Israel/OPT: fresh evidence of probable war crimes in Israeli attacks on Rafah

The ruins of the Nofal family’s five-storey building in the Tal Al-Sultan district of Rafah © AFP via Getty Images

At least 95 civilians - including 42 children - killed in four unlawful strikes in supposedly ‘safe’ area

Victims include retired surgeon Dr Abdallah Shehada and a new-born baby girl so young her birth still hadn’t been officially registered

One attack was carried out with a bomb manufactured by US company Boeing

‘Entire families were wiped out in Israeli attacks even after they sought refuge in areas promoted as safe’ - Erika Guevara-Rosas

Fresh evidence of deadly unlawful attacks in Rafah - gathered by Amnesty International and published today - show how Israeli forces are flouting international humanitarian law in their military operations in Gaza, including obliterating entire families with total impunity. 

Amnesty has carried out a detailed investigation into four separate Israeli attacks in Rafah, supposedly Gaza’s “safest” area. Three of the attacks occurred in December after the humanitarian pause ended, and one in January. 

One attack on two houses belonging to the Harb family in Al-Zuhour district on 12 December killed 25 civilians, including ten children. Another attack on a house belonging to retired surgeon Dr Abdallah Shehada in Rafa’s Brazil district on 14 December killed the surgeon and at least 29 other civilians, including 11 children. On 19 December, an attack on the Zu’rub family home in western Rafah killed 22 civilians, including 11 children. And on 9 January, an attack on the Nofa family home in the Tal Al-Sultan district of Rafah killed 18 civilians, including ten children. 

In total, the four attacks killed at least 95 civilians, including 42 children. Those killed included an 86-year-old man who had been forced to flee to Rafah by fighting and a baby girl less than three weeks old, so young that her birth had not yet been officially registered. (See below for further details of the attacks).

In all four attacks, Amnesty found no indication that the residential buildings hit could be considered legitimate military objectives or that people in the buildings were military targets, raising serious concerns that the strikes were direct attacks on civilians and civilian objects and must therefore be investigated as war crimes.

Amnesty visited the sites of all four attacks, taking photographs and recording videos of the destruction and interviewing a total of 18 people, including 14 survivors and four relatives who took part in rescue operations. Amnesty also analysed satellite imagery, photos and videos to geolocate and verify the attacks and resulting destruction, as well as reviewing the war diary published by the Israeli military’s official page, which had no reference to any of the four attacks. Amnesty sent questions regarding the attacks to the Israeli authorities on 19 and 30 January. At the time of publication no response had been received.

Even if Israeli forces had intended to target legitimate military objectives in the vicinity of these four attacks, the attacks evidently failed to distinguish between military objectives and civilian objects and would therefore be indiscriminate, and as such war crimes. The evidence collected by Amnesty also indicates that the Israeli military failed to provide effective - or indeed any - warning to those living in the locations.

Any major Israeli ground operation in Rafah is likely to have cataclysmic consequence for civilians. Successive waves of forced mass displacement have turned Rafah into Gaza’s most overcrowded area. Rafah’s population has risen fivefold from its pre-war population and more than a million people are crammed into an area of 63 km2, living in dire conditions including in makeshift tents and schools. 

Erika Guevara-Rosas, Amnesty International’s Senior Director of Research, Advocacy, Policy and Campaigns, said:

“Entire families were wiped out in Israeli attacks even after they sought refuge in areas promoted as safe and with no prior warning from the Israeli authorities. 

“These attacks illustrate an ongoing pattern of Israeli forces brazenly flouting international law, contradicting claims by Israeli authorities that their forces are taking heightened precautions to minimise harm to civilians. 

“Among those killed in these unlawful attacks were a baby girl who had not yet turned three weeks, a prominent 69-year-old retired physician, a journalist who welcomed displaced families into his house, and a mother sharing a bed with her 23-year-old daughter.

“Following the International Court of Justice’s key interim ruling that the risk of genocide is real and imminent, the horrific details of these cases reinforce the urgency for all states to push for an immediate and sustained ceasefire, which is the most effective way to implement the provisional measures ordered by the court. 

“In light of the appalling scale of death and destruction, all states have a clear obligation to act to prevent genocide, yet instead key states have failed to make a clear call for a ceasefire and are continuing to fuel war crimes by supplying arms to Israel.

“Several victims’ families said the struggle for some measure of justice is all that keeps them going despite their loss, highlighting the importance of tackling longstanding impunity for war crimes and other crimes under international law by Israeli forces.”

THE FOUR ATTACKS 

Harb family home, Al-Zuhour district, 12 December

On 12 December, at 3:02am, an Israeli attack directly hit two houses belonging to the Harb family in Al-Zuhour district in Rafah, killing 25 civilians, including ten children, nine men and six women, one of whom was eight months pregnant. At least 17 others were wounded. The attack completely destroyed the two houses and severely damaged three adjacent homes where some of the fatalities occurred. Islam Harb, 30, who lost three of his four children in the attack - five-year-old twin daughters, Jude and Maria, and six-month-old son, Ammar - told Amnesty what happened:  

“I heard a huge blast. I don’t remember seeing anything, I just heard a very loud blast and lost consciousness. I woke up in hospital. The first thing I remember is asking about my children. Only Leen, the four-year-old, survived. My family spent days trying to dig the remains of the dead out of the rubble. The body of my [25-year-old] brother Khalil was found 200 metres away from the house due to the power of the strike, in pieces. My children’s small bodies were torn to pieces.”

Islam told Amnesty that his family members have no idea why their houses were hit and that they received no advance warning of the attack. His mother, Inaam, 52, sisters, Abir, 23, and Najwa, 26, and brothers Mohammed Al-Hadi, 22, and Zein Al-Abidine, 15, were among those killed. Islam said the family was hosting displaced relatives who were forced to leave Gaza City by the Israeli military. He said they were close relatives whose backgrounds they knew well and who had no political affiliation.

A surviving sister, Ahlam Harb, 34, whose finger had to be amputated as a result of the attack, told Amnesty:

“It’s a miracle I’m alive and talking to you. I’m in constant pain, especially in my lungs, still struggling to breathe … I lost my mother. My sister Najwa, her husband, and all of their children were killed. Abir, my closest sister, the dearest person to me, was also killed. Her loss broke my back. My brother Mohammed Al-Hadi was only recognised by his hair. Nothing was left of my brother Khalil except his hand … My children were rescued from beneath the rubble alive. I look at them and cannot believe they are still alive.”

Witness testimony and photographic evidence collected from the scene indicate the houses were struck more than once, resulting in at least two craters. Israel has offered no explanation for the incident.

Amnesty visited the site of the attack on two occasions and reviewed the list of those killed and wounded, with Amnesty finding no evidence that there were military objectives in the area or that any of those present in the buildings were legitimate military targets, raising serious concerns that the strike on the Harb family homes was a direct attack on civilians and civilian objects, which must be investigated as a war crime. 

Dr Abdallah Shehada’s house, Brazil district, 14 December 

On 14 December at around 11:45am, an Israeli strike hit and completely destroyed a three-storey house in the Brazil district of Rafah belonging to Dr Abdallah Shehada. The 69-year-old retired surgeon and former director of Abu Yousef Al-Najjar hospital was killed alongside at least 29 other civilians - 11 children, seven men and 11 women. At least ten others were wounded. The oldest victim of the attack was Hamdi Abu Daff, a displaced 86-year-old man, and the youngest was Ayla Nasman, aged three months. 

Abdallah Shehada’s son, Yousef, a 36-year-old surgeon at the European hospital in Khan Younis, who also lost his brother Yahia, a 29-year-old IT student, said he left the house an hour before the strike:

“This was the house of a doctor who devoted his life to helping people, a house where displaced people were seeking refuge … We spent days trying to dig the bodies out of the rubble, people who just wanted to be safe. We know all those who were staying in the building.”

At least two of the displaced people staying in the building had work permits in Israel, meaning they had undergone rigorous screening by Israeli authorities. 

Ahmad Nasman, 30, a physiotherapist, lost his wife Oula, 29, also a physiotherapist, and their three children: Arwa, five, Karam, four, and Ayla, three months. His parents, Hassan, 63, and Omaya, 58, were also killed, as was his sister Aya, 28. He told Amnesty that a month after his parents had moved to Abdallah Shehada’s home, he followed suit alongside his wife and children in mid-November. They made the gruelling journey from Gaza City to Rafah in a horse-drawn cart through the so-called “safe corridor” which he described as a “corridor of hell”. The ordeal terrified his children, who witnessed Israeli soldiers conducting strip searches. 

On the day of the attack, Nasman was at a nearby market and rushed home after hearing the explosion to find the house on fire. “Everything was completely destroyed … nothing but ruins, smoke and stones”, he said. It took him four days to retrieve the body of his baby daughter Ayla from the rubble, who was only recognisable by her clothes. The blast decapitated his five-year-old daughter, Arwa. 

Ahmad Nasman said:

“When the war started, I had only one mission in my life, to protect my children. I wish I were with them when the house was hit. My body survived but my spirit died with my children, it was crushed under the rubble with them.”

One survivor, who spoke on condition of anonymity, described the experience of spending nearly eight hours trapped beneath the rubble with a broken leg, only able to move one arm. His wife and young son were killed in the attack. He told Amnesty that he was standing by the front door after going outside to bake bread on firewood when suddenly he was flung in the air, hit a wall and lost consciousness:

“I started screaming, shouting for people to help me, I was under the rubble … in something like a very, very narrow cellar … I could see that there were people trying to rescue me. I screamed for two hours, the place was very noisy, I could hear the noise of bulldozers.”

Thaer al-Haddad, 27, was rescued immediately from under the rubble, but his parents, Salama, 48, and Maysara, 47, and his wife Aya, 28, were killed in the attack. He told Amnesty:

“Dr Abdallah is a very cautious man, and all of those in the building were either members of his family or close friends … We went to Rafah looking for safety, we thought it was safer in the south.”

Amnesty’s research found no indication that a military target was present inside or in the vicinity of the house or that it was a military objective, raising serious concerns that this attack - which Israel has yet to provide any information about - was also a direct attack on civilians and civilian objects.

Zu’rub family home, western Rafah, 19 December

On 19 December, at about 1:30am, an Israeli attack hit the two-storey house of Omar Zu’rub in western Rafah, killing 22 civilians - 11 children, seven men and four women. The oldest victim of the attack, Omar Zu’rub, was 75 while the youngest, his grandniece Al-Amira Aisha, was less than three weeks old, yet to be registered in the civil registry. The house was completely destroyed and at least three adjacent houses were severely damaged. Amnesty was able to confirm the identity of at least 16 people who were injured, but according to witnesses scores more were likely to have been wounded as one of the severely-damaged houses sheltered up to 70 people.

All those sleeping on the first floor of the house - which was completely destroyed - were killed: Omar Zu’rub, 75, his wife Rowaida, 70, and their son Mahmoud, 36. Mahmoud’s wife, Mervat, 35, was also killed along with all of the couple’s four children: Farah, 16, Omar, 14, Mohammed, 13, and Dima, one. Omar’s other son Mamdouh, a 39-year-old civil servant, was staying with his family on the top floor. He was killed alongside his daughter Roua, 16.  

Malak Al-Shaer, Mamdouh’s wife, told Amnesty they were all sleeping. She woke up to find herself under debris. She said:

“I couldn’t open my eyes because they were full of glass, shrapnel and sand. My whole body was beneath the rubble, only my foot was visible, maybe it took 20 minutes for the rescuers to get me out.”

Malak suffered severe burns, including on her face, and her vision has been impaired due to shrapnel lodged in her eyes, but she was discharged from hospital after two weeks, as the collapse of Gaza’s healthcare system has left hospitals in the south overwhelmed and desperately underequipped.   

In one of the impacted adjacent houses, a two-storey building owned by journalist Adel Zu’rub, more than 70 people were staying from the Al-Lada’a family who had fled Tal Al-Hawa in Gaza City during the second week of the offensive. The attack killed Zu’rub alongside nine members of the Al-Lada’a family. One survivor, Aref Al-Lada’a, 52, told Amnesty: 

“Walls, rocks, cement, glass, started falling on us. The walls and the columns collapsed on us due to the power of the strike.”

Mohamed Zu’rub, whose house was also damaged in the strike, told Amnesty that the attack hit a residential block, full of families. He said:

“Sometimes I still cannot figure out if this was real or a nightmare. My nephew has a daughter, who is not yet three weeks, his other son, is not yet two years old … Can you imagine these children’s bodies being crushed under the rubble?” 

Amnesty’s research found no evidence that those staying in the house were affiliated with an armed group, nor any indication that there were military objectives in or near the houses, raising serious concerns that the strike, which Israel is yet to explain, was a direct attack on civilians and civilian objects and must be investigated as a war crime. 

Nofal family home, Tal Al-Sultan district, 9 January

On 9 January, just before 11pm, an Israeli strike hit the two top floors of the Nofal family’s five-storey building located in Tal Al-Sultan, a district to which the Israeli military had repeatedly ordered displaced residents to flee. The attack killed 18 civilians - ten children, four men and four women. At least eight others were wounded. Sixteen of those killed were on the fourth and fifth floors of the building. The other two - a man and a child - were from the neighbouring Awadallah family, whose zinc-built home collapsed under the debris of the Nofal house. Nidal Nofal, 47, a nurse who lives on the ground floor, told Amnesty that relatives from Khan Younis were staying with them following Israeli military instructions to leave for Rafah: 

“The map [Israeli forces] sent specifically mentioned Tal Al-Sultan as one of the safe neighborhoods. Minutes before 11pm, my son shouted that he had heard a strike… once I opened the door and looked outside, I saw shards of glass flying all over the place.”

Amnesty’s weapons experts examined photos of fragments of ordnance recovered from the rubble and identified it as a GBU-39 Small Diameter Bomb, a precision-guided weapon with a smaller warhead, explaining the targeted damage to the top floors specifically. It is made in the US by Boeing. As with the other attacks, the Israeli authorities have not given a reason for this strike. 

Amnesty’s research, including a review of a list of the names of all those staying on the targeted floors, and those killed and wounded in the attack, found no indication that any of those in the building were legitimate military targets, rendering it a likely direct attack on civilians and civilian objects, or possibly an indiscriminate attack resulting from failing to take all feasible precautions to avoid killing or injuring civilians, including by ensuring that anyone who was targeted was a fighter, not a civilian. 

Pattern of unlawful Israeli attacks

In addition to these four attacks, Amnesty has documented several other instances in which Israeli forces carried out unlawful attacks that killed and injured civilians since 7 October 2023. The relentless bombardment comes amid the intensified blockade imposed on Gaza, with mounting hunger - including the rising risk of famine - and the destruction of health facilities alongside other vital infrastructure.

7 October attacks 

On 7 October, Hamas and other armed groups launched indiscriminate rockets and sent fighters into southern Israel and committed war crimes, such as the deliberate mass killing of civilians and hostage-taking. According to the Israeli authorities, at least 1,139 people were killed and more than 200 people - mostly civilians, including 33 children - were taken as hostages by Hamas and other armed groups. As of 1 December, 113 hostages held by Hamas and other armed groups in Gaza had been released and 240 Palestinian detainees and prisoners in Israeli prisons were released as part of an agreement during a “humanitarian pause” that began on 24 November and ended on 1 December.

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