Israeli Airstrikes on Homes Appear to be Collective Punishment
July 9, 2014
Regardless of who started this latest round, attacks targeting civilians violate basic humanitarian norms. All attacks, including reprisal attacks, that target or indiscriminately harm civilians are prohibited under the laws of war, period.
Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director

(Jerusalem) – Palestinian rocket attacks on Israel appear to be indiscriminate or targeted at civilian population centers, which are war crimes, while Israeli attacks targeting homes may amount to prohibited collective punishment.

Palestinian armed groups in Gaza have launched scores of rockets into Israel since June 13, 2014. When fired indiscriminately or targeted at Israeli population centers – as these attacks seem to be – they are serious violations of the law of armed conflicts. Israel has conducted scores of airstrikes in Gaza, including attacks that destroyed five houses, one of which killed seven people, including at least three children. Attacks on the homes of fighters that do not serve an immediate military purpose – as, again, some of these seem to be – are acts of collective punishment, which the laws of war prohibit.

“Regardless of who started this latest round, attacks targeting civilians violate basic humanitarian norms,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director. “All attacks, including reprisal attacks, that target or indiscriminately harm civilians are prohibited under the laws of war, period.”

Statements attributed to an armed group said that rocket attacks on July 7 were directed at Israeli towns and cities in reprisal for Israeli abuses, but violations by one party to a conflict never justify abuses by another side, Human Rights Watch said.

Israeli officials claimed that Palestinian fighters lived in the targeted homes. In two cases, Israeli forces reportedly warned residents of houses in the southern Rafah and Khan Yunis governorates to leave minutes before attacking the buildings. Since any fighters in the house presumably leave after such warnings, the attacks appear intended to destroy the houses themselves, which shelter family members who have nothing to do with an armed group. The military spokesperson stated on July 8 that the military had targeted four homes of “Hamas activists who are involved in terrorist activities.”

Armed groups in Gaza launched 47 rockets that landed in Israel or were intercepted by Israel’s “Iron Dome” anti-rocket system from June 13 to July 1, according to an Israeli source, and scores more since then. The UN reported 160 rocket launches from Gaza on July 7 and 8, though it was not clear how many hit Israel.

A rocket launched from Gaza on June 24 fell short of its intended target in Israel and killed a three-year-old Palestinian girl and injured three other children in Beit Lahiya. On June 28, a rocket fired from Gaza started a blaze that injured four civilians when it landed on a plastics factory in the Israeli town of Sderot. Another rocket hit a building used for day care in Sderot on July 3, but caused no casualties, media reports said.

The UN reported that between June 11 and July 6, Israeli airstrikes and tank shelling in Gaza killed 12 alleged members of Palestinian armed groups and one child, injured 30 people, mostly civilians, and damaged 11 schools, a well serving 15,000 people, and a health center and a warehouse operated by the UN Relief and Works Agency. During this period Israeli airstrikes, targeting what the military said were sites used by Palestinian armed groups on June 24 and 25, injured 10 civilians and damaged eight houses and two workshops, according to UN monitoring reports. Israeli airstrikes and naval shelling injured eight civilians in Khan Yunis on June 27, and on June 26 and 28 Israeli forces stationed at the Gaza perimeter fence shot and injured three civilians in the area, the UN reported.

According to rights groups and the Gaza health ministry, Israeli attacks from the beginning of the military operation on July 7 to July 9 reportedly killed 35 people, including nine children, and wounded more than 100, in Gaza. Of the 15 deaths reported on July 7 and 8, witnesses quoted by news reports and rights groups have so far identified eight as members of Palestinian armed groups.

An airstrike targeting the home of an alleged member of an armed group in Khan Yunis on July 8 killed seven people, including as many as six children, and injured 25, according to Palestinian news reports and a report by al-Mezan, a Palestinian rights group. Human rights groups and news media reported that victims included other civilian residents of Khan Yunis who had gathered at the building to prevent an Israeli airstrike after Israeli forces had fired a small missile at the building as a warning.

A warning, which can help avoid civilian casualties, does not absolve the attacking party from targeting only military objectives or from the duty to refrain from any attack if anticipated civilian casualties and damage to civilian property in the circumstances of the actual attack are disproportionate to the expected military advantage, Human Rights Watch said.

Palestinian fighters engaged in armed conflict with Israel, and homes that armed groups use to store arms or for other military purposes, could be considered combatants and military objectives, although attacks directed at military objectives need to be proportionate and discriminate. There have been no reports of secondary explosions after Israeli airstrikes on the homes, which would have indicated that armed groups had stored explosives or rockets there. Israel has not explained what military advantage it gained by attacking the homes.

The armed wing of the Popular Resistance Committees and al-Qassam Brigades, the Hamas armed wing, have both claimed responsibility for rocket launches. On July 7, al-Qassam emailed a statement to journalists in Gaza stating, “Al-Qassam Brigades strike the Israeli towns of Ashdod, Ashkelon and Netivot by dozens of rockets in response to the Zionist aggression.” AFP reported another statement by al-Qassam that claimed responsibility for rocket launches targeting the Israeli town of Ofakim.

The unguided rockets launched by Gaza armed groups are inherently indiscriminate and incapable of being targeted at possible military targets in or near Israeli population centers, Human Rights Watch said. The laws of armed conflict prohibit indiscriminate as well as deliberate attacks on civilians.

Statements on a Twitter account that says it is affiliated to al-Qassam claimed that rocket launches on July 7 were intended as reprisals for Israeli abuses against Palestinians in the West Bank.

Years of punitive Israeli restrictions on imports of fuel, electricity, and equipment needed to repair Gaza’s electrical grid, in addition to Egypt’s refusal to open its border to increased shipments of goods to Gaza, have left Gaza’s medical facilities and personnel ill-equipped to cope with large numbers of casualties.

Mahmoud Daher, head of the World Health Organization’s Gaza office, told Human Rights Watch that hospitals have only enough fuel reserves to run their electricity generators, which they depend on during rolling power cuts, for two weeks. Hospitals have cancelled all elective surgeries, Daher said. In addition, 30 percent of 122 essential medical items and 53 percent of medical disposables are out of stock in Gaza, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.

“The preparedness of the health sector in Palestine is at the lowest level ever, and any escalation in the [security] situation could lead to collapse,” with Gaza hospitals unable to cope with large numbers of wounded, Daher said.

Israel and Egypt should facilitate shipments of medical supplies and fuel to hospitals, if fighting escalates, and ensure the ability of Palestinians seeking medical care elsewhere to leave the Gaza Strip, Human Rights Watch said.

The Israeli military announced on July 6 that it had cut in half the area in which Gaza fishermen are allowed to fish, from six nautical miles to three, without explanation. Israel has not alleged that fishermen are in any way responsible for military attacks or a security threat, raising concerns that the restrictions amount to collective punishment.

“Since 2008, there has been no justice in dozens of well-documented unlawful Israeli attacks in Gaza, while armed groups in Gaza continue to launch illegal rocket attacks with impunity,” Stork said. “Both Israel and Palestine could seek to deter war crimes by requesting the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court.”