November 20, 2008

Ismail Haniya
Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority in Gaza

Khaled Mishaal
Head of the political bureau of the Islamic Resistance Movement, Damascus

Wednesday, November 20, 2008

Dear Prime Minister Haniya and Mr. Mishaal,

We are writing to you to express our deep concern about the resumption of deliberate and indiscriminate rocket attacks on Israeli civilians by Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups operating in Gaza. We urge you to speak out forcefully against such attacks, take all necessary measures to prevent unlawful attacks on civilians, and bring to justice those who are found to have participated in them.

Hamas's armed wing, the Izzidin al-Qassam Brigades, Al-Quds Brigades (Islamic Jihad), and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine together fired at least 72 rockets at Israel last week in response to an operation in Central Gaza by the Israel Defense Force (IDF) that killed six Palestinian fighters and wounded a 23-year-old Palestinian woman. According to Hamas spokespersons, during a 24-hour period on November 4-5, Hamas fired over 51 “Qassam” rockets at Israeli army posts and at “Israeli communities” in the Western Negev.

Many of the rockets have misfired or landed in Gaza. On November 5, one struck a house in Beit Hanoun injuring two Palestinian women, Jamila Abu Harbid, 37, and Feda' Abu Harbid, 23. None of the rockets caused any injuries in Israel, but struck the towns of Ashkelon and Sderot, and fell close to populated areas in the Western Negev.

The rockets fired by Palestinian armed groups violate the international humanitarian law prohibition on indiscriminate attacks because they are highly inaccurate and cannot be directed at a specific military target.

Other Palestinian armed groups have continued to launch attacks throughout the past week. A total of 11 rockets were fired on Saturday morning alone. Three more rockets were fired from northern Gaza on Monday.

Human Rights Watch has repeatedly criticized Israeli attacks and other measures directed against Palestinian civilians. This includes Israel’s closure of Gaza's borders, which we regard as a form of collective punishment, which is prohibited under international humanitarian law during occupations. Likewise, we documented Israel’s failure to take all steps feasible to minimize civilian loss caused by IDF artillery fire against targets in Gaza. At least 59 Palestinian civilians were killed and over 270 others wounded in such attacks between September 2005 and May 2007.

The use of armed force should never violate the core humanitarian principle of civilian immunity from attack, even if the adversary commits such violations.
Palestinian rockets from Gaza have killed four Israeli civilians this year and spread fear among the civilian population. As the recent attacks illustrate, many rockets fall short of their intended target, and harm Palestinian civilians.

We recognize that until last week Hamas took efforts to halt rocket attacks by other groups as part of the June 19 ceasefire. However, throughout the ceasefire period other armed groups have continued to intermittently fire rockets from Gaza. As the governing authority in the Gaza Strip, it is your responsibility under international law to prevent such attacks, and to arrest and prosecute those who carry them out.

We also urge you to take all necessary measures to curb such unlawful attacks whether or not the current ceasefire remains in place or is extended beyond its December 19 deadline. Security forces under your control in Gaza have also demonstrated an ability to curb rocket fire. On at least two occasions, Hamas security personnel arrested people accused of firing rockets. On July 10 at least three members of the Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades were detained for firing rockets. All were later released however, and no charges were brought against them.

Similarly, we urge you to instruct Hamas representatives not to endorse individual attacks carried out by Palestinians against civilians. In recent months a spate of attacks has taken place in Jerusalem in which no armed or political group appears to have played an active role. Five attacks so far this year by lone Palestinian perpetrators have killed 13 Israeli civilians in Jerusalem. In some cases Hamas spokespeople have spoken approvingly afterwards.

In the most recent incident, on October 23, a Palestinian man stabbed to death Avraham Ozer, an 86-year-old year Israeli pensioner in Gilo, an Israeli settlement south of Jerusalem.
Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza, characterized this attack in an email statement to local media as an “operation” that “proves the Palestinian people are committed to the resistance with all its forms...."

The Palestine Now Network quoted Salah al-Bardaweel, the spokesman for the Hamas parliamentary bloc, as referring to such attacks as “heroic operations.”

These remarks are similar to statements made by Hamas officials following earlier Palestinian attacks on civilians in Jerusalem. In March, Fawzi Barhoum, a senior Hamas spokesman appeared to support the killing of eight Jewish students by a Palestinian gunmen in the Mercaz Harav seminary in Jerusalem, telling the British Sky News that the attack was "a normal response to the occupation" and added that “our resistance is a legitimate right."

We urge you to prohibit Hamas officials from endorsing any attacks intended to kill or harm civilians.

We look forwards to your response to this matter.

Yours sincerely,

SarahLeah Whitson
Executive Director of the Middle East and North Africa Division,
Human Rights Watch