these types of incidents where civilians were specifically shot at and targeted. We also describe incidents in our report where civilian infrastructures, dwellings, hospitals and schools were attacked.

We actually visited many kinds of these installations. UN Director [of Operations in Gaza] John Ging was actually in telephone contact with the Israelis before they attacked the UN compound, telling them that bombing was coming quite close. Ging told the Israelis that they should avoid hitting the UN compound.

The Israelis knew its coordinates, they knew exactly where it was, they could see it from the air very clearly. Ging told the Israelis that there were hundreds of refugees there, and that there were fuel tanks near the building, which if hit could create a massive explosion.

Ging told them that if they hit it with the white phosphorous bombs that were raining down around the city, there could be an enormous tragedy. But the Israelis went ahead and hit it anyway. Fortunately, there were some very brave people who ran out during the fire bombing and moved the trucks away, so they didn't have that explosion.

We interviewed Majdi Abd Robo, who lived in the Jabaliya neighborhood. The Israelis "recruited" him and forced him to walk in front of them when they were moving into a neighboring house to search for Palestinian combatants. When they found the combatants, they sent Majdi in.

The Israelis hit him, they threatened him that something would happen to his wife and five kids, who they separated from him, if he didn't go into the house where the combatants were hiding. So he was forced to go into this house to do an investigation about the status of these combatants.

Majdi found that there were three combatants who had not been injured and who still had their weapons. The combatants told Majdi to go out and tell the Israelis exactly what he had seen. So he did that, and the Israelis bombed the house, and then forced Majdi to go back in to see if the combatants had been killed.

The combatants hadn't been killed, so they bombed the house again and forced Majdi to go back in. This happened again and again, until after the third time, Majdi refused to go back in. He said this wasn't what he was supposed to be doing.

In fact, under international law, it is a war crime to force members of one country to serve or do anything against their own country--and certainly to serve in the armed forces of their enemy. That is considered a grave breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention.

We also interviewed the director of the American International School, which was completely destroyed by Israeli bombing. Fortunately, it was bombed during the night when no students were there, but the bombs did kill a young watchman who was there.

This was a school that got some funding from the U.S. It had Western-style education; there were boys and girls at the school; it was progressive; it was based on the American school model, where you encourage students to ask questions.

So why was that one attacked? Why was any of it attacked? In my mind, it raised the question of why did Israel carry out this attack at all? The Israelis' main reason for their attack is rocket fire from Hamas and other militant groups in the Gaza Strip. They claim that they had to respond to the rocket fire.

I went on the Israeli Foreign Ministry Web site, and I learned something interesting. Israel had already stopped the rocket fire, and they did it in an interesting way. They negotiated a ceasefire with the Hamas government of Gaza. The ceasefire started on June 19, 2008, and it lasted for four and a half months. It was supposed to last six months.

It was very successful. The Foreign Ministry Web site says that there was calm already by July 27. Very few rockets were being fired only five weeks after the beginning of the ceasefire, and those being fired were from opponents of the Hamas government.

It was the Fatah militias that were doing the firing, and the Israelis actually have good relations with Fatah in the West Bank. The Israeli Foreign Ministry Web site reports that the Hamas government was actually arresting these Fatah combatants and trying to stop them from firing more rockets.

If you look at the monthly figures of rocket fire, it was already in the single digits by the first month of the ceasefire. If you look at the succeeding months it gets lower and lower, until finally in October, there was only one rocket fired for the whole month. Why wasn't Israel satisfied with that?

On November 4, Israel launched a combined air and ground that killed six Hamas members. That was the end of the ceasefire. There were then a large number of rockets launched immediately after the attack. Israel continued to stage incursions into the Gaza Strip.

According to the Palestine Center for Human Rights, there were nine more incursions between November 4 and December 26. The ceasefire that Israel broke on November 4 was never restored. But Israel used the rocket fire as the reason for their major assault on Gaza that began December 27.

Israel claimed it had to stop the rocket fire once and for all. But Israel had already shown how to stop the rocket fire--the ceasefire. It had worked. Israel didn't have a requirement to use military force. Israel was the one that broke the ceasefire, and then they claimed they needed to attack Gaza to defend themselves.

John Ging pointed out that during the cease fire Israel actually intensified the closure. The closure policy prohibits the transport of food, medical supplies and other commodities into the Gaza Strip. There had been 600 or 700 truckloads a day going into Gaza, and Israel's closure, which began about a year and half before the Gaza offensive, reduced that to less than 100.

The UN reported malnutrition, brain damage among children and other very damaging effects of the closure policy on the Palestinian population of Gaza. Again, Israel as the occupying power has responsibilities to provide for the needs of the population, and here Israel was not only not providing for the needs of the population, but not allowing others to do so either.

So there were severe shortages of food and medical supplies even before the large-scale military operation took place. When Israel launched the December 27 attack, it was already a desperate situation. The people of Gaza were not able to handle the number of mass casualties or meet the needs of the population when everything was cut off.

In fact, during the two or three weeks before December 27, Israel actually tightened the closure by not allowing anything in. When the UN had food lined up outside the border between Israel and Gaza, they weren't allowed to enter.

Just a few days before we got to Gaza, I read in the newspaper that the French government had donated a water treatment plant that was supposed to purify 2,000 cubic meters of water per day, and they were sending this plant, along with 50 technicians to install it in Gaza. It did get to Israel, it got through the port of Israel, and was waiting on the border of Gaza for more than a week.

When there was no sign of Israel allowing it in, the French took their water treatment plant back to France. So this was in total violation of humanitarian international law that requires that there be no interference with meeting the humanitarian needs.

CAN YOU talk about why the NLG decided to take this trip?

IMMEDIATELY AFTER the ceasefire on January 18, NLG members circulated e-mails about sending an emergency delegation to Gaza to investigate whether Israel had committed any war crimes during the course of its assault on Gaza.

We had been seeing media accounts that sounded like serious violations of international law, and it seemed that civilians were being targeted and that civilian dwellings and infrastructure, including electricity and water plants, hospitals and schools, had been hit. There were substantial media reports showing that facilities for humanitarian aid, like the UN compound, which included a warehouse for storing food and medicine, had been hit.

So people in the NLG decided that it was important that we quickly go to Gaza to investigate and then write a report about what happened and present it to the public. We wanted to do this so that we could have an examination of not just what happened, but also to look at the situation in respect to what the laws of war require.

There is a substantial body of international law concerning war, going back to the beginning of the 1900s when such laws were established. These laws are very good because they are designed to protect civilians. In recent years, there have been trials of people accused of committing war crimes in various parts of the world.

Israel, as an occupying power in the West Bank, Gaza and of course the Syrian Golan Heights, has a responsibility toward the civilian population. Israel is supposed to provide for their humanitarian needs and is supposed to protect them from violence.

Also if [an occupying power] is engaged in military action, it has additional responsibilities under international law to protect the civilian population. The occupying power has to make sure that targets are really military targets. They are supposed to distinguish between military and civilian targets, and they are supposed to focus exclusively on military targets.

The reports that had been coming out of Gaza showed that this wasn't really happening. In fact, we saw reports that showed that Israel was using weapons that couldn't really be directed. We heard that they had been using white phosphorus, that they had been using artillery from ships and other artillery pieces that you really can't aim precisely.

When you have densely populated areas such as Gaza City, it's very difficult to distinguish between civilian and military targets. So it's very dangerous to use weapons that you can't really be precise with, and it's very difficult not to hit civilian populations when you can't aim precisely.

WHAT ROLE do you think the United States has played in this most recent war in Gaza?

THE U.S. has played a very large role. The weapons casings we found had markings that indicated they were from the U.S. One of the things that we heard repeatedly was the word "impunity"--the idea that the Israelis appeared to have no fear of consequences for their violations of international law.

The Israelis feel like they can act with impunity. Israel targets civilians, civilian infrastructure and humanitarian aid workers--some of the most egregious violations of the international conventions--and it really is very difficult to hold them accountable.

In fact, the United States is doing everything it can to help [Israel]. By supplying the weapons, by providing vetoes in the United Nations, and by passing resolutions in Congress by overwhelming numbers saying that they support Israel's attack on Gaza, the U.S. is helping Israel.

At the same time, the international media is showing that this was an attack on a largely civilian population. Gaza has 1.5 million people, and 55 percent are children under 18. The number of combatants, the number of weapons they have, and the kinds of weapons they use are no match for what Israel has. There is no place for combatants to go that is separate from the civilians.

WHAT DO you think people in the U.S. can do to show solidarity with the Palestinians?

I THINK that is the crucial question. During the war, we saw huge numbers of people around the world participating in demonstrations, protesting Israel's actions. We need to continue to build a movement that will call for accountability, that calls for Israeli officials to be held accountable, to be subject to the same kinds of war crimes prosecutions that happened in Yugoslavia, that happened in Africa.

We need to build a movement that gives people the opportunity to oppose Israel's occupation. We need a movement that calls for equal rights, that calls for the return of refugees to their homes and villages, and that calls for an end to U.S. aid to Israel, so that Palestinians can exercise their right to self-determination.