War crimes charges mount against IsraelAn investigation by The Guardian has compiled detailed evidence of alleged war crimes by Israel during the 23-day offensive in the Gaza Strip earlier this year, including the use of Palestinian children as human shields and the targeting of medics and hospitals.
The month-long inquiry also obtained evidence of civilians being hit by fire from unmanned drone aircraft said to be so accurate that their operators can tell the colour of the clothes worn by a target.
The testimonies form the basis of three Guardian films that add weight to calls this week for a full inquiry into the events surrounding Operation Cast Lead. The Israeli operation was aimed at Hamas but left about 1400 Palestinians dead, including up to 300 children.
The Israel Defence Forces refused to respond directly to the allegations against its troops, but issued statements denying the charges and insisting that international law had been observed.
The latest disclosures follow soldiers' evidence published in the Israeli press about the killing of Palestinian civilians and complaints by soldiers involved in the military operation that the rules of engagement were lax.
Amnesty International has said Hamas should be investigated for executing at least two dozen Palestinian men in an apparent bout of score-settling with rivals and alleged collaborators while Operation Cast Lead was under way.
Human rights groups say the vast majority of offences were committed by Israel, and that the Gaza offensive was a disproportionate response to Hamas rocket attacks. Since 2002, 21 Israelis have died from Hamas rockets fired out of Gaza. During Operation Cast Lead, three Israeli civilians died, six Israeli soldiers were killed by Palestinian fire and four were killed by friendly fire.
"Only an investigation mandated by the UN Security Council can ensure Israel's co-operation, and it's the only body that can secure some kind of prosecution," said Amnesty's Donatella Rovera, who spent two weeks in Gaza investigating war crimes allegations. "Without a proper investigation there is no deterrent. The message remains the same: 'It's OK to do these things, there won't be any real consequences.' "
Some of The Guardian's most dramatic testimony came from three teenage brothers in the Attar family. They describe how they were taken from home at gunpoint, made to kneel in front of Israeli tanks to deter Hamas fighters from firing, and sent by Israeli soldiers into Palestinian houses to clear them.
Medics and ambulance drivers said they were targeted when they tended the wounded. Sixteen were killed. According to the World Health Organisation, more than half Gaza's 27 hospitals and 44 clinics were damaged by Israeli bombs.
In a report released yesterday, Physicians for Human Rights-Israel said there was "certainty" that Israel violated international humanitarian law during the war, with attacks on medics, damage to medical buildings, indiscriminate attacks on civilians and delays in medical treatment for the injured.
"We have noticed a stark decline in IDF morals concerning the Palestinian population of Gaza, which in reality amounts to a contempt for Palestinian lives," said Dani Filc, chairman of Physicians for Human Rights-Israel.
The Guardian gathered testimony on missile attacks by Israeli drones against clearly distinguishable civilian targets. In one case a family of six were killed when a missile hit the courtyard of their house. Israel has not admitted using drones but experts say their optical equipment is good enough to identify individual items of clothing worn by targets.
The Geneva Conventions and customary law make it clear that medical workers and hospitals are not legitimate targets in warfare and forbid the use of involuntary human shields.
Lawyers say the use of armed drones in conflict should be necessary and proportionate.
The Israeli military issued a statement responding to the claims. "The IDF operated in accordance with the rules of war and did the utmost to minimise harm to civilians uninvolved in combat. The IDF's use of weapons conforms to international law."
The IDF said an investigation was under way into allegations that hospitals were targeted. It said in a statement that Israeli soldiers were under standing orders to avoid harming medics, but added: "However, in light of the difficult reality of warfare in the Gaza Strip carried out in urban and densely populated areas, medics who operate in the area take the risk upon themselves."
The use of human shields was outlawed by Israel's Supreme Court in 2005 after a string of incidents. The IDF said only Hamas used human shields by launching attacks from civilian areas.
An Israeli embassy spokesman said any allegations were suspect because of Hamas pressure on witnesses.
But the accounts gathered by The Guardian are supported by the findings of human rights organisations and soldiers' testimony published in Israel.
An IDF squad leader is quoted in the daily newspaper Haaretz as saying his soldiers interpreted the rules to mean "We should kill everyone there (in the centre of Gaza). Everyone there is a terrorist."