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Killed in their cages: Palestinian civilians and Israeli weapons

There’s a scene in the Emir Kusturica film Underground that has really stayed with me. It pictures Belgrade zoo being bombed during the Second World War, with animals in their cages panicking and howling. A young zoo-keeper with learning difficulties is totally distraught. It still brings tears to me eyes thinking about it.

Last week BBC News had a piece about the current devastation at Gaza zoo after Israel’s bombardment of the Gaza Strip. Out of 400 animals, only 10 are now left. The others were either hit by shells, killed by bullets or they starved to death in their cages after the zoo staff fled the bombing.

The situation hasn’t been much different for the 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza. For the last 20 months they’ve been trapped in their open-air prison, trying to survive under Israel's blockade, a form of collective punishment for all inhabitants and not just for “fighters”. Similarly, Israel’s massive military onslaught in January may have been designed to rout Hamas and other armed Palestinian groups, but the Israeli Defense Forces’ tactics showed a reckless disregard for civilian life.

Okay, amid the barrage of claim, counter-claim and unpleasant name-calling, people might just throw up their hands and say “this issue’s too complicated”. Or: “who can you believe?” The Amnesty blog site has been jammed with people debating and arguing on this subject like no other, and when Clare Short recently did a Comment is Free post about the need for war crimes investigations (on both sides) she was swamped with 300 comments in a day.

But look at a few facts. If you examine the weapons actually used it can tell you a lot. On one side, Hamas (and possibly other armed groups) fired at least 643 rockets into southern Israel during the conflict, according to Israeli figures. (Actually Israel’s number is only for 27 Dec-11 Jan, so it was probably more like 700-800). The rockets killed seven Israeli civilians and injured others. The devices were crude, semi-improvised, or old Soviet-era stuff. They were still deadly though, and firing them 20-30 kilometres into civilian areas is an indiscriminate attack, ie a war crime.

On the other side, the Israeli military machine is huge and state of the art. It makes a lot of its own equipment, while the US supplies the vast majority of its imported arsenal (something like $21 billion-worth since 2002): F-16 fighter jets, Apache AH-64 and Black Hawk UH-60 combat helicopters, various armoured fighting vehicles, and so on and so on. Tel Aviv also gets US-made unmanned aerial “drones” (possibly with engines made in Lichfield, Staffordshire).

Fine. Israel is entitled to arm itself to the teeth if it wishes, but it’s the usage that counts. For example, as the Times reported throughout the conflict, Israel’s army clearly used white phosphorous shells in civilian areas in Gaza. The result? Men, women and children were either killed or horribly wounded, with WP burning through their skin tissue and muscles and into their bones.

There’s a lot more detail like this in a new report out today from Amnesty on the Gaza conflict weaponry – but just one more example. The IDF also apparently used a new type of shell (apparently fired from drones) which bursts open and showers an area with tiny sharp-edged steel cubes. It’s a ready-made shrapnel device, not unlike a nail bomb. Amnesty researchers found steel cubes embedded deep into concrete walls. Like white phosphorous, it’s the sort of thing that should never be used in a civilian area.

To flout this “rule of war” is a war crime – hence Amnesty’s continuing call for a proper war crimes investigation and hence the need for a full UN arms embargo meanwhile.

Just like Londoners during the WW2 “doodlebug” raids, Israelis in places like Sderot and Ashkelon were obviously traumatised by Hamas rockets. Fair enough. But let’s place that against the massive onslaught against the densely crowded territory of the Gaza strip. Just like the monkeys and camels at Gaza zoo, Palestinian civilians didn’t stand a chance against the weapons and tactics that were used against them.

(PS: speaking of weapons, look out for Amnesty's "bullet" ads on rape as a weapon of war in London Underground carriages this week. They're … awesome). 


About Amnesty UK Blogs
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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