Social Media Contributes to Evidence of Possible Israeli War Crimes in Gaza

Civilians documenting destruction in Gaza

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About two weeks into the 2014 conflict in Gaza, Palestinian photographer Jehad Saftawi began to tire of venturing into the city every day to take images of the wreckage.

He decided instead to set up a video camera showing the Gaza skyline in his apartment, and livestream the footage, so that viewers could see for themselves.

For several weeks, Saftawi became one of hundreds of Gazans to document the impact of "Operation Protective Edge," launched by Israel in response to rockets and mortar bombs fired by Hamas and other militant groups out of Gaza into Israel.

Smoke plume during 2014 conflict in Gaza
Still from "The Forensic Architects Investigating Gaza" | Thomson Reuters Foundation

"When we started the idea to have a livestream, we were not asking to achieve anything. We were just searching for any channel, for any way to the world, to make them understand (the situation) Gaza people are living in," Saftawi, 24, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a Skype interview.

In the 50-day war, Israeli air strikes and shelling hammered the densely populated Gaza Strip, causing widespread destruction of homes and schools. More than 2,100 Palestinians were killed, mostly civilians, while Israel put the number of its dead at 67 soldiers and six civilians.

Amnesty International says evidence collected by Saftawi and others during one of the most controversial episodes of the conflict shows that Israeli forces carried out war crimes in retaliation for the capture of an Israeli soldier.

The global human rights group has been working with Forensic Architecture, a research team based at Goldsmiths, University of London, to piece together what happened on Aug. 1 2014, when an Israeli air and artillery bombardment killed 150 people in a few hours.

The events unfolded just as a three-day ceasefire was supposed to come into force. Emerging from a tunnel inside Gaza, Hamas militants ambushed three Israeli soldiers, killing two and seizing the third, Hadar Goldin.

To rescue the soldier — dead or alive — and ensure Hamas could not use him as a hostage, the Israeli army invoked the "Hannibal directive," an order compelling units to do everything they can to recover an abducted comrade.

What ensued was a furious assault on a confined area on the eastern edge of Rafah, the largest city in southern Gaza.

"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 Lieutenant Hadar Goldin, displaying a shocking disregard for civilian lives," said Philip Luther, director of Amnesty's Middle East and North Africa programme.

"They carried out a series of disproportionate or otherwise indiscriminate attacks, which they have completely failed to investigate independently," he said in a statement.

Amnesty says it hopes evidence drawn from hundreds of images and videos collected from satellites, news agencies and social media, which were used to re-create many of the day's events in real time, will be considered by International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutors.

A statement issued by the Israeli embassy in London said the Amnesty report "is fundamentally flawed in its methodologies, in its facts, in its legal analysis and in its conclusions."

"...the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) ... conducts all its operations in accordance with international law," the statement said. "Alleged incidents occurring in Rafah during the time period covered by the report are under examination by the IDF General Staff Fact-Finding Assessment Mechanism," it added.

Using architectural techniques such as 3D modeling and two-point perspective, Forensic Architecture researchers were able to verify the time and location of numerous missile and tank strikes.

"What is distinct about the 2014 conflict in Gaza, is that most testimony is not happening after the fact, but on the spot, real-time record of what is happening ... Palestinians taking photographs or videos of what happens next to them and uploading them online," said Eyal Weizman from Forensic Architecture.

Forensic architecture maps air strikes in Gaza
Still from "The Forensic Architects Investigating Gaza" | Thomson Reuters Foundation

By creating a 3D architectural model of Rafah, they were able to analyze smoke plumes and shadows, to verify the exact time and location of individual photos and videos. They could also assess the exact size of missiles moments before they reached their target.

"The evidence for us is not within any single image. It is only through the architectural model that we are able to see the relation between images," Weizman said.

The analysis of one particular strike indicated the use of two one-ton bombs in a densely populated area of Eastern Rafah. Though the use of these bombs is not illegal, a U.N. inquiry into the Gaza war published last month raised concerns about the use of such munitions in highly populated areas, due to the indiscriminate way they kill civilians and combatants alike.

"When violence takes place in cities, people die in buildings, and buildings become evidence."

Weizman said his team developed its technique of forensic analysis in response to the growing number of contemporary conflicts taking take place in urban areas.

"When violence takes place in cities, people die in buildings, and buildings become evidence," he said.

Amnesty said these techniques showed considerable potential, and could be used in other conflict zones that were hard for human rights activists to reach, such as Syria.

Top image: Civilians documenting the destruction caused during the 2014 conflict in Gaza. | Thomson Reuters Foundation

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