The Electronic Intifada / September 18, 2019
As Israelis went to the polls on Tuesday, one of the leading candidates for prime minister was fending off war crimes accusations in a court in The Hague.
Palestinian-Dutch citizen Ismail Ziada is seeking justice for Israel’s killing of six members of his family during its 2014 assault on Gaza.
Ziada holds Benny Gantz, the Israeli army chief at the time, and Amir Eshel, then the air force chief, responsible for the decision to bomb his family’s home in al-Bureij refugee camp.
The 20 July bombing that year reduced the three-floor building to rubble, killing Ziada’s 70-year-old mother Muftia Ziada, his brothers Jamil, Yousif and Omar, sister-in-law Bayan, and 12-year-old nephew Shaban.
A seventh person visiting the family was also killed.
Ziada is suing the Israeli generals for more than $600,000 in damages plus court costs.
Gantz is now leader of Israel’s Blue and White coalition. After this week’s inconclusive election result, he is seeking the support of other parties to put together a government.
In Tuesday’s session, the Dutch court heard arguments about whether it has jurisdiction over the case.
Lawyers for Gantz and Eshel tried to frame Ziada’s legal action as part of “an anti-Israel campaign.”
Earlier this year, Israel urged the Dutch court to dismiss the war crimes case against Gantz.
In the run-up to the hearing, Ziada’s family faced tremendous pressure.
The brakes of the family car were sabotaged last December, but a police investigation provided no leads.
A few months later, Ziada’s wife Angélique Eijpe was publicly attacked by the Israel lobby organization CIDI.
She was falsely accused of seeking to “end Jewish democracy” in her work for the One State Foundation.
CIDI also parroted Israeli claims that the bombing of the Ziada family house was justified.
Shortly before the hearing, Twitter suspended the account of the Palestine Justice Campaign, which supports Ziada’s legal action.
The social media company alleged an unspecified “breach of rules.” Twitter did not respond to requests for clarification from the campaign.
Bragging about killing
Many journalists, friends and supporters of Ziada attended the court hearing. The Israeli generals were not present but were represented by lawyers.
The Ziada house was attacked during Israel’s 51-day assault on Gaza which killed 2,251 Palestinians, including 1,462 civilians, among them 551 children, according to an independent investigation commissioned by the UN Human Rights Council.
More than 11,000 Palestinians were injured, the majority women and children.
Ziada’s lawyers, human rights and war crimes experts Liesbeth Zegveld and Lisa-Marie Komp, argue that the attack on the Ziada home was part of Israel’s “policy to bomb civilian residential buildings” in “breach of international humanitarian law.”
Gantz and Eshel were among the top leaders who “designed the policy of bombing residential buildings” and are “fully responsible for the decision to bomb the Ziada family residence,” they allege in the complaint.
The independent UN investigation supports Zegveld and Komp’s view.
On Tuesday, Ziada’s lawyers showed the court Gantz’s election campaign video bragging about how much killing and destruction he perpetrated in Gaza.
The court must decide whether Ziada’s case is admissible after the generals’ lawyers claimed last November that their clients enjoy immunity.
They also assert that the Dutch court has no jurisdiction because they claim that Ziada could seek justice in Israel.
Gantz and Eshel were represented by a team by five lawyers, an indication that Israel will spare no expense trying to shield its generals from accountability.
While the Israeli government is paying the generals’ legal fees, Ziada’s supporters donated money via a crowdfunding campaign to support his case.
The generals’ brief argues that Ziada’s case is an effort to put Israel’s judicial system in the “suspect’s bench.”
They assert that the case “seems to be primarily a means of creating a stage for an anti-Israel campaign” – a standard Israeli government talking point.
But Ziada’s lawyers provided many examples to support their claim that the Dutch court has jurisdiction over the case.
The law in the Netherlands allows the country’s courts to exercise universal jurisdiction over genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes perpetrated elsewhere when a Dutch national cannot obtain justice in the country where the crimes were committed.
Gantz and Eshel’s lawyers dismissed the evidence offered by Zegveld about how Israel’s legal system discriminates against Palestinians.
They asserted that UN investigations should be taken with “a pinch of salt.”
Rather than address substance, they blasted the UN Human Rights Council as “notoriously anti-Israel.”
The lawyers also warned the court that acceptance of jurisdiction may have “diplomatic consequences” – likely a warning of Israeli retaliation.
But Dutch courts are independent and should not take political considerations and attempts at intimidation into account.
No accountability, no justice
In his statement to the court, Ziada provided the context of his quest for justice.
He emphasized the lack of accountability for Israel’s crimes.
Ziada told the court that his experience with Israeli violence started long before 2014.
While still a child he was shot in the head at close range with a rubber-coated metal bullet and in the leg with live ammunition.
He also witnessed another child being shot dead with a bullet to his head.
This video shows part of Ziada’s statement in court:
Hussein Abu Hussein, a Palestinian lawyer who has defended many Palestinians in Israeli courts, testified at the hearing.
He told the court that practical and legal obstacles make it impossible for Ziada to seek justice in Israel.
In 2014, Israel declared the Gaza Strip “enemy territory” and its residents “enemy subjects.”
As a result, Israel denies liability for harm it causes to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, Abu Hussein explained.
If Ziada tried to claim damages in an Israeli court, he would be seen as a representative of the family in Gaza and thus as an “enemy subject” despite his Dutch nationality, Abu Hussein added.
Amendments to Israeli law also expand the immunity Israel claims for damages caused during “wartime action.”
Ziada told the court that he compares his fight for justice with the parable of David and Goliath.
“Those on the other end representing Goliath, and me, David – holding my head high and convinced of doing the right thing.”
The court will announce its ruling on whether the case can proceed in January.
In the meantime, Ziada and his supporters will be hoping that the Netherlands provides a path to justice that has so far been denied.
Adri Nieuwhof is a human rights advocate based in the Netherlands and former anti-apartheid activist at the Holland Committee on Southern Africa