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(Jerusalem) – As an Israeli ground offensive in Gaza gets underway, both Israeli and Palestinian forces must address heightened civilian protection concerns because of likely combat in densely populated urban areas, Human Rights Watch said today. Both sides must stringently abide by the laws of war, including taking all feasible measures to avoid harm to civilians and facilitating access for humanitarian workers and medical personnel.

Human Rights Watch investigations of previous ground operations in Gaza and the West Bank by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) found evidence of unlawful killings by Israeli forces. In addition, Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups fired rockets or conducted other military operations from densely populated areas, placing civilians at risk of serious harm. "An Israeli ground operation in Gaza will likely mean intense combat in densely populated areas, where the threat to civilians is substantial," said Joe Stork, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa division. "The IDF and Hamas must take concrete steps to minimize the fighting's impact on civilians or the results could be catastrophic."

The IDF's last major ground operation in Gaza, from February 27 to March 3, 2008, killed 107 Palestinians, more than half of whom were civilians, and wounded more than 200. Two Israeli soldiers died.

Human Rights Watch's detailed field investigation of that operation found serious violations by the IDF, including the killing of a wounded man getting treatment in an ambulance, the shooting deaths of two civilians on donkey carts, and the shooting and wounding of two men in IDF custody. In two cases, tank crews opened fire on unarmed civilians. All of these incidents took place in an area that was firmly under the control of the IDF. Palestinian medics and ambulance drivers also faced restrictions on their ability to treat the wounded and dead - both civilians and combatants - and came under fire that killed one medic.

In February-March 2008, as on other occasions, Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups placed civilians at risk by firing rockets and mortars from densely populated areas and storing weapons in civilian structures. Those acts, too, violate the laws of war.

Human Rights Watch said that during past hostilities both sides have failed to take adequate steps to remove civilians from areas where there was fighting, putting them at unnecessary risk. A senior IDF legal advisor recently told Human Rights Watch that it is still standard procedure for IDF troops to detain civilians in houses in which the IDF deploys, thus exposing them to danger of attacks from Palestinian forces.

Past IDF ground operations raise additional concerns. Human Rights Watch's on-the-ground investigation of the April 2002 IDF ground operation in Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank found that at least 22 of the 52 Palestinians killed were civilians, including some as the result of unlawful or willful killings by the IDF ( ). The IDF used armored bulldozers to demolish residents' homes to clear the way for armored vehicles, but in some cases the destruction extended well beyond any conceivable military objective. The IDF blocked the passage of medical personnel and vehicles into Jenin refugee camp for 11 days, and IDF soldiers repeatedly fired on ambulances.

During Jenin and other ground operations, Israeli soldiers have at times forced civilians, sometimes at gunpoint, to accompany IDF troops during their searches of homes, forcing them to open doors and perform other dangerous tasks in violation of the laws of war. A 2005 Israeli Supreme Court ruling banned this practice.

A central problem has been the lack of accountability for past violations of the laws of war, Human Rights Watch said. The IDF told Human Rights Watch that it had not opened any investigations into potentially unlawful deaths from the March 2008 Gaza operations, called Operation Warm Winter, although it was investigating three reported cases of theft by Israeli soldiers. Similarly, Hamas has done nothing to hold accountable those who have deliberately and unlawfully fired rockets into, or from, civilian areas.

"Failing to punish soldiers for serious abuses sends a terrible message to those fighting in Gaza that future abuses too will be ignored," said Stork.

More than 400 Palestinians in Gaza have died in fighting over the past week. According to the United Nations, about one-quarter of them are civilians. Palestinian rocket fire has killed three Israeli civilians in the same period.

To minimize civilian casualties during the ground offensive in Gaza, Human Rights Watch urged the IDF and Hamas and other Palestinian forces to implement the following recommendations:

To the IDF:

  • In the conduct of military operations, take constant care in accordance with the laws of war to spare the civilian population.
  • Issue clear rules of engagement that adhere strictly to the laws of war prohibition against attacks that target or indiscriminately harm civilians and the requirement to distinguish at all times between civilians and combatants.
  • Adhere to the prohibition against disproportionate attacks by not launching any attack that may be expected to cause harm to civilians or damage to civilian objects that would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated.
  • Ensure the unhindered movement of medical personnel and ambulances to carry out their duties and of wounded persons to access medical care. Any restrictions on movement for genuine security grounds must be temporary, subject to regular review, and imposed only to the extent absolutely necessary.
  • Do not make coercive use of civilians to facilitate military operations, such as by using them as "human shields." Avoid compelling Palestinian civilians to remain inside homes or other structures taken over by the IDF for military operations.
  • Take all necessary steps to ensure that the civilian population has access to sufficient food, medical care, and other essential humanitarian goods and services.
  • Provide troops with non-lethal means to deal with possible crowd-control situations.
  • Allow journalists and humanitarian agencies access to Gaza and ensure that any restrictions on access and movement for genuine security grounds be temporary, subject to regular review, and only imposed to the extent absolutely necessary.

To Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups:

  • In the conduct of military operations, take constant care in accordance with the laws of war to spare the civilian population.
  • Cease all deliberate and indiscriminate rocket attacks against Israeli population centers.
  • Take all feasible precautions to protect the civilian population under their control against the effects of attacks, including by avoiding conducting military operations from or locating military objectives within or near densely populated areas, and, to the extent feasible, removing civilians from the vicinity of military objectives.
  • Do not use civilians as "human shields" by using them for the purpose of protecting combatants or other military objectives from attack, or to favor or impede military operations.

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