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Crying out for justice

As the latest inquiry into Israel’s war on Gaza hears the harrowing testimonies of Palestinian survi

On 28 June, the UN mission investigating alleged war crimes committed during Israel’s assault on the Gaza Strip in January began public hearings in the coastal territory. The testimony of witnesses who had seen relatives killed and property destroyed in the war, which Israel codenamed Operation Cast Lead, was screened in a local hall and broadcast live on some TV channels in the Middle East. A plan to webcast the proceedings failed, for technical reasons, but a video will be made available on the website of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (www.ohchr.org), and another round of hearings will be held in Geneva on 6 and 7 July. “The purpose of the public hearings in Gaza and Geneva is to show the faces and broadcast the voices of victims – all of the victims,” the chair of the mission, Justice Richard Goldstone, said last week.

The emphasis is significant, because when the panel was established by the UN Human Rights Council in January, it was asked to investigate only the conduct of Israeli forces – a remit that, according to Tom Porteous, London director of Human Rights Watch, was “wrong in principle, and politically wrong”. The allegations that Israel was violating the rules of war began to surface in the first days of the offensive – it was accused of shelling civilian areas, using banned weapons such as white phosphorus, and attacking medical facilities and other non-military targets. But Hamas and other Palestinian factions were also accused of war crimes. The operation was intended to stop Palestinian militants firing rockets at towns in southern Israel – according to Amnesty International, around 15 Israeli civilians were killed by rockets fired from Gaza between June 2004 and December 2008, and another three were killed in the barrage that continued throughout the three weeks of the war. Hamas has also been accused of other human rights abuses and violations of international law, including deploying fighters in civilian homes, firing rockets from bases close to civilian areas, and conducting punitive attacks against its internal rivals.

When Goldstone was appointed chair of the inquiry in April, he made it plain that he intended to look at the ­actions of all parties, but its reputation for impartiality had already been damaged: Israel dismissed it as a “masquerade”, and refused to co-operate. Goldstone and his colleagues intended to visit towns in southern Israel to investigate the effect of Palestinian rocket fire, but were not allowed to enter the country.

Donatella Rovera, Amnesty International’s researcher in Israel and the occupied territories, suggests that this doesn’t matter greatly: Goldstone and his colleagues were able to enter the Gaza Strip through Egypt, and the territory will provide the most important focus for both parts of their work. “The situation in southern Israel is very clear, whereas the situation in Gaza isn’t,” Rovera says. The inquiry’s task is to establish which of Israel’s attacks on targets in Gaza were legitimate under the rules of law, and which were not, whereas there is no question about the status of Palestinian attacks on southern Israel: indiscriminate rocket fire against civilian targets is inherently unlawful, and identifying those responsible will not be difficult, as the Palestinian militants claim credit for their actions.

Goldstone’s inquiry is the second the UN has established into the war, in which as many as 1,400 Palestinians were killed. The first had an even more limited remit: to investigate nine incidents in which UN property was attacked, including the shelling of the al-Fakhura school in the Jabaliya refugee camp on 6 January, the day after the school opened as a shelter for civilians. The UN estimated that around 40 people were killed in this single assault. Israel said its troops were responding to fire from militants near the school, but the inquiry found no firing from within the compound or its immediate vicinity. Of the nine incidents investigated, the inquiry found Israel responsible in seven cases, Hamas “or another Palestinian actor” responsible in one, and failed to establish responsibility in another.

Porteous says the 30-page summary of the report provides “compelling evidence that the Israel Defence Forces violated the laws of war during their military operations around UN installations in Gaza”. The UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon has requested $10.4m (£6.2m) compensation from Israel for damage caused to UN property, but Porteous regrets that he distanced himself from the report’s findings: “There was a clear need for a broader and more comprehensive investigation into allegations of violations of the rules of war, by both sides.”

Goldstone’s inquiry will report in September, but since it is not backed by the Security Council, it is unlikely to lead to any further action. “We think Goldstone will come up with recommendations, but if the report hits a political brick wall, it might be necessary to take the investigation to a higher level,” Porteous says. He has called on the UN secretary general and all states that “profess to care about the vital importance of upholding the rule of law in international ­affairs” to lend their weight to the campaign to bring suspected war criminals to trial.

The Security Council’s decision to refer alleged war crimes in Sudan to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague has led to the indictment of President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan, but the model will not work in the case of Gaza. In March, the Palestinian Authority recognised the ICC in an attempt to clear the way for a full investigation into alleged war crimes, yet it is not clear whether it can do so since it is not a state, and Israel is not a signatory to the court’s founding charter.

“It’s extremely unlikely that anything will happen in the next few months,” Rovera says. She explains that the emphasis is on collecting and preserving evidence that might be used in the future. This week, Amnesty published a major report on Operation Cast Lead, called 22 Days of Death and Destruction, which concluded that much of the destruction was “wanton” and said that “children playing on the roofs of their homes or in the street . . . were killed in broad daylight” by highly accurate missiles launched by helicopter and unmanned drones. Human Rights Watch also released a report exploring six incidents in which 29 civilians were killed by drone-launched missiles.

Rovera’s assertion that “you have to take the long view” is borne out by a case currently going through the Spanish courts. On 29 January, less than two weeks after Operation Cast Lead came to an end, Spain’s national court announced that it would hear a case concerning events in the territory six and a half years earlier. At midnight on 22 July 2002, an Israeli F16 fighter jet dropped a 985kg bomb on an apartment building in the al-Daraj district of Gaza City. The target was Salah Shehade, thought to be the leader of the Ezzedeen al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas. Shehade was killed, along with his guard, his wife and daughter, and 12 other civilians. Last June, the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR), which is based in Gaza, filed suit in Spain on behalf of six Palestinians who survived the attack. The case depended on evidence that the seven Israeli officials cited knew that civilians might be killed in the attack, and still decided to proceed. The al-Daraj bombing was part of a policy of “widespread and systematic attacks against a civilian population”, the PCHR said, and as such it constituted both a crime against humanity and a breach of the Geneva Conventions.

Israel appealed against the decision to hear the al-Daraj case in Spain. Officials sent a 400-page document to the Spanish legal team, stating that the operation was subject to proceedings in Israel, and therefore the Spanish court should have declined to exercise jurisdiction, but on 4 May a Spanish judge announced that the case would continue. “The Spanish court rejected the claim that Israel had adequately investigated the crime,” says Raji Sourani, director of the PCHR.

Sourani stresses that the decision’s significance is not limited to the al-Daraj case: “The court also ruled that, in view of the status of Gaza as occupied territory – that is, not part of Israel – Spanish criminal law does not accord Israel primary jurisdiction over suspected Israeli war criminals.” Instead, the court affirmed the principle of universal jurisdiction, which states that torture, war crimes and crimes against humanity are so serious that they may be tried in any country, regardless of where they were committed.

Universal jurisdiction has been used in other cases, most notably that of General Pinochet, the former Chilean dictator, who was arrested in London in October 1998 after an international warrant was issued by a Spanish judge. Pinochet was kept under house arrest until March 2000, when the then home secretary, Jack Straw, released him on grounds of ill health. Pinochet returned to Chile, yet he did not entirely escape justice – there were renewed attempts to prosecute him in Chile, and by the time of his death in 2006, he had been implicated in more than 300 criminal charges.

The International Federation for Human Rights has calculated that 75 complaints have been filed or prosecutions opened on the basis of universal jurisdiction in European courts since 2006, and five offenders have been convicted. The first successful prosecution in the UK was in July 2005, when the Afghan militia leader Faryadi Zardad was convicted of acts of torture and hostage-taking in Afghanistan in the 1990s, and sentenced to 20 years in prison. Heads of state enjoy immunity from prosecution, so complaints filed against George W Bush and Robert Mugabe have not been investigated, and Human Rights Watch says that immunity seems to be extended to every sitting minister of foreign governments: in February 2004, for example, a London court rejected an application for an arrest warrant against Israel’s defence minister, Shaul Mofaz.

The provision reflects that universal jurisdiction cases are conducted in the face of considerable international pressure: “European countries don’t want to get into a fight with Israel and the US,” Rovera observes. In 1993, Belgium passed universal jurisdiction legislation for “grave breaches of international humanitarian law”, later amended to include crimes against humanity and genocide: Carla Ferstman, the director of Redress, which seeks reparation for survivors of torture, says it was “universal jurisdiction of the purest kind”, as it allowed prosecutions irrespective of where the crime took place or whether the perpetrator was in the country. It also allowed people who had no connection with Belgium to bring a case, which resulted in what Ferstman calls “forum shopping”. A flood of lawsuits, including an attempt to prosecute Ariel Sharon for his role in the massacre of Palestinian refugees in the camps of Sabra and Shatila during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, led to revisions of the law in 2003.

Britain has also considered revising its legislation. In 2005, the PCHR filed a lawsuit in the UK against Doron Almog, head of the Israeli army southern command between 2000 and 2003, for committing grave breaches of the Fourth Geneva Convention. When he arrived at Heathrow, the British-Israeli lawyer Daniel Machover, who was part of the team that brought the al-Daraj suit in Spain, attempted to arrest him on a warrant issued by a magistrate. Almog heard about the warrant and refused to leave his plane. He escaped arrest by flying back to Israel. There are differing reports of what happened next: some say that Tony Blair attempted to bring the system under political control by ensuring that only the attorney general could issue warrants for the arrest of individuals like Almog, but others say the Blair government refused a request from the government of Israel to make the change.

The government is now considering what most human rights activists consider an improvement to the UK law: following the high court’s recent decision to release four Rwandan men suspected of genocide who were held in the UK since 2006, because of fears that they might not get a fair trial, it may introduce an amendment that would allow courts to try cases where genocide had allegedly been committed elsewhere in the world. An announcement is expected imminently, though Ferstman fears that the changes will not include provisions to try cases of war crimes or crimes against humanity.

Spain is the last European country that can hear cases where the victims are not Spanish nationals, or the perpetrator is not present in the country, but its law is also under review. “I intend to appeal to the Spanish foreign minister, the Spanish minister of defence and, if need be, the Spanish prime minister, who is a colleague of mine in the Socialist International, to override the decision,” said the Israeli defence minister, Ehud Barak, on the day the Spanish court announced it would proceed with the al-Daraj case. On 19 May, the Spanish parliament passed a resolution calling on the government to modify its universal jurisdiction mechanisms, so that cases may only be pursued if they involve Spanish victims or if the accused is on Spanish soil.

Various NGOs, including the PCHR, are mobilising resistance to the change. Had Sourani been allowed to leave the Gaza Strip, he would have given the keynote speech at a conference entitled “In Defence of Universal Jurisdiction”, held in Madrid last week. “Entire peoples cannot be consigned to the rule of the jungle for the sake of political expediency,” he said in a speech delivered on his behalf. Ferstman acknowledges that it is unfair for certain countries to have to bear the brunt of universal jurisdiction cases, though she believes that the solution is for other countries to broaden their laws, rather than for Spain and Belgium to narrow theirs.

The PCHR is now planning to expand the al-Daraj suit to include other cases of crimes against humanity perpetrated during Operation Cast Lead, though Sourani would not comment on reports that the PCHR has assembled 936 cases, and is preparing to present evidence in 13. In any case, he insists that universal jurisdiction is not merely a Palestinian issue: when Israel kidnapped Adolf Eichmann, one of the principal architects of the Holocaust, and tried and executed him, it was acting according to the same principles. “Universal jurisdiction is an essential legal tool when national courts are unwilling or unable to investigate or prosecute those accused of international crimes, and it provides a means of judicial remedy to victims throughout the world who suffer at the hands of oppressive regimes,” Sourani says. “It’s an essential component in upholding the rule of law.”

Edward Platt, a contributing writer of the NS, is completing a book about the West Bank city of Hebron. Newstatesman.com will link to a video of the Gaza hearings as soon as it is released

Related Content: Edward Platt Q&A

This article first appeared in the 06 July 2009 issue of the New Statesman, HOWZAT!

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Tearing down the "caliphate": on the frontline against Islamic State in Mosul

Truck bombs and drone warfare in the fight to take back Iraq’s second city from Islamic State.

The battle to retake west Mosul began, for me, rattling around in an armoured Humvee with two Abaases. “I’m Abaas One. He’s Abaas Two,” the driver, Abaas Almsebawy, said in English with a broad smile, pointing to the gunner on top.

“I have killed two Da’esh,” Abaas Two said, using an Arabic acronym for the so-called Islamic State (IS). “Well, one for sure. The other one crawled away but he was bleeding badly. I was told he died.”

Abaas One was jealous of his gunner’s luck. He was shot twice by IS in the city of Ramadi, in central Iraq; he still had a bullet lodged in his back. “The doctor said it is my gift from Da’esh,” he told me and laughed.

Over the sound of gunfire and mortars, the two Abaases called out to each other, giving directions, spotting targets. The cry of “Abaaaaas!” was constantly in the air. One from Babylon, the other from Baghdad, they stretched out on a felt blanket inside the armoured vehicle during lulls in the fighting and fell asleep, oblivious to its discomforts and the IS mortars landing outside.

They had been involved in the fighting in the east of the city, which it had taken 100 days to recapture, in hard, street-by-street clashes and through an onslaught of IS car and truck bombs. Yet the battle to retake the west, which began on Sunday 19 February and is being led by Iraq’s Emergency Response Division (ERD) and counterterrorism forces, has proved different – and faster.

Abaas One, the driver, was exhilarated. As Iraqi army helicopters flew overhead and the air force strafed villages with machine-gun fire and rockets, he rolled on, part of an armoured assault on a front that stretched for miles. His Humvee was built for this kind of terrain, moving at speed across the desert towards villages, the airport and eventually the city of Mosul.

Something else was different about this battle, too. These men were not technically soldiers: they were policemen. Abaas One went into battle in a hooded top and a leather jacket. Stuck outside manning his gun, Abaas Two, like a fighter from another age, wore a greatcoat, small, circular spectacles and a woolly hat. One lean and broad-shouldered, the other bulky and round-faced, they were a contrast but a good fit.

The Abaases were part of Iraq’s elite ERD, which has led the charge into the west of the city, just as the country’s heralded “Golden Division”, the counterterrorism unit, had pushed into the east. The ERD, part of the ministry of interior, is the less experienced junior brother of the battle-hardened Golden Division but it was determined that west Mosul would be its prize. It made swift progress and, as it took back village after village from IS, troops posed for selfies with enemy corpses on the roadside.

The closer to Mosul you were, the more charred bodies you would see, lying along the route. Two in a ditch, killed by a mortar, and two on the road, the motorcycle they were travelling on cut in half by an air strike.

In command of the 1st Brigade was Colonel Falah al-Wabdan. In Ramadi in 2015, he and his men had been cut off and surrounded by IS forces and had escaped only when more troops came to their rescue.

As he stood on the ruins of a former palace that had belonged to one of Saddam Hussein’s brothers, he had a view of all of Mosul. “I will be very glad when I see my forces move forward,” he said. “Also [when I see that] my soldiers are all safe. And I will be even happier when we have killed IS. These people [IS] are like a disease in the body, and we are now removing it, day after day.”

From there, the Iraqi forces took the town of Abu Saif, and then, in a six-hour battle, what was left of Mosul’s airport. Its runways were in ruins and its terminal buildings reduced to rubble. Yet that was the last open ground before they reached the city. By the end of the week, Colonel Falah’s forces had breached the IS defences. Now they were heading into the dense and narrow streets of the city’s old town. Meanwhile, the elite Golden Division was the secondary force, having earlier been bogged down in heavy fighting.

The competition between the two rival divisions had helped to accelerate the advance. The ERD, however, had a secret weapon. “We need to ask your men to hold off, sir. We have helicopters in the air,” the US special forces officer told an Iraqi lieutenant colonel on the rooftop as the assault on Abu Saif was in full force.

The Iraqi mortar team in the orchard and olive grove below held fire. Then the mighty thud of coalition air strikes could be heard and, just two miles away, a huge, grey cloud rose above the town.

 

***

It is Iraqis who are doing most of the fighting and the dying in the battle against IS, but since the Pentagon relaxed its rules of engagement late last year more Americans are at or near the front lines. They are calling in air strikes and laying down fire from their MRAP (“mine-resistant ambush-protected”) vehicles. They are not in uniform but, despite being a covert force, they are conspicuous and still wear the Stars and Stripes on their helmets. When journalists, especially cameramen, approach, they turn their backs.

In and around Mosul, it is more common now to get stuck in a traffic jam of US vehicles: either artillery or route-clearance teams. The Pentagon will soon respond to President Donald Trump’s call for a new plan – an intensification of US efforts against IS – but on the ground around this city, the Americans are already much more engaged in the fight against the militants.

British special forces were also in the area, in small numbers. Unlike their American counterparts, they went unseen.

Also seemingly absent in the early part of the offensive were civilians. It was three days before I met one: a shepherd, Ali Sultan Ali, who told me that he had only stayed behind because he could not get his flock to safety, as a nearby bridge had been destroyed.

As his sheep grazed, Ali explained: “They continued to attack this area, and now we are three days sitting in our homes, unable to go out because of attack and mortars . . . All the people, they have left this area one after another. They went to the east of the city of Mosul and they rented houses there because there are too many attacks here.”

Almost 60,000 people have fled west Mosul. In this area, with its population of three-quarters of a million, the battle has the potential to become a humanitarian crisis. Camps for internally displaced people still have capacity, but they are filling up.

IS, with anywhere between 500 and a few thousand fighters inside Mosul, is again using the local population as cover. But coalition air strikes may be taking a heavy toll on civilians, too. Officially, the US-led force claims that 21 civilians have died as a result of its bombs since November, but an independent monitoring group, Airwars, suggests that as many as 370 have been killed by Western aircraft since the start of March.

After the airport was recaptured, the columns of desperate people heading south began to thicken. The children among them usually held a white flag – perhaps a clever distraction thought up by terrified parents for their long walk to safety. Near the airport, I met a man who was too distraught to give his name. He told me that his brother’s family – six people – had been killed in an air strike. With his eyes red from crying and a blanket over his shoulders, he stood by the roadside, pleading. “For God’s sake,” he said. “We need you to help us. We need a shovel to get the dead bodies out of the building, because there are still two bodies under that building.”

But the battle was reaching a new pitch around him, so he left for a camp to look for his brother, the only remaining member of his family, he told me.

When the ERD finally made it inside the city, the first thing I noticed was the fresh laundry hanging in the yard of a family house. Then I heard a huge explosion as an IS truck bomb slammed into one of the Iraqi Abrams tanks.

The tank trundled on regardless and, by nightfall, the ERD had a tiny foothold inside the city: the al-Josak neighbourhood.

 

***

 

Islamic State is steadily losing Mosul and in Iraq, at least, the end of the so-called caliphate is in sight. In Abu Saif, state forces found the corpses of foreign fighters and, hiding, an IS operative who was still alive.

“He’s Russian,” one officer told me, but the man might have been from one of the central Asian republics. There were dead Syrians on the battlefield, too, men from Deir az-Zour; and for the tens of thousands of foreign fighters who joined IS, Syria will likely be a last refuge.

There may be another reason for the faster pace of the assault in west Mosul. The Iraqi forces, having fought IS in Ramadi, Fallujah and east Mosul, are getting better at dealing with the militant group’s tactics.

Truck bombs took a huge toll on their men in eastern Mosul. It is hard to describe the force unleashed when one of these detonates near you. In an early assault on one village, IS sent out four truck bombs and one of them exploded a few hundred metres from where I was standing. The shock wave ripped around the building and shards of engine went flying over our heads. My mouth was full of dirt. The debris was scattered for what seemed like miles around – yet no one died.

The suicide attack driver may have been taken out by an Iraqi soldier firing a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG). Whenever they advance now, men stand ready with RPGs, specifically to tackle the threat of car bombs. And they are becoming better at “hasty defence”. An armoured bulldozer is always in the lead. When a new street is taken, defensive berms made of mud or rubble are built to halt any speeding car bombs.

The IS fighters are crafty. Iraqi forces took me to a house on a captured street. Its yard was covered and the front wall was gone. Parked in the front room was what looked like an ambulance. Hidden from surveillance aircraft, this was another truck bomb.

“It’s still live. I wouldn’t go any further,” a major warned me. Even the bomb disposal team said that it was too dangerous to touch. It was later destroyed from a very safe distance.

Although the group violently suppresses modernity, IS fighters are innovators. They have no air force but they can get their hands on drones, which are commercially available, and they have “weaponised” them. If the battle for east Mosul was the attack of the car bombs, the battle for the west began as a drone war.

For the men on the ground, IS drones are enormously disconcerting. During a gun battle in west Mosul, I stopped to speak to some troops taking cover behind a wall. As I asked a final question, the captain I was talking to cupped his ear and leaned forward because of a sudden eruption of gunfire. Then, just to my right, I felt a shock wave of a detonation that seemed to come from nowhere.

A member of the BBC team was hit, receiving a small blast injury to the arm. When we got back to the Humvee, the driver explained that there had been a drone above us. The gunfire was from Iraqi troops trying to bring it down. The detonation had not come from nowhere; it had come from directly overhead. As we drove out of there, I noticed that the gunner had closed the hatch. We were protected inside, but he was outside manning his weapon, looking for more drones.

“They drop MK19 40mm grenades from the drones to stop the movements forward. All the time, they will use four to five drones to attack one location,” Captain Ali Razak Nama of the federal police explained. “As you know, we can’t always see these drones with our eyes, but if we do see them we can attack the drones with our rifles. [But] when we go into the battle, we are not looking at the skies. We are looking ahead of us for car bombs, suicide attackers, IEDs or snipers.”

A unit of the Golden Division was hit 70 times in a single day by wave upon wave of IS drones. The operator managed to drop a grenade inside a Humvee from above; all four men inside, members of a bomb disposal unit, were killed. Dozens more were injured that day.

The sound of a drone, even one of their own, is enough to make the Iraqi forces hit the dirt and scramble under a vehicle. They are difficult to bring down. I once watched as snipers and heavy machine-gunners opened fire on some drones; they managed to strike one but still it flew on.

The IS fighters control them from motorcycles in an attempt to prevent the operators being tracked and killed. They switch frequencies in the hope that they will not be jammed. Yet as a coalition commander told me: “The enemy aren’t going to win by dropping grenades from the sky. So it is certainly not a game-changer.” Iraqi and coalition forces now appear to be having success in countering the threat. Just how, they will not say, but in recent days there has been a “very significant” drop in their use.

 

***

 

Mosul has been the biggest battle for Iraqi forces against Islamic State, but commander after commander said that others had been tougher. In Ramadi and in Fallujah, IS had a better grip. In Mosul, the local people have been quicker to turn away from the militants.

In the eastern part of the city, the bazaars are busy again and children have returned to school. Girls are receiving education for the first time in nearly three years, since IS captured the city. The so-called caliphate was declared on 29 June 2014 and, four days later the new “caliph” and IS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, made his first and only filmed appearance, delivering a sermon at the city’s al-Nuri Mosque. Iraqi forces are now in sight of the mosque, with its Ottoman-era leaning minaret.

Mosul is Iraq’s second-largest city and has a cosmopolitan heritage, but Islamists had influence here for many years before IS arrived. As one Mosulawi told me, after neglect by the Iraqi capital, “There is discontent with Baghdad, not support for Isis.”

Al-Baghdadi is believed to have fled the city already. According to US and Iraqi commanders, he is hiding out in the desert. Shia militiamen and Iraqi army forces are attempting to seal off escape routes to the west, into Syria. Yet senior commanders accept that in a city Mosul’s size, it will be impossible to close all escape routes. Capturing al-Baghdadi is not a priority, they say.

There is also an acknowledgement that neither his death nor the loss of Mosul will be the end of Islamic State. But in Iraq, at least, it will destroy the caliphate.

Quentin Sommerville is the BBC’s Middle East correspondent

This article first appeared in the 16 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit and the break-up of Britain