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Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi


Tel Aviv

Dear Lieutenant General Ashkenazi,

Human Rights Watch welcomes the Israel Defense Forces' (IDF) announcement, as reported by news media, that it will issue new procedures to improve the warnings given to civilians before attacks.  Ensuring that warnings contain detailed and accurate information, including directions on how to get to safe areas, will improve the probability that civilians take the warnings seriously and help spare civilian lives during future armed conflicts. 

According to a July 29, 2009, story on the Israeli news website, Israeli military officials agreed, after reviewing Israel's conduct during military operations in Gaza during December and January, that the IDF should "give more accurate details in warnings issued to Palestinians before aerial strikes," including specific information such as "timetables for strikes to be carried out" and escape routes.  Warning fliers would "be more detailed in order to make it clear to civilians that their lives are in danger."

We would be interested to learn more about the new procedures that the IDF hopes to implement and how they will compare with existing procedures.  Such information will be useful in establishing the extent to which the IDF has worked to fulfill its obligations under the laws of war to give civilians effective advance warnings of attacks, unless circumstances do not permit. We are hopeful that the new IDF policy regarding warnings will correct the shortcomings that Human Rights Watch documented with regard to the hundreds of thousands of warnings the IDF stated that it issued to the civilian population in Gaza during "Operation Cast Lead." 

Human Rights Watch's research found that the flyers dropped from Israeli fighter jets - addressed to "Inhabitants of the Area" from IDF Command, stating "For the sake of your safety you are asked to evacuate the area immediately" - were too vague to be effective and gave no sense either of the timing of a pending attack or where the attack would take place.  Human Rights Watch interviewed numerous Gaza residents who said they received IDF warning leaflets during the hostilities but did not evacuate because the fliers were spread over very wide areas, leaving them unsure if their area would be attacked or where it would be safe to go.  Gaza residents also told Human Rights Watch that they received warning phone calls to leave their homes because of "terrorist activity" in the area, but that these calls did not inform them of safe routes by which to evacuate.  Gazans also said they received Israeli warnings, in some cases delivered by radio or television broadcasts, to "go to city centers," but that Israeli forces subsequently attacked those areas.

Human Rights Watch has not conducted a comprehensive examination of aerial attacks and civilian casualties during the recent fighting.  However, our research on the 2006 war in Lebanon found that the IDF, having issued civilians in South Lebanon warnings to leave, often then treated the area as a civilian-free zone. The IDF warnings notwithstanding, many civilians for various reasons remained in South Lebanon throughout the fighting, yet the IDF often seemed not to take their presence into account in making targeting decisions. The frequent result was attacks that did not discriminate between combatants and civilians, resulting in high civilian casualties.

With respect to the IDF's efforts to improve its warning system to civilians, it is important to note that, under the laws of war, whether or not a warning is effective depends on the circumstances, and must take into account the amount of advance notice and the ability of civilians to flee the area to safety.  In many cases, civilians are unable to leave even if a warning is given, for example due to age or infirmity. In other cases, civilians have no means to flee danger zones, or have no "safe" place to which to flee.

Civilians who do not evacuate following warnings are still fully protected by the laws of war. Even after warnings have been given, attacking forces may not assume that civilians have evacuated, and must remain cognizant of the actual situation regarding the presence of civilians in an area. They remain obligated to distinguish between military objectives and civilians and civilian objects and must still take all feasible precautions to avoid loss of civilian life and property. It is a violation of the laws of war to presume that anyone who remains in an area following warnings to flee is a legitimate military target. Furthermore, warring parties may not cause forced displacement by threatening civilians with deliberate harm if they did not heed warnings. 

Again, we support the important step the IDF is reportedly taking by improving its warning procedures and look forward to learning more about them.


Sarah Leah Whitson

Executive Director

Middle East and North Africa Division

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