Israeli security forces and Palestinian armed groups continue to endanger children and should immediately halt practices risking children’s lives, Human Rights Watch said today.

On August 28, an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) tank fired a shell that killed 10-year-old Muhammad Abu Ghazala, his 12-year-old cousin Yahya Abu Ghazala, and a 10-year-old relative, Sarah Abu Ghazala, outside the northern Gaza town of Beit Hanoun. The IDF initially claimed the children had been “handling [rocket] launchers” in fields near their home. Subsequently, the IDF said surveillance footage of the incident indicated that the children had been playing in the vicinity of the launchers.

A week earlier, on August 21, an IDF tank shell fired at “suspicious images” near rocket launchers in the Beit Hanoun area, killing two other children, aged 9 and 12, and seriously injuring another. The IDF after that incident said the persons targeted had been “handling the launchers.”

“Rocket launchers constitute legitimate military objectives, and Palestinian armed groups endanger civilians when they place them near residential areas,” said Joe Stork, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East division. “But Israeli forces must take all feasible precautions when conducting attacks to avoid unnecessary loss of civilian life, especially of children.”

In a separate incident, the IDF reported that, on the night of August 28-29, it arrested a 15-year-old Gaza boy who approached them carrying explosives. The IDF announcement did not provide the boy’s name or any further information, and attempts by Human Rights Watch to reach IDF spokespersons were unsuccessful. Human Rights Watch is concerned that Israeli military regulations allow the detention of Palestinian children for up to 90 days without access to legal counsel or family visits, and calls on Israel to allow immediate access to legal counsel and family visits.

In a report published in July 2007, Human Rights Watch investigated the consequences to civilians of Palestinian rocket fire directed at Israel and IDF artillery shelling of northern Gaza and concluded that both sides showed disregard for civilian life in violation of international humanitarian law. Palestinian armed groups directed their rockets at Israeli towns; Israeli artillery shelling near populated areas caused considerable civilian casualties for uncertain military gain as well as at least one serious incident of indiscriminate shelling.

In a report on Palestinian suicide bombings published in November 2002, Human Rights Watch called on Palestinian armed groups to cease all attacks against civilians and to stop the recruitment or use of persons under 18 years of age in any military activities, including in operations directed against valid military targets.

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