(Jerusalem) - During Israel's recent Gaza offensive, Israeli soldiers unlawfully shot and killed 11 Palestinian civilians, including five women and four children, who were in groups waving white flags to convey their civilian status, Human Rights Watch said in a report  released today. The Israeli military should conduct thorough, credible investigations into these deaths to tackle the prevailing culture of impunity, Human Rights Watch said.
The 63-page report, "White Flag Deaths: Killings of Palestinian Civilians during Operation Cast Lead ," is based on field investigations of seven incident sites in Gaza, including ballistic evidence found at the scene, medical records of victims, and lengthy interviews with multiple witnesses - at least three people separately for each incident.
The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) declined repeated Human Rights Watch requests for a meeting to discuss the cases and did not respond to questions submitted in writing.
"The Israeli military is stonewalling in the face of evidence that its soldiers killed civilians waving white flags in areas it controlled and where there were no Palestinian fighters," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "These cases need thorough, independent investigations."
The 11 civilians killed and at least eight wounded comprise a small fraction of the more than 1,100 Palestinian civilians and combatants killed during what Israel called Operation Cast Lead in December 2008 and January 2009. However, these deaths stand out because the civilians were in groups waving a white cloth, T-shirt, or scarf, and no Palestinian fighters were in the area at the time, Human Rights Watch said.
Israel has repeatedly blamed Hamas for the deaths of Palestinian civilians during the Gaza operation because, Israel says, Hamas fought from populated areas and used civilians as "human shields" - that is, deliberately used civilians to deter attacks against Palestinian forces. Two Israeli commanders have alleged that Palestinian fighters used white flags to shield themselves from attack, but neither provided details to allow an investigation of the claims. The Israeli military turned down requests from Human Rights Watch to discuss the allegations.
In the 11 killings documented in this report, Human Rights Watch found no evidence that the civilian victims were used by Palestinian fighters as human shields or were shot in the crossfire between opposing forces. The civilian victims were in plain view and posed no apparent security threat.
In each of the incidents, the evidence strongly indicates that, at the least, Israeli soldiers failed to take all feasible precautions to distinguish between civilians and combatants before opening fire, as required by the laws of war. At worst, the soldiers deliberately shot at persons known to be civilians.
Under the laws of war, individuals who carry out or order deliberate attacks on civilians are responsible for war crimes.
In one case documented in the report, on January 7 in eastern Jabalya, two women and three children from the family of Khalid ‘Abd Rabbo were standing in front of their home after an Israeli soldier ordered them outside - at least three of them holding pieces of white cloth - when a soldier near a tank opened fire, killing two girls, ages 2 and 7, and wounding the third girl and their grandmother.
"We spent seven to nine minutes waving the flags, and our faces were looking at them [the soldiers]," said the grandmother, who was shot twice. "And suddenly they opened fire and the girls fell to the ground."
Accounts from witnesses, tank tracks, an ammunition box and bullet casings found at the scene, and an examination of the grandmother's wounds by forensic experts indicate that the Israeli soldier fired upon identifiable and unarmed women and children.
In five of the seven incidents detailed in the report, Israeli soldiers shot at civilians who were walking down the street with white flags, trying to leave the areas of fighting.
On January 13 in the village of Khuza'a, an Israeli soldier shot and killed Rawhiya al-Najjar, 47, and wounded her relative, Jasmin al-Najjar, 23. The women were walking in a small group on a straight road during daylight, with Rawhiya al-Najjar holding a white flag, following Israeli military orders to leave their neighborhood after it had come under Israeli control. Soldiers had occupied a house 230 meters down the street, but apparently fired no warning shots to deter the group as it approached.
The Israeli military announced on July 29 that it was investigating five incidents where Israeli soldiers allegedly killed civilians holding white flags, including at least two of the incidents in the report - the ‘Abd Rabbo and al-Najjar cases. Human Rights Watch expressed hope that Israel would carry out a full and impartial investigation into these incidents, but said that Israel's poor record on investigations made objective probes unlikely.
The military said it was conducting "field investigations" into about 100 incidents altogether involving its alleged violations of the laws of war during the Gaza operation. Field investigations typically consist of asking soldiers to question other soldiers, without seeking or considering testimony from external witnesses, and taking exculpatory claims of soldiers at face value.
As of August 10, for example, no one from the military had contacted members of the ‘Abd Rabbo or al-Najjar families to ask about the deaths of their relatives.
"The Israel Defense Forces have for years permitted a pervasive culture of impunity regarding unlawful Palestinian deaths," Stork said. "Field investigations may serve a useful military purpose, but they are inadequate to determine whether a soldier violated the laws of war, and serve as a pretext that a serious investigation is taking place."
Given the past failure of Israel, as well as Hamas, to investigate their own forces, Human Rights Watch has called for an international investigation into alleged laws-of-war violations by both sides. The United Nations Human Rights Council created a fact-finding mission, headed by Justice Richard Goldstone, which will present its report on abuses by all parties to the Human Rights Council in September.
"The UN investigation has a comprehensive mandate and a professional team," Stork said. "Israel and Hamas, and all UN member states, should seriously consider its recommendations and how to implement them."
Human Rights Watch called on UN member states to establish a dedicated UN mechanism to monitor and report on steps that Israel and Hamas take to conduct transparent and impartial investigations into allegations of serious laws-of-war violations committed during the December-January hostilities in Gaza and Israel, and prosecute those responsible. In the event that Israel and Hamas authorities are unable or unwilling to investigate and prosecute through fair trials those responsible for war crimes, Human Rights Watch said, UN member states should press for international prosecutions.
"White Flag Deaths" is the sixth report Human Rights Watch has issued on abuses by Israel and Palestinian armed groups since Operation Cast Lead began on December 27, 2008. A report  released on August 6 documented the unlawful rocket attacks into populated areas in Israel by Hamas and other armed groups.