On Aug. 1, 2014, after a temporary cease-fire was announced in the war between Israel and Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip, an Israeli officer, Lt. Hadar Goldin, went missing after a firefight with Hamas gunmen in the town of Rafah.
Suspecting that he had been seized, Israeli troops launched a fierce onslaught, heavily bombarding and shelling parts of Rafah in an attempt to pin down the suspected kidnappers.
The intensive attack, following the “Hannibal Directive,” under which Israeli forces can respond to the capture of a soldier with overwhelming firepower, left at least 135 Palestinian civilians dead, including 75 children, according to Amnesty International, one of the deadliest episodes of the 50-day campaign.
In a report issued Wednesday that used digital technology and satellite images along with witness testimonies to piece together the sequence of events, the human rights group said Israeli forces committed war crimes during three days of attacks that continued even after Goldin was declared to have been killed in action.
“There is strong evidence that Israeli forces committed war crimes in their relentless and massive bombardment of residential areas of Rafah in order to foil the capture of Lt. Hadar Goldin, displaying a shocking disregard for civilian lives,” said Philip Luther, director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa program.
“Israeli forces appear to have thrown out the rule book, employing a gloves-off policy with devastating consequences for civilians,” Luther said. “The obligation to take precautions to avoid the loss of civilian lives was completely neglected.”
The report was dismissed by the Israeli Foreign Ministry as “fundamentally flawed in its facts, in its legal analysis and in its conclusions.” The ministry said the report ignored Hamas’ strategy of fighting “from behind the civilian population” and showed Amnesty International’s “political bias” against Israel.
The report combines witness testimonies with analysis provided by Forensic Architecture, a London-based research team that used photos, videos and digital models to reconstruct incidents based on physical impact left on buildings damaged or destroyed in the conflict.
Analysis of this material provided “overwhelming evidence that Israeli forces committed disproportionate or otherwise indiscriminate attacks which killed scores of civilians in their homes, on the streets and in vehicles and injured many more,” the report says.
The Israeli strikes began as the streets in Rafah were full of civilians returning to their homes after the cease-fire was to supposed to take hold. Witnesses described warplanes, drones, helicopters and artillery raining fire that hit cars, ambulances, motorbikes and pedestrians.
An Israeli artillery soldier, whose testimony to an Israeli nongovernmental organization, Breaking the Silence, was quoted in the report, said his battery was “firing at a maximum fire rate” into inhabited areas.
An Israeli military inquiry found that more than 2,000 bombs, missiles and shells were fired at Rafah on Aug. 1, including 1,000 in the three hours following the presumed capture of the officer. According to the military, the strikes were aimed at stopping the movement of all “suspicious” persons and vehicles, isolating the area until the arrival of ground forces and hitting concealed tunnel shafts.
Locations where the missing officer was believed to be located also were targeted, including an instance cited in the report in which two one-ton bombs were dropped on a single-story building, apparently targeting suspected Hamas tunnels – a strike that killed at least 16 people.
In media interviews cited in the report, soldiers said they understood that killing the missing soldier with his captors was preferable to leaving him in enemy hands, which could lead to prolonged captivity and a costly prisoner exchange.
In the initial phase of the attack, the report said, Israeli forces appeared to be firing at moving vehicles without distinction, including at ambulances heading to Abu Youssef al-Najjar hospital, where the Israelis suspected the captured soldier might be held.
“People were running away from their homes in terror,” Saleh Abu Mohsen, a resident, told Amnesty International. “People were barefoot, women were running with their heads uncovered. . . . I would not be exaggerating if I told you that around 50-60 shells were falling every minute.”
Abdel Rahim Lafi said that rockets fell all around him after he had left the house with his son. “We reached the Abu Youssef al-Najjar roundabout when the first missile fell about 13 meters ahead of us,” he said. “I fell and was injured in my right leg. When I looked next to me I found my son. He look up at me for seconds and died immediately after.” Another three pedestrians were hit nearby.
Witnesses described a flood of casualties arriving at the hospital as bombardments came closer, with one missile landing at the main door.
“At 3:30 p.m. the patients fled the hospital,” said Dr. Majed Abu Taha. “Some had plaster casts, with drips in their chests and stomachs. I saw a young boy in a plaster cast crawling trying to flee by dragging himself along.”
The Israeli army is conducting its own investigation into the events in Rafah, but Amnesty International said the military could not be relied upon to carry out an impartial probe. It noted that a year after the Gaza war, army prosecutors have indicted only three soldiers for an incident of looting, while a significant number of other cases have been closed for lack of evidence or because no wrongdoing was found.
“Israeli army commanders and officers can operate in confidence that they are unlikely to be held accountable for violations of international law due to the pervasive climate of impunity that has existed for decades,” Amnesty International said.
The army says it has opened 22 criminal probes into possible violations and is reviewing scores of other cases.
Greenberg is a McClatchy special correspondent.