Effect of 155mm Artillery Indiscriminate in Populated Areas
January 16, 2009
Firing 155mm shells into the center of Gaza City, whatever the target, will likely cause horrific civilian casualties. By using this weapon in such circumstances, Israel is committing indiscriminate attacks in violation of the laws of war.
Marc Garlasco, senior military analyst at Human Rights Watch

(Jerusalem, January 16, 2009) - Israel's use of heavy artillery in residential areas of Gaza City violates the prohibition under the laws of war against indiscriminate attacks and should be stopped immediately, Human Rights Watch said today. A Human Rights Watch researcher on the Israel-Gaza border on January 15, 2009, observed Israel's repeated use in the center of Gaza City of 155mm artillery shells, which inflict blast and fragmentation damage up to 300 meters away.

"Firing 155mm shells into the center of Gaza City, whatever the target, will likely cause horrific civilian casualties," said Marc Garlasco, senior military analyst at Human Rights Watch. "By using this weapon in such circumstances, Israel is committing indiscriminate attacks in violation of the laws of war."

According to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), Israel yesterday shelled the relief organization's main compound in Gaza City, wounding three people. UNRWA believes that white phosphorus used in the attack set part of the compound on fire. Up to 700 city residents had fled there in the morning to seek refuge after intense fighting in the area. The Human Rights Watch researcher also witnessed ground-burst 155mm white phosphorus strikes in Gaza City.

"We warned the Israelis hour by hour through the night of the vulnerabilities here as the shells came closer and closer, and shrapnel was coming into the compound on a regular occasion," John Ging, UNWRA's Gaza director of operations, told the media. "Nonetheless, we have now been subjected to these direct hits."

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert apologized for the attack, but said Israeli forces had come under fire from the UN compound.  "It is absolutely true that we were attacked from that place, but the consequences are very sad and we apologize for it," he said.

The death toll from yesterday's military operations remains unknown, but media reports quoted Gaza health officials as saying that 70 people had died (the reports make no distinction between civilian and combatant casualties). As of January 14, 1,013 Palestinians had died, including 322 children and 76 women, according to the Gazan Ministry of Health. An additional 4,560 Palestinians reportedly have been wounded, including 1,600 children and 678 women.

The attacks on Gaza City occurred after the Israel Defense Force (IDF) had warned Gaza's residents to flee to city centers.  According to the Israeli government, on January 3, the IDF began broadcasting warnings that told people, among other things, that "For your own safety, you are required to leave your homes immediately and move to the city centers."  Despite these warnings, the IDF has launched attacks against the Gaza city center, causing civilian casualties.

"Israel warned civilians to go to city centers and later shelled the center of Gaza City with a weapon that should never be used in densely populated areas," Garlasco said. 

According to media reports and aid groups, Israeli forces yesterday also fired upon a hospital and an international media center. The World Health Organization (WHO) told Human Rights Watch that Israeli shells had struck the al-Quds hospital in the Tel al-Hawa neighborhood, setting it on fire. The fire was extinguished, but about 100 patients had to be evacuated. Between 150 and 500 patients were in the hospital at the time, WHO said.

Israeli fire also hit the al-Shurouq tower, which houses media outlets such as Reuters, al-Arabiyya Television, and al-Hayat newspaper, causing substantial damage and wounding at least two journalists, including one who worked for the Abu Dhabi television channel. Media organizations had provided the Israeli military with the GPS locations of all their offices. Israeli forces told the media that they had come under fire from the building. It is not clear if Israeli forces hit the building using artillery or tank shells.

Human Rights Watch is unable to conduct full investigations into alleged laws of war violations by either side because of Israel's continuing denial of access to Gaza.

Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups have also violated the laws of war by continuing to fire unguided Qassam and Grad rockets at population centers in Israel. A Human Rights Watch researcher on the Gazan border yesterday saw the firing of a Qassam rocket that hit outside Sderot, causing no injuries. Such rockets have killed three Israeli civilians and injured at least 78 since December 27.

International humanitarian law, or the laws of war, prohibits indiscriminate attacks. Indiscriminate attacks are of a nature to strike military objectives and civilians or civilian objects without distinction. Examples of indiscriminate attacks are those that are not directed at a specific military objective or that use weapons that cannot be directed at a specific military objective. Prohibited indiscriminate attacks include area bombardment, which are attacks by artillery or other means that treat as a single military objective a number of clearly separated and distinct military objectives located in an area containing a concentration of civilians and civilian objects.

The expected lethal radius for a 155mm high explosive projectile, such as the artillery the IDF is  currently using in Gaza City, is reportedly between 50 and 150 meters and the expected casualty radius is between 100 and 300 meters. IDF officials have previously said that the error radius for a 155mm shell is usually 25 meters. Therefore, if the IDF fires shells as close as 100 meters to populated areas, it greatly increases the likelihood of civilian casualties.

In Human Rights Watch's June 2007 report "Indiscriminate Fire: Palestinian Rocket Attacks on Israel and Israeli Artillery Shelling in the Gaza Strip," Human Rights Watch made the following recommendations to Israel concerning the use of artillery in densely populated areas of Gaza.  Human Rights Watch called upon Israel to:

  • Cease artillery attacks using weapons such as 155mm artillery in situations and locales where the degree of weapon targeting accuracy and the shells' casualty radius do not allow for attacks that can discriminate between civilians and combatants.
  • Cease artillery attacks in or near populated areas that are likely to cause civilian harm that is excessive compared to the expected military advantage.
  • Ensure that all artillery attacks are directed at a genuine military objective, and not overly expansive conceptions of "area denial" that are inconsistent with international humanitarian law. Cease any attacks as soon as it becomes known that they are not being directed at a genuine military objective or are not distinguishing between combatants and civilians.
  • Ensure, in cooperation with Palestinian counterparts, that effective communications mechanisms are in place to relay promptly information on attacks threatening civilian harm, and take appropriate measures to reduce the threat to civilians when such information is provided.
  • Collect and analyze data regarding Palestinian civilian casualties from artillery shelling in order to assess the harm to civilians caused by the use of artillery in particular locales and situations, and thus to base targeting decisions on a proper weighing of foreseeable civilian harm.