War Crimes at Rafah

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Violations of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights during operation “Rainbow” (13-25 May 2004)

Mission of investigation in the Gaza Strip

The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and Médecins du monde (MDM) sent two simultaneous and complementary missions of investigation on the human rights and humanitarian law situation in Rafah, in the South of the Gaza Strip, following the beginning of military operation "Rainbow" conducted by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) in May 2004. The operation took place in several stages. The mission investigated the events that occurred between 13 May 2004, date of the first series of Israeli army’s incursions into Rafah, and 25 May, when they finally withdrew from the last district of Rafah that they were occupying.

The FIDH report does not claim to be an exhaustive account of the situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories but it is critical of the arbitrary large-scale demolition of private houses without any convincing reason relating to « military necessity ». The report deals with the destruction of agricultural areas, of greenhouses and trees especially olive trees being uprooted. It describes the obstacles deliberately placed on the way of the wounded people during military operations. In brief, this report gives a picture of a Palestinian civilian population being punished for attacks perpetrated by certain armed Palestinian militants, and against which Israel has launched a campaign of reprisals that can hardly be justified by the the reasons it claims for its army’s behaviour.

The report shows that certain acts perpetrated by the Israeli Defense Forces during the operation « Rainbow », between 13 and 25 May 2004 constitute grave breaches of the Fourth Geneva Convention. According to article 147 of the Convention, certain acts such as wilful killing, wilfully causing great suffering or serious injury to body or health, or extensive destruction and appropriation of property, not justify by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly, constitute grave breaches when they are committed against persons or property protected by the Fourth Convention.

The statutes of international jurisdiction- and particularly article 8 of the International Criminal Court’s Statute- consider that such grave breaches may amount to war crimes.

In formulating its recommendations, the FIDH bases itself on the finding that the « Rainbow » operation exhibits a policy of collective punishments imposed on the Palestinian population by the Israeli authorities, of which the raids between 13 and 25 May 2004 are just examples. The justification invoked is the need to « uncover » tunnels through which arms would be trafficked into the Gaza strip from Egypt. This report demonstrates that this justification is not convincing. Other means exist to find such tunnels. The destruction of houses are totally disproportionate in relation to the objective invoked. Moreover, the means of destruction - characterized by the arbitrariness of the choice of houses demolished and the absence of any preliminary search of these houses, as well as by the absence of any register of the demolitions and the families affected - clearly contradict the justification invoked.

The « Rainbow » operation is significant also because of the future it seems to announce. The Gaza strip is completely closed from Israël, and the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) control the passage points which make it possible for the Israeli authorities to severe the Gaza strip, at any time, in three separate segments, thus seriously restricting, sometimes for days, the freedom of movement of its inhabitants. This explains why Gaza has been qualified an « open sky prison ». The FIDH notes that the construction of the « separation wall » in the West Bank, in order to - according to the offered justification - protect Israël and most of the settlements in the West Bank from terrorist infiltrations, a construction which the International Court of Justice has found to be in violation of international law, would place the West Bank in a very similar situation. Therefore, the practices of the Israeli Defence Forces in Gaza constitute a particularly disquieting precedent. The representatives of the FIDH have witnessed the consequences of the incursions of the IDF in the autonomous Palestinian zones, but on which Israël maintains its strict control, intervening whenever security imperatives appear to the Israeli authorities to justify such an intervention. The recommendations which these findings call for must be considered as applying, mutatis mutandis, to the situation that is likely to be created with the construction of the wall in the West Bank.

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