Throughout a night of intense bombing into the early morning hours of 10 October, targeted Israeli airstrikes extensively leveled al-Rimal neighbourhood, considered ‘the beating heart’ of Gaza City. The attack on al-Rimal is part of the latest full-scale Israeli military offensive against the population in the Gaza Strip, the most intense and violent in living memory. The specific targeting and destruction inflicted on al-Rimal neighbourhood is intended to cause physical, psychological and economic distress as a form of collective punishment on the people of Gaza. This constitutes a war crime, and may give rise to evidence meeting the threshold for the crime of genocide.
Al-Rimal, an affluent neighbourhood in the heart of Gaza City, is of significant value to all Gaza’s residents. It stretches over an area of about five square kilometres and is home to about 70,000 residents. Besides being one of the most densely populated residential neighbourhoods in Gaza, al-Rimal was considered the ‘economic and administrative backbone of the Gaza Strip’, was home to commercial shops, residential towers, hotels, restaurants, banks, schools, universities, local and international media offices, telecommunications companies, healthcare facilities, as well as international and local organisations, including the headquarters of UNRWA. Al-Rimal has been massively levelled in Israel’s military reprisals and collective punishment of the Palestinian population in the Gaza Strip.
Previous Israeli Targeting of al-Rimal
During Israel’s six previous full-scale military offensives against the Gaza Strip over the last 15 years, the people of Gaza, struggling to find pockets of safety from relentless bombardment, would look to urban centres such as al-Rimal to find refuge. This calculation changed in May 2021, when Israel’s military eleven-day onslaught on Gaza directly targeted al-Rimal, killing 30 Palestinians in the neighbourhood alone and 240 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip overall.
The al-Shorouk Tower and the al-Jalaa building, landmarks which dotted the skyline of Gaza City and were used by both locals and visitors to orient themselves within the city, were demolished in the bombing campaign. The Associated Press, Al-Jazeera, medical offices, residential apartments and a radio station were all housed in the al-Jalaa building and reduced to rubble. The road leading to al-Shifa Hospital, a place which acted as a sanctuary for the sick and wounded amid the rubble of previous Israeli military offensives, was severely damaged and rendered unusable by ambulances trying to reach the hospital. The intense targeting of al-Rimal in May 2021 marked a turning point for the neighbourhood, which had been spared the worst in past offensives.
On 10 October 2023 the IOF extensively destroyed al-Rimal neighbourhood, turning many of its buildings into rubble.
Al-Rimal’s destruction is a form of collective punishment
This destruction is a physical, psychological and economic attack intended to collectively punish the Palestinian population in the Gaza Strip amidst an ongoing military offensive underpinned by statements inciting acts of genocide.
Since the start of the military offensive on 7 October, the neighbourhood has been directly targeted by Israeli bombings. On the first day of the offensive, Israeli warplanes bombed and completely destroyed the Palestine Tower, a 14-storey building compromising 78 residential apartments and offices. On 9 October the Israeli Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) called on residents of al-Rimal to evacuate their homes. Throughout a night of intense bombing into the early morning hours of 10 October, Israeli warplanes destroyed residential buildings, cafés, a mosque, notable institutions such as the Islamic University of Gaza and the Ministry of Culture, and roads once lined with trees and street vendors. Drone footage shows entire neighbourhood blocks reduced to rubble. UNRWA headquarters in al-Rimal also suffered damage due to the airstrikes.
International humanitarian law prohibits the targeting of and indiscriminate attacks against civilian objects during hostilities. As such, the physical destruction of al-Rimal and the killing of civilians there may amount to war crimes. The Rome Statute stipulates in Article 8(2)(a)(iv) that the ‘extensive destruction and appropriation of property, not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly,’ constitutes a war crime. Furthermore, Articles 8(2)(b)(i)-(ii) state that war crimes include ‘intentionally directing attacks against the civilian population as such or against individual civilians not taking direct part in hostilities,’ and ‘intentionally directing attacks against civilian objects, that is, objects which are not military objectives’. Within six days, the IOF dropped more than 6,000 bombs on the Gaza Strip. On 10 October 2023, after the destruction of al-Rimal, the Israeli military spokesperson Daniel Hagari stated that ‘[In Gaza], the emphasis is on damage and not on accuracy’. Levelling the entire neighbourhood of al-Rimal and destroying numerous residential blocks, cafés, ice cream parlours, a university, a mosque and institutions such as the Palestinian Telecommunications Company and the Palestinian Bar Association are undoubtedly evidence of a scorched earth policy.
The decision to destroy al-Rimal was not only a physical attack on a significant centre of life in Gaza City but was also a collective psychological attack as well. Article 51(2) of Additional Protocol I to the Four Geneva Conventions of 1949 states that ‘the civilian population as such, as well as individual civilians, shall not be the object of attack. Acts or threats of violence the primary purpose of which is to spread terror among the civilian population are prohibited.’ As previously mentioned, al-Rimal was considered ‘the beating heart of Gaza’, home to hundreds of families and the centre of commercial and financial life, from local businesses to world-renowned media institutions and iconic landmarks that identified Gaza City. Customary international law requires that military operations be targeted and proportionate. Indiscriminate attacks and mass destruction in a densely populated neighbourhood cannot be considered proportionate. Instead, it is intended to enact collective punishment and instil fear in a population that is safe nowhere. This destruction is an additional step in a concerted effort to collectively break the psychological welfare of Palestinians under siege.
Shukri Al-Ahwal, a resident of al-Rimal, shared his testimony with B’Tselem while standing on the rubble of his neighbourhood, stating that: ‘Even in nightmares, we have not seen anything like this. This was the safest place in Gaza. Everyone would come here. As you can see, unspeakable destruction. There are no military headquarters or outposts here. We are civilians. They tell us: “evacuate”, but where can we go? We are all displaced.’
Finally, the levelling of al-Rimal constitutes an economic attack that falls into the larger context of Israel’s efforts to de-develop the Gaza Strip through an ongoing 16-year air, sea and naval blockade. The decision to relentlessly bombard al-Rimal was a calculated one against the economic survival of Gaza’s residents. Al-Rimal was considered an upscale neighbourhood, home to middle-class families many of whom were financially successful due to businesses that survived despite the crippling economic blockade on Gaza. Through tightly controlling the movement of all people and the import and export of all goods in and out of the besieged enclave, Israel has enacted a policy of de-development. They have attempted to keep the residents of Gaza subjugated in a state of economic insecurity and at the complete mercy of Israel for access to food, fuel, electricity, medical equipment and basic construction materials.
For example, Israel has weaponised its control of the flow of food and water into the besieged enclave, employing a ‘calorie-counting’ technique, where it made precise calculations of the daily caloric need of every individual in Gaza to determine how much food to allow into the Strip, stunting the growth of Gaza’s economy and its people. The ‘dual-use’ policy, which prohibits the importation of medical equipment, raw materials, chemicals and fertilizers into the Gaza Strip if the goods can conceivably be used for a ‘military purpose’, stunts the economic growth of Gaza to such a degree that lifting the policy would increase the GDP by about 40 percent. This means that after six successive full-scale Israeli military offensives against Gaza in the last 15 years, residents have been unable to fully rebuild all that was bombed because they lack access to basic materials such as cement.
Israel’s policy of economic de-development of the Gaza Strip ‘deliberately inflicting on the group [the Palestinian people] conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part’, may meet the threshold of genocide. In addition to the ‘calorie-counting’ technique and the ‘dual-use’ policy, al-Rimal’s destruction, as the commercial and financial centre of Gaza City, is significant. According to Raphael Lemkin, proponent of the Genocide Convention:
The destruction of foundations of economic existence of a national group necessarily brings about a crippling of its development, even a retrogression. The lowering of the standard of living creates difficulties in fulfilling cultural-spiritual requirements. Furthermore, a daily fight literally for bread and for physical survival may handicap thinking in both general and national terms.
The crime of genocide includes the intent to destroy a national, ethnic, racial or religious group in whole or in part, by ‘causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group’ and ‘deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part’. The destruction of al-Rimal, the relentless bombardment of the Gaza Strip since the onset of the latest military offensive starting on 7 October 2023, the genocidal language employed, which stated an intention to ‘flatten’ Gaza and referred to its residents as ‘human animals’, taken together with the Israeli policy to prevent the economic growth of the Gaza Strip from its imposed crippling siege, may amount to the crime of genocide, should the special intent for the crime be met.
The destruction of al-Rimal will have an irreversible and lasting impact on the economic and social development of Palestinian society for years to come. And its destruction is a microcosm of the larger Israeli strategy of domination and subjugation, part of an attempt to de-develop the Gaza Strip, which constitutes, at a minimum, a war crime against the targeting of civilian property, and may, given the preceding statements of genocidal intent, be considered an act of genocide.
Al-Haq urges the international community to take immediate and effective measures to hold Israel accountable for the indiscriminate targeting of civilian homes and infrastructure, the killing of entire families and the strategic deprivation and subjugation of the people of Gaza. We also call upon the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court to investigate Israeli crimes in accordance with the Rome Statute and hold accountable every individual who has incited, carried out or ordered the commission of such crimes.