August 6, 2009

Civilian Deaths and Injuries in Israel from Palestinian Rockets

Palestinian armed groups have fired more than 4,000 rockets at Israeli territory since 2001,[12] including nearly 2,700 rockets from September 2005 through May 2007,[13] and more than 1750 rockets in 2008 alone.[14]  These attacks virtually stopped during the first four months of a six-month ceasefire between Israel and Hamas that went into effect on June 19, 2008, but resumed after Israeli forces killed six Palestinian fighters during an incursion into Gaza on November 4, 2008.[15]   From November 5 to the formal end of the six-month ceasefire on December 19, 2008, armed groups fired 203 rockets. From December 19 to December 26, the day before Israel began major military operations, armed groups fired 66 rockets.[16] 

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) told Human Rights Watch that Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other armed groups in the Gaza Strip fired approximately 650 rockets between December 27, 2008 and January 18, 2009, when major hostilities in Gaza ceased.[17]  The IDF Spokesman’s Office also referred Human Rights Watch to the website of an Israeli organization, which recorded that 570 rockets had landed in Israel during the period.[18] During this time, more than 90 rockets fell on the city of Sderot alone.[19]   Hamas’s armed wing, the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, and Islamic Jihad’s Al-Quds Brigades claim to have fired 820 rockets at Israel during this period.[20] According to the International Crisis Group, Hamas “coordinated the other militias who fought” during the three weeks of major military operations, including the military wings of Islamic Jihad and of the PFLP, and the Ayman Juda and Mujahidin Brigades, which are affiliated with the al-Aqsa Martyr’s Brigades.

Armed groups had fired 100 rockets between the end of major military operations on January 18 and April 27, 2009, according to one Israeli source, but only five of these rockets were launched since March 16.[21]  On March 12, the Hamas interior ministry stated that rockets were being “fired at the wrong time,” and that Hamas had “no relations” with them and was investigating who was responsible.[22]  On April 21, Hamas called a meeting of Islamic Jihad, PFLP, and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine.  The purpose of the meeting, according to PFLP political bureau member Rabah Muhanna, was to create a “joint operations room for the military wings of the Palestinian factions.” On April 20, a Hamas lawmaker called on other armed groups to stop firing rockets in “the interest of the Palestinian people.”[23]

From the first rocket launches from Gaza in 2001 to May 2009, rocket attacks have killed 15 civilians in Israel, according to Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs; in addition, a rocket attack in 2005 killed a Chinese man and two Palestinian men working at an Israeli settlement in the Gaza Strip.[24]  Israel installed an early warning siren system named “Color Red” (“Tzeva Adom”) that gives civilians roughly 10 to 45 seconds to find cover from the rockets, depending on the distance from the launch site in Gaza, by broadcasting a warning siren in southern Israeli communities when the system detects a rocket launch. The early-warning system, as well as the prepared shelters and reinforced schools that Israel has introduced in areas near Gaza, have undoubtedly limited the number of civilian casualties. 

The Magen David Adom (MDA), the Israeli equivalent of the Red Cross, reported that between December 27, 2008 and January 19, 2009, its personnel treated a total of 770 civilians harmed by rocket attacks, including three fatalities, four severely wounded, 11 moderately wounded and 167 lightly wounded, and another 584 persons suffering from shock and “anxiety syndrome.”[25]  An MDA spokesman said that another 10 people had been physically injured from January 19 to March 19.[26] 

Human Rights Watch interviewed witnesses to the three fatal rocket attacks on Israeli civilians since November 2008.

Beber Vaknin, 58, in Netivot

On December 27, 2008, the first day of Israel’s military offensive in Gaza, at around 1:45 p.m., shrapnel from a rocket fired from Gaza killed Beber Vaknin, a 58-year-old window installer, as he stood in the backyard of his apartment building in the town of Netivot. Netivot is about ten kilometers east of the 1949 Gaza-Israel armistice line. 

Nofar Mor-Yossef, 20, a soldier, was on leave and staying in her family’s apartment in the same building where Vaknin lived when the rocket struck the building next door. She told Human Rights Watch,

Beber was standing outside in the yard [near the back entrance of the building], that’s why the shrapnel got him.  It was around two in the afternoon.  He dragged himself into the lobby of the building and died there, that’s where we found him.  My brother was the one who called the ambulance.  We’ve lived here our whole lives--we had known Beber the whole time.[27]

Mor-Yossef showed Human Rights Watch the damage that the blast had done to her family’s apartment, including two shrapnel fragments that punctured the exterior wall of the apartment building and lodged in a bedroom closet. 

Vaknin’s sister, Etti Amir, a 50-year-old housecleaner who lives in Eilat, told Human Rights Watch that her brother had lived in Netivot “from the time he was 18.” Amir said she was watching coverage of the attack on a television news program shortly after her brother was killed: “I saw a man on a gurney but I didn’t know it was him. Then a friend of his called me and told me. When I go to Netivot now, I forget for a moment, I still think I’m going to see him.”[28]

The rocket that killed Vaknin also broke through the exterior wall of an apartment in a building next door.  Sarah Alamo, 24, a kindergarten teacher, was in the apartment at the time with her three sisters, Yael, 21, Edna, 13, and Osnat Enverem, 5.  “We heard the siren and waited behind the interior wall in the kitchen,” she said, referring to the Israeli “Color Red,” the early warning system that alerts residents of communities within range that a rocket has been fired in their direction.  “There was a big boom, we saw the shrapnel flying, and the house filled up with dust.  Then we went down to the shelter room in the basement.  Only after did we realize that it had landed in our house.”[29] 

Sarah’s husband Moshe, a teacher and social worker, returned from synagogue to find the tail of the rocket sticking out of his bedroom floor. “There was a hole in the exterior wall of the bedroom, about three feet in diameter, and the rocket was sticking into the floor – the nose of the rocket was visible in the ceiling of the apartment beneath ours.”[30] The Alamos had to relocate to another apartment for more than a month while theirs was repaired.

Tehila Nesimi, 26, a human resources worker, lives with her three-year-old daughter in an apartment overlooking the yard where Vaknin was killed. “Twenty seconds after the siren, it hit.  My sister was in shock, she went to Kaplan hospital in Rehovot.  I’m trying to forget it.  My whole family was here.”[31] Nofar Mor-Yossef also said that her entire family was in her apartment when the rocket struck, and that her sister was also taken to hospital to be treated for shock.

The Hamas Izz el-Din al-Qassam Brigades claimed responsibility for firing eight “Qassam” rockets at Netivot on December 27.[32]

Hani al-Mahdi, 27, in Ashkelon

On December 29, a Grad-type rocket struck the city of Ashkelon, about 16 kilometers north of the armistice line, killing Hani al-Mahdi, 27, a construction worker from the Bedouin village of Aro’ar, in the Negev. The attack also wounded several other workers who were building a library.  The rocket slammed into the top floor of the concrete structure, creating a hole roughly 1.5 meters in diameter. According to MDA, the rocket attack caused 12 casualties, including al-Mahdi, one worker who was severely wounded, and four moderately and five lightly wounded workers, who were evacuated to Barzilai Hospital in Ashkelon.[33]

“Muhammad Mustafa” (a pseudonym), 34, a worker present at the time, said that four groups of workers were on different parts of the worksite when the rocket hit.  After the warning siren went off, two of the groups managed to run to the shelter area, but members of one group, including al-Mahdi, were hit by shrapnel just before they reached the shelter door.  Said Mustafa:

It was around 9:15 on Monday morning when the rocket hit.  It hit just after the alarm started. Normally there is a bit more time, but we were all still running.  I was on the ground level and made it to another shelter there, when I heard the explosion.  I knew what it was.  Then I heard screaming from the top floor and I called the police on my mobile as I ran up there. I saw Hani.  He was shaking and he died there.  At least seven were injured.[34]
Mustafa said he collected some pieces of shrapnel from the blast, which “looked like torn-off pieces of metal, sharp, some big and some only an inch or two.”

Khalid Ayub, 39, the site engineer, was standing in the parking lot behind the construction site when the alarm sounded.  “Within a few seconds I heard the hit, and there was debris flying around from the explosion,” he told Human Rights Watch.  “There were around 24 workers here on that day.  Since then we closed the site until after the end of the war, it was a military order that if your site is hit, you shut down.  We didn’t re-open until January 28, and then many of the workers did not come back.”[35] 

Since returning to work, Ayub said, the rocket-alert sirens had sounded twice more while he was on the worksite. “It was very hard to come back to work here, and the sirens are terrible now, I’m always looking around for another rocket.”

Mustafa and Ayub said that many of the workers who were injured or were on the site at the time were from Kufr Manda, an Arab village in the Galilee, in the north of Israel; from Aro’ar, the Bedouin village in the Negev; or from Hebron, in the West Bank. Human Rights Watch was unable to contact any of the workers who were wounded during the attack; they were reluctant to speak due to ongoing legal proceedings. 


At a special session of the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, on the day of the attack, December 29, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni appeared to threaten Israeli reprisal attacks against Palestinan civilians, saying she had heard on the radio that “Hamas declared the man killed by a rocket in Ashkelon was ‘one of the Zionists’ despite being an Israeli Arab. They don't make a distinction, and neither should we.”[36]  Hamas’s website states that a “Grad” rocket it fired at Ashkelon killed “a Zionist” and caused other injuries. [37] 

Irit Sheetrit, 39, in Ashdod

At around 9 p.m. on December 29, 2008, a rocket hit the city of Ashdod, about 29 kilometers north of the armistice line, killing Irit Sheetrit, 39, a school secretary, as she was driving home from the gym with her sister, Ayelet Morduch.  Sheetrit had heard a warning siren and pulled over near a bus stop, following instructions issued by the Home Front Command of the IDF. 

According to Herzl Sheetrit, Irit’s husband,

I was talking on the phone with her when it happened.  I heard the explosion, and then her sister screaming.  I drove to the place as fast as I could but she was already in the ambulance on the way to the hospital.  But the news was already on TV, they showed the car that was hit and said that one woman was seriously injured.  I was afraid my kids were seeing the news and I wasn’t there to stop them from watching it.  So I called my kids and told them to go to the safe room because there is no TV there.  Then I came home and told them she had been killed.[38]

Sheetrit was the mother of four children, ages 10, 12, 17, and 19.  Her sister Ayelet Morduch, 36, who works in newspaper advertising in Ashdod, was wounded in her hand and leg by shrapnel from the blast.  She told Human Rights Watch, “I was a witness to the whole thing.  I saw visions that keep coming back to me, it was a nightmare.”[39]

Hamas’s military wing, the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, claimed responsibility for the attack.[40]

Beer Sheva

At around 5 p.m. on January 15, 2009, shrapnel from a reported Grad rocket attack on the city of Beer Sheva, 37 kilometers east of Gaza, penetrated the skull of a seven-year-old child, severely wounding him, and critically wounded his mother, who had tried to cover him with her body after hearing the early warning alarm.[41]  A witness, Yoal Lavi, told news media that shortly after the attack he performed CPR on the mother, who had a “huge wound” and complained of “horrendous stomach pains” due to shrapnel.[42]   Hamas’s Qassam Brigades website claimed responsibility for causing two serious injuries in the attack on Beer Sheba.[43]

The Psychological Toll

The psychological toll of years of rocket attacks has affected a far greater number of Israeli civilians than those who suffered physical wounds.  The trauma can be severely debilitating, according to David Wolfson, who is in charge of sending crews to identify and assist trauma victims after rocket strikes in Ashkelon.   “We’ve been under rocket fire now for so long that some people have been near rocket hits two times, and have been re-traumatized to the point where they cannot take care of themselves,” Wolfson told Human Rights Watch.[44] 

Wolfson said that in one case, several persons suffering from trauma due to a previous rocket attack had been in a bomb shelter that was directly hit by a Grad rocket, causing no injuries but “psychologically scarring” some of the people sheltering inside.  Rockets had affected his own family, he said.  On January 2, “at around 4:30 p.m., a rocket hit very close to my house.  I deal with this all the time, but my wife was with me, and she was terrified. She still is.”

The director of the international department of the Magen David Adom, Yonatan Yagodovsky, told Human Rights Watch,

The problem for most people was not being hit, but the fear, uncertainty and stress. More than 800,000 Israelis were under threat because for the first time the missiles [sic] had a range of up to 35 kilometers.  You had to plan your daily life by considering how long it would take you to get to a bomb shelter from every point on your route.[45]

[12]According to one Israel-based source, armed groups fired 4,048 rockets at Israel from 2001 to 2008.  Israel Intelligence Heritage and Information Center (IICC), “Summary of rocket fire and mortar shelling in 2008,” January 1, 2009,, accessed April 27, 2009.

[13] Human Rights Watch, Indiscriminate Fire: Palestnian Rocket Attacks on Israel and Israeli Artillery Shelling in the Gaza Strip (July 2007), p.4, citing statistics provided by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

[14]The US-based public policy group GlobalSecurity.Org gives a figure of 1,750 for 2008. See “Hamas rockets,”, accessed April 1, 2009.  Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs gives the same figure ("The Hamas Terror War Against Israel," June 21, 2009,, accessed July 28, 2009.  

[15]“Rockets Fired after Gaza Clashes,” BBC, November 5, 2008,, accessed April 4, 2009.

[16]Armed groups fired 125 rockets from November 5 to 31, and 78 rockets from December 1-26.  IICC, “Summary of rocket fire and mortar shelling in 2008,” January 1, 2009, see charts on pp. 8-9. 

[17]Human Rights Watch telephone interview with IDF Spokesperson’s Office, March 19, 2009. Of the total during this period, according to the IDF, armed groups launched almost 500 locally made Qassam-type rockets and 150 Soviet-designed Grad rockets. 

[18]IICC, “Operation Cast Lead – Update No. 18,” January 20, 2009,, accessed April 25, 2009; Human Rights Watch telephone interview with IDF Spokesperson’s Office, April 15, 2009.

[19]Fax to Human Rights Watch from the office of Yehuda Ben Maman, Sderot security officer, March 19, 2009.

[20]  According to the website of the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the group launched 345 Qassam rockets, 213 Grad rockets, 402 mortar rounds, and 82 rocket-propelled grenades and similar shells during the conflict.  “Summary of al-Qassam Operations during the 23-day al-Forqan Battle,” document available at, accessed April 8, 2009.  On January 20, 2009, Al Jazeera reported that Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for launching 262 rockets into Israel since December 27, 2008. Shane Bauer, “Palestinian factions united by war,” Al Jazeera English, January 20, 2009,, accessed March 16, 2009.

[21]IIHC, “News of Terrorism and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict,” April 21-27, 2009,, accessed April 29, 2008.

[22]Al Jazeera, “Hamas criticizes Gaza rocket fire,” March 13, 2009,, accessed May 10, 2009.

[23]“Hamas discusses resistance regulation with Gaza groups,” Xinhua, April 22, 2009,, accessed April 28, 2009.

[24]Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “Victims of Palestinian Violence and Terrorism since September 2000,”, accessed May 24, 2009.  The fatal rocket attacks occurred on June 28, 2004 (2 killed), September 29, 2004 (2 killed), January 15, 2005 (1 killed), June 7, 2005 (3 killed, in Gaza), July 14, 2005 (1 killed), November 15, 2006 (1 killed), November 21, 2006 (1 killed), May 21, 2007 (1 killed), May 27, 2007 (1 killed), February 27, 2008 (1 killed), May 12, 2008 (1 killed), December 27, 2008 (1 killed), December 29, 2008 (2 killed in separate incidents). Information clarifying that the attack on May 12, 2008 was a rocket strike may be found at “Woman killed by qassam in southern Israel,” YNET, May 13, 2008,,7340,L-3542439,00.html.


[25]Magen David Adom, “MDA Statistics – Cast Lead Operation,” February 4, 2009,, accessed March 15, 2009. The English-language site incorrectly states that the casualty total is for the period December 27, 2008 to January 26, 2009, according to MDA spokesperson Yonatan Yagudovsky.

[26]Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Yonatan Yagudovsky, Magen David Adom spokesperson, March 19, 2009.

[27]Human Rights Watch interview with Nofar Mor-Yossef, Netivot, March 3, 2009.

[28]Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Etti Amir, Eilat, March 3, 2009.

[29]Human Rights Watch interview with Sarah Alamo, Netivot, March 3, 2009.

[30]Human Rights Watch interview with Moshe Alamo, Netivot, March 3, 2009.

[31]Human Rights Watch interview with Tehila Nesimi, Netivot, March 3, 2009.

  كتائب القسام تقصف مغتصبة "نتيفوت" الصهيونية بثمانية صواريخ قسام والعدو يعترف بمقتل صهيونية وإصابة آخرين[32]

[Qassam Brigades shells Zionist Netivot with eight Qassam rockets and the enemy confesses the death of a Zionist and injuries to others], accessed April 29, 2009.

[33]Magen David Adom, “MDA Statistics – Cast Lead Operation,” February 4, 2009.

[34]Human Rights Watch interview with Muhammad Mustafa (not his real name), Ashkelon, March 16, 2009.

[35]Human Rights Watch interview with Khalid Ayub, Ashkelon, March 16, 2009.

[36]Amnon Meranda, “Tibi: Politicians counting Palestinian bodies,” YNET News, December 29, 2008,,7340,L-3646487,00.html, accessed March 16, 2009.

[37]كتائب القسام تقصف مدينة "المجدل" المحتلة بصاروخ غراد والعدو يعترف بمقتل صهيوني وإصابة آخرين  [Qassam Brigades hits al Majdal occupied city with Grad rocket, the enemy confesses the killing of a Zionist and injuries to others], accessed April 29, 2009.

[38]Human Rights Watch interview with Herzl Sheetrit, Ashdod, March 3, 2009.

[39]Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Ayelet Morduch, Ashdod, March 3, 2009.

[40]Shmulik Hadad, “South under fire; 2 Israelis killed,” YNET News, December 30, 2008,,7340,L-3646829,00.html, accessed March 16, 2009.  See also the Qassam Brigades website, stating that it fired one “Grad” rocket at Ashdod and another on Ashkelon, causing a “Zionist’s” death,

كتائب القسام تقصف ميناء اسدود ومدينة عسقلان المحتلة بصاروخي "غراد"والعدو يعترف بمقتل صهيونيين ووقوع عدد من الإصابات بعضهم في حال الخطر الشديد

[Qassam Brigades hits Ashdod Harbor and occupied Ashkelon with two Grads, the enemy confesses the killing of two Zionists  and other serious injuries], accessed April 30, 2009.

[41]Maayana Miskin, “Six wounded in Be’er Sheva rocket attack,” Israel National News, January 15, 2009,, accessed April 2, 2009.

[42]Avraham Zuroff, “Be’er Sheva resident saved rocket victim’s life,” Israel National News, January 16, 2009,, accessed April 2, 2009.

[43]"معركة الفرقان" في يومهاالعشرينرداً على المحرقة المتواصلة ... القسام يقصف مدينة "بئر السبع" المحتلة بصاروخي غراد .. مما أوقع أربع إصابات اثنتان بحالة الخطر الشديد [al Furqan battle in day 20: a payback to the continuous holocaust: Qassam hits occupied Beer Shiva city with two Grads, causing four injuries, two of which are very serious], accessed April 30, 2009.

[44]Human Rights Watch interview with David Wolfson, Ashkelon, January 3, 2009.

[45]Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Yonatan Yagodovsky, March 13, 2009.