Flour mill targeted ‘for the purpose of denying sustenance’
Part 14 of a series recounting the findings of South African jurist Richard Goldstone’s UN Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict.
Bethlehem – Ma’an - When the Al-Bader flour mill was destroyed on 9 January 2009, the strike happened without prior warning, raising questions about the efficacy or seriousness of the warnings system used by Israeli forces during their devastating assault on Gaza last winter.
Odder still was that in two prior instances, Israel did warn mill owner Rashad Hamada that its jets intended to strike immanently, leading to two evacuations of the mill, neither of which ended in strikes.
On 30 December 2008, a recorded warning was left on the flour mill’s answering machine by Israeli forces, indicating that his building should be evacuated immediately. The approximately 45 workers in the mill at the time were evacuated.
“We received a recorded message by telephone on a landline asking us to evacuate the mill. This call came from Israel,” Hamada said, in testimony to Richard Goldstone’s UN inquiry.
“We evacuated the factory of all workers, a total evacuation and waited until the next day. The factory was not hit.”
Following the evacuation, Hamada called a business associate in Israel, explained what had happened and asked him for advice. The associate spoke with contacts in the Israeli military, and had been told that, although the mill had been on a list of proposed targets, they had decided not to proceed with the strike. Hamada did not receive any information as to why his mill might have been targeted.
Based on these conversations and the fact that there had been no strike, the mill’s employees returned to work the next day. Work continued for a number of days as flour ran out across the Strip, until a second recorded warning was received on or around 4 January 2009.
“We received another message,” Hamada said. “We were told to evacuate the factory. The factory was evacuated.”
Again, there was no attack. “They were put into a state of fear as a result of the false alarms,” Goldstone’s report states.
Hamada received a call later in the week from his business associate in Israel, who said Israeli forces told him the mill would not be hit. The employees returned to work in light of the information.
Then on 9 January, without warning, “we received a call from the guard telling us that the factory was targeted by air with a missile and that it had caught fire. After 15 minutes, he called us again and told us that there are tanks approaching the area and that the factory was targeted with tank fire. We immediately informed the [Red Cross] and the Civil Defense in order to put out the fire in the mill,” Hamada said.
The flour mill was hit by an airstrike, possibly by an F16. The missile struck the floor that housed one of the machines indispensable to the mill’s functioning, completely destroying it. In the next 60 to 90 minutes the mill was hit several times by missiles fired from an Apache helicopter. These missiles hit the upper floors of the factory, destroying more key machinery.
Hamada recounted: “What happened at the mill is a total destruction, a total destruction of the whole production line of the factory. Because this factory, in fact, is vertical, the equipment is set vertically. There are six floors. The production line was destroyed from the sixth floor to the ground floor. Three floors, the fifth, sixth and fourth, were destroyed including all the equipment, total destruction, therefore the building and the equipment. And the other three floors, the first, second and third floors, they were totally burned.”
Adjoining buildings, including the grain store, were not hit. The strikes entirely disabled the factory, which has remained in disrepair because of the siege on building supplies. Even amid subsequent food shortages, a large amount of grain remains at the site but cannot be processed.
“During the war, the mill was working 24 hours a day and we had also been working 24 hours a day one month prior to this date; we were working around the clock,” Hamada said. “As for the targeting, it is because a flour mill [was] working. There were four flour mills that were not producing and were not targeted.”
Israeli forces occupied the disabled building until around 13 January. Hundreds of shells were found on its roof after the soldiers left. They appeared to be 40-mm grenade machine-gun spent cartridges.
Attacks on the foundations of civilian life in Gaza
Goldstone’s team said Hamada and his brother provided information that was corroborated by other representatives of the Gaza business community with whom the investigators discussed the context and consequences of the strike on the flour mill.
The consequences of the strike on the flour mill were significant, his report states. Not only are all the employees out of work, the capacity of Gaza to produce milled flour, the most basic staple ingredient of the local diet, has been greatly diminished. As a result, the population of Gaza is now more dependent on the Israeli authorities’ granting permission for flour and bread to enter the Gaza Strip.
“From what we could see on the ground and from what we had in Gaza, this flour mill was the only flour mill for the past ten years providing for the needs of the Gaza Strip in wheat,” Hamada said. “It is well-known everywhere in Gaza. And in Israel, they know that Al-Bader Flour Mill [which is] the strategic reserve of flour for the strip, was there.”
“There is no flour mill that works except ours and it was shelled. I do not want to give conclusions. It is well-known, this is a flour mill that works and that provides for the needs of the country. It was targeted because we are in a state of war. There is no peace. What I know is that war is war. We hope that all of this will end and will be replaced by peace and that we will forget about these hearings.”
The Israelis have apparently not investigated the flour mill’s destruction, according to the report, nor made any suggestion that the site was targeted for military purposes.
Nevertheless, Hamada rejected any suggestion that the building was at any time used for any purpose by Palestinian armed groups. They pointed out that all of the buildings and factories were surrounded by a high wall and manned by at least one guard at night.
“There is no resistance there,” Hamada said. “After the end of the war, I went to have a look and I asked are there any combatants that died here, any Israelis that died? Not at all, nobody told me of any kind of resistance in the whole area.”
I do not know what they were targeting, I wasn’t there,” Hamada conceded. “However, I saw the results of the firing in the flour mill, … Testimony has to be real, it’s a word of truth, I cannot tell you what they targeted or who they targeted. What I did see are the empty bullets in the factory, on the factory roof, that’s what I saw.”
He added, however, that “All the factories in the eastern region were destroyed. Did they also have resistance? I don’t know, but what I do know is that vital factories were targeted. Why? Because war is war, I say it again, and we want peace, enough war.”
Addressing the UN mission directly, Hamada added: “We do not want words, we want acts. We want the United Nations to take action. We have been suffering for two full years under siege. We did not see the United Nations doing anything for us. We see that in Darfur there is a problem, the whole world goes running to Darfur, in Cambodia and Laos, everywhere in the world, but here, when we speak of the Palestinian people, everybody closes his ears, they do not want to hear about us or our problems.”
Starvation as a method of warfare is prohibited
No other buildings in the industrial compound belonging to the Hamadas were damaged at the time of the strikes. “It appears that the strikes on the flour mill were intentional and precise,” Goldstone’s final report states.
Hamada and his brothers are well-known businessmen. Israeli authorities did not appear to consider them either before or after the military operations to be a threat, given the unrestricted issuance of their Businessman Cards and their ability to travel to Israel afterwards.
“The issuance of a Businessman Card is no trifle, especially in the context of the ongoing restrictions on trade. It is not plausible that the Israeli authorities would issue such a document to any party it regarded with suspicion,” the report notes.
As for whether the flour mill could have been deemed a military objective, Goldstone notes that the building was one of the tallest in the area and would have offered extensive views to Israeli forces. The mission notes that taking control of the building might be deemed a legitimate objective in the circumstances.
“However, by 9 January the Israeli armed forces were fully aware that the flour mill could be evacuated at short notice by using the warning message system. If the reason for attacking the mill was to gain control of it for observation and control purposes, it made no sense to bomb the principal machinery and to destroy the upper floors.
There is also no suggestion that Israeli forces considered the building to be a source of enemy fire, the report states.
“The nature of the strikes on the mill and in particular the precise targeting of crucial machinery on one of the mid-level floors suggests that the intention was to disable its productive capacity,” Goldstone alleges. “There appears to be no plausible justification for the extensive damage to the flour mill if the sole objective was to take control of the building. It thus appears that the only purpose was to put an end to the production of flour in the Gaza Strip.”
According to the report, “there has been a violation of the grave breaches provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention. Unlawful and wanton destruction which is not justified by military necessity would amount to a war crime.”
Having concluded that the strikes were without any military justification, and therefore wanton and unlawful, the mission found it useful to consider if there was any non-military purpose to the strikes. “The aim of the strike, if not military, could only have been to destroy the local capacity to produce flour.” Thus, according to Goldstone, the question is whether such deliberate destruction of the sole remaining flour-producing capacity in the Gaza Strip can be described as having been done for the purpose of denying sustenance to the civilian population.
International law, the report describes, prohibits acts whose specific purpose is the denial of sustenance for whatever reason, including starvation, forced displacement or anything else. “In short, the motive for denying sustenance need not be to starve the civilian population. Indeed, the motive is irrelevant.”
Due to the ongoing Israeli-led blockade, Gaza’s civilian population is increasingly dependent on external humanitarian assistance, whose arrival depends on permission from Israeli authorities. While it is not suggested that starvation is imminent, the health and welfare of the population at large have been profoundly affected by the blockade and the military operations.
“The only reason why starvation is not imminent however is precisely the provision of humanitarian assistance. Without such assistance Gaza’s civilian population would not be able to feed itself,” the report notes.
“States cannot escape their obligations not to deny the means of sustenance simply by presuming the international community will fill the gap they have created by deliberately destroying the existing capacity.
“From the facts ascertained by it, the Mission finds that the destruction of the mill was carried out for the purpose of denying sustenance to the civilian population, which is a violation of customary international law,” the report concludes, “and may constitute a war crime.”