Is Israel’s Benny Gantz Guilty of War Crimes?

Is Israel’s Benny Gantz Guilty of War Crimes?

Is Israel’s Benny Gantz Guilty of War Crimes?

A front-runner in next week’s elections, he’s being sued in Dutch court by a survivor of the 2014 assault on Gaza—with indirect support from unusual quarters.


Israel’s election on April 9 culminates the most frenetic campaign season in recent memory. From the announcement by Israel’s attorney general of the indictment of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for bribery, fraud, and breach of trust pending a hearing; to the TV report that his rival Benny Gantz’s cell phone was hacked by Iranian intelligence; to the recent ad in which Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked douses herself in a perfume labeled “Fascism,” political whiplash has become a way of life in Israel. And there are still four days until the vote. 

As Israeli voters are glued to their smart phones following the latest developments, one Palestinian family is closely watching the election for another reason. The Ziada family lost six relatives in an Israeli bombing on its home during Operation Protective Edge in 2014. Israel claims the house was a Hamas “command and control center”; the family maintains the home was a civilian building, not a legitimate military target.

Now one of its surviving members is suing Gantz, the former chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces and Netanyahu’s most credible challenger, for alleged war crimes.

Ismail Ziada is a Palestinian with Dutch citizenship who lives in Holland. In 2018, he filed suit against Gantz and another ex-general, Amir Eshel, in a Dutch civil court with international jurisdiction. The generals, whose legal defense is funded by Israel, are disputing the court’s authority in the case.

In September, the court will decide whether to hear the lawsuit, according to Ziada’s lawyer, Liesbeth Zegveld. If it does, she says, it will set a critical precedent, demonstrating that Palestinians have no recourse in the Israeli court system and must seek justice abroad.

“The purpose has always been to show or demonstrate that Israeli courts do not give Palestinians access to impartial or independent courts,” says Zegveld. (Ziada declined to speak with The Nation.)

The election has raised the profile of the lawsuit, garnering media coverage in Israel and abroad. But it could also stop the case against Gantz in its tracks—at least for the time being. If Gantz wins and is able to form a government, he will have immunity from foreign prosecution as prime minister. Should that happen, Ziada will continue to pursue his claims against Eshel.

Twelve days ahead of the election, several of Ziada’s relatives gather in the living room of a home in Bureij, a Palestinian refugee camp in central Gaza. It’s the end of a tense week in the region. Days earlier a rocket from Gaza destroyed a house north of Tel Aviv. Israel responded with missile strikes throughout the strip. Now, a shaky cease-fire seems to be holding. It’s market day in Bureij, and the potholed streets are choked with cars and people. But inside the dimly lit house, it is quiet.

A towering gray compound with black metal gates, the house was built on the site of the home that was bombed in 2014. It was completed just last year with the help of foreign aid. Qatar funded the first floor, says the family, Kuwait the second, and Saudi Arabia the third and fourth.

The house is identical to the one that was bombed, its design a show of fealty to the family members who once lived there. The familiarity is comforting to the survivors, but it also serves as a constant reminder of their loss.

“My mother used to sit here when she was reading the Quran,” says Hasan Zeyada, gesturing to a chair near a shaded window. Muftia Mohamed Ziada memorized the tome after years of study. At 70, she was the oldest victim in the bombing. She is buried in a nearby cemetery, along with three of her sons, a daughter-in-law, and a grandchild who died in the attack.

Zeyada is Ismail Ziada’s brother. (The two spell their names differently in English.) As the oldest brother, he is responsible for the well-being of his orphaned nieces and nephews, seeing after their housing and education.

A Gaza City psychologist, Zeyada says that his brother’s lawsuit in Holland is a “kind of empowerment” for the extended family. “Psychologically, it is very important for us to know that we haven’t accepted being totally powerless and helpless before the perpetrator.”

Zeyada calls his brother’s lawsuit in Holland an “opportunity” for the family to pursue justice. But it’s about more than the family. “It is a message from our family to all the Palestinian families: you have to find accountability for the criminals.”

In the Israeli election, Gantz has made his conduct as military chief the centerpiece of his campaign. A newcomer to politics, he entered the race in January with a series of video ads boasting about the blow he dealt Hamas in the 2014 war. One shows black-and-white aerial footage of Gaza in the wake of Operation Protective Edge, with blocks of leveled buildings. As music befitting a militaristic video game plays, figures flash across the screen: “6,231 targets destroyed” and “1,364 terrorists killed.”

Since the ads were released, Gantz has merged his party, Israel Resilience, with two others to form the Blue and White Alliance. Three of the top-four spots on the electoral list are held by former generals, a projection of strength to the security-alert Israeli public. The message seems to be working: In the final stretch of the election, Gantz and Netanyahu are neck and neck in the polls.

Now, Gantz’s campaign ads have become part of the case. Zegveld entered a USB stick containing the videos to the court as part of her side’s materials. She argues they show that Gantz was not only acting out state policy in his role but that he is personally responsible for the bombing.

Both Gantz’s spokesperson and the generals’ lawyer declined interview requests from The Nation. A statement from Israel’s justice ministry in February urged the Dutch court to dismiss the case, arguing, “Litigating the lawsuit before a Dutch court would circumvent fundamental and long-recognized principles of state immunity.”

The incident in question happened on the afternoon of July 20, 2014, 12 days into Operation Protective Edge. It was the most brutal conflagration between Israel and Gaza yet, a 50-day war that killed 2,251 Palestinians, including 1,462 civilians, according to a United Nations Human Rights Council report. Sixty-seven Israeli soldiers and six civilians, including a Thai national working in Israel, were also killed.

According to the lawsuit, on the day of the bombing, Ziada’s mother, Muftia, sent the women and children out of the house. “She had a gut feeling,” the case notes. “This was not a rational decision because it was not safe on the streets and in Gaza City either.”

Muftia remained in the house alongside five other family members—her adult sons, Omar, Yousef, and Jamil; Jamil’s wife, Bayan; and the couple’s 12-year-old son, Shaban. According to witness testimony in the case, in the mid-afternoon, a neighbor’s house was hit. Yousef wanted to call a taxi to evacuate the remaining family members, but it was too late. At around 1:30 pm an Israeli warplane fired on the house, killing all six family members inside as well as a houseguest, Muhammad al-Maqadameh.

Hasan Zeyada (left) and Wadea Ziada outside the family home in Bureij refugee camp, Gaza Strip. (Naomi Zeveloff)

Ziada, who was in Holland at the time, learned of the bombing on a local Gaza news site, which listed two brothers and his 12-year-old nephew among the dead. Later, he read a friend’s Facebook post detailing the other casualties: his mother, a third brother, and a sister-in-law. “The plaintiff was in shock about the death of his family,” the lawsuit says.

Israel later examined the bombing as one of several alleged “exceptional incidents” during Operation Protective Edge. But in 2016, Israel’s Military Advocate General announced in a report that it was closing the case without ordering a criminal investigation.

The MAG’s report describes the family home as an “an active command and control center” by Hamas. It claims that three unnamed family members were discovered to be “military operatives in the Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror organizations.”It also names al-Maqadameh, the houseguest, as a Hamas “senior military operative.” 

In light of these and other details, the MAG deemed the bombing lawful.  

Ziada’s case rejects the MAG’s findings about the home and the family members inside. It notes that one brother, Omar, was in Hamas, though it claims he was not an “active member” at the time of the bombing.

The case argues that even if al-Maqadameh is shown to have been a militant, which it says the MAG failed to prove, the attack is “still in breach of the principle of proportionality and the obligation to take precautionary measures” in war—and hence an alleged war crime.

Ziada’s case is the latest chapter in an intergenerational drama linking his family in Gaza to a family of Dutch Nazi resisters. Ziada is married to Angélique Eijpe, the descendant of Dutch activists who saved a Jewish boy in the Holocaust.

Ziada met Eijpe in the West Bank in 1998, when he was a student at Birzeit University and she was an intern at the Dutch Representative Office, a diplomatic mission in the Palestinian Territories. The pair eventually married and moved to The Hague. Ziada became a Dutch citizen in 2010.

During the Holocaust, Eijpe’s great-uncle, Henk Zanoli, was a young member of the Dutch underground. In roughly 1943, he risked his life to transport a Jewish boy by train from Amsterdam to his family’s home in rural Holland. Under the family’s care, the boy survived the war and later moved to Israel. In 2011, Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial awarded Zanoli the Righteous Among the Nations medal for his family’s deed. 

In 2014, Zanoli was a nonagenarian retired lawyer when Israel bombed his in-laws’ home in Gaza. Upon learning of the attack, he relinquished his Holocaust-era medal in a public act of protest that reverberated around the world, with media coverage in practically every major outlet. In a letter to the Israeli embassy in The Hague, he said that keeping the medal in light of what happened would be an “insult” to the memory of his family who saved the Jewish boy, and to his kin in Gaza.

Buried in the third-to-last paragraph of his letter, Zanoli included a prescient statement: that one day Israel would face accusations of war crimes for its actions in Gaza. “As a retired lawyer it would be no surprise to me that these accusations could lead to possible convictions if true and unpoliticized justice is able to have its course,” he wrote. “What happened to our kin in Gaza will no doubt be brought to the table at such a time as well.”

Zanoli died in 2015. Reached by The Nation, Eijpe says she found her late great-uncle’s words “eerie,” a premonition of the case that her husband filed against Gantz and Eshel. Today, she says, her family’s Holocaust-era activism provides a meaningful backdrop to her family’s legal pursuit.

“Their legacy and their history are, for me personally—and I think I can say that goes for Ismail as well—an inspiration for seeking justice and standing against oppression,” she says.

Back in the home in the Gaza Strip, Wadea Ziada, 17, whose father Yousef was killed in the attack, has a prediction of his own: that the family will find a way to hold Gantz responsible, whether or not he wins the Israeli election.  

“If he wins, he will run away from being judged,” Wadea says. “But there is a God, and he won’t run away from Him. One day, he will be judged.”

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