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The Israeli army should immediately stop using U.S.-supplied flechette shells in the Gaza Strip, Human Rights Watch said today. The use of such antipersonnel weapons in densely populated areas makes the risk of civilian casualties intolerably high under international law.

Human Rights Watch responded to an April 27, 2003, ruling by Israel’s Supreme Court of Justice in a case brought by the Palestinian Center for Human Rights and Physicians for Human Rights - Israel. The court said that it would not intervene in the army’s choice of weapons because use of flechettes was not banned outright in international law.

“Flechettes may not be banned outright, but they should never be used in areas where there are large numbers of civilians,” said Hanny Megally, executive director of the Middle East and North Africa Division of Human Rights Watch. “The Israeli Army doesn’t use them in the West Bank because of potential risks to civilians. It makes no sense to keep using them in Gaza, one of the most densely-populated areas on earth.”

Flechettes are razor-sharp 3.75mm darts released from canisters that explode in mid-air and spray thousands of them in an arc some 300 meters long and 90 meters wide. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) generally fires them in 105 mm tank shells. According to Jane’s Defence Weekly, the IDF is using a modified version of US-supplied M494 105mm APERS-T rounds, acquired in the 1970s.

Their wide “kill radius” renders flechettes particularly deadly. Their use in heavily populated areas contravenes two basic principles of the laws of war. The first is the prohibition against indiscriminate attacks, which means that forces cannot use weapons or mount attacks that do not or cannot distinguish between civilians and military objectives. The second is the requirement to take all feasible precautions to avoid or minimize harm to civilians when choosing method and means of attack.

The Gaza Strip has a population density of some 3,273 persons per square kilometer – eleven times that of the West Bank. Palestinian residential areas, Israeli settlements, and Israeli military installations exist in close proximity. Human Rights Watch, the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, B’tselem, and other organizations have documented multiple civilian deaths in Gaza as a result of flechette use.

“Although the IDF says it has guidelines, we don’t know what they are or what happens to those who don’t follow them,” Megally said. “The IDF record on investigating wrongdoing is abysmal. The IDF should stop flechette use in Gaza now.” The Supreme Court accepted the IDF’s statement that its use of flechettes did not deviate from strict but undisclosed internal army guidelines (The Israeli Supreme Court Sitting as the High Court of Justice High Court Ruling 8990). In fact, three days after flechettes killed three women and wounded three others from the al-Malalha family on June 9, 2001, Israeli army officials confirmed that the shelling, in a populated area between Gaza City and the Netzarim settlement had been a mistake (Israel: Dart Shells Pose Civilian Threat).

“The mistake is not just one incident but the policy of continued use of this weapon in a context inconsistent with the prohibition of indiscriminate attacks,” Megally said.

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