A destroyed building in Gaza, 2009. Photo credit: Marius Arnesen/Flickr. Creative Commons license.
For the past fifteen years, Israel has imposed a blockade upon Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, an illegal act of collective punishment. In addition, Israel’s repeated attacks upon the Gaza Strip have primarily impacted civilians, resulting in potential war crimes and crimes against humanity according to international investigations. Israel uses US weapons to enforce its blockade and attack the Gaza Strip in violation of US laws. Like any other country, Israel must be held accountable by Congress and the administration when it violates human rights and US laws.
ISSUE: For the past fifteen years, Israel has imposed a land, air, and sea blockade upon the Palestinian Gaza Strip, which, despite Israel’s unilateral removal of settlers and army bases from within the territory in 2005, is still occupied territory according to international law because Israel exercises effective military control over it. This blockade is a form of collective punishment of the approximately two million Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip, which is illegal under international law.
Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip has led to a humanitarian catastrophe--the United Nations predicted that the Gaza Strip could be “unliveable” as of 2020, and Palestinians in the Gaza Strip are always teetering on the brink of humanitarian catastrophe due to the severe economic and infrastructural limitations imposed by Israel’s blockade.
In addition, Israel’s repeated and devastating attacks against Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, which have killed thousands of Palestinian civilians and pulverized homes, businesses, roads, and other infrastructure, have led to investigations by international bodies that have concluded that Israel has committed potential war crimes and crimes against humanity in its policies toward Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.
Need for Accountability
However, Israel continues these policies in part because the United States has never held Israel accountable for its actions. Instead, Congress has approved ever-increasing amounts of taxpayer-funded weapons which have been directly implicated in Israel’s human rights violations of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. In addition, both Democratic and Republican administrations have acted in international forums to shield Israel from any repercussions for its manifestly illegal acts.
At a very minimum, Congress must begin to hold Israel accountable for its policies by requesting an investigation from the State Department into Israel’s potential violations of the Arms Export Control Act during its most recent attack on Palestinians in the Gaza Strip in May 2021.
Israel’s Attack on the Gaza Strip, May 2021
In this attack, according to the UN, “261 Palestinians were killed, including 67 children and 41 women. Of those fatalities, 130 were civilians and 64 were members of armed groups, while the status of the remaining 67 has not been determined. Over 2,200 Palestinians were injured, including 685 children and 480 women, some of whom may suffer a long-term disability requiring rehabilitation. In Israel, 13 people, including two children, were killed, and 710 others were injured.” The infographic below shows some of the additional devastations from Israel’s attack.
Source: UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
Employment of US Weapons in Apparent Violation of Law
Israel employed US weapons, in apparent violation of the Arms Export Control Act, to commit some of these human rights abuses against Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. For example, Israeli airstrikes in the Rimal neighborhood of Gaza City around 1:00 AM on May 16 flattened residential buildings in the single deadliest incident of the 12-day attack. 43 Palestinians were killed, including 22 members of one family, the al-Kawlak family. The Associated Press reported:
“By nightfall, the family’s death toll stood at 22. Eight bodies were dug out of Azzam’s building and 14 from the one next door. The dead included 89-year-old family patriarch Amin, his son Fawaz, 62, his grandson Sameh, 28, and his great-grandson, 6-month-old Qusai.
Just a day earlier, Qusai’s parents had celebrated a small milestone, his first tooth. Azzam’s two younger brothers were killed. Three nieces — 5-year-old Rula, 10-year-old Yara and 12-year-old Hala — were found in a tight embrace, their bodies the last to be pulled out, said Azzam’s surviving older brother, Awni.”
The same report notes that bomb fragments from the attack indicate the bombs that flattened these homes were “likely GBU-31s, packed with 430 kilograms (945 pounds) of high explosives.” In addition, the report notes that “two had serial numbers identifying them as fitted with Joint Direct Attack Munition kits manufactured by Boeing Co. at its factory in St. Charles, Missouri, to make them so-called ‘smart bombs,’ able to be guided to a target by GPS or lasers.”
This same attack also killed Dr. Ayman Abu al-Ouf, head of internal medicine at al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City, who was directing the hospital's covid-19 response. He was killed along with 12 members of his extended family.
In another horrific incident, Defense for Children International Palestine, one of six Palestinian human rights NGOs criminalized by Israel for its effective reporting on and advocacy against Israel’s human rights abuses, documented that on May 12 US-sourced equipment was used by Israeli forces in the killing of two Palestinian children and injuring of a third:
“A U.S.-sourced Israeli Apache attack helicopter killed two Palestinian children and critically injured a third on Wednesday afternoon in Al-Fukharia village southeast of Khan Younis, located about 3 kilometers (1.8 miles) from the Gaza perimeter fence. Hamada Attia Abed al-Emour, 13, was on his way to a store near his home around 5:30 p.m., accompanied by his two cousins, Ammar Tayseer Mohammad al-Emour, 10, and Elyan Moneer Ibrahim al-Emour, 12, when the Israeli attack helicopter fired two thermal flares and then a missile in the direction of the children, according to documentation collected by DCIP. At the time of the missile attack, the street was open and completely quiet.
The helicopter-fired missile directly hit Hamada and Ammar, dismembering and killing them both instantly. Elyan, who was walking five to six meters (16-20 feet) in front of his cousins, was struck with shrapnel in the abdomen, according to documentation collected by DCIP. All three children were transported to the nearby European hospital where doctors pronounced Hamada and Ammar dead. Eylan was later transferred to Khan Younis’ Nasser hospital and remains in critical condition as of midday on May 13.”
The unwillingness of Congress and subsequent Administrations to hold Israel accountable for these actions and policies have intensified Israel’s sense of immunity. Unless the United States takes effective measures to hold Israel accountable for its human rights violations of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, these outrages will continue and the United States will be complicit in them by furnishing Israel with the weaponry and diplomatic support that enables these assaults on and blockade of the Gaza Strip.
BACKGROUND: Last month, Israel announced the completion of a 65 kilometer-long barrier surrounding the entirety of the blockaded Gaza Strip. According to Haaretz, this $1 billion construction project “features a sensor-equipped underground wall, a six-meter high above-ground fence, and a barrier at sea with monitoring equipment to detect incursions from the water. In addition, the wall includes remotely controlled weapons systems and an array of radar systems with cameras that cover the entire territory of the Gaza Strip.” This barrier is another disturbing indication that Israel intends to keep Palestinians in the Gaza Strip blockaded illegally in perpetuity.
Great March of Return, 2018-2019
Just as Israel has not been held accountable for this illegal blockade and for its devastating attack upon the Gaza Strip in May 2021, so too has Israel failed to hold itself accountable through internal investigations conducted after its killing of 223 Palestinians and the wounding of more than 8,000 during the Great March of Return weekly protests in 2018 and 2019. According to a damning new joint report by the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR) and Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, the NGOs found that “The vast majority of casualties were unarmed and posed no threat to any one.”
This report contains several disturbing accounts of Israeli soldiers wantonly injuring and killing Palestinians who posed no threat to them, such as Ahmad Abu Habel, a teenager who was killed by Israeli soldiers firing a tear gas canister at his head when he was sitting 200 meters from the fence separating the Gaza Strip from Israel. His friend Muhammad Dawas testified:
“While I was sitting next to Ahmad, he keeled over and I saw smoke rising from his head. He’d been hit in the head by a tear gas canister. I ran away so I wouldn’t get hit, too. I immediately called the medics to come help him. They took the canister out of his head, which was bleeding. The medics picked him up and carried him to an ambulance, which took him to the Indonesian Hospital. I went with him. A few minutes after we got to the hospital, he was pronounced dead.”
Despite manifestly illegal open-fire regulations against protesters who posed no threat to soldiers, PCHR and B’Tselem found that the military and political leaders who issued them were not even investigated, much less held accountable. Furthermore, they documented that only one soldier faced any consequences for killing or injuring Palestinian protesters--his plea bargain entailed one month of military community service. Rather than conducting genuine investigations designed to hold soldiers and officials accountable, PCHR and B’Tselem concluded that the main point of internal Israeli military investigations was to stave off accountability proceedings at the International Criminal Court.
Israel’s Attacks on the Gaza Strip, 2012 and 2014
As PCHR and B’Tselem note, this “whitewashing” follows a pattern of previous Israeli military investigations that have served to exculpate its actions and policies. During Operation Protective Edge (June-August 2014), “Israel killed 2,203 Palestinians, including at least 1,371 (62%) who did not take part in the fighting – 527 of them under the age of 18. Some 18,000 homes were destroyed or severely damaged, leaving more than 100,000 Palestinians homeless, and Israel wreaked havoc on Gaza’s infrastructure.”
According to these NGOs, “As soon as the fighting was over, the whitewashing machine went into action. The government members and senior military commanders who had steered the policy – including assaults on inhabited buildings – drafted the orders and made operational decisions during the fighting were not investigated in any way.” Only three soldiers were convicted of stealing approximately $750, a serious enough crime but one that pales in significance to the vast and deliberate killing and demolition of infrastructure which took place.
During Israel’s attack on the Gaza Strip in November 2012, dubbed Operation Pillar of Defense, Israel killed 174 Palestinians, of whom 101 were believed to be civilians, including 33 children and 13 women, according to a UN investigation. Human Rights Watch found that at least 18 Israeli airstrikes “were in apparent violation of the laws of war” and resulted in the killing of at least 43 civilians, including 12 children. Neither the United States took any action to hold Israel accountable for the misuse of US weapons in this attack, nor did Israel even conduct its own internal investigations, much less hold anyone accountable. In fact, according to PCHR, after eight years of pressing the Israeli military to investigate cases submitted to it, the military informed PCHR in December 2020 “that the files had been lost. As they could no longer be processed, the investigations were closed with no further action.”
In May 2010, Israeli naval commandos violently boarded a flotilla of ships in international waters which were filled with activists attempting to deliver humanitarian goods to the Gaza Strip. Israeli commandos killed 10 activists, including US citizen Furkan Doğan. According to the UN, Doğan may have been executed at point-blank range. He was
“filming with a small video camera when he was first hit with live fire. It appears that he was lying on the deck in a conscious, or semi-conscious, state for some time. In total Furkan received five bullet wounds, to the face, head, back thorax, left leg and foot. All of the entry wounds were on the back of his body, except for the face wound which entered to the right of his nose. According to forensic analysis, tattooing around the wound in his face indicates that the shot was delivered at point blank range. Furthermore, the trajectory of the wound, from bottom to top, together with a vital abrasion to the left shoulder that could be consistent with the bullet exit point, is compatible with the shot being received while he was lying on the ground on his back.”
Rather than hold Israel accountable for the killing of a US citizen, the United States let the matter drop after some desultory initial inquiries with Israel, according to documents obtained by the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) through FOIA requests. According to CCR, “Despite its initial promise to provide the U.S. government with information regarding its investigation in
Furkan’s killing as soon as it was available, the Israeli government at every step of the way declined to provide the U.S. government information regarding the investigation.”
Israel’s Attack on the Gaza Strip, 2008-2009
Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s attack on the Gaza Strip between December 2008 and January 2009, resulted in the killing of “1,391 Palestinians, at least 759 (55%) of whom did not take part in the fighting, including 318 under the age of 18. Israel destroyed more than 3,500 houses during the fighting, leaving tens of thousands of people homeless, and caused massive damage to other structures and to infrastructure facilities,” according to PCHR and B’Tselem. Although Israel did find four soldiers “guilty of theft, of using a child as a human shield and of unlawful use of firearms,” those responsible for ordering and committing potential war crimes and crimes against humanity, as documented by the Goldstone Report, were not held accountable.
And, once again, rather than act to ensure that Israel was held accountable and that the United States investigated Israel’s misuse of US weapons in this attack, the United States shielded Israel from any repercussions from the findings of the Goldstone Report. In fact, according to leaked documents, US diplomats even went as far as to collaborate with Israeli diplomats in devising ways to “deflect and contain” the ramifications of the report.
As these examples demonstrate, the United States has repeatedly failed to pursue accountability measures for Israel violating US weapons laws in its attacks on Palestinians in the Gaza Strip as part of its maintenance of an illegal blockade, making it complicit in Israel’s apparent war crimes and crimes against humanity. Congress must take measures to ensure that the United States is no longer complicit in these atrocities.