Putting an end to 50 days of catastrophic destruction of infrastructure and loss of life, Israel and Palestine have agreed, on 26 August this year, to halt the war for an indefinite period of time. When the news of the truce finally came out, the international communities, especially the Palestinians, breathed a sigh of relief. However, a report by The Guardian suggests that since the humanitarian ceasefire was brokered by the Egyptian Government, more than 2100 people, mostly civilians, including 500 children were killed.

The armed conflict between these two states, over the same piece of land for decades poses an apparent question to us – have international human rights law and humanitarian law been respected and maintained in this war? A yes-and-no answer to this question might result in the lack of analytical approach to address the overall situation. However, the increasing number of Palestinian deaths indicate how humanitarian assistance and protection have been neglected to the people of the occupied territory, which they are entitled to under international law. As the civilian death toll climbs up, adherence to the laws of war by these parties becomes morally and legally significant.

At this day-and-age of ultra-modern warfare technology, a particular and controversial attack technique of Israeli military called “knock on the roof” has striked the world’s conscience. Its pertinent practice in the armed conflict and legality under international law has often been brought under severe question and criticism.

Speaking from a military point of view, “knock on the roof” is dropping a low-yield explosive or a non-explosive device on a target shortly before real bombs hit the location. In particular, this war tactic is to warn the Palestinian civilians of an impending missile strike and is used extensively in the targeted Hamas sites. Since 2006, the Israel Defense Force (IDF) had been employing this practice of warning the inhabitants of a building with the motive of attacking the armed forces. Roof knocking was used during the Gaza War (2008-2009), the Operation Pillar of Defense (2012), and very recently in the Operation Protective Edge (OPE). To implement this trick in war, Israel collects data on Hamas members secretly and issues warnings prior to the airstrikes.

UNRWA estimates that Gaza needs USD 6 billion to rebuild its devastated infrastructures such as houses, hospitals, schools and mosques. Photo Credit: webpublicpress.net

Typically, Israeli intelligence officers and Shin Bet security servicemen contact residents of a building in which they suspect storage of military assets and ask them to flee within 10-15 minutes prior to the attack. However, in some cases the time to flee has been as little as five minutes or even just 57 seconds. Through this technique, in 12 July, 2014, Israeli military force launched an airstrike on the home of Gaza’s police chief, Tayseer Al-Batsh, and on a nearby mosque,  killing almost 18 civilians including children and injuring around 45 others.

Customary International Humanitarian Law in its Rule 1 mandates the parties to the conflict at all times to distinguish between civilians and combatants. Pursuant to this rule, attacks may only be directed against combatants, but not against civilians. State practice establishes this rule as a norm of customary international law applicable in both international and non-international armed conflicts. According to this rule, combatants are the individuals who would not enjoy the protection against attacks that is afforded only to civilians.

Despite such mandates, one of the the main features of the recently conducted Israeli attacks is the escalation in the targeting of residential houses belonging to Hamas leaders and militants. Elements of current humanitarian crisis due to ‘’knock on the roof” tactic has reignited the claim that for a warning method roof knocking is not at par with sets of rule relating to means and methods of war under international humanitarian law.

The legality of aggression by Israeli military against Palestinian attacks has been a matter of criticism by the international communities. As a part of the mandate, the United Nations has passed a resolution to hold an independent investigation into the war crimes allegedly  committed by Hamas and Israel fighters since OPE began in 8 July this year. Besides, human rights group Amnesty International has condemned the practice, pointing out that in many cases the supposedly non-lethal strike has led to loss of lives.

Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s director of the Middle East and North Africa program, curtsied by saying: “There is no way that firing a missile at a civilian home can constitute an effective ‘warning’.” The short window between a warning shot and rocket strike does nothing more than terrifying occupants of the houses.

Bombing the houses of civilians through “knock on the roof” technique clearly violates international humanitarian law, which provides a narrow definition of what constitutes a legitimate object and permits aiming attacks only at targets that allegedly assist military efforts. Treating civilian homes as legitimate targets is an unlawful, distorted interpretation of the concept resulting in harm to those very civilians, whom this body of law intended to protect.

Directing attack against civilians is prohibited under international humanitarian law. Photo Credit: mag.com

Practice relating to advance warning in wartime situation under customary international humanitarian law requires that the parties involved in the conflict must give an effective advance warning of attacks so that the attack itself may not affect the civilian population. Speaking of ‘effective advance warning’, there is no standard gap between the delivery of the “dummy” missile and fully armed missiles under international law. Undoubtedly, Israel is committing war crimes in Gaza.

Although the military does give a warning to the inhabitants and instruct them to leave the premises, the purpose of the warning is not served automatically. The military must give the inhabitants enough time to leave and ensure that all civilians have indeed evacuated the spot. But the question that is reasonable and essential to ask is whether 57 seconds are enough at all for the the civilians to leave the building before the missile strikes.  Logically, the answer would be in the negative.

At this backdrop, Human Rights Watch (HRW) recently claimed on the basis of their investigation that, Israeli air attacks in Gaza have been targeting apparent civilian structures and killing civilians in violation of the laws of war. It suggested that the United Nations Human Rights Council should hold a special session to address violations of international human rights and humanitarian law in the context of this conflict. The Council should mandate the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to form a fact-finding mission for conducting an impartial investigation, reporting promptly and publicly on violations by all sides. This office is also empowered to issue sets of recommendations with the purpose of sending to the parties and the UN.

“Knock on the roof” as a military technique is not developed to protect the civilians of Gaza, rather to be used as a ploy to indiscriminately kill them. Unless the Israeli authorities can provide specific information showing how a house is being used to make an effective contribution to the military actions, deliberate attacking in civilian homes constitutes a war crime that ultimately amounts to inhumane punishment against the families.

Emraan thanks Farah Sonda, Preeti Kona and Khaled Saifullah for their comments and suggestions on an earlier draft of this article.

Citations:

Emraan Azad, “Knock on the Roof: Lawful Warning or Violation of Laws of War?”  (DHLR Blog, 8 September 2014) http://www.dhakalawreview.org/blog/2014/09/israels-knock-on-the-roof-lawful-warning-or-violation-of-laws-of-war-2-339