Neither Defense Nor Retaliation Is Justification
Palestinian rocket attacks on Israeli towns and Israeli artillery strikes near populated areas in northern Gaza have caused hundreds of civilian casualties since September 2005 and constitute serious violations of the laws of war, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.
The 146-page report, “Indiscriminate Fire: Palestinian Rocket Attacks on Israel and Israeli Artillery Shelling in the Gaza Strip,” finds that both Palestinian armed groups and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have shown insufficient regard for civilian life. Palestinian armed groups, including Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Fatah’s al-Aqsa Brigades, and the Popular Resistance Committees, say the deliberate attacks on civilians with locally made and highly inaccurate rockets, known as Qassams, are reprisals for Israeli actions – but reprisals against civilians are always illegal. A reported reduction by the IDF in the “safety zone” between artillery targets and civilian areas in Gaza, as well as a sharp escalation of shelling in April 2006 following the Hamas political takeover of the Palestinian Authority, led to a jump in civilian casualties.
“Tit-for-tat abuses can’t be justified by arguing that the other side violated the law first: the laws of war are meant to protect civilians from harm, whatever the reason,” said Joe Stork, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East division. “Otherwise, the cycle of violence spirals out of control, as happened in Gaza and Israel.”
The Human Rights Watch report comes on the eve of a July 2 High Court hearing about an IDF policy that reportedly reduced the “safety zone” between artillery targets and civilian areas from 300 to 100 meters in April 2006. Human Rights Watch found that all fatalities and all but eight injuries from artillery fire between September 2005 and May 2007, which Israel claimed was in self-defense, occurred after this change in policy.
Amidst the ongoing factional fighting in Gaza between Hamas and Fatah, Palestinian armed groups continue to launch rockets toward Israel. In May 2007, rockets killed two Israeli civilians in Sderot and injured 22. On June 20, rockets injured three civilians in an attack claimed by Islamic Jihad.
Israel has not fired artillery into Gaza since an attack on November 8, 2006 killed 23 Palestinian civilians. Despite its moratorium, the IDF says that it still considers artillery fire a legitimate response to Palestinian rocket attacks “subject to the limitations of international law.”
“There is an opportunity to end this appalling disregard for civilian lives if both parties learn the lessons of the past two years,” Stork said. “Hamas authorities in Gaza should end rocket attacks by all groups on Israeli towns, while Israel should uphold its moratorium on artillery use in Gaza, or at least not shell near populated areas.” Hamas should also ensure that no attack of any sort is launched from near a populated area.
In “Indiscriminate Fire,” Human Rights Watch examines the use of rockets and artillery following Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in September 2005.
From September 2005 to May 2007, Palestinian armed groups fired almost 2,700 locally-made rockets toward Israel. They killed four and injured 75 Israeli civilians. In May 2007, many residents of Sderot, the hardest hit city, left for other parts of the country. Palestinian rockets also caused at least 23 Palestinian casualties when they fell short of the border. Rocket attacks from mid-2004 to September 2005 killed another six Israeli civilians.
During the same time period, from September 2005 through May 2007, the IDF fired more than 14,600 155mm artillery shells into Gaza. Shells fired close to populated areas killed 59 people and wounded 270, most if not all of them civilians.
The Human Rights Watch report found that Palestinian armed groups have deliberately targeted and launched indiscriminate attacks against Israeli civilians in violation of the laws of war. In addition to inflicting scores of casualties, the attacks have caused property damage and created a pervasive climate of fear in affected Israeli communities.
Palestinian armed groups also at times endanger civilians by placing their highly portable rocket launchers near residential areas in Gaza. Such actions violate the duty to take all feasible precautions to minimize civilian casualties.
Israelis in turn failed to take all feasible precautions to minimize civilian casualties from artillery fire and, in at least one case, its strikes were indiscriminate. Other times, the evidence suggested that the attacks were disproportionate, causing expected civilian loss that was excessive compared to any anticipated military gain. Many artillery shells that Israel fired into Gaza landed close to populated areas and sometimes directly struck homes, causing serious harm, loss of life and structural damage.
Israel justified its attacks as self-defense, and some IDF officials claimed that Palestinian rocket fire grew less accurate after artillery strikes pushed launch sites farther away from the border. But the IDF artillery attacks do not seem to have lessened the overall incidence of damaging rocket attacks or significantly affected the ability of Palestinian groups to launch attacks.
“If the IDF resumes shelling in Gaza, it should do so only where it can distinguish between civilians and combatants,” Stork said.
The report is based on two field missions to Israel and Gaza, during which Human Rights Watch researchers conducted more than 100 interviews with victims, witnesses and others, and evaluated physical evidence. Researchers also held meetings with Israeli and Palestinian military and government officials.
“Indiscriminate Fire” includes two detailed case studies of fatal IDF artillery strikes. The first presents the findings of Human Rights Watch’s investigation into a June 9, 2006 explosion on a Gaza beach that killed seven civilians and injured dozens more. Human Rights Watch determined that a 155mm Israeli artillery shell – either one fired that day or an unexploded one set off by nearby firing that day – caused the blast. It also found that an Israeli investigation into the incident failed to take into account evidence from sources other than the IDF, thus betraying a lack of interest in arriving at the truth of what happened.
The second case study examines a series of IDF artillery attacks during the week of July 24, 2006, which on at least six occasions struck the densely populated Nada Apartments complex near a large open area from which Palestinians fired rockets. The strikes killed four civilians, including two children, wounded 14, and forced hundreds of families to flee.
“The Nada Apartments case shows how the actions of both Palestinians and the Israelis proved fatal to civilians,” Stork said. “It seems the Palestinians were moving launch sites closer to the apartments, endangering the residents, while the IDF struck the apartments directly, despite real-time warnings that civilians were being killed. Both practices violate international humanitarian law.”
Human Rights Watch called on Israel to conduct independent and comprehensive investigations into the strikes on the beach in June and on the Nada Apartments in July, as well as the November 2006 strike that led to the artillery moratorium. Human Rights Watch said Israel should investigate and, as appropriate, discipline or prosecute individuals who may be responsible for artillery attacks conducted in serious violation of the laws of war.
Human Rights Watch called on the Palestinian Authority and leaders of political factions to condemn and repudiate rocket attacks that are directed at civilian populations or cannot discriminate between civilians and combatants. The Palestinian Authority should take concrete steps to prevent such attacks from the territory under its jurisdiction and investigate and prosecute those responsible for such attacks, Human Rights Watch said. Hamas, which recently assumed control of Gaza, must take similar steps to prevent attacks like that of June 20, 2007.