New York, December 30, 2008 - Israel and Hamas both must respect the prohibition under the laws of war against deliberate and indiscriminate attacks on civilians, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch expressed grave concern about Israeli bombings in Gaza that caused civilian deaths and Palestinian rocket attacks on Israeli civilian areas in violation of international law.
Rocket attacks on Israeli towns by Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups that do not discriminate between civilians and military targets violate the laws of war, while a rising number of the hundreds of Israeli bombings in Gaza since December 27, 2008, appear to be unlawful attacks causing civilian casualties. Additionally, Israel's severe limitations on the movement of non-military goods and people into and out of Gaza, including fuel and medical supplies, constitutes collective punishment, also in violation of the laws of war.
"Firing rockets into civilian areas with the intent to harm and terrorize Israelis has no justification whatsoever, regardless of Israel's actions in Gaza," said Joe Stork, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa division. "At the same time, Israel should not target individuals and institutions in Gaza solely because they are part of the Hamas-run political authority, including ordinary police. Only attacks on military targets are permissible, and only in a manner that minimizes civilian casualties."
Human Rights Watch investigated three Israeli attacks that raise particular concern about Israel's targeting decisions and require independent and impartial inquiries to determine whether the attacks violated the laws of war. In three incidents detailed below, 18 civilians died, among them at least seven children.
On Saturday, December 27, the first day of Israel's aerial attacks, witnesses told Human Rights Watch that shortly after 1 p.m. an Israeli air-to-ground missile struck a group of students leaving the Gaza Training College, adjacent to the headquarters of the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) in downtown Gaza City. The students were waiting to board buses to transport them to their homes in Khan Yunis and Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip. The strike killed eight students, ages 18 to 20, and wounded 19 others.
A UNRWA security guard stationed at the college entrance told Human Rights Watch that he used his UN radio to call for medical help. He said the attack also killed two other civilians, Hisham al-Rayes, 28, and his brother Alam, 26, whose family ran a small shop opposite the college entrance. The guard said that the only potential target nearby was the Gaza governorate building, which deals with civil matters, about 150 meters away from where the missile struck. Another UNRWA security guard who also witnessed the attack told Human Rights Watch: "There wasn't anybody else around - no police, army, or Hamas."
The second incident occurred shortly before midnight on Sunday, December 28, when Israeli warplanes fired one or more missiles at the Imad Aqil mosque in Jabalya, a densely populated refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip. The attack killed five of Anwar Balousha's daughters who were sleeping in a bedroom of their nearby house: Jawaher, 4; Dina, 8; Samar, 12; Ikram, 14; and Tahrir, 18. "We were asleep and we woke to the sound of bombing and the rubble falling on the house and on our heads," Anwar Balousha told Human Rights Watch. The Balousha's three-room house is just across a small street from the mosque.
The two-story Imad Aqil mosque, named after a deceased Hamas member, is regarded by Palestinians in the area as a "Hamas mosque" - that is, a place where the group's supporters gather for political meetings or to assemble for demonstrations, and where death notices of Hamas members are posted. Mosques are presumptively civilian objects and their use for political activities does not change that. Human Rights Watch said that the attack on Imad Aql mosque would be lawful only if Israel could demonstrate that it was being used to store weapons and ammunition or served some other military purpose. Even if that were the case, Israel still had an obligation to take all feasible precautions to minimize harm to civilians and ensure that any likely civilian harm was not disproportionate to the expected military gain.
In the third incident, at around 1 a.m. on Monday, December 29, an Israeli helicopter fired two missiles into the Rafah refugee camp. One struck the home of a senior Hamas commander; the other struck the home of the al-Absi family, about 150 meters away, killing three brothers - Sedqi, 3, Ahmad, 12, and Muhammad, 13 - and wounding two sisters and the children's mother. Ziad al-Absi, 46, the children's father, told Human Rights Watch that at around 10:30 p.m. on Sunday, armed Palestinians had gathered near their home, firing machine guns at Israeli helicopters. "I and the neighbors argued with the militants, told them this is a populated area and this will put us into peril," he said. According to al-Absi's nephew, Iyad al-Absi, 27, the fighters refused to leave. When their commander arrived at about 11 p.m. and ordered them to leave, they again refused. The fighters finally left at around 11:15, but only after an exchange of gunfire between the fighters and their commander. Al-Absi said that he and his family then went to sleep. He told his nephew and other relatives that there was no further armed activity in the area prior to the missile strike on his house, almost two hours later. Ziad al-Absi said the blast had thrown one daughter onto a neighbor's balcony. The children's mother is in hospital intensive care; the two daughters are also in the hospital.
Human Rights Watch noted that many of Israel's airstrikes, especially during the first day, targeted police stations as well as security and militia installations controlled by Hamas. According to the Jerusalem Post, an attack on the police academy in Gaza City on December 27 killed at least 40, including dozens of cadets at their graduation ceremony as well as the chief of police, making it the single deadliest air attack of the campaign to date. Another attack, on a traffic police station in the central Gaza town of Deir al-Balah, killed a by-stander, 12-year-old Camilia Ra`fat al-Burdini. Under the laws of war, police and police stations are presumptively civilian unless the police are Hamas fighters or taking a direct part in the hostilities, or police stations are being used for military purposes.
"Israel must not make a blanket decision that all police and police stations are by definition legitimate military targets," Stork said. "It depends upon whether those police play a role in fighting against Israel, or whether a particular police station is used to store weapons or for some other military purpose."
Some other Israeli targets may have also been unlawful under the laws of war. Three teenagers were killed in southern Gaza City on December 27, when Israeli aircraft struck a building rented by Wa`ed (Promise), a Hamas-affiliated organization that defends prisoners held by Israel. Israel justified its attack on Gaza City's Islamic University on grounds that laboratories were used to manufacture explosives, but this did not address why a second strike demolished the women's quarters there. Israel also attacked the Hamas-affiliated Al-Aqsa TV, but did not provide a reason. Television and radio stations are legitimate military targets only if used for military purposes, not if they are simply being used for pro-Hamas or anti-Israel propaganda.
Human Rights Watch expressed grave concern about the seriously deteriorating humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip, which was already dire prior to the latest attacks. A health expert with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Gaza said on December 28 that hospitals were "overwhelmed and unable to cope with the scale and type of injuries that keep coming in." The ICRC noted that medical supplies and medicines were already badly depleted as a result of Israel's prohibition of most imports into Gaza since Hamas took full internal control of the territory in June 2007. In a statement on December 29, the ICRC said that some neighborhoods were running short of water, owing to damage from attacks or fuel and power shortages. The statement also said that prices for food and basic commodities were reportedly rising fast. UNRWA had reported several days prior to the latest escalation of fighting that its stocks of essential commodities were extremely low.
According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), which also monitors security matters in Gaza, Palestinian armed groups fired more than 100 rockets towards Israel on December 27-28; Haaretz, the Israeli daily, reported that on December 29 Palestinian armed groups fired at least 60 rockets into Israel. One of them killed a Bedouin construction worker, 27-year-old Hani al-Mahdi, and wounded 14 others in the coastal city of Ashkelon, north of Gaza; another fatally wounded 39-year-old Irit Sheetrit while she was driving home in the city of Ashdod, 35 kilometers from Gaza. The previous day, December 28, a rocket attack killed another Israeli civilian and wounded four in Netivot, some 20 kilometers east of Gaza City.
Human Rights Watch has long criticized Palestinian rocket attacks against Israeli civilians - most recently, in a public letter to Hamas on November 20. The rockets are highly inaccurate, and those launching them cannot accurately target military objects. Deliberately firing indiscriminate weapons into civilian populated areas, as a matter of policy, constitutes a war crime. Rocket attacks have killed 19 civilians in Israel since 2005, including those killed to date during the current clashes.
Human Rights Watch has also criticized Israel's policy of severely restricting the flow of people and goods into Gaza, including fuel and other civilian necessities, saying that those restrictions amount to collective punishment against the civilian population, a serious violation of the laws of war. Israel continues to exercise effective control over Gaza's borders and airspace as well as its population registry, and remains the occupying power there under international law. The laws of war prohibit the occupying power from attacking, destroying, or withholding objects essential to the survival of the civilian population. Israel is also obliged to protect the right of Palestinians in Gaza to freedom of movement, to secure access to health care and education, and to lead normal lives.