(Washington, DC, December 31, 2008) - Israel's renewed use of artillery in Gaza poses an increased risk to civilians if the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) adopts the same reduced "safety zones" that resulted in many civilian casualties there in 2006, Human Rights Watch said today. The IDF had put a moratorium on the use of artillery in Gaza after an artillery attack on Beit Hanoun on November 8, 2006, killed 23 Palestinians and wounded 40, all of them civilians.

A July 2007 Human Rights Watch report, "Indiscriminate Fire: Palestinian Rocket Attacks on Israel and Israeli Artillery Shelling in the Gaza Strip" (https://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/iopt0707web.pdf ), found that from September 2005 to May 2007, all of the Palestinian civilian deaths in Gaza and the great majority of injuries caused by Israeli artillery fire occurred following Israel's exponential increase of artillery fire and a reduction of the artillery's "safety zone." These attacks, including the one on Beit Hanoun, killed at least 59 people, all but three of whom were known to be civilians, and wounded another 270.

"Israel's decision to reduce the so-called ‘safety zone' the last time it employed artillery in Gaza had terrible consequences, and should not be repeated," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "Artillery has a wide blast radius, so the risk to civilians is high when used in populated areas. The IDF has an obligation to take all feasible precautions to avoid harming civilians when it uses this weapon."

The danger to civilians in Gaza from IDF artillery shelling increased after April 2006, when the IDF reportedly reduced from 300 to 100 meters the "safety zone" between artillery targets and civilian areas - the minimum distance required between a target and the nearest homes or populated areas. Human Rights Watch found that all fatalities and all but eight injuries from artillery fire between September 2005 and May 2007, when the research was done, occurred after April 2006, and before the moratorium.

In assessing the legality of the IDF's artillery fire under international humanitarian law, or the laws of war, it is necessary to determine for each attack whether it was targeted at a specific military objective; whether the weapon used could be aimed with sufficient accuracy to differentiate between the military objective and civilians; and whether the anticipated civilian casualties were not disproportionate to the expected military gain from the attack.

Human Rights Watch has repeatedly condemned the launching of rockets at population centers in Israel by Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups. The rockets are highly inaccurate, and those launching them cannot accurately target military objects. Deliberately firing indiscriminate weapons into civilian-populated areas, as a matter of policy, constitutes a war crime. Prior to the current fighting, rocket attacks had killed 19 civilians in Israel since 2005.

While Palestinian fighters firing rockets from sites close to Palestinian civilians can itself be a violation of the laws of war and does not prohibit the IDF from returning fire, the IDF still must, under the laws of war, take all feasible steps to minimize civilian loss and refrain from attack if expected civilian casualties will be disproportionate to the concrete military gain.