The Israel Defense Forces’ internal inquiry into its artillery shelling of Beit Hanoun, which killed 19 Palestinian civilians and left dozens injured in northern Gaza, failed to address the key questions of whether the attack was a violation of international law and who should be held accountable for the lethal fire, Human Rights Watch said today. The Israeli government should immediately conduct a comprehensive independent investigation to establish these issues.
“The IDF’s internal probe suggests that the Beit Hanoun tragedy can be chalked up to an errant volley of shells,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, director of the Middle East and North Africa Division of Human Rights Watch. “But a comprehensive investigation should start with questioning whether Israel had any business firing artillery shells into this civilian area to begin with.”
Human Rights Watch said that the investigation should examine the policy that has led Israel to fire some 15,000 artillery shells into Gaza since September 2005, killing 49 Palestinian civilians and seriously injuring dozens more. A comprehensive investigation should identify issues of individual and command responsibility, including criminal responsibility, for any violation of international humanitarian law committed in the conduct of these artillery operations in northern Gaza.
"Israeli forces launched the artillery attack on Beit Hanoun at a time when their commanders knew, or should have known, that the risk of civilian deaths far outweighed any definite military advantage,” said Whitson. “The IDF admitted that it relied on day-old information about Qassam rocket launches from Beit Hanoun when its forces shelled this densely populated civilian area.”
According to the United Nations, at 5:35 a.m. on Wednesday, the IDF shelled northwest Beit Hanoun for 30 minutes, with about 12 to 15 high-explosive 155 millimeter artillery shells. Most of the victims came from the Athamna family, the majority of them women and children.
The IDF confirmed that it had fired 12 artillery shells at the site, having missed its intended target 500 meters away. An IDF spokesperson described the reason for the attack as “preventative” and said that the IDF was seeking to “disrupt and thwart the launching of Qassam rockets into Israel.” The spokesperson said that the basis for picking the target was intelligence that Qassam rockets had been “launched yesterday” (Tuesday) from the site.
Only military objects can be the lawful target of attack under international humanitarian law. International law also permits attacks on military objects in or near civilian areas only if their destruction would provide a definite military advantage at the time of the attack, and even then, only if the concrete military advantage outweighs any anticipated civilian casualties or damage. An artillery attack, with no specific military target at the time of the attack, directed at or near areas populated by civilians, violates international law. The evidence suggests that Israel’s day-old information that homemade rockets had been launched from the area, with no specific information that rockets continued to be launched from the area, was an insufficient basis for considering the area attacked to be a legitimate military target. That insufficiency was compounded by the intended target’s location near a heavily populated neighborhood, where significant civilian casualties could be reasonably anticipated.
The IDF announced today that it had completed an internal probe into the incident, headed by Major General Meir Kalifi. But Human Rights Watch said that Major General Kalifi’s role in the chain of command for artillery firing units, as deputy chief of the ground forces, renders him unsuitable for heading an investigation due to his obvious conflict of interest, since a finding of culpability could implicate his own command. In no sense is he an independent investigator.
“Internal IDF probes are no substitute for an impartial investigation in cases where there is credible evidence of wrongdoing and potential criminal liability,” said Whitson.
As Human Rights Watch documented in a report published in June 2005, the IDF has systematically failed to investigate cases in which its soldiers have used lethal force against Palestinian civilians, fostering a climate of impunity in the army and robbing victims of an effective remedy.
Human Rights Watch recognizes that the stated justification for this Israeli attack is Palestinian groups’ ongoing firing of homemade rockets into populated civilian areas of Israel, but that does not excuse Israel’s own violation of the same international humanitarian law that makes the Palestinian attacks unlawful. Human Rights Watch has repeatedly called on Palestinian armed groups to cease immediately firing homemade rockets into Israel, in contravention of international humanitarian law. Since September 2005 alone, Palestinian armed groups have fired around 1,700 homemade rockets into Israel, injuring 36 Israeli civilians. The rocket attacks have largely been launched toward civilian areas rather than at any apparent military target, which makes them illegal under the laws of war, and criminal. Even in cases where there may be military targets as well as civilians and civilian objects, these rockets are inherently indiscriminate weapons, since that they cannot be aimed at a specific target, and thus violate the prohibition on indiscriminate attacks. To date, the Palestinian Authority has been unable and unwilling to rein in the armed groups responsible for the attacks.
Almost all of the civilian casualties due to Israeli artillery shelling in Gaza this year have occurred since April, when the IDF narrowed the “safety zone” for artillery shelling, allowing targeting much closer to homes and populated areas. The IDF exponentially increased its rate of artillery fire from 446 rounds in March to 4,522 rounds in April.
An unnamed senior IDF officer admitted in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz in April that, “We have no way of ensuring that civilians will not be hurt in the next shelling . . . but the bombardment disrupts the activities of the Qassam launching cells.”
In Gaza, Human Rights Watch has documented a number of recent incidents that involved civilian casualties resulting from IDF shelling. Human Rights Watch conducted an onsite investigation into the shelling of a Gaza beach in June, which killed seven members of the same family, most likely through direct shelling by Israeli forces or possibly due to the detonation of an unexploded Israeli shell. Human Rights Watch also investigated the IDF shelling of the Nada apartment complex in northern Gaza in July, which killed four civilians.
“The Israeli government should ask itself whether the Beit Hanoun tragedy was an accident or a predictable consequence of the IDF’s policy of firing artillery toward densely populated residential areas,” said Whitson.
While the IDF has stated that artillery fire is used to combat the firing of Palestinian homemade rockets into civilian areas in Israel, the army increasingly has acknowledged that artillery is ineffective for this purpose. In October, the division commander for the Gaza front, Brigadier General Moshe Tamir, was quoted in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz as saying that “artillery fire does not further the goal of limiting Qassam attacks.”
According to witnesses and media reports, the victims were sleeping when the first shell hit. The IDF hit at least seven houses during the shelling and killed the victims either in their homes or when they fled outside.
The victims were identified as: Fatima Ahmad Athamna, 80; Sana`a Ahmad Athamna, 35; Na`ima Ahmad Athamna, 55; Mas`ud Abdullah Athamna, 55; Sabah Muhammad Athamna, 45; Samir Mas`ud Athamna, 23; Fatima Mas`ud Athamna, 16; `Arafat Sa`ad Athamna, 16; Mahdi Sa`ad Athamna, 13; Muhammad Sa`ad Athamna, 14; Sa`ad Majdi Athamna, 8; Mahmud Ahmad Athamna, 13; Malik Samir Athamna, 4; Maisa Ramzi Athamna, 4; Nihad Muhammad Athamna, 33; Muhammad Ramadan Athamna, 28; Minal Muhammad Athamna, 35; Sakir Muhammad `Adwan, 45; and Sa`adi Abu Amsha. At least 40 others were reported wounded.