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Letter to Hamas Spiritual Leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin
August 6, 2002

Sheikh Ahmed Yassin
Spiritual Leader
Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas)

Dear Sheikh Yassin,

We are writing to you regarding continued attacks against civilians for which the Islamic Resistance Movement (harakat al-muqawama al-islamiyya, Hamas) has claimed responsibility. We are aware of remarks by you and by other leading Hamas figures, including Dr. Abd al-Aziz al-Rantissi and Dr. Mahmoud Zahar, endorsing such attacks. Human Rights Watch strongly condemns attacks by any party that target civilians or in which civilians suffer disproportionate harm, whether such attacks are committed by agents of a government or by armed opposition groups. No matter what the aims and objectives are, such attacks flagrantly violate the most fundamental principles of international human rights and humanitarian law.

"Under international humanitarian law, the absolute prohibition against targeting civilians extends to acts of reprisal. One cannot attack civilians, no matter what the cause."

Hanny Megally
Executive Director
Middle East and North Africa division

Human Rights Watch is an international human rights monitoring organization that documents and campaigns against violations of human rights and international humanitarian law throughout the world. Since the outbreak of the Al-Aqsa Intifada almost two years ago, we have sent numerous missions to the Occupied Territories to research violations of international human rights and humanitarian law. On several occasions we have pressed the international community to dispatch an international monitoring force to help provide some measure of protection for civilians in the current clashes. I attach to this letter a full list of Human Rights Watch publications on Israel, the Occupied Territories, and the Palestinian Authority, and a list of the reports and public statements from 2002 available in Arabic on our website: .

According to news reports, Hamas has claimed responsibility for at least twenty-three suicide bombings that have targeted and killed civilians. These include Sunday's suicide bombing on a bus in northern Israel, which killed nine and injured forty-six, and last week's attack at the Hebrew University cafeteria, which killed seven students and injured eighty.

Leading Hamas members have frequently described these attacks as retaliation for Israeli actions. On July 23, an Israeli air strike on a crowded Gaza apartment in killed fifteen, including Salah Shehadeh, the group's military leader, and injured over 140. Dr. Rantissi was quoted by Reuters on the same day as saying, "Hamas' retaliation will come very soon, and there won't be only just one [attack]. After this crime, even Israelis in their homes will be the target of our operations." Human Rights Watch has condemned the July 23 air strike as a violation of international humanitarian law because Israel failed to take all feasible precautions to avoid civilian casualties. However, even such violations cannot justify deliberate attacks on civilians. Under international humanitarian law, the absolute prohibition against targeting civilians extends to acts of reprisal. One cannot attack civilians, no matter what the cause.

You yourself have acknowledged that the Geneva Conventions prohibit attacks against civilians, but then claimed that such protections do not extend to "occupiers." In an interview published in the August 11, 2001 St. Petersburg Times, you are quoted as saying: "The Geneva convention protects civilians in occupied territories not civilians who are in fact occupiers.... All of Israel, Tel Aviv included, is occupied Palestine. So we're not actually targeting civilians-that would go against Islam." This is a gross misreading of international law. International humanitarian law in fact makes no exceptions whatsoever to the prohibition against targeting civilians. Human Rights Watch has made clear that, in our view, Israeli settlements in the territories occupied in 1967 are illegal under international humanitarian law. This illegal status, however, does not in any way make civilians associated with those settlements, or any other civilians, legitimate targets of armed attacks.

All attacks that target civilians constitute crimes of the gravest sort. There can never be any justification for such blatant disregard of basic principles of international human rights and humanitarian law. We will press vigorously for those who commit these crimes, as well as those who direct or sponsor them, to be brought to justice.

We strongly urge you to adopt and publicize a policy of full respect for the laws of war, including an immediate and total stop to the practice of targeting civilians. We ask that you publicly and unequivocally call on the military wing of your organization, the 'Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, and any other groups or individuals acting on behalf of the Islamic Resistance Movement, to desist from any attacks or acts of reprisal that deliberately target civilians or are indiscriminate. Such attacks have continued unabated for far too long. It is incumbent upon you as a leader of the organization sponsoring these attacks to take a clear and forthright position in opposition to the killing of civilians-no matter what justifications may be put forward.


Hanny Megally
Executive Director
Middle East and North Africa division