The Electronic Intifada / June 8, 2022
Germany is allowing Israel to get away with the killing of six of its citizens in an air attack on a high-rise building in Gaza eight years ago.
The country’s federal prosecutor decided not to open a formal investigation into the 21 July 2014 airstrike on the al-Salam tower in Gaza City that killed Ibrahim Kilani, his wife Taghreed and their five children aged 3 to 11.
Ibrahim and the children – Elias, Yasser, Yasin, Sawsan and Reem – were all German citizens.
They were among more than 2,200 Palestinians, including 550 children, killed during Israel’s 51-day bombardment of Gaza that summer.
“The decision of the German federal prosecutor not to investigate the death of our family members, despite the evidence of war crimes, is politically motivated,” Ramsis Kilani, Ibrahim’s adult son who lives in Germany, told The Electronic Intifada.
“Propagandists often talk about double standards, referring to the treatment of the state of Israel. And there are double standards – in favor of Israel,” Kilani added. “Germany is legally obliged to investigate potential war crimes against its citizens.”
The German federal prosecutor’s decision “stands as emblematic of the double standards applied in cases against powerful actors,” according to the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) and the Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR).
The prosecutor’s decision was taken in August, but the groups said they did not comment on it until now as they had only gained access to relevant files in April.
Soon after the attack, ECCHR and PCHR filed a criminal complaint along with Ramsis Kilani. They submitted evidence and analysis to the prosecutor on numerous occasions, but to no avail.
“The approach taken by the prosecutor did not follow standard procedures and lines of argumentation, especially with regard to the German citizenship of some of the victims,” the human rights groups state.
German law requires the prosecutor to open an investigation because the victims included German citizens.
But the prosecutor improperly invoked “exceptions” to evade the requirement, according to ECCHR and PCHR.
Hiding behind Israel’s smokescreen
Among the excuses was that there was already an investigation by Israel’s Military Advocate General and that all “domestic” remedies – meaning processes in Israel – had not been exhausted.
But Israel’s self-investigations are notoriously a sham. Two years after the 2014 assault on Gaza, B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights group, called Israel’s investigation of alleged crimes committed by its forces there a “whitewash.”
Following every major massacre of civilians in Gaza, including this one in 2014, Israel “deflected criticism by promising to investigate its conduct,” B’Tselem observed. But the group noted last year that “nothing came of this promise.”
“True policy change will come about only when Israel is forced to pay a price for its conduct, actions and policies,” B’Tselem said, and that will only come “when the smokescreen of domestic investigations is lifted and Israel is forced to reckon with its human rights abuses and breaches of international law.”
However, the German federal prosecutor also decided to hide behind the same Israeli smokescreen and ensure that Israeli impunity remains intact.
Even if Israel’s self-investigations were not a ruse, ECCHR and PCHR point out that in many other cases, involving Syria, Iraq, Gambia and Sri Lanka, the German prosecutor “did not require any legal steps to be taken domestically – let alone the exhaustion of all local remedies – by victims or their relatives in their respective jurisdictions.”
This makes perfect sense, the groups add, because “international criminal justice does not require the exhaustion of domestic remedies before pursuing the case before foreign courts, especially considering that it is often very unrealistic for victims and their families to seize domestic courts with cases against the domestic armed forces or secret services.”
Earlier this year, a German court convicted a former Syrian intelligence official for crimes against humanity during that country’s civil war, under the principle of universal jurisdiction – a trial UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet hailed as “historic.”
That case was brought by the same German federal prosecutor’s office which is refusing to investigate Israel’s killing of the Kilani family members, even those who are German.
Desperate search for safety
Born in 1961, Ibrahim Kilani had been passionate about architecture from an early age. When Ibrahim’s father died from cancer, his mother Fatma took a job on an Israeli farm to make ends meet.
Saleh, Ibrahim’s eldest brother, helped their mother care for the children.
“We decided Ibrahim should go to study architecture abroad,” Saleh told Obliterated Families, a photo project that profiles victims of the 2014 attack on Gaza. “He was smart, talented and passionate. He would study and we would stay here and work to help him out throughout university.”
Ibrahim ended up staying 20 years in Germany, where he got his degree, married and had two children, Ramsis and his sister Layla.
Later, Ibrahim and his wife Kerstin divorced, and in 2001 he moved back to Gaza where he married Taghreed and they had five children.
Ibrahim reconnected with his mother and siblings. Although physical distance and Israel’s violent restrictions separated them – as it does so many Palestinian families – Ibrahim remained close to his two children in Germany.
“My life has changed a lot. Especially before going to sleep, I cannot stop thinking about what has happened,” Ramsis Kilani told The Electronic Intifada a year after the fatal airstrike.
“Not only do I think about my father, who I had not been able to see for years before his death, as I never managed to get into Gaza and he never managed to get out,” Ramsis said. “I think about my half-siblings whose voices and laughter I had heard on the telephone, who told me they loved me, but who I had never encountered in their short lives.”
Ibrahim, Taghreed and their children were killed after a desperate search for safety from Israel’s bombs. Israeli warplanes had dropped leaflets on Beit Lahiya, the northern Gaza town where they lived near many members of their extended family, telling residents to leave.
The couple took their kids and left, even though the rest of the family, including Ibrahim’s mother Fatma and brother Saleh, urged them to stay. First they went to stay with Taghreed’s family, the Dirbas’, in Shujaiya.
But that eastern Gaza City neighborhood would also be hit by devastating Israeli bombardments that flattened hundreds of homes and killed dozens of people.
Now the Dirbas family had to leave too. Ibrahim and Taghreed fled again, along with their children, Taghreed’s sisters Inas, Soura and Aida, and her brother Mahmoud.
A friend offered them shelter at the fifth-floor office of an engineering company in the al-Salam tower in central Gaza City’s al-Rimal neighborhood – an area Israeli leaflets had claimed would be safe.
But on the evening of 21 July, just as people in Gaza were breaking their Ramadan fast for the day, Israel bombed the tower.
All 11 family members – Ibrahim, Taghreed, the children and Taghreed’s four siblings – were killed.
Israel claimed the intended target was Shaban al-Dahduh, a commander of the Islamic Jihad resistance movement, who was also killed in the attack.
But whatever justification Israel offers, ECCHR believes the attack “may constitute a war crime” that must be properly investigated.
The story of the Kilani family, and how Ibrahim’s surviving children Ramsis and Layla, and his brother Saleh, continue to seek justice, is told in the recent documentary Not Just Your Picture, by Anne Paq and Dror Dayan.
The filmmakers have expressed their outrage at the German prosecutor’s decision not to investigate.
“Having closely followed the Kilani family’s quest for justice in the years following the killing, it was clear to us that the path of German justice can only lead to a dead end,” they say. “Nevertheless, it is our duty to decry this blatant denial of justice.”
Palestinians and their supporters face severe repression by German authorities: Ramsis Kilani was himself detained by police last month, accused of defying a ban on public demonstrations in support of Palestine on Nakba Day.
Paq and Dayan observe, “While Germany has no qualms legally prosecuting cases in Syria or Iraq, cases which do not jeopardize its imperialist interests, the war crimes of the Israeli apartheid regime remain uncriticized, their victims without justice.”
Ali Abunimah is co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and author of The Battle for Justice in Palestine (Haymarket Books)