Gaza City on Aug. 27
Hélène Jaffiol and Hélène Sallon

GAZA — Palestinian human rights organizations have used the truce in Gaza to begin their difficult investigation work on a war that has already killed more than 2,000 people. They are among the few NGOs on the ground while global organizations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, await permission to enter the enclave, which they have been asking of Israel since July 8.

It will take months to substantiate allegations from both sides of international humanitarian law violations. Hundreds of stories, that sometimes mix experienced horrors with overheard rumors, need to be confirmed, and some jealously guarded secrets must be unveiled. On July 23, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said that "war crimes" may have been committed by both Israel and Hamas. Legal responsibility will be judged by the principles of the Geneva conventions.

International humanitarian law requires that warring parties distinguish between combatants and civilians and between civil and military targets, and that they take all necessary precautions to avoid civilian casualties and that they respect the principle of proportionality. Attacking a military target is illegal if it risks hitting civilians, unless civilian casualties are considered proportional to the direct and concrete military advantage expected from the attack.

"International humanitarian law applies to parties regardless of whether the other party abides by it," notes Haggai Elad, executive director of Israeli NGO B'Tselem. Le Monde carried out its own initial investigation, with a preliminary list of the allegations.

AGAINST ISRAELIS

Civilian homes turned into military targets. On the evening of July 12, in the Shejaiya neighborhood east of Gaza City, Hamas Police Chief Tayseer Al-Batsh was targeted in front of his cousin's home. At least 18 members of his family, including four women and six children, were killed in the bombing that blew up six houses. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) attacked the homes of Hamas and Islamic Jihad members, which it defined as military targets, at the cost of many civilian lives.

Mahmoud Abu Rahma from the al-Mezan Center For Human Rights says the presence of a fighter in a home does not justify it being considered a military target. "A house can lose its civilian status if it is used to store weapons and is used as an operations center," he says. And, even in that case, "the principle of proportionality must be respected and the number of civilian victims limited."

Insufficient preventive measures. "You have five minutes to leave. Take the children." This July 8 IDF message to the al-Kaware family in Khan Younis was not enough. Eight family members were killed as the house was bombed. Human rights organizations consider these warnings to be too little too late, like the "knock on the rooftop" missile warning technique and evacuation orders for entire neighborhoods. "To be in accordance with international humanitarian law, warnings and evacuation orders must include precise indications on how and where to take shelter," the Israeli B’Tselem organization concludes.

Entire neighborhoods as military targets. "On Aug. 1, at 9:50 a.m., the Israelis started to bomb the eastern neighborhoods in Rafah with F-16 fighter jets, drones and armored vehicles," says Mohammed Abdallah, an investigator for al-Mezan. "Ambulances couldn't drive. Locals received text messages telling them not to leave their homes. The al-Najjar hospital was targeted and had to be evacuated. Almost 200 people were killed."

According to Israeli journalist Amos Harel, Rafah's bombing came after the launch of the secret Hannibal Directive to find second lieutenant Hadar Goldin, abducted that morning by Palestinian fighters. In three hours, the town was hit by 1,000 artillery shells and 40 airstrikes, without any evacuation order.

Humanitarian and health workers targeted. Salem, a Palestinian Red Crescent instructor in Khan Younis, recalls: "On July 25, we got a call from one of our ambulances. The Israeli soldiers had fired on the driver, Mohammed al-Abadla, in al-Qarara. Three teams dispatched there were shot at. We asked the International Red Cross to organize a coordination with the Israeli army. It took 20 minutes. He died."

Several medical teams and hospitals were targeted. The bombings also hit six UN schools. The attack of the school in Rafah, on Aug. 3, which the UN's Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) blames on Israel, killed nine refugees and one guard.

AGAINST PALESTINIANS

Israeli civilians deliberately targeted. More than 3,500 rockets and mortar shells were fired on Israeli territory, killing three civilians. Hamas said that "all Israelis," civilians and troops alike, were potential targets.

Gaza's population in danger. The IDF claims, providing video evidence, that at least 1,600 of the 3,500 rockets were fired from residential areas, including mosques and schools. Tunnel entries were found in civilian buildings. The UNRWA said it found rockets in two of its vacant schools. Journalists from France 24 and Indian broadcaster NDTV filmed, on Aug. 1 and 5, the setting-up of a rocket launcher by men dressed as civilians and rockets expand=1] being fired near a hotel in central Gaza where international news organizations were staying.

Either out of solidarity with the resistance or by fear of retaliation, few Palestinians are willing to talk about these "war secrets." A man from Shejaiya says that a workshop adjoining his building where rockets are made was destroyed in an air raid, while explosives were later stored in his courtyard.

No proof of human shields. On July 9, a Hamas spokesman hailed a family's decision to stay on their roof to protect the buildings from an Israeli attack and called on the population to "take on this practice." Three days later, the Palestinian interior minister, who is close to Hamas, urged the population not to obey the IDF's evacuation orders for "closed military zones."

No testimony, however, has so far suggested that the population was under coercion. Thousands of people did flee combat zones. Those who stayed said they did so because they were afraid they would endanger themselves more by leaving, feared being unable to find their homes when they returned and did not feel safe anywhere, not even in UNRWA schools.

Threats and executions of suspected Israeli collaborators. On Aug. 21, after the targeted killing of three Hamas military officials in Rafah, Gaza security sources told Palestinian website al-Majd that seven people had been arrested for "helping the enemy locating targets." Eighteen suspects were executed. Also suspected of collaborating with Israel, members of Hamas rival party Fatah were placed under house arrest at the beginning of Israel's Operation Protective Edge. On July 28, militant Sami Abu Lashin was wounded in his home by gunmen for not following that order.

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Economy

European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


-Analysis-

BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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