5 Jan. '12: December bombings of ammunition storages in middle of Gazan civilian area kill and injure civilians

Published: 
5 Jan 2012

A little after 2:00 A.M. on 9 December 2011, Israeli aircraft fired two missiles at a compound of Hamas’s military wing, the ‘Az-a-Din al-Qassam Brigades, northwest of Gaza City. Another missile, which was fired a minute or so later, caused a large explosion and fire. The intensity of the blast apparently caused secondary explosions of ammunition stored in the compound. According to information obtained by B'Tselem, rockets had been fired from the area into Israel shortly before the attack.

The collapsed roof of the a-Za'lan home. Photo: Muhammad Sabah, B'Tselem, 9 Dec. '11.The collapsed roof of the a-Za'lan home. Photo: Muhammad Sabah, B'Tselem, 9 Dec. '11.

The missiles and secondary explosions damaged nearby houses. One of the houses, located only a few meters from the compound, collapsed on its occupants. The father of the family, Bahajat a-Za’lan, 37, was severely injured in the blast and died a short time later. His son, Ramadan, 10, was critically injured and died later that day. Another son, Yusef, 8, was also seriously injured. Other houses near the compound were damaged, and one was totally destroyed.

Miqdad a-Za’lan, 19, Bahajat a-Za’lan’s nephew, whose house is situated next to the house that collapsed, described the events to B'Tselem:

. . . I heard my uncle Bahajat say: “Miqdad, go to the children.” I jumped over the fence separating our house from Uncle Bahajat’s house. . . [Under the debris,] Bahajat was hugging his baby son, Ahmad, and his wife, Sa’ada. Sa’ada cried out to me, “Save Ahmad.” I got Ahmad out from under the debris and went out of the house. . . I returned to Sa’ada to remove her from under the debris. While I was doing that, a third blast shook the whole area. The debris covered me and Sa’ada. I started looking for my cousins in the next room and found Ramadan, 10, and Yusef, 8, who were unconscious due to the smoke of the missiles and the destruction. I also found Rimah, 3, sitting cramped over in the corner of the room. Iman, 5, was sleeping and had not been injured, and I realized she was alive.

I returned again to lift Sa’ada from under the debris, and then I saw that my uncle Bahajat was alive. He said to me, “You’re responsible for my children.” I picked up his upper body and laid it on my lap and then began to clear the ruins around him. But I didn’t succeed. I began to press on his chest to help him breathe, and then cleared the debris from around him and laid him there, until he died.

Miqdad a-Za'lan in the family's home. Photo: Muhammad Sabah, B'Tselem, 9 Dec. '11.
Miqdad a-Za'lan in the family's home. Photo: Muhammad Sabah, B'Tselem, 9 Dec. '11.

The IDF Spokesperson announced that the air force had struck targets in the Gaza Strip. A few hours later, the IDF Spokesperson explained that, “additional explosions resulted from the presence of weapons that had been stored near the terrorist-activity points that were attacked. The IDF regrets the injury to uninvolved persons, but reemphasizes that the responsibility lies with the terrorist organization Hamas, which chooses to act from the heart of the civilian population and uses them as a human shield.

Two days after the attack – in the early hours of 11 December – the Israeli military bombed a structure in the Zeitun neighborhood in Gaza City, which apparently also was used to store ammunition. After the missile struck, a number of secondary explosions occurred, causing severe damage to an adjacent residential building. The blast severely injured Sundus Badwan, 11, and lightly injured her father. The next day, the IDF Spokesperson issued footage showing the moment of the attack and the secondary explosions. The film shows the building that was attacked, alongside which was the house of the Badwan family. The announcement accompanying the film states that, “The IDF emphasizes that these materials prove how the terrorist organization Hamas chooses to operate from the heart of the civilian population in Gaza, and uses it as a human shield.”

Placing military compounds containing ammunition, and from which rockets are fired, inside a civilian population center is unlawful and endangers the civilians living in the vicinity. The illegality arises because the ammunition might explode and because of the fear that the adversary will attack the warehouse, which is a legitimate military object. By storing the ammunition in the heart of the civilian population, Hamas breached the fundamental principle of international humanitarian law, that civilians must be kept outside the cycle of hostilities.

However, Hamas’s breach of international law by storing ammunition in a residential area did not grant Israel the automatic right to bomb it. The warehouse was indeed a legitimate military object, but Israel had the obligation to prevent, as far as possible, harm to civilians. Therefore, it was allowed to attack these targets only after it had taken all feasible means to minimize harm to civilians. This included warning the civilians prior to the bombing so that they could leave the area. The decision to carry out the attack specifically in the middle of the night, when the residents were likely to be in their homes, increases the likelihood that civilians would be harmed. The film presented by the IDF Spokesperson that documents the second attack clearly shows a civilian structure next to the target bombed by the air force. Therefore, military officials cannot claim that the army did not know civilians were in the area.

In a letter to the Military Advocate General’s Corps, B'Tselem demanded that an investigation be opened into the circumstances of the two incidents.