Rocket Attacks on Civilians in Israel Are War Crimes
Hezbollah must immediately stop firing rockets into civilian areas in Israel, Human Rights Watch said today. Entering the fourth week of attacks, such rockets have claimed 30 civilian lives, including six children, and wounded hundreds more.
“Lobbing rockets blindly into civilian areas is without doubt a war crime,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “Nothing can justify this assault on the most fundamental standards for sparing civilians the hazards of war.”
Hezbollah claims that some of its attacks are aimed at military bases inside Israel, which are legitimate targets. But most of the attacks appear to have been directed at civilian areas and have hit pedestrians, hospitals, schools, homes and businesses.
Since July 12, when Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers and killed eight, Human Rights Watch researchers have been documenting the war’s impact on civilians in Israel and Lebanon, interviewing the witnesses and survivors of attacks, as well as doctors, emergency workers, police, military and government officials.
As of August 4, Hezbollah had launched a reported 2,500 rockets into predominantly civilian areas in northern Israel. Some longer-range rockets landed as far south as the city of Hadera, some 85 km from the border. Hezbollah announced that it had attacked Hadera on August 4 in retaliation for an Israeli air raid in Lebanon earlier that day that reportedly killed more than 20 farm workers.
Yesterday, Hezbollah’s leader, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, offered to stop bombing Israel’s “northern settlements” if the Israeli military stopped bombing Lebanon’s “cities and civilians.” He also warned that an Israeli attack on Beirut would result in Hezbollah bombing Tel Aviv.
In a report issued on August 3, “Fatal Strikes: Israel’s Indiscriminate Attacks Against Civilians in Lebanon,” Human Rights Watch documented a systematic failure by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) to distinguish between combatants and civilians. In some cases, the timing and intensity of the attack, the absence of a military target, as well as subsequent strikes on rescuers, suggest that Israeli forces deliberately targeted civilians. Yesterday, Israeli bombing reportedly killed at least 40 civilians in Lebanon.
“Human Rights Watch has documented the Israeli military’s persistent use of indiscriminate force, which has killed hundreds of Lebanese civilians,” Roth said. “But war crimes by one side in a conflict never justify war crimes by another. Hezbollah must stop using the excuse of Israeli misconduct to justify its own.”
Northern Israel, an area populated by about one 1 million people, has come to a virtual standstill because of Hezbollah’s rockets, which are exacting an enormous human and economic toll. Authorities believe that up to half the population has left the area, while the rest are living in constant fear of the air raid sirens that warn of attacks.
Human Rights Watch said many of those who remain in northern Israel are unable to leave because they don’t have relatives elsewhere in the country or the resources to pay for alternative accommodation. Some stay behind to care for relatives who are disabled or infirm, or because they work as emergency and medical personnel.
“Who is left here in Kiryat Shmona; the weakest part of the population,” Shimon Kamari, the deputy mayor of Kiryat Shmona, only a few kilometers from the northern border, told Human Rights Watch. “The elderly and those who can’t afford hotels, because to stay for such a long time is very expensive.”
Hezbollah has fired three different types of weapons at Israel so far. The vast majority are 122mm Katyusha rockets, while 220mm Fajr rockets have landed in the cities of Haifa and Nazareth. Hezbollah has also fired several 302mm Khaiber-1 rockets; the first of these landed on July 28 in empty areas near Afula, 50 km south of the border, and another wave hit near Hadera on August 4. In addition, Hezbollah said it had fired Khaiber-1 rockets at Beit Shean on August 2.
Some of the rockets, such as those that killed eight rail workers in Haifa on July 16 and two young brothers in Nazareth on July 19, have warheads packed with thousands of metal ball bearings that spray out from the blast. Launched on civilian areas, the ball bearings are intended to inflict maximum harm.
Under international humanitarian law – also known as the laws of war – parties to an armed conflict must not make the civilian population the object of attack, or fire indiscriminately into civilian areas. Nor can they launch attacks that they know will cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians or damage to civilian objects that exceeds the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated. Such attacks constitute war crimes.
In attacks on August 4, Hezbollah reportedly fired more than 200 rockets, killing three people. According to media reports, two men, aged 24 and 32, died and several were wounded when a rocket hit a restaurant in the Druze village of Majdal Krum. In another strike, a 27-year-old mother of two, Manal Azem, died around 2:15 p.m. when a rocket struck in the Druze village of Mrar. One and a half weeks ago, a 15-year-old girl, Daa Abbas, also died in Mrar when a rocket hit her home.
On August 3, eight people died in two rocket attacks. In one attack in Acre, five people died: Shimon Zaribi, 44; his 15-year-old daughter Mazal; Albert Ben-Abu, 41; Ariyeh Tamam, 50; and Ariyeh’s brother Tiran, 39.
Human Rights Watch interviewed Ariyeh Tamam’s wife, Tzvia, who was wounded in the attack. She told Human Rights Watch how the rocket killed her husband and brother-in-law, and wounded her sister-in-law, Simcha, and her eight-year-old daughter, Noa:
It destroyed our entire family. My husband is dead; his brother is dead; their sister is in a lot of pain. My disabled mother-in-law is devastated – Simcha also used to be her main caregiver. The kids are traumatized forever.
We don’t have a bomb shelter in our building, so when the sirens started, we went to the shelter in my aunt’s building on Ben Shushan Street. After the first rocket fell, and the siren stopped, we went out of the shelter to have a look. My daughter was standing near me, at the entrance, but Ariyeh went closer to the street. Suddenly, there was another loud boom and pieces of metal flew everywhere. I didn’t realize what had happened to me, but I rushed to the place where my husband was standing – all five people who were standing near the fence there were killed. There was blood everywhere; I tried to drag him away, and was screaming, ‘Don’t die; please don’t die!’ My son threw himself over his body, and was also screaming, ‘Daddy, daddy, don’t die!’ Then the police and the ambulances came, and took us all to the hospital.
In another attack that day, three Palestinian-Arab Israeli youths from the village of Tarshiha lost their lives: Shnati Shnati, 21; Amir Naeem, 18; and Muhammad Faour, 17. During the attack, another rocket hit a house in the nearby village of Meila. A woman, Maha Morani, whose 2-year-old daughter Nura was wounded in the attack, told Human Rights Watch:
It was around 3.30 pm yesterday. It was the first time the rocket fell on our village. We live on the third floor in a three-floor apartment building. We left kids at home and went out just for a few minutes to buy some food. My daughter was sleeping in her room in a cradle, and our son was in the living room. Suddenly, the siren went off, and my husband – I don’t know how he felt it – tore at full speed to the house, and just flew up the stairs to the room where Nura was sleeping. He grabbed her and rushed down, and just a minute after they left the house, the rocket hit straight into the room where Nura had been sleeping. She was injured in the eye by pieces of concrete that flew all around. Thank God, our son was in another room, so he was not injured physically, but he was in shock. Since the attack he has not talked at all, not a single word.
Hits on Hospitals
Several medical and educational institutes have sustained damage from Katyusha attacks. Human Rights Watch researchers visited hospitals in Nahariya and Safed after they were hit.
At Nahariya Hospital, rockets had been landing near the hospital since July 12, the hospital spokesperson said. On July 28, a rocket landed directly on the fourth floor, where the ophthalmology department is located, leaving a gaping hole in the wall and destroying eight rooms with beds and medical equipment. According to the spokesperson, the department usually held 20 to 30 patients, but officials had moved patients from the top floors to basement rooms since the start of the conflict. “Otherwise it’s hard to believe anyone would have survived the attack,” the spokesperson said. He estimated the damage to the hospital at about $200,000.
“There are no military bases around here; nothing military at all,” he said. “I believe they know perfectly well they are firing at a hospital.”
On July 17, around 11 p.m., a rocket landed just outside the Safed Hospital. According to the hospital’s head of security, the impact of the blast shattered windows in more than 50 rooms on the hospital’s north side and destroyed the external water and gas pipes.
A patient in the hospital at the time, Roni Peri, 37, told Human Rights Watch what happened when the rocket hit:
Several of us had just gone out to the balcony on our floor. We heard a siren and tried to get back in, but it came too fast. The rocket hit the wall below, and I saw a huge yellow flash and glass flying. I could see, hear and feel the explosion. I was thrown by the explosion to the other side of the balcony and both my legs and arms were cut from the glass. There was a boy in a wheelchair who was in the hospital because he was injured in a previous rocket strike. We had taken him outside with us to try and cheer him up, and he was badly hurt in the head by glass. He hasn’t spoken since it happened.
In the absence of troops or military assets inside, hospitals must never be attacked, Human Rights Watch said. Deliberately attacking them is a war crime.
Hits on Homes
Rockets have hit homes in many northern towns, although in most cases witnesses or security officials told Human Rights Watch that the inhabitants were not home at the time.
In Nahariya, Moshe Zamir, 56, witnessed a rocket strike on his neighbor’s house on July 18. “Around 6 p.m., I went outside to sit on my front porch,” he said. “All of a sudden, I heard a huge boom, and I quickly crouched down on the ground. I saw debris flying all over the place and I ran back inside my house.” The missile hit the house of the Akuka family, Zamir’s neighbors, who had already left town, he said.
Malka Karasanti, 70, was injured when a rocket destroyed the top two floors of her three-story apartment building in Haifa on July 17. She told Human Rights Watch:
I was taking a nap in my apartment on the second floor when, around 2:30 p.m., I heard a siren go off. I went to the bathroom, which I use as my safe room since there is no shelter in the building. There was a loud boom, and then everything began to collapse around me. … I was injured in my right shoulder bone, I broke a left rib, and I have a tear in my eardrum so I don’t hear well now.
Hits on Businesses
Hezbollah rockets have hit a number of workplaces directly and have taken a heavy economic toll on agriculture, tourism, industry and small businesses in northern Israel. Many businesses in the north have either dramatically scaled back their work or have closed entirely due to ongoing attacks.
The most serious attack took place on July 16, when a rocket slammed into a train depot in Haifa, killing eight workers and wounding 12. Human Rights Watch interviewed four railway workers at Haifa’s Rambam Hospital who were wounded by ball bearings from the lethal blast.
“There were three loud booms, and I started running out of the depot,” said Alek Vensbaum, 61, a worker at the Israel Train Authority. “One of the guys, Nissim, who was later killed, yelled at everyone to run to the shelter. The fourth boom got me when I was nearly at the door, and I was hit by shrapnel. ... I was hit by ball bearing-like pieces of metal in my neck, hand, stomach and foot.”
Sami Raz, 39, a railway electrician, said a ball bearing pierced his lung and lodged near his heart. “I had terrible difficulty breathing after I was hit,” he said.
On July 23, a Hezbollah rocket hit a carpentry shop in Kiryat Ata owned by David Siboni, killing one worker named Habib Awad. Siboni, 60, told Human Rights Watch:
I've had this business for 30 years. Despite the situation, I decided to keep my shop open, just for fewer hours and with fewer workers. This morning I was in my office upstairs when I heard the siren go off. There were eight other workers in the shop and I yelled at them to run to the safe room. I didn't think I had time to get downstairs, so I stayed up in my office and suddenly the rocket hit us directly. Habib had apparently just peeked out the door of the safe room to make sure everyone was in, and the blast got him. I think all the injuries were internal, you couldn't see any damage from the outside.
On July 19, a rocket hit a car garage in Nazareth owned for the past 35 years by Ased Abu Naja Ased. The direct hit destroyed the garage, the office with computers, diagnostic machines, several cars being serviced in the shop and three new cars for sale that had arrived that day. Abu Naja said that the attack thankfully took place on Wednesday, the one day of the week when the garage closed early. Otherwise, at least 20 workers would have been in the garage.
Human Rights Watch researchers visited six bomb shelters in Haifa and Nahariya where many local residents have spent days and nights since the conflict began. Most of the shelters were stifling hot and overcrowded with insufficient facilities for the number of people they are meant to serve.
Sitting in a shelter in Nahariya, Rosa Guttmann, 52, told Human Rights Watch how difficult it was for older residents. “The access for the elderly is hard with all the stairs,” she said. “It is very difficult for them to quickly climb down into the shelter and later to get back out. The shelters are cramped and there isn’t enough room for everyone.”
Another woman in the same shelter told Human Rights Watch:
We are in the shelter all the time, since the day things started. We only leave when the emergency services announce on the loudspeaker that we can go out. Sometimes we stay at the shelter during the day and go home to sleep at night. Yesterday we went home at around midnight to sleep but around 2 a.m. rockets started falling and at 5 a.m. we’d had enough, and returned to the shelter. We need more mattresses for everyone to sleep here. It is especially hard for the children. They are bored and they are scared.
On July 18, a Hezbollah rocket killed Andrei Zlanski, 37, just outside a bomb shelter in Nahariya. Human Rights Watch researchers arrived on the scene just after the attack and spoke with Eliav Sian, 34, a witness to the attack:
The guy put his wife and child into the bomb shelter and then went out, I’m not sure why. There was no siren at the time, just a general warning to enter and stay in the shelters. I was standing near the entrance of the shelter and the guy was just a few meters away. All of a sudden I heard a whistling sound, and quickly ran back inside. The guy didn’t make it and was killed instantly by the missile.
Zlanski, Human Rights Watch later learned, had stepped out of the shelter to get a blanket for his daughter. “There used to be about 70 people in the shelter but after he was killed many people left town, especially those with kids,” said Yoav Zalgan, 35, a single man who remained in the shelter. “And now 30 people are usually here.”