Operation Cast Lead
In response to a sharp increase in the number and frequency of rocket attacks into Israel prior to and following the expiration of Hamas' agreed period of "calm" on December 19, 2008, the Israeli Air Force launched Operation Cast Lead, consisting initially of airstrikes on December 27 against Hamas security installations, personnel, and other facilities in the Gaza Strip, followed on January 3 by ground operations. Hostilities between Israeli forces and Hamas fighters continued through January 18, and the Israeli withdrawal of troops was completed on 21 January 2009.
The Gaza enclave was largely quiet after Israel and Hamas declared separate cease-fires, but Israel warned Hamas it will attack again if the militants tried to rearm. Israel lost 10 soldiers while three civilians were also killed by Hamas rockets. The militant Islamic group remains defiant, saying it will not bow to Israel's demands that it refrain from rearming. Abu Ubaida, a spokesman for the movement's military wing told reporters on Monday the group would restart its attacks on Israel if Israeli troops do not pull out quickly. Israel continued the pullout of its troops and tanks from the Gaza Strip. In their wake, what Palestinian officials estimate is $1.9 billion worth of material damage. Israeli forces killed more than 1,300 Palestinians, many of them women and children. They also injured 7,000 civilians, while destroying over 4,000 houses and much of Gaza's infrastructure and buildings. The king of Saudi Arabia has pledged $1 billion in reconstruction aid. Residents of Gaza sifted through the rubble of entire city blocks leveled during the 22-day campaign. Some expressed anger and disappointment at Hamas, which they said had failed to defend them.
Over 1,300 trucks transporting humanitarian aid to the civilians of the Gaza Strip, passed through the different crossings throughout the length of Operation Cast Lead. Approximately 1,300 trucks were transported through Israel to the Gaza Strip via Kerem Shalom Crossing and approximately 65 trucks via Karni Crossing. In addition, 1,711 liters of diesel fuel for heating purposes, 96 thousand liters of diesel fuel for transportation purposes, 234 tons of natural gas, and 282 thousand liters of diesel fuel provided especially for UNRWA. Throughout the operation, the Headquarters coordinated the evacuation of 382 injured Palestinians from the combat zones, in addition to 1,150 uninvolved Palestinians from those zones. In addition to this, the Headquarters facilitated the entrance of 17 fire trucks to different fire centers, and of several professional teams that took care of the repair of infrastructural problems in the combat zones. The evacuation of 460 Palestinian foreign nationals from the Gaza Strip to Israel through Erez Crossing was also facilitated. The officers of the Coordination and Communication Headquarters also coordinated the transfer of 500 trucks and 131 ambulances from the northern to the southern Gaza Strip.
Ihab al-Ghussein, Hamas Interior Ministry representative said: "Israel withdrew its combat vehicles from the Palestinian territories that it invaded on December 27, 2008. Unfortunately, some hostile actions from the Israeli side still continue. Patrol boats are still firing. We would like Israel to stick to its ceasefire obligations. Indeed, many shells and missiles have fallen on Palestinian lands during this war, and many of them did not explode. Palestinian police and field engineers have been making great efforts to defuse them. We keep working to protect Palestinian citizens. We are ready for any turn of events, but we would like to see a dialogue going on."
"There was nearly not one weapon storage facility, smuggling tunnel and terror operative house that was not hit in the Gaza Strip, and there were minimal tactical encounters by our forces with them (the Hamas terror operatives) that ended without an achievement on our part," said the GOC Southern Command, Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant, at an assembly of the Sho'alay Marom Brigade (res.) and an Armored Corps Battalion (res.) at the Mishmar Hanegev military base. Maj. Gen. Galant also made note that Hamas was surprised many times throughout the operation. "At the beginning of the operation, the firepower was strong and accurate during the quick maneuvers and due to our cooperation with aerial and artillery fire and the quick decision of going out to the different areas of deployment. The assessment is that the other side understands that firing rockets is not worth it, and we will make sure that it remains that way and thus prepare to suppress the capabilities of Hamas."
Iran's Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said Hamas had the right to re-arm. Tehran is one of the main supporters of Hamas, but denies it supplies the group with weapons. Despite an Israeli blockade, militants have been able to smuggle weapons in through a network of tunnels from Egypt.
The blow to Hamas was discreetly welcomed by moderate Arab leaders who are fearful of Teheran's attempt to achieve hegemony in the Middle East and infuse the region with its brand of radical Islam. While condemning the loss of civilian lives in Gaza, the leaders ignored demands by the Arab masses that they support Hamas' fight. Iranian influence over Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Hezbollah in Lebanon, two dynamic movements which Teheran arms and funds, is particularly galling to Arab leaders because Iran is not an Arab state but a Persian one. In addition, it follows the Sh'ite branch of Islam while most of the Arab states are Sunni.
Human rights organizations estimated the number of dead at close to 1,400 Palestinians, including more than 1,000 civilians, and the wounded at more than 5,000. According to government figures, Palestinian deaths totaled 1,166, including 295 noncombatant deaths. The discrepancy over civilian deaths largely centered on whether the 248 Hamas police officers killed were considered civilians. There were 13 Israelis killed, including three civilians. Further information on the human rights situation in Gaza and the West Bank is in the Annex.
The President of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) established the United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict to investigate Israeli violations of international human rights and humanitarian law in the context of military operations in Gaza, whether before, during, or after Operation Cast Lead. On September 29, 2009, Justice Richard Goldstone, who headed the mission, presented the report (commonly known as the "Goldstone report") to the HRC in Geneva. The Goldstone report investigated 36 incidents of alleged violations by the IDF in Gaza, as well as alleged violations by Palestinians. This reflected an effort by Goldstone to broaden the scope of his report beyond the original mandate, which was limited only to violations by Israel.
Among its many conclusions, the report claimed that members of the IDF were responsible for deliberate targeting of civilians, for the destruction of critical infrastructure in Gaza, and for using weapons such as white phosphorous in highly populated areas, all of which it deemed to be violations of international humanitarian law. The Goldstone report was widely criticized for methodological failings, legal and factual errors, falsehoods, and for devoting insufficient attention to the asymmetrical nature of the conflict and the fact that Hamas and other Palestinian militants were deliberately operating in heavily populated urban areas of Gaza. The government of Israel also sharply rejected the charge that it had a policy of deliberately targeting civilians. IDF military advocate general Mandelblit was responsible for reviewing all allegations relating to Operation Cast Lead, including those contained in the Goldstone Report. At the end of the year 2009, Mandelblit's investigations were ongoing.
Following the 15 July 2009 release of the NGO Breaking the Silence's report of 26 soldiers' testimonies alleging human rights violations during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, the government publicly announced its intention to wage an "aggressive battle against NGOs" which it deemed "biased against" the country. The government asked the United Kingdom, Spain, and the Netherlands to stop providing funding to Breaking the Silence. No country ceased funding. Ten human rights groups protested the government's raising the issue of foreign financing of some NGOs, releasing a joint statement on August 2 demanding that the government "cease all activity meant to instill fear and silence or harm vital organizations that operate legitimately, and allow them to engage freely in public discourse and various activities."
Israeli human rights organizations reported a lack of protection for civilians during the Israeli incursion into Gaza. Among the 1,385 estimated casualties in Israel's military operations in Gaza at the beginning of the year, B'Tselem reported that civilians accounted for 773, or more than half, of those killed. According to the Israeli government, Hamas operated within civilian populations. The government of Israel reported that 295 deaths in the operation were civilians. Four Israeli civilians and 10 soldiers were killed in combat or as a result of rocket and mortar fire.
Israeli forces damaged a number of UNRWA facilities during hostilities in December-January in the Gaza Strip. Three installations suffered direct hits from Israeli ordnance causing death or injury to those in the installations, and two installations were struck by debris or the effect of Israeli ordnance landing adjacent to the installation, killing six persons and injuring 35. On January 5, an IDF aerial strike killed three men who had sought shelter at the Asma Elementary Co-Ed A School. On January 6, eight persons were injured when mortar rounds struck near the Jabalia Preparatory Boys C School, which was in use as a temporary emergency shelter. On January 15, artillery struck the UNRWA Gaza Training Centre and Field Office compound, injuring one staff member and two men who had sought shelter in the compound, and causing a fire that destroyed the warehouse containing food, medicine, and other supplies. On January 17, IDF ordnance struck the Beit Lahia Elementary School while the school was being used as an emergency shelter, killing two young boys and injuring 13 persons. During the period from January 1 to January 19, a further 23 UNRWA installations suffered property damage from Israeli strikes on or near the UN installations.
HRW documented allegations in seven cases that Israeli soldiers shot and killed 11 Palestinian civilians, including five women and four children, who were in groups waving white flags to convey their civilian status.
According to HRW, on January 7, Israeli tanks stopped at the house of Khalid 'Abd Rabbo. According to three family members who witnessed the incident, an Israeli soldier fired on two women and three girls who had come out of the house holding makeshift white flags, killing two and wounding two seriously. At year's end, the Israeli military police were conducting an investigation into the incident.
In a January 13 incident reported by both HRW and B'Tselem, IDF soldiers shot and killed several members of the al-Najar family in Khuza'a village, east of Khan Yunis. Reportedly, while waving a white flag Rawiya al-Najjar attempted to lead a group of family members, several of whom also carried white flags, out of their neighborhood, following orders from soldiers in tanks and militarized bulldozers. She was shot first, then other members of the al-Najar family were shot and killed.
On January 20, two days after hostilities ended, IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi ordered five special command investigations to focus on five types of alleged violations of the Law of Armed Conflict: incidents harming multiple civilians, damage to UN and international facilities, firing on medical facilities, destruction of private property and infrastructure, and use of weaponry containing phosphorus. At least 60 of these investigations are operational debriefings held by the army under the Military Justice Law. The operational debriefing delays a criminal investigation; the information provided cannot be released or used as evidence in a court of law.
On July 29, the government released preliminary findings from some of the IDF investigations into approximately 100 complaints that it received from all sources, including NGOs, international organizations, and the media. The field investigations concluded that many allegations were false; all conclusions remained to be reviewed by the military advocate general who could order additional field investigations and whose decisions would be subject to review by the attorney general and the Supreme Court.
Palestinian rocket and terrorist attacks killed four and injured 34 civilians in Israel during the year 2009; such attacks killed three at the start of hostilities on December 27 and 29, 2008. There were 125 rockets and 70 mortar shells fired into Israel from Gaza since the end of Operation Cast Lead on January 21, 2009 and 850 rockets and mortar shells during the hostilities, compared with 1,750 rockets and 1,528 mortar shells in 2008.
Israel had previously sought diplomatic immunity to war crime suspects after they became the focus of legal investigations. Israeli military personnel also enjoy functional immunity, blocking investigations on grounds of national security. The lack of internal accountability, however, is what makes the ICC’s case possible from the outset. The ICC can only intervene in cases where a country’s judicial branch is unwilling or unable to prosecute crimes. With hundreds of unaddressed legal complaints and cases filed by Palestinian legal organizations, 80 percent are closed without investigation, prompting the ICC to take a closer look with a legal mandate. The probe will face serious challenges given the ongoing pandemic, a significant number of cases to investigate and the expectation that Israel will likely bar efforts to cooperate with the probe, and prevent investigators from entering Israel or Palestine.
The decision to move forward with an extensive probe into alleged Israeli war crimes comes six years after a preliminary investigation by the ICC tried to hold Israel accountable for multiple reports of human rights violations perpetrated against Palestinians. The probe will look at cases of extrajudicial killings, settlement constructions and violations of the Geneva conventions on warfare.
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