Amnesty International has been unable to send a delegation of researchers to visit the Gaza Strip since the beginning of the conflict in July 2014. The Israeli authorities have refused, up to the time of writing this report, to allow Amnesty International and other international human rights monitors to enter the Gaza Strip through the Erez crossing with Israel, despite the organization’s repeated requests since the beginning of the conflict to do so. The Egyptian authorities have also not granted Amnesty International permission to enter the Gaza Strip through the Rafah crossing with Egypt, despite the organization’s repeated requests to do so.
Amnesty International has consequently had to carry out research remotely, supported by two fieldworkers based in Gaza who were contracted to work with the organization for periods of several weeks. They travelled extensively within the Strip, visiting many of the sites described in this report, some more than once, as soon as possible after the attacks took place, interviewing dozens of victims and eyewitnesses and taking photos and videos of the sites. The organization consulted on the interpretation of photos and videos with military experts. It extensively reviewed relevant statements by the Israeli military and other official bodies. Amnesty International also studied relevant documentation produced by UN agencies, Palestinian, Israeli and other non-governmental organizations, local officials, media, and others who monitored the conflict, and consulted with them as needed.
Despite these efforts, the lack of access for Amnesty International’s researchers, as well as military personnel who would have accompanied them, has clearly hindered the work of Amnesty International, as it has for other human rights organizations wishing to document violations of international law in the Gaza Strip. First-hand examination of sites that have been attacked – both in damaged buildings and elsewhere – help monitors assess how, with what and why something was targeted, but the evidence disappears quickly. Suffering from a great shortage of living space, residents of the Gaza Strip started almost immediately after the conflict to clear up the rubble and use what could be salvaged to rebuild their homes, as after other recent conflicts. Fragments of munitions which would have helped identify which weapons were used have been carried off from the rubble of destroyed homes by civil defence workers, souvenir hunters and others.
Governments who wish to hide their violations of human rights from the outside world have frequently banned Amnesty International from accessing the places in which they have been committed. Although Amnesty International researchers have consistently been able to access Israel and the occupied West Bank, they have not been allowed by the Israeli government to enter the Gaza Strip through the Erez crossing since June 2012. The UN Fact-Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict, which was set up by the UN Human Rights Council and reported in 2009 on violations of international law by all sides during Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip, criticized this policy, stating: “The Mission is of the view that the presence of international human rights monitors would have been of great assistance in not only investigating and reporting but also in the publicizing of events on the ground.” It added: “The presence of international human rights monitors is likely to have a deterrent effect, dissuading parties to a conflict from engaging in violations of international law.”
On 8 October 2014, Amnesty International sent a memorandum to the three Israeli mechanisms investigating aspects of Operation Protective Edge – the State Comptroller, the army’s General Staff Mechanism for Fact-Finding Assessments, and the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee – as well as to the army’s Chief of General Staff, the Prime Minister and the Ministers of Defense, Justice and Foreign Affairs. The memorandum set out some of the concerns Amnesty International had about the conduct of Israeli forces during Operation Protective Edge and requested responses to these. It requested information on what specific factors were taken into account prior to the deployment of weapons and munitions which have indiscriminate effects when used in densely populated areas, such as mortars and artillery, and on what concrete steps were taken by the IDF to avoid their use in situations where civilians would be at risk. It also requested clarification regarding the criteria used by the IDF to assess the risk to civilians when selecting pre-identified targets for attack, at what point in advance of the proposed attack and at what level of seniority this was done. It asked for details of how the decision was made to attack civilian objects, such as hospitals, ambulances, schools, homes, and other essential infrastructure, on what criteria and at what level of command seniority. It also requested information on the precautions taken in planning and executing attacks on military targets, including Palestinian fighters, to ensure that any harm likely to be caused to civilians in carrying out such attacks would not be disproportionate. It also asked for details of evidence the IDF might have of violations by Hamas and Palestinian armed groups.
In November 2014 a reply was received from the State Comptroller which described the focus of their inquiry and accepted Amnesty International’s proposal for a meeting. Amnesty International wrote back to the State Comptroller to seek a date for such a meeting but had received no reply before this report was finalized. The organization has received no other response to the memorandum it sent in October 2014.
On 15 July 2015, Amnesty International addressed letters to each of the authorities it had contacted on 8 October 2014 to remind them of the outstanding requests to them and to request additional information on cases highlighted in this report. It reiterated its wish to meet the authorities, either before or after the publication of this report.
Forensic Architecture, a research team based at Goldsmiths, University of London, specializes in urban and architectural analysis of conflict. In the context of research for this report, its methodology was a response to the limitations of site access.
Forensic Architecture’s core team could not access Gaza because of the same restrictions faced by Amnesty International. It therefore worked with a number of field researchers and photographers who documented sites where incidents took place. The photographers followed basic protocols for forensic photography. These included, where possible, step photography, the introduction of scale indicators to each frame, panoramic documentation, GPS location, and the keeping of a handwritten diary of description related to each photograph.
On several occasions Forensic Architecture requested additions to testimonies collected by Amnesty International, primarily to clarify spatial information. These additions included asking witnesses to mark their locations on maps, plans or satellite images. Forensic Architecture located elements of the witness testimonies in space and time and plotted the movement of witnesses through a three-dimensional model of urban spaces. It also modelled and animated the testimony of several witnesses, combining spatial information obtained from separate testimonies and other sources in order to reconstruct incidents.
The Pléiades Earth-observing satellite constellation, operated by the French space agency, CNES, has been collecting images at a resolution up to 0.5 metres a pixel since 2012. While this level of detail is now common for commercial satellite images, American commercial satellite companies such as DigitalGlobe are obligated to degrade any imagery taken over Israel or the Occupied Palestinian Territories to 1 metre due to agreements between Israel and the USA. The Gaza/Israel conflict of 2014 is the first Israeli-Palestinian conflict in which such high resolution satellite imagery was made publicly available (and thus obtained by Amnesty International and Forensic Architecture). “Before” and “after” Pléiades satellite images were used to assess changes in site condition at attack sites under analysis. The “before” satellite image served as a baseline from which any disturbance to the natural or built-up environment may be identified by comparison with the “after” image.
Three satellite images are relevant to this study, dated 30 July, 1 August and 14 August. Each image extends westward from the Gaza-Egypt border to encompass central Rafah and was acquired around 11.39am when the satellite passed over the western Levant. The 1 August image, in particular, captures a rarely seen overview of a moment only two and a half hours after the ceasefire collapsed, at the heart of the operation.
Forensic Architecture’s interpretation of satellite imagery was corroborated by John Pines, a satellite image analyst and former intelligence officer in the British military.
Further analysis of Pléiades and other satellite data was undertaken by Dr. Jamon Van Den Hoek, Postdoctoral Fellow at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center and incoming Assistant Professor and Geospatial Intelligence Leader in the Geography programme at Oregon State University. Dr Van Den Hoek carried out an automated change analysis using panchromatic and NDVI (Normalized Difference Vegetation Index) data based on Pléiades images as well as open-access NASA Landsat-8 satellite images, which cover all of Gaza. These "change" maps were used to identify building and road damage, locations of craters, and crops or trees destroyed when vehicles were driven through fields. Studied individually and in relation to each other, satellite images provided a useful resource to reconstruct the force movement, blasts and other events of 1-4 August 2014.
Forensic Architecture scanned a large number of Arabic, Hebrew and English-language sources, many of which were also consulted by Amnesty International. They included Palestinian and Israeli media sources, Palestinian social media sources and photographs and video clips from photographic agencies and image banks. They also included official Israeli and Palestinian statements appearing on IDF and Hamas websites; accounts by Palestinian NGOs, such as the Al Mezan Center for Human Rights, the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR) and Al-Haq; testimonies given by Israeli soldiers to Breaking the Silence and published on their website; video recordings from the local ambulance services in Gaza; hospital logs which document calls to the emergency office; photographs and videos provided by civilians and activists who witnessed events. Forensic Architecture extracted further written, filmed and photographic materials from these sources.
While a few independently shot videos were uploaded onto social media during the 2008-9 Gaza/Israel conflict, Forensic Architecture retrieved a comparatively large amount of audiovisual material on social media in relation to the 2014 Gaza/Israel conflict. Photographs and videos taken by both journalists and citizens captured large amounts of spatial information about environments in which events were unfolding, including the architectural layout of sites, the location and the time of day. Video stills were collaged together to create a panoramic view of space. Working back from distinctive architectural features – for example, a water tower, a high building, a crossroads or a football pitch – Forensic Architecture located still images within the satellite images and three-dimensional models.
Geosyncing refers to the establishment of space-time coordinates of an event. To reconstruct the events of 1-4 August, Forensic Architecture employed digital maps and models to locate evidence such as oral description, photography, video and satellite imagery in space and time. As such the media were used to reconstruct events, and to verify findings by cross-referencing various sources. When the metadata in an image or a clip file was intact, Forensic Architecture identified it by using Adobe Lightroom and Adobe Bridge. The geosyncing is in this case a straightforward process, undertaken on software platforms such as QGIS. However, material from social media often came without metadata, or with the metadata damaged or inaccurate. In the absence of digital time markers Forensic Architecture used analogue or “physical clocks” – time indicators in the image – such as shadow and smoke plumes analysis to locate sources in space and time.
Photographs and videos sourced from social media, activists and civilians on the ground often did not have accurate metadata, as cameras are not always set to the right time and date. Forensic Architecture investigated the accuracy of metadata by corroborating the footage with other verified events. Furthermore, Forensic Architecture was able to correct wrongly set metadata, by marking the time difference between the images in a sequence of photographs, and synching the sequence with a recognized and timed event.
Forensic Architecture built a digital model of Rafah to locate witnesses and photographs in space, as well as to use the model as a digital sundial; all standard architectural modelling software currently come with shadow simulators. To establish the time of a photograph Forensic Architecture matched these digital shadows with shadows captured in a photograph or a video. A match would provide information about the location, orientation and time of the image representation. Another use for shadow is that the length, seen on satellite imagery, provides information about the height of built volumes.
In order to time video footage through the observed shadows, Forensic Architecture undertook a threefold process. First it located the image or still from the video geographically and calculated the camera angle. Using three-dimensional modelling and animation software – such as Cinema 4D – that offers camera calibration features, Forensic Architecture then analysed the perspective and lens distortion of the found footage and matched it to a digital camera perspective. It finally ran a digital shadow simulation, by inputting the location coordinates and seasonal information to find the matching shadows and determine the time of capture of the footage.
In many cases the process was supplemented by an analogue shadow calculation, by architecturally analysing a one-point or two-point perspective, drawing the featuring buildings and shadows into a plan and using an analogue sun diagram to calculate the time of capture. This process is extremely sensitive to measurements and could only be employed with regard to a small portion of the footage, where shadows are clear and orientation can be clearly defined. When used this method was corroborated by other evidence or was used to support alternative time indications. The margin of error is five to 10 minutes.
After a bomb blasts its smoke plume goes through several distinct phases. The plume forms into a mushroom cloud that slowly dissipates. Studying photographic representation of plumes, Forensic Architecture estimated how long after a strike the photograph was taken. Each explosion from air-dropped munitions results in a smoke plume whose form is unique to the moment and the strike. In this way, Forensic Architecture undertook detailed morphological analysis to identify the same strike in different pieces of footage and to synchronize the footage based on the phase of plume growth being observed. This analysis therefore offered a way of linking evidence together in space and time. The process of synchronization and triangulation helped reconstruct the space and time sequence of unfolding events. Forensic Architecture also measured and compared the size of plumes as captured in different media sources, to compare the plume caused by unknown strikes with known ones.