Civilians Should Not Be Penalized for Rocket Attacks by Armed Groups
October 29, 2007
Because Israel remains an occupying power, in light of its continuing restrictions on Gaza, Israel must not take measures that harm the civilian population – yet that is precisely what cutting fuel or electricity for even short periods will do.
Sarah Leah Whitson, director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East division

Israel’s decision to limit fuel and electricity to the Gaza Strip in retaliation for unlawful rocket attacks by armed groups amounts to collective punishment against the civilian population of Gaza, in violation of international law, and will worsen the humanitarian crisis there, Human Rights Watch said today.

“Israel may respond to rocket attacks by armed groups to protect its population, but only in lawful ways,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East division. “Because Israel remains an occupying power, in light of its continuing restrictions on Gaza, Israel must not take measures that harm the civilian population – yet that is precisely what cutting fuel or electricity for even short periods will do.”

On Sunday, the Israeli Defense Ministry ordered the reduction of fuel shipments from Israel to Gaza. A government spokesman said the plan was to cut the amount of fuel by 5 to 11 percent without affecting the supply of industrial fuel for Gaza’s only power plant.

According to Palestinian officials, fuel shipments into Gaza yesterday fell by more than 30 percent.

In response to the government’s decision, a group of 10 Palestinian and Israeli human rights groups petitioned the Israeli Supreme Court on Sunday, seeking an immediate injunction against the fuel and electricity cuts. The court gave the government five days to respond but did not issue a temporary injunction. On Monday, the groups requested an urgent hearing before the five days expire.

Last Thursday, Defense Minister Ehud Barak approved cutting electricity to Gaza for increasing periods in response to ongoing rocket attacks against civilian areas in Israel, but the government has not yet implemented the order.

The rockets fired by Palestinian armed groups violate the international legal prohibition on indiscriminate attacks because they are highly inaccurate and cannot be directed at a specific target. Because Hamas exercises power inside Gaza, it is responsible for stopping indiscriminate attacks even when carried out by other groups, Human Rights Watch said.

On Friday, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said that Israel would respond strongly to the ongoing attacks without allowing a humanitarian crisis. But the UN’s top humanitarian official, UN Deputy Secretary-General John Holmes, said that a “serious humanitarian crisis” in Gaza already exists, and called on Israel to lift the economic blockade that it tightened after Hamas seized power in June.

Israel’s decision to cut fuel and electricity is the latest move aimed ostensibly against Hamas that is affecting the entire population of Gaza. In September, the Israeli cabinet declared Gaza “hostile territory” and voted to “restrict the passage of various goods to the Gaza Strip and reduce the supply of fuel and electricity.” Since then, Israel has increasingly blocked supplies into Gaza, letting in limited amounts of essential foodstuffs, medicine and humanitarian supplies. According to Holmes, the number of humanitarian convoys entering Gaza had dropped to 1,500 in September from 3,000 in July.

“Cutting fuel and electricity obstructs vital services,” Whitson said. “Operating rooms, sewage pumps, and water well pumps all need electricity to run.”

Israel sells to Gaza roughly 60 percent of the electricity consumed by the territory’s 1.5 million inhabitants. In June 2006, six Israeli missiles struck Gaza’s only power plant; today, for most residents, electricity is available during only limited hours.

Israeli officials said they would cut electricity for 15 minutes after each rocket attack and then for increasingly longer periods if the attacks persist. Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai said Israel would “dramatically reduce” the power it supplied to Gaza over a period of weeks.

Cutting fuel or electricity to the civilian population violates a basic principle of international humanitarian law, or the laws of war, which prohibit a government that has effective control over a territory from attacking or withholding objects that are essential to the survival of the civilian population. Such an act would also violate Israel’s duty as an occupying power to safeguard the health and welfare of the population under occupation.

Israel withdrew its military forces and settlers from the Gaza Strip in 2005. Nonetheless, Israel remains responsible for ensuring the well-being of Gaza’s population for as long as, and to the extent that, it retains effective control over the area. Israel still exercises control over Gaza’s airspace, sea space and land borders, as well as its electricity, water, sewage and telecommunications networks and population registry. Israel can and has also reentered Gaza for security operations at will.

Israeli officials state that by declaring Gaza “hostile territory,” it is no longer obliged under international law to supply utilities to the civilian population, but that is a misstatement of the law.

“A mere declaration does not change the facts on the ground that impose on Israel the status and obligations of an occupying power,” said Whitson.