(Jerusalem) - Israel should investigate recent attacks on Gaza causing civilian casualties and take all necessary steps to avoid civilian harm, Human Rights Watch said today. Israeli attacks in 2011 have killed two and injured 34 civilians, according to United Nations figures.
Israeli forces in February have conducted air and artillery attacks against Gaza that raise laws-of-war concerns, in some cases in response to Palestinian rocket attacks. An Israeli artillery attack on February 23, 2011, in apparent retaliation for an attack by the Al-Qassam Brigades on a group of Israeli tanks inside Gaza's border area, killed one Palestinian fighter and injured approximately 10 civilians, including three children, according to reports by news media and nongovernmental organizations.
"Israel needs to take all feasible precautions to avoid civilian casualties even when attacking military targets," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "When so many Palestinian civilians get wounded in Israeli attacks, Israel should find out why."
On February 9, Israeli airstrikes destroyed a medical warehouse in Jabalya operated by Hamas's Ministry of Health that stored medicines and medical equipment. The attack also damaged an adjacent carpentry warehouse. A spokesman for Gaza's emergency services said the strike injured eight civilians, including two women and three children who were evacuated to Gaza's Kamal Adwan hospital. Israeli military spokesmen described the strike as part of a series of attacks on "terrorist" targets but did not explain what made the medical warehouse a legitimate military target.
Human Rights Watch has not yet been able to assess the lawfulness of either of the Israeli attacks under the laws of war, but believes Israel should investigate both given the number of civilian casualties. Under the laws of war, an attacker must take all feasible precautions to ensure that the target of an attack is a legitimate military objective, not a civilian object, and that expected civilian losses do not exceed the anticipated military benefit of the attack.
Human Rights Watch also urged Israel to review its rules of engagement in areas near the Gaza perimeter fence, where Israeli forces have killed two Palestinian civilians and wounded 13 civilians in Gaza so far in 2011, including civilians who were collecting rubble and scrap metal near the Gaza/Israel armistice line, according to the UN. Israeli forces frequently open fire on Palestinians entering that area.
On January18, Israeli tank fire killed an 18-year-old civilian and injured two other civilians who were collecting rubble and scrap metal near the perimeter fence east of Jabalya, and on January 10 Israeli forces shot and killed a 67-year-old farmer, Shaaban Qarmout, while he was working on his land in Beit Hanoun, near the perimeter fence, the UN humanitarian coordination agency reported.
Israel has declared a 300-meter "no-go" zone near the perimeter fence, but Israeli forces have shot Gaza residents at distances of up to 1.5 kilometers from the perimeter, according to the UN. The UN estimates that the live-fire zone covers 17 percent of the Gaza Strip, including approximately 30 percent of Gaza's arable land.
Israeli military officials have stated that Palestinian armed groups plant explosives in the area and that Israeli forces fire warning shots before shooting to kill.
"Under the laws of war, civilians don't cease being civilians simply because they enter a certain area," Whitson said.