Israel deploying the 'Gaza doctrine' to terrorize civilians

Thousands of Palestinian civilians have been forcibly displaced, following the Israeli army's order to evacuate the North of the Gaza Strip. (David Harrison)

Thousands of Palestinian civilians have been forcibly displaced, following the Israeli army's order to evacuate the North of the Gaza Strip. (David Harrison)

As at July 15, the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR) has documented the killing of 181 Palestinians, 147 of whom are civilians, including 36 children and 29 women. Another 1 181 have been wounded, mostly civilians, including 368 children and 253 women. Moreover, 246 houses have been targeted and destroyed and hundreds of others extensively damaged. 

Thousands of Palestinian civilians have been forcibly displaced, following the Israeli army’s order to evacuate the North of the Strip and the announcement of an imminent invasion.

Numbers are certainly not enough to describe the horror that the people of Gaza are experiencing in these days.
But numbers have a meaning.

Once again it is the civilian population who is targeted, deliberately brought into the eye of the storm. Entire families have been killed: eight members of the Kaware family, eight of the Al-Haj family, and seventeen members the Al-Batsh family were killed, just to mention some.

Everyone in the Gaza Strip is exhausted, worried and terrified. This is as Israel intended. Israel is deploying the ‘Gaza doctrine’, a policy with its roots in the Dahiya doctrine first witnessed in the 2006 Lebanon war, and subsequently refined in the Gaza Strip. 

The purpose of the Gaza doctrine is straightforward: to use disproportionate force to cause suffering and terror among the civilian population in order to exert pressure on the Hamas government. This policy of collective punishment, of deliberately causing terror, is unequivocally illegal, but it is all too real.

This policy is evident in the intense bombardment of the Gaza Strip that preceded the start of the current offensive. For two weeks following the kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank, open areas in the Gaza Strip were subject to intense bombardment. There is no military advantage to be acquired from the targeting of empty fields, or desolate places. The purpose was instead to demonstrate Israel’s force and presence. We could not sleep. We were constantly shaken by the thundering impact of one-tonne bombs. 

However, the most obvious illustration of this policy in practice has been the widespread targeting of the homes of Hamas and Islamic jihad fighters. These homes are typically targeted in two phases whereby a ‘warning’ is issued to the house in question so that it may be evacuated. This warning takes the form of either a dud missile (termed ‘roof knocking’) or a phone call. The house is then subsequently targeted and destroyed, anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes later, or sometimes later than that.

How is the destruction of these homes justified?

The law of armed conflict states clearly that only combatants and military objectives may be targeted. Civilians and civilian objects are protected from direct attack. Military objectives are: “those objects which by their nature, location, purpose or use make an effective contribution to military action and whose total or partial destruction, capture or neutralization, in the circumstances ruling at the time, offers a definite military advantage.”

Even if the law of armed conflict permits the targeting of fighters and allows for the theoretical possibility that a house may be targeted in order to reach the fighters within, this must strictly be subject to the requirement of proportionality and military necessity. However, Israel has consistently disregarded both principles, ordering the destruction of houses even when dozens of civilian, women and children were ostensibly inside.

A house cannot qualify as a military objective just because it is owned by a fighter. It can only be targeted if it is being used to “make an effective contribution to military action”; if it is being used to store weapons or as a base from which attacks are launched. However, in the overwhelming majority of cases documented by PCHR and other international and Israeli organizations, we have not found evidence that homes have been used to either store weapons or as a base from which to launch attacks. The UN Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict had similar findings in 2009, after the Israeli Operation Cast Lead.

Significantly, the law of armed conflict clearly states that: “In case of doubt whether an object which is normally dedicated to civilian purposes, such as a place of worship, a house or other dwelling or a school, is being used to make an effective contribution to military action, it shall be presumed not to be so used.”

To intentionally target civilian objects is illegal. In fact it is a war crime. Issuing a warning does not change this fact: it remains illegal to wilfully attack a civilian home without any military necessity and disregarding the principle of proportionality.

The harsh reality is that Israel has not only resumed its policy of punitive house demolitions in the West Bank and in Gaza. Israel has also revitalised the Dahiya doctrine, and refined it for use in Gaza with the objective to cause terror among the civilian population.

Article 51(2) of Additional Protocol I prohibits “acts or threats of violence the primary purpose of which is to spread terror among the civilian population”. Moreover Article 22 of the 1923 Hague Rules of Air Warfare prohibits “any air bombardment for the purpose of terrorizing the civil population or destroying or damaging private property without military character or injuring non-combatants”.

In the face of this reality, we, the civilians of Gaza, are left with no protection. We demand that international law be applied, equally, to Israel and Palestine, to Israelis and Palestinians. The rule of international law must be respected, and all those responsible for violations of international law must be held to account.

We demand the rule of law.

Raji Sourani is the founder and director of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, and a 2013 Right Livelihood Award Recipient

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