Launches from Populated Areas Endanger Israelis and Palestinians
August 6, 2009
Hamas rocket attacks targeting Israeli civilians are unlawful and unjustifiable, and amount to war crimes. As the governing authority in Gaza, Hamas should publicly renounce rocket attacks on Israeli civilian centers and punish those responsible, including members of its own armed wing.
Iain Levine, program director at Human Rights Watch
(Jerusalem) - Hamas should repudiate unlawful rocket attacks against Israeli population centers and hold those responsible for them to account, Human Rights Watch said in a new report released today. Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups have over several years launched thousands of rockets at Israeli cities and towns, including hundreds during Israel's three-week military offensive in Gaza in December 2008 and January 2009. A UN fact-finding investigation into serious violations of the laws of war by both sides in the Gaza conflict, led by Judge Richard Goldstone, is due to report back to the UN Human Rights Council in September.

The 31-page report, "Rockets from Gaza: Harm to Civilians from Palestinian Armed Groups' Rocket Attacks," documents attacks by Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups since November 2008 that killed three Israeli civilians and seriously injured dozens of others, damaged property and forced residents to leave their homes. The rockets unlawfully struck populated areas up to 40 kilometers inside Israel, placing roughly 800,000 Israeli civilians at risk. Rockets that fell short of their intended targets in Israel killed two girls and wounded others in Gaza during this period. Palestinian armed groups that launched rockets from densely populated areas also unlawfully put Gaza civilians at risk of Israeli counterstrikes.

"Hamas rocket attacks targeting Israeli civilians are unlawful and unjustifiable, and amount to war crimes," said Iain Levine, program director at Human Rights Watch. "As the governing authority in Gaza, Hamas should publicly renounce rocket attacks on Israeli civilian centers and punish those responsible, including members of its own armed wing."

"Rockets from Gaza" focuses on events after November 4, 2008, when Palestinian armed groups resumed rocket fire after an Israeli military incursion into Gaza. Based on interviews with witnesses to rocket attacks and launches, field investigations of strike sites in Israel and Gaza, and media and other reports, the report details the cases of Israeli and Palestinian civilians killed or wounded by rocket attacks in December 2008 and January 2009. While Human Rights Watch found no clear practice by Palestinian armed groups to deliberately use civilians to shield rocket launches from counterattack, it found they frequently violated the separate duty under the laws of war to take all feasible precautions to avoid endangering civilians when they launched rockets from densely populated areas.

"Hamas forces violated the laws of war both by firing rockets deliberately or indiscriminately at Israeli cities and by launching them from populated areas and endangering Gazan civilians," said Levine.

Hamas has significantly limited rocket attacks in recent months, but has not renounced attacks that deliberately or indiscriminately target civilians - serious violations of the laws of war - or brought to justice those responsible for initiating such attacks, or for endangering Palestinian civilians by launching rockets from densely populated areas in Gaza. Hamas's armed wing claimed responsibility for the three Israeli civilian deaths documented in the report. During the Israeli offensive in December and January, the armed wings of Hamas and Islamic Jihad claimed to have fired 820 rockets at Israel.

The locally made Qassam rockets and Soviet-designed Grad rockets used by Hamas and other armed groups cannot be aimed with any reliability. Under the laws of war, such weapons are indiscriminate when used against targets in densely populated areas. The absence of Israeli military forces in the areas struck by the rockets, as well as statements from the leaders of the Palestinian armed groups, indicate that the armed groups deliberately intended to strike Israeli civilians and civilian structures. For example, Abu Obeida, a spokesman for Hamas's Qassam Brigades, said in a video released on January 5, 2009 that "continuing the incursion will only make us increase our rocket range [...]. We will double the number of Israelis under fire."

Under the laws of war, individuals who willfully authorize or carry out deliberate or indiscriminate attacks against civilians are committing war crimes.

An Israeli early warning siren system, which gives civilians roughly 10 to 45 seconds to find cover in prepared shelters, depending on their distance from the launch site in Gaza, has undoubtedly limited the number of civilian casualties in Israel. However, the repeated attacks have, over months and even years, taken a psychological toll on the population in areas close to Gaza. The laws of war prohibit attacks the primary purpose of which is to spread terror among the civilian population. Because of the rocket attacks, thousands of people have moved away from frequently targeted areas such as Sderot municipality.

Palestinian armed groups have argued that the rocket attacks are appropriate reprisals for Israeli military operations and the ongoing economic blockade of Gaza, and are a lawful response to Israel's control over Gaza. Human Rights Watch has also documented numerous laws of war violations by Israeli forces in Gaza, but violations by one party to a conflict never justify violations by the other. Attacks targeting civilians are never permitted under the laws of war, which require armed forces to target only military objectives, and to take all feasible precautions to spare civilians from harm, regardless of the reasons for resorting to armed conflict.

Similarly, although Israeli military operations caused far greater total harm to civilian lives - killing several hundred civilians with air strikes, artillery, tank shelling, and other attacks - and property than operations by Palestinian armed groups, violations of the laws of war are not determined by the number of civilian casualties, but by whether each side is refraining from conducting deliberate or indiscriminate attacks against civilians and is taking all feasible precautions to minimize civilian loss.

"Human Rights Watch is committed to documenting the worst violations of the laws of war committed by all sides in armed conflicts throughout the world," Levine said. "We published this report because civilians must never be the object of attack, regardless of the relative strength of the attacker."

Using unsophisticated weapons does not justify failure to respect the laws of war, just as an adversary's use of sophisticated weapons does not provide a pass to its opponents to ignore those laws, Human Rights Watch said. Such disparities exist in many wars, and if they provided a justification for ignoring the laws of war the civilian toll in armed conflicts would rise dramatically. The loss of civilian life from armed conflict can be minimized only if each party recognizes its legal obligations to abide by the laws of war, regardless of the weaponry at its disposal.

"Rockets from Gaza" is the fifth in a series of reports Human Rights Watch has issued on the Israeli offensive launched on December 27, 2008. Two reports are forthcoming.