Palestinian Authority Should Respect Rights During Investigation
September 2, 2010

Hamas's deliberate attacks on civilians are egregious crimes. Legitimate Palestinian grievances about illegal Israeli settlements do not justify the attacks. Attacking civilians is never justified. It should stop.

Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch

(Jerusalem) - Hamas should be held accountable for two new attacks against Israeli civilians in the West Bank, and those who ordered and participated in the attacks should be prosecuted, Human Rights Watch said today.

The first attack, on August 31, 2010, killed four people and the second, on September 1, wounded two. Hamas's armed wing, Izz el-Din al-Qassam Brigades, claimed responsibility and called the attacks part of "a series of operations."

"Hamas's deliberate attacks on civilians are egregious crimes," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "Legitimate Palestinian grievances about illegal Israeli settlements do not justify the attacks. Attacking civilians is never justified. It should stop."

In trying to locate the attackers, Israel should take precautions against the excessive use of force by its security forces, Human Rights Watch said. Israel should also investigate the recent attacks against Palestinian civilians and their property by Jewish settlers. Israeli security forces killed two unarmed Palestinians suspected of killing an Israeli settler in December 2009 without allowing them to surrender, Israeli and Palestinian human rights groups reported.

The Palestinian Authority, which reportedly detained more than 150 people within hours of the August 31 killings, should ensure that its security forces respect the rights of detainees, especially given its record of arbitrary arrests and torture and ill-treatment of persons in custody, Human Rights Watch said.

At around 7:30 p.m. on August 31, unidentified gunmen shot and killed two men and two women in a vehicle on Route 60, a major north-south highway in the West Bank, at a junction south of the Palestinian city of Hebron, news reports said. The victims, all from the Jewish settlement Beit Haggai, were Yitzhak Imes, 47; his wife, Talya Imes, 45; Kochava Even Chaim, 37; and Avishai Shindler, 24, the Israeli Foreign Ministry said. Talya Imes was pregnant, according to the Foreign Ministry. The Israeli daily Haaretz reported that the victims had been shot multiple times at close range.

On September 1, gunmen pulled up beside an Israeli car and sprayed it with bullets, wounding Moshe and Shira Moreno, on a road near the Kochav Hashachar settlement northeast of Jerusalem. The couple live in the Ma'ale Efraim settlement in the Jordan Valley.

After the August 31 killings, Israeli forces quickly detained suspects, closed off Bani Naim, a Palestinian town near the site of the attack, and closed roads leading into and out of Hebron, the independent Palestinian news agency Ma'an reported. Israeli police and the Palestinian Authority's security services have begun investigations into the attack. The Palestinian Center for Human Rights, an independent nongovernmental rights group, stated on September 2 that the Palestinian Authority had arrested 153 members and supporters of Hamas, in many cases apparently arbitrarily.

Sami Abu Zuhari, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza, praised the attacks as "the natural reaction to the crimes of the occupation." Human Rights Watch stressed that Hamas should cease all attacks against Israeli civilians and that anyone involved in these killings should be prosecuted.

"Deliberately attacking civilians is not a ‘natural reaction' to anything," Whitson said. "It is a war crime."

Israel's settlements are unlawful under the Fourth Geneva Convention, which prohibits an occupying power from transferring its civilian population into the occupied territory. However, settlers maintain their civilian status and are protected against attack unless they take a direct part in hostilities. Deliberate attacks against civilians violate the laws of war, and persons who carried out or ordered such attacks are liable for war crimes and should be prosecuted.

The killings occurred hours after 10 armed Israeli settlers shot at three Palestinian teenagers in the Salfit district village of Deir Istiya in the northern West Bank, Ma'an reported. The United Nations reported in August that there have been 179 incidents of settler attacks against Palestinians or their property this year.

On June 14, in the same area as the August 31 attack, Palestinian fighters killed Yehoshua Sofer, 39, an Israeli police officer, and wounded three other Israeli police officers. The al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, an armed group affiliated with the Fatah political movement, claimed responsibility. The laws of war treat police who are distinct from the armed forces as civilians who are protected from attack unless they are actively participating in hostilities.

The Palestinian Authority should ensure that its security forces respect the rights of detainees, Human Rights Watch said. In July, the Independent Commission for Human Rights, a Palestinian human rights organization, reported 132 complaints of abuses by the Palestinian Authority's security services in the West Bank, including 11 cases of alleged torture.

Israel should ensure that its security services adhere to international standards for the use of lethal force, Human Rights Watch said. On December 24, 2009, the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades claimed responsibility for killing Meir Chai, a rabbi from a settlement near Hebron. Two days later, Israeli security forces killed three members of the Palestinian armed group in separate attacks in the Old City of Nablus. In two cases, the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem and the Palestinian rights group al-Haq reported, the men were unarmed and not given a chance to surrender.

According to statistics collected by B'Tselem, since the beginning of 2009, Israeli security forces and settlers have killed 26 Palestinians in the West Bank, of whom at least 13 were not taking part in hostilities. In eight other cases, B'Tselem could not determine whether those killed were taking part in hostilities. On March 20 and 21, for example, Israeli soldiers killed four Palestinians near Nablus - two boys, ages 15 and 17, who did not pose any threat to soldiers, B'Tselem said, and two 19-year-olds killed in unclear circumstances. Palestinians have killed seven Israeli civilians in the West Bank during that time, B'Tselem reported.

"There is never an excuse for targeting civilians, whether by the Israelis or the Palestinians, yet impunity for civilian deaths has for too long been the norm in this conflict," Whitson said. "Ending this impunity is key to stopping these attacks."