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Israel’s destruction of Gaza's only electrical plant needlessly punishes the civilian population and has created the potential for a serious humanitarian crisis, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch also said that Palestinian militant groups are committing a war crime by using a captured Israeli soldier as a hostage to seek the release of Palestinians imprisoned by Israel.

“Militants are using Corporal Gilad Shalit as a hostage to bargain for the release of Palestinians in Israeli custody, and that’s a war crime,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, director of the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch. “But Israel must minimize the harm to Gaza’s civilian population during any military operation to rescue the corporal, and that includes not destroying vital power plants.”

On Sunday, Palestinian militants attacked an Israeli military post on the border with Gaza, killing two Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers and capturing Shalit. Three Palestinian militant groups – the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigade, the military wing of the ruling Hamas party; the Popular Resistance Committees; and the little-known Army of Islam – took responsibility for the attack and the abduction on Monday, and demanded the release of all Palestinian women and children held in Israeli jails in return for information about Shalit. The Popular Resistance Committees also claimed responsibility for killing Eliahu Asheri, an 18-year-old Jewish settler kidnapped in the West Bank, apparently in response to Israel’s current military action.

A hostage is a person held in the power of an adversary in order to obtain specific actions, such as the release of prisoners, from the other party to the conflict. International law prohibits the taking of hostages, which is a war crime under the laws of war. The summary execution of anyone held captive, such as Asheri, is also a war crime. Human Rights Watch calls on the Palestinian Authority to do all it can to ensure that Shalit and any other captured Israelis are treated in accordance with the laws of war, and urges militant groups to stop using Israelis as bargaining chips.

Human Rights Watch also expressed concern about the intentional and frequent use of sonic booms by Israeli military aircraft over Gaza, which has caused great fear among the civilian population, particularly among children. Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention prohibits “measures of intimidation” against the civilian population. As there appears to be no military justification for the use of the sonic booms, other than the prohibited practice of intimidation, Human Rights Watch urges Israel to immediately halt the practice.

Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced that Israel is willing to take “extreme measures” to rescue the corporal. On June 28, Israel began offensive military operations into Gaza. Among the first Israeli targets was the only electrical power station in the Gaza strip, which was hit by multiple missiles and reportedly destroyed. The station provides power to the majority of the Gaza Strip, and is responsible for powering the water pumps and other systems essential to the survival of Gaza’s civilian population. The destruction of the power station could quickly cause a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, as electricity is essential to power the water system, sewage treatment, and medical services.

The laws of war prohibit attacks on “objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population.” Israel’s attack on Gaza’s only power plant is in violation of its obligation to safeguard such objects from attack. Even though Israel unilaterally withdrew its troops and settlements from Gaza in 2005, it continues to have obligations as an occupying power in Gaza because of its almost complete control over Gaza’s borders, sea and air space, tax revenue, utilities, and the internal economy of Gaza. At a minimum, Israel continues to be responsible for the basic welfare of the Palestinian population in Gaza, in particular the health, educational, and humanitarian needs of the population to the extent these are affected by the restrictions imposed on Gaza by Israel. Olmert reportedly threatened to block the entry of fuel and food to Gaza if Shalit is not released, which would violate these obligations.

Human Rights Watch urges Israel to take all possible precautions to limit the impact of its military campaign in Gaza on the civilian population. In particular, the laws of war require Israel to ensure that the impact of its military actions on the civilian population is not disproportionate to the military objectives it seeks to achieve, and that it does not target objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population.

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