Israel distorts international law to justify its executions

Israel distorts international law to justify its executions in Gaza
5 min read

Ben White

11 May, 2023
For years, Israel has relied on its policy of 'targeted killings' to sanction extrajudicial killings and bombing of family homes in Gaza by deliberately misinterpreting international law to strip Palestinians of protections, writes Ben White.
A child sits among the remains of the house of al-Misri family, completely destroyed Israeli airstrikes in the Beit Lahia district of Gaza City, Gaza on 11 May 2023. [Getty]

On Tuesday, 9 May, the Israeli military’s official Twitter account published (and later deleted) a short animation, depicting missiles being fired towards locations in the Gaza Strip.

The short clip shows the missiles bearing down on their destination, as the twinkling lights of Palestinian homes get ever closer, before smashing into a family home.

The clip did not show the destruction wreaked by the state-of-the-art weaponry – but shortly before the ‘illustrative’ animation was tweeted, 12 Palestinians had been killed in Israeli airstrikes. A 13th, 17-year-old Iman, died of her wounds later that day. Since then, more than ten more Palestinians have been killed by Israeli strikes.

Aimed at family homes, the airstrikes took place at around two o’clock in the morning, when people would most likely be at home, and children sleeping.

The attacks were ordered and carried out in order to assassinate three members of Islamic Jihad’s Al-Quds Brigades – this was, in other words, yet another bloody expression of an Israeli state policy of so-called ‘targeted killing’, or as Amnesty International has put it, extrajudicial execution.

Israel’s targeted killing policy is often traced back to the first such incident in the Second Intifada, on 9 November 2000, when six weeks into the uprising, an Israeli helicopter fired missiles at a vehicle carrying Fatah activist Hussein ‘Abayat, killing him and two women nearby.

According to a count by B’Tselem, by 31 August 2007, 367 Palestinians had been killed as a result of Israel’s policy of targeted killing (only 218 of whom were the targeted individuals).

In July 2002, a particularly disturbing extrajudicial execution took place when the Israeli Air Force dropped a one-ton bomb from an F16 fighter jet on the home of Al-Qassam Brigades’ Salah Shehadeh. Shehadeh was killed, along with 16 other Palestinians, including nine children.

In the aftermath of the bombing, then-Air Force commander Dan Halutz (who went on to become the armed forces’ Chief of Staff), refused to countenance any criticism, and even suggested that the few Israelis who denounced the attack as a war crime should be tried for “treason”.

In 2014, Israel’s targeting of family homes in the course of carrying out extrajudicial killings was a striking, and horrific, feature of its 50-day bombardment of the occupied and blockaded Gaza Strip.

According to the UN Commission of Inquiry, 142 Palestinian families “had three or more members killed in the same incident owing to the destruction of residential buildings”. In a study by AP of 247 Israeli airstrikes on homes, children under 16 made up a third of the total fatalities (280 out of 508).

Israel justified these large-scale, deadly strikes on family homes through a “broad definition of what constitutes a ‘military objective’ that may be targeted.” On the eighth day of the summer 2014 offensive on the Gaza Strip, a senior Israeli officer told the media: “You call it a home, we call it a command centre and a military post for all intents and purposes.”

As B’Tselem noted in its analysis of the policy, “no official claimed that there was any connection between a house that was targeted and any specific military activity there.” The “actual reason”, therefore, was “the identity of the occupants” – strikes which effectively constituted “punitive house demolitions – themselves prohibited – carried out from the air, with occupants still inside”.

The story of Israel’s ‘targeted killings’, then, is another chapter in a story of Israeli “innovations” in understandings of international law, and International Humanitarian Law (IHL) in particular – (mis)interpretations intended to undermine the very basis of such law to weaken the protections afforded to people under occupation.

In January 2009, shortly after the conclusion of ‘Operation Cast Lead’ – the first large-scale assault on the Gaza Strip after the 2005 redeployment – an article appeared in Haaretz with unnamed officials inside the international law division (ILD) of the Military Advocate General’s Office.

It was the ILD, Haaretz reported, which “induced” the military to fire munitions at people’s homes as a form of warning (the ‘knock on the roof’ procedure) ahead of the building being destroyed. And according to senior figures in the unit, once a warning is used, civilians can be killed as “combatants.”

“The people who go into a house despite a warning do not have to be taken into account in terms of injury to civilians, because they are voluntary human shields,” said one interviewee. “From the legal point of view, I do not have to show consideration for them.”

It is Orwellian concepts like ‘voluntary human shields’ which mean that the Israeli military can publicly tout a policy as intended to minimise civilian casualties when, in fact, that same policy strips Palestinian civilians of their protected status under international law.

Since the start of the Second Intifada, Israel has repeatedly pursued ‘unprecedented’ measures and policies that then become the new starting point for what is considered exceptional or otherwise.

Extrajudicial killings, airstrikes on family homes, and stripping occupied civilians of their protected status are all violations of international law which international inaction or even support have served to normalise, the consequences of which have been seen, once again, this week in the Gaza Strip.

Ben White is a writer, analyst, and author of four books, including ‘Cracks in the Wall: Beyond Apartheid in Palestine/Israel’.

Follow him on Twitter: @benabyad

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.