Roof knocking (Hebrew: הקש בגג) or "knocks on the roof" is a term used by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) to describe its practice of dropping non-explosive or low-yield devices on the roofs of targeted civilian homes in the Palestinian territories as a prior warning of imminent bombing attacks to give the inhabitants time to flee the attack. The practice was employed by the IDF during the 2008–2009 Gaza War, Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012, and Operation Protective Edge in 2014 to target the homes of police officers or Hamas political or military leaders.
As early as 2006 the IDF had the practice of warning the inhabitants of a building that was about to be attacked. Roof knocking was used during the 2008–2009 Gaza War, Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012, and Operation Protective Edge in 2014. In the six months prior to its use, Israel collected data on Hamas members, which they used to issue warnings. Typically, Israeli intelligence officers and Shin Bet security servicemen contacted residents of a building in which they suspected storage of military assets and told them that they had 10–15 minutes to flee the attack, although in some cases the delay has been as little as five minutes.
Adoption by the US army
In 2016 it was published that the US military adopted the Israeli battlefield tactic for the war against ISIS. It was used in an attack against ISIL storage facility in Mosul, Iraq. As women and children lived in the house, a Hellfire missile was shot at the roof as a warning.
In some cases, residents that were warned about an impending bombing climbed up voluntarily to their roofs to show that they will not leave. When Nizar Rayan, a top Hamas military commander, was warned but didn't leave his home, he and his family of 15 were killed in the subsequent bombing. When faced with similar situations, IDF commanders have either bombed, called off the bombing or launched a warning missile at empty areas of the roof, in order to frighten the people gathered on the roof into leaving the building.
The New York Times stated that according to Israel, Hamas asked residents to stand on the roofs of buildings to dissuade Israeli pilots from attacking their homes. These claims are supported by video footage of an interview with Hamas spokesman, Sami Abu Zuhri.[unreliable source?] However, Amnesty International argued that Hamas' purported call may have been "motivated by a desire to avoid further panic" among civilians, considering both the lack of shelters in Gaza and the fact that some civilians who heeded the IDF's warnings had been casualties of Israeli attacks. Many reporters, including from the BBC, the Independent and the Guardian have said that they have found no evidence of Hamas forcing Palestinians to stay and become unwilling human shields.
The practice has been shown to be controversial, as many human rights and news organizations have shown the 'roof knocks' to kill and injure civilians. In July, 2014, Amnesty International called for a United Nations investigation into what it alleged were war crimes committed by Israeli fighters, and Philip Luther, Middle East and North Africa Programme Director for the organization, condemned the practice. The spokesperson for Gaza Health Ministry indicated that the same missiles used to give warnings are also used in assassinations, resulting in dozens of casualties and deaths where "remains were scattered, making it impossible to identify them immediately".
The Goldstone Report commented that civilians inside their homes "cannot be expected to know whether a small explosion is a warning of an impending attack or part of an actual attack". It stated that the practice is not an effective advance warning, and is instead likely to "cause terror and confuse the affected civilians".
According to the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, the warning of inhabitants by Israeli forces is psychological warfare, and after the first week of the Operation Cast Lead offensive, only 37 houses had been destroyed despite hundreds of warning calls, while no one can advise people not to take the threats seriously. In other cases, houses in Gaza Strip were bombed without any warning. For example, on July 12, 2014, an Israeli airstrike without any warning on the home of Gaza's police chief, Tayseer Al-Batsh, and a nearby mosque as evening prayers ended, killed 18 civilians, including children, and injured 45 others.
The Israeli Government stated "While these warnings, could not eliminate all harm to civilians, they were frequently effective," and that aerial video surveillance by IDF forces showed civilians departing from targeted areas prior to an attack as a direct result of the warnings. According to the Israeli army, striking homes suspected of storing weapons, when sufficient warning is given to the residents, falls within the boundaries of international law and is legitimate. In November 2014, the most senior US military official, General Martin Dempsey, cited "roof knocking" as an example where Israel "did some extraordinary things to limit civilian casualties" during Operation Protective Edge.
Amnesty International has reported in a statement that it "does not have evidence at this point" that Palestinian civilians have been intentionally used by Hamas or Palestinian armed groups during the current hostilities to "shield" specific locations or military personnel or equipment from Israeli attacks". It additionally said that "public statements referring to entire areas are not the same as directing specific civilians to remain in their homes as "human shields" for fighters, munitions, or military equipment" and that "even if officials or fighters from Hamas or Palestinian armed groups ... did in fact direct civilians to remain in a specific location in order to shield military objectives ..., all of Israel's obligations to protect these civilians would still apply." Human Rights Watch said many of the attacks on civilian targets appeared to be "disproportionate" and "indiscriminate".
Salah Abdul Ati, the directory of the Palestinian Independent Commission for Human Rights in Gaza, described the "policy of destroying homes" a war crime and accused Israel of attempting to circumvent international law to avoid accountability.
Marouf Hasian Jr., a professor of Communication at the University of Utah, describes the talk of the "beneficent usage" of "knock on roof" tactics as one that "plays well in front of American or Israeli audiences who feel that older Geneva Convention rules are too 'quaint' and too solicitous of the rights of civilians who may be aiding and abetting terrorist, but it infuriates critics who argue that satellite surveillance is being used in discriminatory systems that assume that homes of police officers or Hamas political or military leaders can be "precisely" targeted to minimize collateral damage".
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