“The mission wishes to underline the importance of its travelling to Beit Hanoun to witness first-hand the situation of victims and survivors of the shelling, in particular to comprehend the deep distress of the victims of the shelling and of the population generated by the ongoing blockade. This depth of human suffering is only partially conveyed through the third-party reports on the situation.”
Here are the bare-boned facts:
1. Israeli military operations were carried out in the northern Gaza town of Beit Hanoun “around 8 November 2006”.
2.)The UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution on 15 November 2006 calling for a high-level fact-finding mission to be established and for the mission to travel to the town of Beit Hanoun.
South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu was appointed to lead the mission.
3.) “On three occasions, the mission attempted to travel to Beit Hanoun via Israel. Each of these attempts was frustrated by the refusal of the Government of Israel to cooperate with the mission”…
4.) In May 2008. the mission actually made a two-day trip to Beit Hanoun — travelling from Egypt in and out of the otherwise closed Rafah Crossing into Gaza — in May 2008.
5.) The mission made its final report to the UN Human Rights Council on 15 September 2008.
The mission’s final report stated that “Gaza is under the effective control of Israel and is thus occupied by it … The mission also witnessed the constant surveillance of Gaza by Israeli forces, most strikingly from unmanned aerial drones”…
The report stated that “the events preceding the shelling on 8 November (in particular the incursion of 1 to 7 November – n.b. this incursion was named ‘Autumn Clouds’, and focussed on Beit Hanoun ) had a direct and negative impact on the situation of victims and survivors of the shelling. The control exercised by the Israeli military over inhabitants was reaffirmed. Inhabitants of Beit Hanoun lived in a state of constant fear and anxiety and were traumatized by the deaths and injuries they witnessed, the destruction of property and the uncertainty as to what would occur next”…
The mission’s final report gives this graphic description of what happened: “The shelling took place early on the morning of Wednesday, 8 November 2006, some 24 hours after the Israeli military withdrew from the town and concluded operation Autumn Clouds. Residents of Beit Hanoun, including the Al-Athamna family, were returning to normal life after the trauma of the incursion. Those interviewed by the mission spoke of the night of 7 November as being the first time they and their children could again ‘get a proper night’s sleep’. Another survivor noted that it was the first night she could bake bread. Another noted that it was the first time he could rise and pray at the mosque rather than at home. At approximately 5.35 a.m., the first 155 mm shell from Israeli artillery hit a house in the heavily populated neighbourhood of al-Madakkha in northern Beit Hanoun. Over the following 30 minutes or so, a total of 12 shells struck an area of approximately 1.5 hectares along the western side of Hamad Street, which lies around 800 metres from the armistice line. The shells struck six houses as well as surrounding areas in Hamad Street and lanes between houses. Six shells fell on an area of 50 metres in diameter. The mission saw the extensive damage caused by the shells, including holes blasted through reinforced concrete walls and floors, and blast damage to surrounding buildings. Amateur video footage obtained by the mission shows the last three shells landing with intervals of around one minute and 15 seconds. The victims of the shelling were either asleep in their homes or, as was the case with a number of the men, returning from morning prayer. Following the first shell, which hit a house killing and injuring people inside, most residents fled to the street. Once in the street, people congregated to assist those who had been injured. More shells then landed in the street and surrounding lanes, killing and injuring dozens more. A number of survivors ran into surrounding fields. Others indicated running towards the nearby Erez crossing, believing that the Israeli installation there would offer safety. The testimony received by the mission paints a horrific scene. Woken by the first shell, families fled their homes and assembled in the street outside, where dead and injured persons already lay. One mother described being faced with one of her children with an open skull wound while trying to help another son as he scooped his intestines back into his abdomen. Another spoke of helping his injured father to the door of the house, only for him to be killed by a direct shell at the door. As people gathered and attempted to provide assistance to the injured, more shells landed in the street. There was, according to one witness, ‘no one left standing’. The nature of injuries caused by artillery shells meant the street was ‘strewn with limbs’. Children were decapitated and a mother worries for her surviving son who ‘saw his brother cut in half’. Some time after the first shell landed, the injured started to arrive by private vehicle at the Beit Hanoun hospital, most having lost limbs or requiring amputation. Within a short amount of time, 30 to 40 injured people arrived at the hospital. The director of the hospital declared an emergency and called for ambulances from across Gaza to assist. The first ambulance to reach the scene of the shelling itself came under fire, the driver and assistant being forced to abandon the vehicle. Footage obtained by the mission of the scene in Beit Hanoun hospital as casualties from the shelling arrived showed an extremely disturbing scene of a small hospital crowded with medical staff, victims with blast injuries and their families. Medical staff interviewed by the mission described not only the trauma in dealing with the onslaught of casualties, but also of their exhaustion following their efforts during the Autumn Clouds incursion, as described above. The shelling resulted in the immediate death or mortal wounding of 19 civilians, including seven children and six women. All but one of the victims were from a single family group, the Al-Athamna. Over 50 others were wounded during the attack”.
In an earlier section, the report stated that “During the incursion (n.b. during the week before the deadly shelling), Israeli military personnel occupied houses in Beit Hanoun for hours at a time, including the house of the Al-Athamna family, which was occupied twice; first for four hours, the second time for six. ‘They knew who slept in each room, they knew it was a family home’, reported one witness”.
The report continues: “A number of the more seriously injured required treatment that could not be provided in Gaza. Families of the injured ran directly to the Erez crossing to plead for Israeli approval to transport injured people to Israeli hospitals. According to survivors, approval to move some injured to Israeli hospitals was received only some 12 hours after the shelling. Survivors told how significant obstacles were placed in the way of individuals travelling to Israel for emergency treatment, in particular: (a) The refusal by Israeli authorities in some cases to allow the injured to be accompanied by family members. This was particularly distressing in the case of the elderly and children who travelled without their closest relatives; (b) The refusal by Israeli ambulances to transport the injured from Erez crossing to Israeli hospitals without an immediate payment of some thousands of shekels. These fees were later reimbursed by the International Committee of the Red Cross”.
The mission report also notes that “In addition to the special session of the Council at which resolution S-3/1 was adopted, on 30 November 2006, the General Assembly adopted resolution ES-10/16, in which it deplored Israeli military assaults on the Gaza Strip, in particular the killing of many Palestinian civilians in Beit Hanoun. The Assembly requested the Secretary-General to establish a fact-finding mission on the attack. The fact-finding mission has never been conducted”.
And, the mission report states, “the mission saw no evidence of any necessity for the shelling of Beit Hanoun on 8 November and certainly none that the need for such an attack was ‘instant, overwhelming, leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation’. The fact that the Israeli military had been in almost full control of Beit Hanoun in the days prior to the attack only reinforces this argument…[T]he use of force with an impact on civilians is permissible if it is directed at a legitimate military target and is proportionate to the overall threat faced. The mission received no evidence that the shelled area of Beit Hanoun was a legitimate military target and notes that it had been occupied by Israeli military earlier in the week…The firing of artillery towards Beit Hanoun on the morning of 8 November 2006 was a deliberate act in the context of the long-term occupation of Gaza and of the deaths of civilians and destruction of property in Autumn Clouds. Taken together with further facts (such as the reduction of the safety zone for artillery use referred to above) and the nature of the ‘intransgressible obligation'” to protect civilian life, the mission considers that there is evidence of a disproportionate and reckless disregard for Palestinian civilian life, contrary to the requirements of international humanitarian law and raising legitimate concerns about the possibility of a war crime having been committed…The investigation of the Israeli military referred to above was not independent (it was carried out by a committee comprised of Israeli military personnel) and the lack of transparency makes it impossible to determine whether or not it was rigorous or effective. The failure of Israel to comply with the procedural requirement adds to the frustration and anger felt by survivors, who have received no credible explanation for what occurred. Survivors have come to perceive the rule of law as having no meaning for them…The Israeli military internal investigation referred to above concluded that there would be no prosecutions of individuals or other disciplinary action arising from the shelling; therefore, no one has been held to account for the injuries suffered. A further recent example involving the killing of a media cameraman and eight youths reinforces the culture of impunity decried by the mission in its previous report…An Israeli law preventing Palestinians from claiming compensation from Israel following military operations was partially struck down by the High Court on 12 December 2006. However, the court left standing a provision that bars compensation to Palestinians harmed in combat operations.”
Among its conclusions, the report says that the 8 November 2006 attack on Beit Hanoun “took lives, inflicted horrendous physical and mental injuries, tore families apart, destroyed homes, took away livelihoods and traumatized a population. Its aftermath compounded those ills. The courage of the victims in the face of continuing hardship deserves our admiration. Their recovery is not aided by continuing incursions into Beit Hanoun including on the night after the mission’s visit to the town”.
The report also concludes that “The people of Gaza must be afforded protection in compliance with international law and, above all, the Fourth Geneva Convention. The Israeli military must place at the centre of its decision-making and activities in the occupied Palestinian territories the consequences of the use of force on civilians. In the absence of a well-founded explanation from the Israeli military (who is in sole possession of the relevant facts), the mission must conclude that there is a possibility that the shelling of Beit Hanoun constituted a war crime as defined in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. Similarly, as the mission made clear to Hamas at the highest level, the firing of rockets on the civilian population in Israel must stop. Those in positions of authority in Gaza have not only an international humanitarian law obligation to respect international humanitarian law norms relating to the protection of civilians, but also a responsibility to ensure that these norms are respected by others”.
And, the report says, “One victim of the Beit Hanoun shelling was the rule of law. There has been no accountability for an act that killed 19 people and injured many more. The Israeli response of a largely secret internal military investigation is absolutely unacceptable from both legal and moral points of view. The mission notes that Israel has adopted a similar response to other killings by its military, with similar results. The mission repeats its position that, regardless of whether the casualties at Beit Hanoun were caused by a mistake, recklessness, criminal negligence or willful conduct, those responsible must be held accountable. It is not too late for an independent, impartial and transparent investigation of the shelling to be held; indeed, the mission notes other instances in which the courts have ordered the Israeli military to open investigations into the killings of civilians by the military … Accountability involves providing a remedy and redress for victims. To date, neither has been forthcoming from Israel, despite its admission of responsibility for the attack … The present report outlines some of the obstacles put in the way of victims seeking justice. While the mission calls on Israel to remove these obstacles, it is of the view that victims should not be forced to fight for compensation through Israeli courts when all accept that damage was inflicted on individuals by the State. The mission recommends that the State of Israel pay victims adequate compensation without delay. In the light of the magnitude of the attack on a small community, and in addition to compensation to individuals, the mission also recommends that Israel make reparation to the community of Beit Hanoun in the form of a memorial to the victims that constitutes a response to the needs of survivors. Possibilities include a health facility such as a much-needed physiotherapy clinic … The situation of victims and survivors of the shelling, as witnessed by the mission, remains grim. Israel, Hamas and the Palestinian Authority have human rights obligations towards the victims. Most of the ongoing violations, however, are caused by Israeli action or inaction. The mission calls on Israel to honour its obligations to the people of Beit Hanoun, and more generally to the people of occupied Gaza, to respect, protect and fulfil their human rights. A major barrier to the enjoyment of human rights is the ongoing blockade that limits individuals’ ability to provide an adequate standard of living for themselves and their families and the capacity of local authorities to provide essential services for the population. A central need of victims is access to health services. Israel must desist from obstructing victims’ access to health-care services, be it through restricting the flow of medical goods and personnel into Gaza, or through restricting victims’ ability to leave Gaza to seek health care elsewhere.”
And, the report concluded, “one of the most effective and immediate means of protecting Palestinian civilians against any further Israeli assaults is to insist on respect for the rule of law and accountability. We have seen that even the flawed Israeli investigation into the Beit Hanoun shelling resulted in a decision to discontinue use of artillery in Gaza, one of the main causes of civilian death and injury in the territory…During a press conference at the conclusion of its visit to Gaza, the mission indicated that the international community is failing to fulfil its role in respect of the suffering of the people of Gaza, in particular in its silence which begets complicity. In its efforts to discharge its mandate, the mission witnessed positions based on political objectives rather than on principle by all relevant parties”.