The 170-page report is the first full-fledged examination of individual criminal responsibility for suicide bombings against civilians in Israel and the Israeli-occupied territories. The report, Erased in a Moment: Suicide Bombing Attacks against Israeli Civilians, also provides the most thorough study to date of the suicide bombing operations of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), the groups that have claimed responsibility for almost all recent suicide bombings.
"The people who carry out suicide bombings are not martyrs, they're war criminals, and so are the people who help to plan such attacks," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. "The scale and systematic nature of these attacks sets them apart from other abuses committed in times of conflict. They clearly fall under the category of crimes against humanity."
Since January 2001, 52 Palestinian suicide bombings have killed some 250 civilians and injured 2,000 more.
Well-established principles of international law require that those in authority be held accountable when people under their control commit war crimes or crimes against humanity. Leaders who order such crimes, fail to take reasonable preventive action, or fail to punish the perpetrators are also responsible for such crimes.
The top leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad have openly espoused, encouraged, or endorsed suicide bombing attacks against Israeli civilians, and indicated that they have the capacity to stop them from happening. Those leaders, such as Hamas's Shaikh Ahmad Yassin and Khalid Mish`al and Islamic Jihad's Ramadan Shalah, should face criminal investigation for their roles in these crimes. The PFLP has publicly claimed responsibility for suicide bombings and car bombings against civilians. Its leaders appear to exercise control over their occurrence and so warrant criminal investigation. In the case of the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, control and responsibility appears to be centered at local levels, and those responsible should also face criminal investigation.
The Human Rights Watch report assesses the role and responsibility of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and President Yasir Arafat regarding suicide bombings against civilians. It concludes that the PA failed to take all available measures to deter such attacks or bring those responsible to justice, and by its failure contributed to an atmosphere of impunity for such crimes.
"The greatest failure of President Arafat and the PA leadership is their unwillingness to deploy the criminal justice system to deter the suicide bombings, particularly in 2001, when the PA was most capable of doing so," Roth said.
Roth said the PA's failure to take effective preventive action or to punish perpetrators outside of its control does not meet the criteria of command responsibility under the current state of international law. "But Arafat and the PA do bear a high degree of political responsibility for the atrocities that occurred," Roth said.
The PA has argued that Israeli actions, such as the destruction of PA police and security installations, undermined its capacity to act. But even when that capacity was largely intact, the PA took no effective action to bring to justice those who incited, planned or assisted in carrying out bombings and other attacks on Israeli civilians. Instead, the PA pursued a policy whereby suspects, when they were detained, were not investigated or prosecuted, but typically were soon let out onto the street again.
The PA sought to explain these releases by citing the danger to detainees when Israeli forces bombed places of detention. But the PA has not explained why suspects were never investigated or charged, steps that do not depend on holding suspects in places of detention.
Human Rights Watch conducted in-depth interviews with PA officials and members of the armed groups, and closely reviewed PA internal documents made public by Israel. On the basis of what was publicly available to date, Human Rights Watch did not find evidence that Arafat or the PA planned, ordered or carried out suicide bombings or other attacks on Israeli civilians, or that they were able to exercise effective control over the actions of the perpetrator groups, including the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, an off-shoot of Arafat's Fatah movement.
Palestinian armed groups and their supporters have pointed to repeated Israeli attacks that have killed and injured Palestinian civilians as justification for the suicide bombings and other attacks on Israeli civilians. The report concludes that these arguments in no way justify reprisals that target or indiscriminately attack civilians.
"The prohibition against targeting civilians doesn't depend on the behavior of one's adversary," Roth said. "Even in the face of Israeli violations of international law, Palestinian armed groups must refrain from deliberate attacks against civilians."
The armed groups responsible for these attacks argue that Israel's continuing military occupation, and its vastly superior means of combat, make such attacks their only option. Again, these arguments find no justification whatsoever in international law, which is absolute and unconditional in its prohibition of intentional attacks against civilians.
"Armed conflicts often involve discrepancies of power between adversaries," said Roth. "Allowing those discrepancies to justify attacking civilians would create an immense loophole in the protections of international humanitarian law."
Finally, Palestinian armed groups also assert that their targets are not really civilians because "all Israelis are reservists" or because, they say, Israeli residents of settlements have forfeited their civilian status. The report points out that international humanitarian law is clear: reserve members of military forces are combatants only while on active duty, and otherwise benefit from protection as civilians. And while civilian Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza are illegal under international humanitarian law, persons residing there are entitled to protection as civilians except when they are directly participating in hostilities.
Human Rights Watch called on all Palestinian armed groups to halt attacks on civilians immediately and unconditionally, and urged the PA to ensure that those in any way responsible for such attacks are brought to justice. Human Rights Watch also urged the PA to undertake a public campaign urging an end suicide bombings and other attacks against civilians and making clear that the PA does not consider as "martyrs" people who die carrying out attacks that deliberately or indiscriminately kill or cause great suffering among civilians.