Marking the first anniversary of the Israeli military offensive against the Gaza Strip (commonly known as "Operation Cast Lead", carried-out December 27, 2008 - January 18, 2009, Al Mezan Centre for Human Rights organized a specialized workshop entitled "International Law: Justice and Accountability". Over 150 people - including victims of Israeli attacks, lawyers, judges and civil society activists - attended the workshop, which was held at the Commodore Hotel in Gaza City yesterday Monday 28 December 2009. The workshop also concludes a vital project on the promotion of IHL (international humanitarian law) and ESCR (economic, social and cultural rights) by Education in Gaza, which was implemented by Al Mezan Centre with support from Diakonia.
Mr. Issam Younis, Al Mezan's director, opened the workshop, welcomed the speakers and participants and asked for a one minute silence in honor of the victims of last year's aggression. He pointed to the brutality of the Israeli aggression and highlighted that the investigations conducted by various UN agencies and independent Palestinian and international human rights organizations found that the Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF) perpetrated serious violations of international law, including the rules of international humanitarian law (IHL), tantamount to war crimes and crimes against humanity. He also pointed out that there is international agreement that Gaza is an occupied territory; that is, a territory that falls under the effective control of Israel which as the occupying power is obligated to respect the rules of IHL and human rights standards. He also noted the de jure applicability of the Fourth Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilians of 1949 to the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt). Mr. Younis added that the Israeli siege on the Gaza Strip necessitates urgent action to protect by the international community, in accordance with international law. "In this context," he said, "The international community should act on its assertions that the Fourth Geneva Convention is applicable in the oPt; words and legal analysis are not enough."
Mr. Younis said that while the rules of IHL are important, they mean little unless upheld and implemented by providing protection for civilians in times of conflict. The policy of silence and deadly inaction which the international community, including the United Nations, has persisted in following for too long, towards the decades-long perpetration of war crimes by the IOF is only part of the problem. "It is time to change this. It is time for accountability to replace the reality of impunity," he said, adding that "This heinous disregard of the rule of the law and the failure to implement it with regards the perpetrators requires a 'legal revolution' to ensure justice and deter future violations."
Mr. Younis said also that Al Mezan and other human rights organizations continue to work to ensure that victims see justice and redress. "It is our aim that no criminal shall escape from justice," he said. He pointed out that the application for an arrest warrant against Israel's Defence Minister, Ehud Barak and Tzipi Livni, former Israeli Foreign Minister, represent only two small examples of human rights NGO's seeking this goal. While Barak escaped arrest, the evidence provided to the court for his involvement in war crimes was accepted by the court. He escaped justice through the inaccurate assertion that a defence minister enjoys diplomatic immunity. Yet, again, an independent judge found evidence of Livni's involvement in war crimes admissible and this time a warrant was issued. "While Al Mezan does not confirm any information about this particular case, it finds it a significant development towards ensuring accountability," Younis said. He added that this step "Is in line with the recommendations of the Goldstone Report".
The first session of the workshop was chaired by Mr. Mahmoud Abu Rahma, the Communications and International Relations Coordinator at Al Mezan. Abu Rahma welcomed the panelists and conference attendees. He reminded the participants of the continued state of conflict and prolonged occupation, which has brought serious consequences for the Palestinian population of the oPt. He described recent relevant developments concerning international investigations into Israel's offensive last winter including the UN Board of Inquiry, the UN Fact-Finding Mission headed by Justice Goldstone and the active actions by human rights organizations which have been faced with a heated propaganda campaign by Israel to undermine these developments.
In his presentation, Mr. Samir Zaqout, Coordinator of Field Work Unit at Al Mezan, spoke about the results of the documentation of IOF violations of international law in the Gaza Strip. He pointed to the importance of accurate, reliable documentation of violations of IHL and human rights for the pursuit of accountability and the protection of civilians.
Mr. Zaqout highlighted the widespread use of unmanned aircraft (drones) by the IOF during Operation Cast Lead, arguing that the IOF may have aimed to test and promote the drones. Hundreds of Palestinians were killed in precision attacks using these drones. Their strikes hit Palestinian civilians and civilian objects. He said that Al Mezan's documentation of the damages incurred to civilian life and property as a result has helped Al Mezan and other organizations to take action.
Mr. Zaqout summarized the Palestinian losses as a result of Operation Cast Lead. "The beginning of Operation Cast Lead must not be forgotten," he said. "The first wave of aerial attacks started at approximately 11.30am on a Saturday; it was a surprise airstrike campaign carried out by 80 warplanes which targeted the majority of police stations, security premises and other targets throughout the Gaza Strip," he said. "But it also coincided with the presence of hundreds of thousands of children on the streets who were going to school or returning home," he added. He also said that on the first day of the offensive 322 Palestinians were killed; of whom 129 where policemen killed while performing civilian police duties unrelated in any way to hostilities.
Mr. Zaqout said that the total number of Palestinians killed during the offensive was 1411, of whom 355 were under the age of 18 and 111 were women. Only 234 were combatants. He added that IOF attacks destroyed 614 public facilities, 210 industrial plants, 1410 commercial facilities, and 643 vehicles. Moreover, an area of 6,652 dunams (1 dunam is approximately 1000 square meters) of agricultural land was leveled by the IOF. These acts have had serious implications on life in Gaza.
Attorney Fatma Al Sharif, the IHL project lawyer, spoke about the basic principles of IHL, armed conflict and the protection it accords to civilians and other groups. She stressed the IHL principles of distinction, proportionality, and military necessity, which were grossly violated by the IOF during Operation Cast Lead. "This necessitates giving effect to the enforcement mechanisms offered by IHL and international law in general," she said, "which include the obligations of the High Contracting Parties to the Geneva Convention, the fact finding committees in IHL violations, the International Criminal Court and special tribunals.
Ms. Al Sharif talked about the standards of investigations as set out by international law which include promptness, reliability, independence and effectiveness. She highlighted the fact that Israel has refused to form an investigation commission into Operation Cast Lead violations, but has allowed for a number of separate, minor investigations that have been conducted by the Israeli army itself. She concluded that the current Israeli investigations do not come close to international standards.
The session chairperson added that Israel opened investigations following complaints by human rights organizations, but those were limited to certain cases that involved soldiers rather than high-ranking commanders or politicians and to cases that gained enormous media coverage. He added that many cases of the use of Palestinians as human shields are being investigated by the Israeli military and asserted that the IOF found it imperative to investigate these cases because the Israeli High Court had ordered the Israeli army not to use human shields in 2005. "All we need to do is file a motion of contempt with the Court," he said, and "the IOF will be directly charged with contempt". At the end of the first session, Mr. Mahmoud Abu Rahma took questions and comments and thanked the attendees for their participation.
The second session was chaired by Attorney Sobhiya Jom'a, Coordinator of the Fact Finding and Complaints Unit at the Palestinian Independent Commission for Human Rights (ICHR). The session started with the screening of a short film by photojournalist Mohammed Al-Baba. The film showed part of the events and the life of Palestinians in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead.
Dr. Abdul Qader Jarada, a professor of criminal law, talked about the International Criminal Court (ICC) and special tribunals and the obstacles that confront the ability of Palestinians to file cases with the ICC subsequent to Operation Cast Lead. He described the statute that established the Court, its jurisdiction and structure. "The ICC has examined five exceptionally important cases since 1998," he said; "four of which are related to the African continent, yet has not settled any yet." Then he described the process and procedures of filing cases with the ICC in terms of action being initiated by contracting parties, the Security Council, or the Prosecutor.
At the end of his presentation, Professor Jarada made a number of recommendations which were as follows:
- Ensuring proper follow up of the complaints that have been filed by human rights organizations with the ICC Prosecutor with the aim to provide sufficient evidence to the Court and calling it to promptly initiate investigations into Operation Cast Lead Violations
- Intensifying the use of the principle of universal jurisdiction by filing more complaints before domestic courts in States where the principle represents part of the legal regime including the UK and Spain
- Considering filing cases with Palestinian courts including the High Court of Justice
- Working with the Arab League to establish an Arab court that can take legal action against the IOF and to issue arrest warrants against Israeli violators of international law who may visit any Arab State, or States that have extradition treaties with Arab States
- Working with Arab States who are Party to the Rome Statute to file requests with the ICC Prosecutor to open an investigation into the alleged Israeli crimes.
Attorney Fatmeh El-Ajou from Adalah - The Legal Centre for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, talked by telephone about experiences with Israeli investigations into allegations of international law violations in the oPt. She said that Israel has always adopted 'internal investigations' that do not live up to the standards provided for in international law. She added that the Israeli High Court has traditionally refrained from intervening in investigations in terms of their methodology or the way they were handled both at the level of policy and individual cases. This is evident, she said, from the previous Court rulings in response to petitions submitted by human rights organizations to open investigations into the conducts of the Israeli military, especially during the Al Aqsa Intifada. In some cases, the Court permitted such internal investigations. In other cases, it decided not to interfere in the decisions of the Military Advocate general. She gave examples to the Court's attitude regarding this kind of investigation, such as the decisions it made in response to petitions requesting proper investigation into the assassination of Salah Shehadeh in 2002 and two cases involving IOF destruction of civilian property and killing civilians without apparent military necessity in Rafah in 2004. In these cases, she said, the Court decided not to interfere and order that criminal investigations be opened in accordance with relevant international standards. Some of these files are still before the Court until today.
At the end of this session, its chairperson Ms. Sobhiya Jom'a, took questions and comments for the panelists. Ms. Jom'a thanked the participants and the speakers and closed the workshop.