Israeli forces and Palestinian armed groups carried out attacks during the May 2021 fighting in the Gaza Strip and Israel that violated the laws of war and apparently amount to war crimes, Human Rights Watch said today. The Israeli military and Palestinian authorities have a long track record of failing to investigate laws of war violations committed in or from Gaza.
Human Rights Watch investigated three Israeli strikes that killed 62 Palestinian civilians where there were no evident military targets in the vicinity. Palestinian armed groups also committed unlawful attacks, launching more than 4,360 unguided rockets and mortars toward Israeli population centers, violating the prohibition against deliberate or indiscriminate attacks against civilians. Human Rights Watch will separately release findings on rocket attacks by Palestinian armed groups.
“Israeli forces carried out attacks in Gaza in May that devastated entire families without any apparent military target nearby,” said Gerry Simpson, associate crisis and conflict director at Human Rights Watch. “Israeli authorities’ consistent unwillingness to seriously investigate alleged war crimes, as well as Palestinian forces’ rocket attacks toward Israeli population centers, underscores the importance of the International Criminal Court’s inquiry.”
The United Nations reported that during the May fighting, attacks by the Israeli military killed 260 Palestinians, including at least 129 civilians, of whom 66 were children. The Gaza Health Ministry said Israeli forces injured 1,948 Palestinians, including 610 children. Israeli authorities said that rocket and mortar attacks by Palestinian armed groups resulted in the death of 12 civilians, including two children, one soldier, and injured “several hundred” people. Several Palestinians also died in Gaza when rockets fired by armed groups fell short and landed in Gaza.
Since late May, Human Rights Watch interviewed in person 30 Palestinians who witnessed Israeli attacks, were relatives of civilians killed, or were residents of areas targeted. Human Rights Watch also visited the site of four strikes, inspected remnants of munitions, and analyzed satellite imagery, video footage, and photographs taken following the attacks.
Human Rights Watch focused its investigation on three Israeli attacks that resulted in high numbers of civilian casualties and where there was no evident military target. Other Israeli attacks during the conflict were also likely unlawful.
On May 10 near the town of Beit Hanoun, an Israeli-guided missile struck near four houses of the al-Masri family, killing 8 civilians, including 6 children. On May 15 a guided bomb destroyed a three-story building in al-Shati refugee camp, killing 10 civilians, 2 women and 8 children from two related families. And on May 16 a series of Israeli airstrikes lasting four minutes struck al-Wahda Street in Gaza City, causing three multi-story buildings to collapse, killing 44 civilians. The Israeli military said it was targeting tunnels and an underground command center used by armed groups, but presented no details to support that claim.
On July 13 the Israel Defense Forces Spokesperson replied to a June 4 Human Rights Watch letter that had summarized our findings on the above cases and requested specific information. The Israeli military said in part that it “strikes military targets exclusively, following an assessment that the potential collateral damage resulting from the attack is not excessive in relation to the expected military advantage, … makes concerted efforts to reduce harm to uninvolved individuals [and] in many of the [May] strikes … when possible … provided civilians located within military targets with prior warning.” The military also said that it was investigating a number of attacks that took place during the May fighting to determine whether its “rules had been breached.”
Human Rights Watch on May 30 requested permits for senior Human Rights Watch researchers to enter Gaza to conduct further investigation of the hostilities, but Israeli authorities on July 26 rejected the request. Israeli authorities have since 2008 refused access to Gaza for Human Rights Watch international staff, except for a single visit in 2016. Israel’s allies should push for access to Gaza for human rights organizations to investigate and document human rights abuses.
Israel’s partners, particularly the United States, which supplies significant military assistance and whose US-made weapons were used in at least two of the attacks investigated by Human Rights Watch, should condition future security assistance to Israel on it taking concrete and verifiable actions to improve its compliance with the laws of war and international human rights law, and to investigate past abuses.
Human Rights Watch is conducting research and will separately report on rocket attacks by Palestinian armed groups that unlawfully killed civilians in Israel and Gaza between May 10 and 21. During that period, more than 3,680 rockets struck Israel, according to the Israeli military. Lacking guidance systems, the rockets are inherently indiscriminate when directed toward areas with civilians.
The Israeli military said that victims of Palestinian rocket and mortar attacks included 5-year-old Ido Abigail, killed in an attack in Sderot on May 12; Khalil Awad, 52, and his daughter Nadine, 16, both Palestinian citizens of Israel, killed on May 12 in the village of Dahmash; and Gershon Franco, 55, killed in Ramat Gan by a rocket on May 15 when for health-related reasons he could not reach a bomb shelter after sirens sounded.
Under international humanitarian law, or the laws of war, warring parties may target only military objectives. They must take all feasible precautions to minimize harm to civilians, including by providing effective advance warnings of attacks. Deliberate attacks on civilians and civilian objects are prohibited. The laws of war also prohibit indiscriminate attacks, which include attacks that do not distinguish between civilians and military targets or do not target a military objective. Attacks in which the expected harm to civilians and civilian property is disproportionate to the anticipated military gain are also prohibited. Individuals who commit serious violations of the laws of war with criminal intent – that is, deliberately or recklessly– are responsible for war crimes.
On May 12, the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) indicated that it was monitoring the situation in Gaza. The prosecutor’s office should include in its Palestine investigation Israeli attacks in Gaza that resulted in apparently unlawful civilian casualties, as well as Palestinian rocket attacks that struck population centers in Israel.
The May hostilities, like those in 2008, 2012, 2014, 2018, and 2019, among others, took place amid Israel’s sweeping closure of the Gaza Strip, which began in 2007, and discriminatory efforts to remove Palestinians from their homes in occupied East Jerusalem, policies and practices that are part of the Israeli government’s crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution, as Human Rights Watch has documented.
On May 27 the UN Human Rights Council established a Commission of Inquiry to address violations and abuses in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) and Israel, including by advancing accountability for those responsible and justice for victims. The commission should examine unlawful attacks committed by Israeli forces and Palestinian armed groups during the May fighting. It should also analyze the larger context, including the Israeli government’s discriminatory treatment of Palestinians. The commission’s findings should be shared with the ICC prosecutor and other credible judicial authorities examining the situation, Human Rights Watch said.
Judicial authorities in other countries should also investigate and prosecute under national laws those credibly implicated in serious crimes in the OPT and in Israel under the principle of universal jurisdiction. Governments should also support a strong political declaration that addresses the harm that explosive weapons cause to civilians and commits states to avoid using those with wide-area effects in populated areas.
“Israel and the Palestinian authorities have shown little or no interest in addressing abuses by their forces, so global and national judicial institutions should step up to break the vicious cycle of unlawful attacks and impunity for war crimes,” Simpson said. “These investigations should also address the larger context, including the Israeli government’s crushing closure of Gaza and its crimes of apartheid and persecution against millions of Palestinians.”
Israeli airstrikes in Gaza, May 10-21
The May 2021 fighting followed efforts by Jewish settler groups to evict and confiscate the property of long-time Palestinian residents in East Jerusalem. Israeli courts allowed Jewish settler groups to pursue claims from before 1948 in occupied East Jerusalem, even though the Palestinians set to be displaced and all other Palestinians are barred under Israeli law from reclaiming property confiscated from them in the events of 1948 inside Israel. Palestinians held demonstrations around East Jerusalem, and Israeli security forces fired teargas, stun grenades, and rubber-coated steel bullets, injuring hundreds of Palestinians.
On May 10, Palestinian armed groups in Gaza started to launch rockets toward Israeli population centers. The Israeli military, in turn, carried out attacks in the densely populated Gaza Strip with missiles, rockets, and artillery. Many of the attacks by the Israeli military and Palestinian armed groups used explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas. A ceasefire between the warring parties went into effect on May 21.
Human Rights Watch researched three attacks by the Israeli military in violation of the laws of war that killed 62 civilians and injured dozens more. Human Rights Watch also examined a fourth attack that killed two civilians and that may have targeted a Hamas fighter.
Shortly after 6 p.m. on May 10, a guided missile struck near the town of Beit Hanoun and killed 8 people, including 6 children, all apparently civilians, and reportedly injured 18. The missile exploded about a meter above the ground, 10 meters from the closest of four houses built next to each other and owned by four brothers of the al-Masri family – Arafat, Ibrahim, Mohammed Attallah, and Youssef – who lived there with their families. The houses are located about a kilometer to the east of Beit Hanoun in the northeastern corner of Gaza.
|Eight people killed in attack on Beit Hanoun, May 10, 2021|
|Ahmad Mohammed al-Masri, 21|
|Ibrahim Youssef al-Masri, 11|
|Marwan Youssef al-Masri, 7|
|Rahaf Mohammed al-Masri, 8|
|Yazan Soltan al-Masri, 14 months|
|Ibrahim Abdullah Hassanein, 16|
|Hussein Munir Hamad, 10|
|Mohammad Ali Nusseir, 23|
Three al-Masri family members who saw the munition approach spoke to Human Rights Watch. Four other al-Masri family members and a relative of a victim not from the family also spoke to Human Rights Watch about what they saw during, and immediately after, the attack. Human Rights Watch also spoke to three relatives of two of the people killed who were not from the al-Masri family, one of whom witnessed the aftermath of the attack.
Those interviewed said that the attack happened shortly after 6 p.m., when family members were packing processed barley into sacks to sell to a local trader, Mohammed Nusseir. A video showing the aftermath and photographs taken the next day show empty and overturned sacks of barley.
Mohammed Attallah’s son, Mohammed Mohammed described the approaching munition:
I was with my brothers, packing barley into sacks. Suddenly, I saw something coming toward us from the east. When I first saw it, it was high in the air. Then it gradually descended as it came in our direction. It exploded about one meter from the ground. Something hit me in the eye, the abdomen, and legs. I flew into the air and landed on the ground. I didn’t lose consciousness. I saw that24 my brother Ahmed, my sister Rahaf, and my nephew Yazan were dead. Their bodies were all torn up. It was awful.
At the time of the attack, Youssef al-Masri was with his brother Ibrahim about 200 meters from their houses. He said he heard an explosion and saw smoke coming from near the houses:
We immediately ran to our houses. I saw my two dead sons, Marwan and Ibrahim. Imagine seeing your child’s brain on the ground. Imagine seeing your children’s eyes outside their heads. Imagine carrying your own child and feeling his body flop because his spine was broken. There was smoke coming out of my children’s mouths and from their clothes. It was horrible.
Three others said they saw the munition as it approached the area before it exploded. Ahed Hassanein, 12, said that while he was on the roof of his house, he saw a “big mass come from the Nahal Oz area” in Israel, which is about 7.5 kilometers southeast of Beit Hanoun, before it exploded nearby. Ghassan al-Masri, 24 , who was packing barley next to those who were killed and was injured in the attack, said that he was facing east when he saw something coming from the southeast that was “flying low and quietly towards the group which then exploded in the air close to the ground.”
Ihsan al-Zaneen, Arafat al-Masri’s 29-year-old daughter, was sitting outside her parents’ house when the attack happened. She said that before the explosion she saw “a missile” coming through the air “from the east.”
Relatives of the victims said that the attack killed Youssef’s sons Ibrahim, 11, and Marwan, 7; Mohammed Attallah’s son Ahmad, 21, his daughter Rahaf, 8, and his grandson, Yazan, 14 months; two children from neighbors’ families, Ibrahim Abdullah Hassanein, 16, and Hussein Munir Hamad, 10, and a neighbor and trader, Mohammed Ali Nusseir, 23.
Human Rights Watch visited the site on May 26, June 23, and June 26, and spoke with witnesses to the attack and its aftermath. Human Rights Watch analyzed photographs of munition remnants taken by another human rights organization that Human Rights Watch independently confirmed were taken the morning of May 11 at the location, as well as video footage filmed in the immediate aftermath of the attack that Human Rights Watch determined was authentic.
The limited blast and fragmentation damage at the scene suggests the use of a munition with a small explosive yield. The lack of an impact crater suggests the munition detonated in mid-air. Remnants of the munition photographed on the morning of May 11 indicate that the weapon used was a type of guided missile used to attack armored vehicles, fortified positions, or personnel in the open.
Based on interviews with al-Masri family members and geospatial imagery, Human Rights Watch concluded that significant additional damage to two of the four al-Masri houses occurred during another attack, after the families had left their homes, sometime between midday May 11 and May 20.
All those interviewed said that none of those who were killed or who survived the attack took part in any armed group. Relatives of Ahmed al-Masri, who was killed, said he was a member of Fatah, the dominant political party in the Palestinian Authority, which took no part in the Gaza hostilities. None of Gaza’s armed groups referred on their websites to any of those killed as members, which is their standard practice when a fighter is killed. Human Rights Watch found no evidence that any of the victims were combatants.
Official Israeli claims about this attack are unclear and contradictory.
On May 11 the Israeli news website Ynet reported that the Israeli military had said that six children in Gaza had been killed by “failed launches” by Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
On May 16 the Israeli military published on social media a poster featuring men they said were Palestinian “activists” whom Israeli forces had killed in the Gaza Strip since May 10. These included “Mohammed Ali Mohammed Nusseir,” one of the men killed in the strike. The poster did not say when and where they had died. The same day, an article by the Israeli news website Walla reported that the Israeli military said that it had killed eight “activists” from Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, including Nusseir, again without saying when and where they had been killed.
Three people – a survivor of the al-Masri attack, a local journalist, and one of Mohammed’s brothers – told Human Rights Watch that the photo on the Israeli military poster showed Mohammed Nusseir. Human Rights Watch visited his house, saw a banner hanging on the outside of the family home showing Mohammed Nusseir’s face, and established it was the same person as appears in the Israeli poster.
Nusseir’s brother Jalal and three others told Human Rights Watch that he belonged to no armed group and that he was a trader who bought and sold barley for animal feed, including regularly from the al-Masri family, and did other piecemeal jobs.
Jalal said that Nusseir regularly carted materials and goods for sale using a horse cart. He said that on May 10, Nusseir took the horse cart to the al-Masri homes to pick up barley for the market. Mounir’s son Hussein, who was killed in the attack, joined Mohammed on the cart. Two people said that one of the reasons so many children were killed in the strike was that they had crowded around the horse when it arrived at the al-Masri homes.
Four witnesses said that shortly before the attack, they heard one or more munitions being launched into Israel from Gaza, though they did not see them and did not know where they had been launched. Based on interviews with a witness and a review of video footage, Human Rights Watch determined that just after 6 p.m., a Palestinian Islamic Jihad rocket struck a civilian vehicle at Camel Hill Lookout, also referred to as Yanchik Hill, in Israel, 2 kilometers west of the Israeli city of Sderot and about 2.6 kilometers east of the al-Masri houses, injuring a civilian standing next to it.
Israeli authorities, however, have not sought to justify the al-Masri strike as a response to the rocket attack. Other than the proximity in time, Human Rights Watch found no evidence of a connection between the rocket attack and the strike.
Human Rights Watch found no evidence of a military target at or near the site of the strike. An attack that is not directed at a specific military objective is unlawful. The Israeli military has not provided information that would justify the attack. An investigation of the attack should consider whether Israeli forces targeted a military objective, and, if there was a legitimate military objective, whether all feasible precautions were taken to minimize civilian harm, and whether the expected military gain outweighed the anticipated loss of civilian life. An attack that was unlawful and was carried out with criminal intent – deliberately or recklessly – would be a war crime.
Al-Shati refugee camp
May 15 attack
At about 1:40 a.m. on May 15, an Israeli airstrike destroyed a three-story building owned by Alaa Abu Hattab in the al-Shati refugee camp. The camp, which covers half a square kilometer along the coast of northern Gaza, houses about 90,000 people, many in multi-story buildings. It is considered one of the most densely populated places in the world.
Abu Hattab told Human Rights Watch that he had lived on the first and second floors of the building for 30 years with his family. He said he rented the ground floor to a barber, a confectionery store, and a grocery shop, all of which were closed at the time of the attack. He said:
I left my house on foot at about 1:30 a.m. to go to some of the local shops that were open late during the run-up to Eid [holiday concluding the holy month of Ramadan] to buy toys and snacks for the kids for the Eid festival and to buy some food, as we were hungry. Before I left the house there was no warning that anything would happen to our house. We didn’t receive a phone call and there was no drone strike that they sometimes do to warn people that they will target a building. At least that would have scared the kids and they would have fled the house in time.
Abu Hattab said that about 15 minutes after he had left, he heard “a very loud explosion that shook the whole area”:
I ran back towards the smoke and saw it was my house. It was all rubble. I felt like everything was revolving around me. I was in shock and I fainted. When I regained consciousness, I saw rescue workers looking for bodies under the rubble and recovering body parts. The attack had shredded the bodies. Other parts remained under the rubble because they could not find them. There were no militants in or near my house and no rockets or rocket launchers there. I still don’t know why they bombed my house and killed my wife and children and my sister and her children. What sin did they commit?
Alaa Abu Hattab’s cousin Sami Abu Hattab, who lives close to his home, heard an explosion and soon heard on the local news that his cousin’s house had been hit. He ran to the house and saw that the whole building had collapsed. He said:
At first, I found his daughter Maria. She was walking in the street, with injuries to her face. Someone said that the explosion had been so strong, she had been blown out of a window. Then we heard a baby crying and found an opening in the rubble, about 50 centimeters wide. Through it, we could see a baby and his mother. It was Alaa’s sister, embracing her child. I saw that the back of her body was torn up. If she hadn’t been embracing him, he would have been killed. They said later that the baby’s leg was broken and I could see some other injuries on his face and body.
Sami said he continued to search under the rubble:
I suddenly touched a leg. Then I found a brain. Then I saw a child and recognized him as one of Alaa’s children, Yamen. Some of the features of his face remained. Then I found another of Alaa’s children, Youssef, also dead. We worked to free the bodies until 7 a.m. A bulldozer helped free some of the children’s bodies. All of them were missing parts: a hand, a leg, the skin from their head. It was indescribable. Just trying to imagine it, you start crying.
The attack killed 10 people, 2 women and 8 of their children. These included Abu Hattab’s wife, Yasmine Hassan Abu Hattab, 30, and four of their children, Youssef, 11, Bilal, 10, Mariam, 8, and Yamen, 6. Their 5-year-old daughter, Maria, was injured but survived. The attack also killed Abu Hattab’s sister, Maha Abu Hattab Al Hadidi, 35, and four of her children, Sohaib, 14, Yahya, 11, Abdulrahman, 8, and Osama, 6. Her 5-month-old son, Omar, was also injured but survived. There were no other reports of injuries in the attack.
|Ten people killed in attack on al-Shati refugee camp, May 15, 2021|
|Yasmine Hassan Abu Hattab, 30|
|Youssef Abu Hattab, 11|
|Bilal Abu Hattab, 10|
|Mariam Abu Hattab, 8|
|Yamen Abu Hattab, 6|
|Maha Abu Hattab al-Hadidi, 35|
|Sohaib al-Hadidi, 14|
|Yahya al-Hadidi, 11|
|Abdulrahman al-Hadidi, 8|
|Osama al-Hadidi, 6|
Human Rights Watch visited the site on May 23 and June 12, spoke with seven witnesses to the aftermath of the attack, found, photographed, and analyzed munition remnants on the roof of an immediate neighbor of the Abu Hattab family, and reviewed photographs and videos posted on social media.
Four people said the Abu Hattab building had collapsed by the time they arrived minutes after the attack. Satellite imagery taken the previous day shows no signs of damage, whereas imagery taken on May 15 at 10:36 a.m. shows that the Abu Hattab building had been destroyed. High-resolution satellite imagery collected on May 20 also shows that the four surrounding buildings were severely damaged with debris visible nearby.
Based on a review of the munition remnants that Human Rights Watch found on May 23, Human Rights Watch determined that the building sustained a direct hit from a guided air-dropped bomb equipped with a delayed-action fuze that allowed the detonation of the munition to destroy the structural supports of the building, leading to its collapse. The GBU-39 Small Diameter Bomb is produced by Boeing and exported by the United States to Israel.
The Israeli military said it targeted a building in al-Shati camp on the night of May 15 because “a number of Hamas terror organization senior officials [were] in an apartment used as terror infrastructure,” and that the attack killed 10 people. The Israeli military also said that their strike on a bunker had collapsed the building.
Everyone Human Rights Watch interviewed about the attack said they were not aware of any militants in or near the building at the time of the attack. Human Rights Watch found no other evidence of any Palestinian armed groups’ presence in the building at the time of the attack, or any evidence that there was a bunker underneath the building. Mohammed al Sayed, a relative of Abu Hattab, the building owner, who rented space on the ground floor of the building for 14 years, said that Abu Hattab had no connection with any armed group.
Human Rights Watch found no evidence of a military target at or near the site of the airstrike An attack that is not directed at a specific military objective is unlawful. The Israeli military has not provided information that would justify the attack. An investigation of the attack should consider whether Israeli forces targeted a military objective, and, if there was a legitimate military objective, whether all feasible precautions were taken to minimize civilian harm, and whether the expected military gain outweighed the anticipated loss of civilian life. An attack that was unlawful and was carried out with criminal intent – deliberately or recklessly – would be a war crime.
May 11 attack
Shortly after 4:30 a.m. on May 11, an air-dropped munition struck the seven-story Tiba building, 50 meters from the Abu Hattab building, which was hit four days later. Two civilians were killed and two others were reportedly injured.
Ra’id Baroud, who lives on the fifth floor of the building and whose ceiling was damaged, said that he was preparing to perform dawn prayers when the attack occurred. He said that he did not hear an explosion and that suddenly his apartment was filled with black smoke and dust.
Ahmad Salah, who lives near the Tiba building, heard an explosion while attending dawn prayers at the nearby al-Sosi mosque. He ran to the building and climbed with other local residents and members of the civil defense to the sixth floor to look for survivors:
We found Um Soboh in the bathroom. She had been washing to get ready for her morning prayer. Half of her body was inside the bathtub. The other half was hanging outside it. There were fragments all over her body. We covered her body with the shower curtain. We looked for a long time for her son, Aboud. I found a blanket and then one of his heels, which was cold. He was under the rubble, lying on his stomach, his head fractured.
The attack killed Amira Abdelfatah Soboh, 58, and her son, Abdelrahman Youssef Soboh, 19, who had cerebral palsy.
During visits to the site on May 23 and June 12, Human Rights Watch observed that the southeast corner of the seventh floor of the building was completely destroyed and the same corner of the sixth floor was partially damaged. Human Rights Watch also visited an apartment on the fifth floor that was damaged, with part of the munition used in the attack visible in the ceiling. The damage to the building can also be seen in high-resolution satellite imagery collected on May 14.
The observed damage, photographs of a remnant that Human Rights Watch analyzed, and the apparent lack of an explosion on impact suggest that the weapon used was a guided air-dropped munition equipped with a delayed-action fuze, which allows it to penetrate a structure rather than explode on contact. This type of munition is frequently used by the Israeli military.
One civilian living in the immediate area of the attack, who wishes to remain anonymous, told Human Rights Watch that a member of the al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas, was in the building at the time of the attack. No one Human Rights Watch spoke to about the attack reported him among the casualties.
Israeli authorities have not publicly provided any information about the May 11 attack, including the intended target and the precautions they took to minimize civilian harm.
Al-Wahda Street, Gaza City
Just before 1 a.m. on May 16, the Israeli military launched a series of strikes, lasting four minutes, in the center of Gaza City.
Omar Abu al-Awf was the only survivor in his family, after the four-story building they lived in collapsed. His father, Ayman, head of internal medicine at Gaza City’s al-Shifa hospital, his mother, and two siblings were killed. He said:
At about 1 a.m., I was sitting with my family in the living room. My father, a doctor, had just come back from work at al-Shifa hospital. Then we heard loud explosions. After the first, my mother wanted to flee the building, but my father refused and said they couldn’t possibly be attacking us as we live in a civilian area.
Then four explosions shook our house. They all happened in about five seconds. The house swayed and I thought it was going to collapse. After the second, the house started shaking. I caught my sister’s hand, pulled her to the corridor, and hugged her in an attempt to protect her. Then I heard another bomb and saw fire outside the window and the wall of the corridor collapsed and suddenly the floor disappeared, and everything started falling down on us. Then the final bomb came. It devastated us.
My sister remained under my arm, breathing for about 15 minutes. I asked her to say the shahada [statement of faith] and then she became a martyr [she died]. I didn’t know where my father was. I heard my mother say the shahada and then she was silent. My brother was still alive.
He said he was under the rubble for 12 hours:
I heard the civil defense members and ambulances. I shouted, but they didn’t hear me. I felt like I was dead. They finally found me.
Why did they kill my family and leave me orphaned? Until that day, we had a house. I had a family. Each family member had a dream. It all disappeared in one second.
Azzam al-Qoulaq lived with his family on the third floor of a building on the eastern side of the al-Qoulaq building complex. He said:
I heard a very loud explosion and felt the building vibrate. A minute or so later, a second explosion happened and the electricity went off, the walls started cracking and dust fell on our heads. A few seconds later a third explosion threw us to the floor. The floors and walls were badly damaged, the doors were gone, and we were leaning towards the street. I heard my cousins and neighbors outside saying, “Get out of here!” My wife and I grabbed the children and civil defense members helped us out.
His family’s apartment stayed largely intact while the two floors below collapsed, killing his two brothers, one of their wives, and five of their children:
At that point, the shock set in. Our [third-floor] apartment had come down to street level and I just remember thinking, “Where is the rest of the building?” When they found the body of my brother, Ezzat, about four hours later, they also found his 11-year-old son Aziz alive between his arms. God bless my brother’s soul, he had protected him.
Human Rights Watch reviewed aerial imagery posted online by the Israeli military, photographs and videos posted online and collected by independent researchers who visited the scene, and satellite imagery collected on May 20. The material shows that the four-minute attack involved between 18 and 34 strikes at various points along approximately 1,030 meters of five streets within a 0.7 square kilometer area. At least 11 of the strikes were along an approximately 400-meter stretch of al-Wahda Street.
The Israeli military said it was targeting tunnels and an underground command center used by armed groups. According to the Gaza Ministry of Health and relatives whom Human Rights Watch interviewed, the strikes killed 44 civilians – 18 children, 14 women, and 12 men – and reportedly injured 50, after three buildings collapsed. Of those killed, 22 were from the al-Qoulaq family. Twenty of the 22 people killed in the destroyed parts of the Abu al-Awf building include 11 members of the Abu al-Awf family, 5 members of the Eshkontana family, and 4 members of the al-Franji family. The strikes also damaged a number of nearby buildings.
|44 people killed in attack on al-Wahda Street, May 16, 2021|
|People killed in eastern al-Qoulaq building:||People killed in western al-Qoulaq building:||People killed in the eastern part of the Abu al-Awf building:||People killed in the western part of the Abu al-Awf building|
|Ezzat Mueen al-Qoulaq (Abu Azeez), 44||Saeeda Youssef al-Qoulaq (Om Fayez), 86||Sobhia Ismail Abu al-Awf, 68||Tawfiq Ismail Abu al-Awf, 80|
|Doaa Omar al-Qoulaq (Om Azeez) 39||Fawaz Ameen al-Qoulaq (Abu Waseem), 63||Diana Abu al-Awf, 46 (died on 3 June)||Majdiya Abu al-Awf, 82|
|Mohammed Mueen al-Qoulaq, 39||Bahaa Ameen al-Qoulaq, 50||Shaimaa Alaa Abu al-Awf, 21||Ayman Tawfiq Abu al-Awf, 50|
|Hala Mohammad al-Qoulaq, 13||Amal Jameel al-Qoulaq, 42||Rawan Alaa Abu al-Awf, 18||Reem Abu al-Awf, 40|
|Yara Mohammad al-Qoulaq, 10||Riham Fawaz al Qoulaq, 32||Rajaa Sobhi Abu al-Awf, 41||Tawfiq Ayman Abu al-Awf, 17|
|Zaid Ezzat al-Qoulaq, 8||Sameh Fawaz al-Qoulaq (Abu Qusai), 29||Deema Rami al-Franji, 16||Tala Ayman Abu al-Awf, 13|
|Rola Mohammed al-Qoulaq, 6||Taher Shukri al-Qoulaq, 24||Yazan Rami al-Franji, 14||Abeer Nimer Eshkontana, 30|
|Adam Ezzat al-Qoulaq, 4||Abdelhameed Fawaz al-Qoulaq, 23||Mira Rami al-Franji, 12||Dana Riad Eshkontana, 9|
|Ayat Ibrahim al-Qoulaq (Om Qusai), 19||Amir Rami al-Franji, 10||Yahya Riad Eshkontana, 5|
|Ahmad Shukri al-Qoulaq, 16||Mohammad Ahmad Akki, 40||Lana Riad Eshkontana, 6|
|Hana Shukri al-Qoulaq, 15||Zein Riad Eshkontana, 2|
|Ameen Mohammad al-Qoulaq (Abu Fayez), 93||Hazem Adel al-Qamaa, 48|
|Khetam Saleem al-Qoulaq, 50|
|Qusay Sameh al-Qoulaq, 1|
Human Rights Watch visited the site on May 27, June 12, and July 6, spoke with 10 witnesses to the strikes and their aftermath who lived near the affected buildings, analyzed satellite imagery, photographed the location of the strikes and the destroyed buildings, and analyzed photographs and videos of the attack’s aftermath, as well as photographs and videos posted on social media.
Satellite imagery collected on May 20 shows multiple impacted areas along al-Wahda Street and the adjacent streets. The three buildings that were destroyed are within a 150-meter stretch of road and are located on al-Wahda Street between two perpendicular roads that cross it: Abd al- Qader al-Husseini Street and Saeed al-Aas Street. Two witnesses of the aftermath said that they saw craters in the street in front of the Abu al-Awf building.
Interviewees said that all 44 people killed were inside the three buildings when the attacks occurred.
The al-Qoulaq family owned two of the three buildings destroyed. Azam al-Qoulaq, a survivor from one of the al-Qoulaq buildings, said his building was not struck directly but collapsed nevertheless. Omar Abu al-Awf, 17, said his family owned one building that had three sections and that people died in two of them. According to the description from another attack survivor interviewed and experts consulted by the New York Times, at least one of the two sections was not struck directly, but collapsed after strikes hit the street or sidewalk nearby.
On June 9, an Israeli military official told The Independent newspaper that the strikes on al-Wahda street involved targeting underground infrastructure by hitting the road at an angle with “a standard type of ammunition” that exploded “a few meters” underground to ensure “minimal collateral damage to anything above the surface.” He also said that the Israeli air force believed – but had not yet found evidence – that there may have been explosives or munitions stored underground and that these caused the buildings to collapse. The Israeli military also told the New York Times that they programed fuzes to allow the bombs to explode deep underground to increase the impact on the tunnels and minimize damage above.
On June 2, the Israeli military told the New York Times that during the attack on al-Wahda street they were actually targeting an underground command center. The military did not specify what that meant. They also admitted to not knowing its size or exact location at the time of the attack. If they were in fact targeting “an underground command center,” the extent of the strikes on al-Wahda street and the other four streets, involving about 1,000 meters of road, suggests they believed the center to be somewhere along those sections of the streets.
Based on Israeli military videos of the attack and images of munition remnants that the Palestinian police in Gaza said they recovered on al-Wahda Street on May 16 and showed the New York Times, Human Rights Watch concluded that the al-Wahda Street strikes involved the use of 1,000-kilogram GBU-31 series air-dropped bombs mounted with a Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) guidance kit. This kit is produced by Boeing and exported by the United States to Israel.
None of the witnesses that Human Rights Watch interviewed said they had received or heard about any warning issued by the Israeli authorities to evacuate their buildings before the Israeli strikes.
The Israeli military has presented no information that would demonstrate the existence of tunnels or an underground command center in this vicinity, and has not shown that the anticipated military gain from the attacks exceeded the expected harm to civilians and civilian property. The military has also not said why circumstances did not permit providing an effective advance warning to residents of al-Wahda Street to evacuate their buildings before the attack.
The use of explosive munitions with wide area effects such as GBU-31 bombs in this densely populated area caused foreseeable harm to civilians and civilian objects.
Human Rights Watch did not find any evidence of a military target at or near the site of the airstrikes, including tunnels or an underground command center under al-Wahda street or buildings nearby. An attack that is not directed at a specific military objective is unlawful. An investigation of the attack should consider whether Israeli forces targeted a military objective, and, if there was a legitimate military objective, whether the expected military gain outweighed the anticipated loss of civilian life and property. It should also consider whether all feasible precautions were taken to minimize civilian harm, including the likelihood that attacks on the road could cause adjacent multi-story buildings with hundreds of residents to collapse. An attack that was unlawful and was carried out with criminal intent – deliberately or recklessly – would be a war crime.
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