On April 3, 2002, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) launched a major military operation in the Jenin refugee camp, home to some fourteen thousand Palestinians, the overwhelming majority of them civilians. The Israelis' expressed aim was to capture or kill Palestinian militants responsible for suicide bombings and other attacks that have killed more than seventy Israeli and other civilians since March 2002. The IDF military incursion into the Jenin refugee camp was carried out on an unprecedented scale compared to other military operations mounted by the IDF since the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict began in September 2000.
The presence of armed Palestinian militants inside Jenin refugee camp, and the preparations made by those armed Palestinian militants in anticipation of the IDF incursion, does not detract from the IDF's obligation under international humanitarian law to take all feasible precautions to avoid harm to civilians. Israel also has a legal duty to ensure that its attacks on legitimate military targets did not cause disproportionate harm to civilians. Unfortunately, these obligations were not met. Human Rights Watch's research demonstrates that, during their incursion into the Jenin refugee camp, Israeli forces committed serious violations of international humanitarian law, some amounting prima facie to war crimes.
Due to the dense urban setting of the refugee camp, fighters and civilians were never at great distances. Civilian residents of the camp described days of sustained missile fire from helicopters hitting their houses. Some residents were forced to flee from house to house seeking shelter, while others were trapped by the fighting, unable to escape to safety, and were threatened by a curfew that the IDF enforced with lethal force, using sniper fire. Human Rights Watch documented instances in which soldiers converted civilian houses into military positions, and confined the inhabitants to a single room. In other instances, civilians who attempted to flee were expressly told by IDF soldiers that they should return to their homes.
Despite these close quarters, the IDF had a legal duty to distinguish civilians from military targets. At times, however, IDF military attacks were indiscriminate, failing to make this distinction. Firing was particularly indiscriminate on the morning of April 6, when missiles were launched from helicopters, catching many sleeping civilians unaware. One woman was killed by helicopter fire during that attack; a four-year-old child in another part of the town was injured when a missile hit the house where she was sleeping. Both were buildings housing only civilians, with no fighters in the immediate vicinity.
The IDF used armored bulldozers to demolish residents' homes. The apparent purpose was to clear paths through Jenin's narrow and winding alleys to enable their tanks and other heavy weaponry to penetrate the camp interior, particularly since some of these had evidently been booby-trapped. However, particularly in the Hawashin district, the destruction extended well beyond any conceivable purpose of gaining access to fighters, and was vastly disproportionate to the military objectives pursued. The damage to Jenin camp by missile and tank fire and bulldozer destruction has shocked many observers. At least 140 buildings-most of them multi-family dwellings-were completely destroyed in the camp, and severe damage caused to more than 200 others has rendered them uninhabitable or unsafe. An estimated 4,000 people, more than a quarter of the population of the camp, were rendered homeless because of this destruction. Serious damage was also done to the water, sewage and electrical infrastructure of the camp. More than one hundred of the 140 completely destroyed buildings were in Hawashin district. In contrast to other parts of the camp where bulldozers were used to widen streets, the IDF razed the entire Hawashin district, where on April 9 thirteen IDF soldiers were killed in an ambush by Palestinian militants. Establishing whether this extensive destruction so exceeded military necessity as to constitute wanton destruction-or a war crime-should be one of the highest priorities for the United Nations fact-finding mission.
The harm from this destruction was aggravated by the inadequate warning given to civilian residents. Although warnings were issued on multiple occasions by the IDF, many civilians only learned of the risk as bulldozers began to crush their houses. Jamal Fayid, a thirty-seven-year-old paralyzed man, was killed when the IDF bulldozed his home on top of him, refusing to allow his relatives the time to remove him from the home. Sixty-five-year-old Muhammad Abu Saba`a had to plead with an IDF bulldozer operator to stop demolishing his home while his family remained inside; when he returned to his half-demolished home, he was shot dead by an Israeli soldier.
Human Rights Watch has confirmed that at least fifty-two Palestinians were killed as a result of IDF operations in Jenin. This figure may rise as rescue and investigative work proceeds, and as family members detained by Israel are located or released. Due to the low number of people reported missing, Human Rights Watch does not expect this figure to increase substantially. At least twenty-two of those confirmed dead were civilians, including children, physically disabled, and elderly people. At least twenty-seven of those confirmed dead were suspected to have been armed Palestinians belonging to movements such as Islamic Jihad, Hamas, and the al-Aqsa Martyr's Brigades. Some were members of the Palestinian Authority's (PA) National Security Forces or other branches of the PA police and security forces. Human Rights watch was unable to determine conclusively the status of the remaining three killed, among the cases documented.
Human Rights Watch found no evidence to sustain claims of massacres or large-scale extrajudicial executions by the IDF in Jenin refugee camp. However, many of the civilian deaths documented by Human Rights Watch amounted to unlawful or willful killings by the IDF. Many others could have been avoided if the IDF had taken proper precautions to protect civilian life during its military operation, as required by international humanitarian law. Among the civilian deaths were those of Kamal Zgheir, a fifty-seven-year-old wheelchair-bound man who was shot and run over by a tank on a major road outside the camp on April 10, even though he had a white flag attached to his wheelchair; fifty-eight year old Mariam Wishahi, killed by a missile in her home on April 6 just hours after her unarmed son was shot in the street; Jamal Fayid, a thirty-seven-year old paralyzed man who was crushed in the rubble of his home on April 7 despite his family's pleas to be allowed to remove him; and fourteen-year-old Faris Zaiban, who was killed by fire from an IDF armored car as he went to buy groceries when the IDF-imposed curfew was temporarily lifted on April 11.
Some of the cases documented by Human Rights Watch amounted to summary executions, a clear war crime, such as the shooting of Jamal al-Sabbagh on April 6. Al-Sabbagh was shot to death while directly under the control of the IDF: he was obeying orders to strip off his clothes. In at least one case, IDF soldiers unlawfully killed a wounded Palestinian, Munthir al-Haj, who was no longer carrying a weapon, his arms were reportedly broken, and he was taking no active part in the fighting.
Throughout the incursion, IDF soldiers used Palestinian civilians to protect them from danger, deploying them as "human shields" and forcing them to perform dangerous work. Human Rights Watch received many separate and credible testimonies that Palestinians were placed in vulnerable positions to protect IDF soldiers from gunfire or attack. IDF soldiers forced these Palestinians to stand for extended periods in front of exposed IDF positions, or made them accompany the soldiers as they moved from house to house. Kamal Tawalbi, the father of fourteen children, described how soldiers kept him and his fourteen-year-old son for three hours in the line of fire, using his and his son's shoulders to rest their rifles as they fired. IDF soldiers forced a sixty-five-year-old woman was forced to stand on a rooftop in front of an IDF position in the middle of a helicopter battle.
As in prior IDF operations, soldiers forced Palestinians, sometimes at gunpoint, to accompany IDF troops during their searches of homes, to enter homes, to open doors, and to perform other potentially dangerous tasks. In Jenin, such coerced use of civilians was a widespread practice; in virtually every case in which IDF soldiers entered civilian homes, residents told Human Rights Watch that IDF soldiers were accompanied by Palestinian civilians who were participating under duress. The forced use of civilians during military operations is a serious violation of the laws of war, as it exposes civilians to direct risk of death or serious injury.
Human Rights Watch has so far found no evidence that Palestinian gunmen forced Palestinian civilians to serve as human shields during the attack. But Palestinian gunmen did endanger Palestinian civilians in the camp by using it as a base for planning and launching attacks, using indiscriminate tactics such as planting improvised explosive devices within the camp, and intermingling with the civilian population during armed conflict, and, in some cases, to avoid apprehension by Israeli forces.
During "Operation Defensive Shield," the IDF blocked the passage of emergency medical vehicles and personnel to Jenin refugee camp for eleven days, from April 4 to April 15. During this period, injured combatants and civilians in the camp as well as the sick had no access to emergency medical treatment. The functioning of ambulances and hospitals in Jenin city was severely circumscribed, and ambulances were repeatedly fired upon by IDF soldiers. Farwa Jammal, a uniformed nurse, was killed by IDF fire while treating an injured civilian. In at least two cases, injured civilians died without access to medical treatment. Direct attacks on medical personnel and the denial of access to medical care for the wounded constitute serious violations of the laws of war.
During the period that the IDF directly controlled Jenin camp, the Israeli authorities were obliged under international humanitarian law to take all feasible precautions to protect camp civilians from the dangers arising from hostilities, and to ensure to the maximum extent possible under the circumstances that the civilian population had access to food and medical supplies. In practice, however, the IDF prevented humanitarian organizations, including the International Committee of the Red Cross, from gaining access to the camp and its civilian inhabitants-despite the great humanitarian need. This blockage continued from April 11 to 15, after the majority of armed Palestinians had surrendered. Human Rights Watch investigated and found no evidence to sustain reports that the IDF had removed bodies from the refugee camp for burial in mass graves.
Every case listed in the report below warrants additional thorough, transparent, and impartial investigation, with the results of such an investigation made public. Where wrongdoing is found, those responsible should be held accountable. There is a strong prima facie evidence that, in the cases noted below, IDF personnel committed grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions, or war crimes. Such cases warrant specific criminal investigations with a view to ascertaining and prosecuting those responsible. Israel has the primary obligation to carry out such investigations, but the international community also has a responsibility to ensure that these investigations take place.