Thank you Mr. President,

Human Rights Watch is gravely concerned that the already dire humanitarian situation in Gaza has reached catastrophic proportions during the ongoing armed conflict. The latest figures published by the United Nations indicate that since the start of Israel's Operation Cast Lead on December 27, Israeli attacks in Gaza have killed at least 884 Palestinians and wounded 3860. More than 275 children and 93 women are among the dead; more than 1,333 children and 597 women appear to have been wounded[1]; Israeli forces have denied medics access to some of the dead and wounded, which has caused more people to die, and some medics have come under attack.  

While Israel's refusal to allow independent monitors into Gaza has limited our ability to investigate individual incidents, we are deeply concerned about attacks that may have caused indiscriminate or disproportionate loss of civilian life in violation of the laws of war.  Most notably, the January 6 attack near a UN school housing displaced persons killed a reported 40 civilians. Israeli government statements about targeting any person affiliated with Hamas, regardless of their status as a combatant or civilian, as well as blanket attacks on Gaza police stations and ministry buildings, indicate that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) is not limiting its attacks to military targets as required by the laws of war. 

Hamas and perhaps other Palestinian armed groups have also violated the laws of war with deliberate or indiscriminate attacks using locally made, short-range rockets or Russian-designed "Grad" rockets against population centers in Israel.  These rockets have killed three Israeli civilians and wounded at least 64.

The latest fighting comes on the heels of an extensive, 18-month blockade of Gaza by Israel, reinforced by Egypt at the Rafah border, which has had a disastrous impact on the health and well-being of the civilian population, depriving them of food, medicine, fuel and other essential supplies. The closure of Gaza constitutes the unlawful collective punishment of the civilian population there.

Human Rights Watch deplores the shocking loss of civilian life and calls for both sides to take all necessary measures to protect the civilian population as required by the laws of war.  Under these laws, attacks must only be made against military targets, must distinguish at all times between civilians and combatants, and cannot be conducted when the expected civilian loss from the attack is excessive to the anticipated military advantage.

Human Rights Watch calls on the United Nations Security Council to establish a commission of inquiry to investigate alleged laws-of-war violations in Gaza. The investigation should include Israel's January 6 attack just outside a UN school housing displaced persons in the Jabaliya refugee camp, as well as the many other alleged abuses by Israel and Hamas. The January 6 attack, which killed 40, illustrates the need for a wide-ranging independent investigation. The United Nations in Gaza said the school was clearly marked as a UN building and that it had provided GPS coordinates for the site to Israeli forces.

Israel's refusal to grant access to Gaza for all international media and human rights monitors since the fighting began on December 27 has limited severely the flow of information and investigation from impartial observers into events on the ground.

Human Rights Watch urges the Human Rights Council to:

  • Call upon Israel to abide by the laws of war, including taking all feasible measures to avoid harm to civilians and to respect the prohibition against deliberate, indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks on civilians.
  • Call upon Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups to abide by the laws of war, including taking all feasible measures to avoid harm to civilians and to respect the prohibition against deliberate and indiscriminate attacks on civilians, including rocket attacks against Israeli population centers.
  • Call upon Israel to allow journalists and human rights monitors immediate access to Gaza.
  • Call upon Israel to take all necessary steps to ensure that the civilian population has access to sufficient food, medical care, and other essential humanitarian goods and services.  To that end, terminate the closure of the borders into Gaza, allowing essential goods to cross into the territory, and those seeking medical care or with permission to travel or study abroad to exit. At a minimum, Israel and Egypt must permit medical evacuations of wounded through their borders.

[1] OCHA, "Situation Report from the Humanitarian Coordinator," January 12, 2009.