(Jerusalem) - The escalation of fighting between Israel and Palestinian armed groups in Gaza should not come at the expense of civilians, Human Rights Watch said today. Attacks since April 7, 2011, by Hamas and Israeli forces appear to have targeted civilians or otherwise violated the laws of war, Human Rights Watch said.
Hamas's armed wing, the al-Qassam Brigades, claimed responsibility for an attack on an Israeli school bus on April 7 that wounded two people, while various Palestinian armed groups fired mortars and rockets deliberately or indiscriminately at Israeli population centers. Israeli attacks in Gaza on April 7 and 8 apparently targeted an ambulance, killed a mother and daughter in an indiscriminate attack, and killed and wounded other civilians in Gaza without taking adequate precautions to minimize civilian harm, Human Rights Watch said.
"Hamas's targeting a school bus is simply horrendous," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "But that is no justification for Israeli forces targeting ambulances or conducting indiscriminate attacks in Gaza. All civilians, Palestinian and Israeli, deserve protection from war."
Hamas's al-Qassam Brigades announced they were responsible for the attack on the Israeli school bus, which critically wounded a 16-year-old boy - the only passenger - and injured the bus driver. The bus was struck at 3 p.m. near the Sa'ad Junction, more than three kilometers from the Israeli perimeter fence around Gaza. Photographs published by news media showed extensive damage to the back of the yellow school bus, in which the windows were blown out.
In a statement on its website, the al-Qassam Brigades claimed it had fired "mortars" and "targeted the bus" in reprisal for an Israeli attack that killed three Hamas fighters on April 5. Israeli officials said the bus was hit by an anti-tank missile. Human Rights Watch could not independently identify the weapon used. Anti-tank missiles typically require the operator to maintain visual contact with the target. In either case, the Hamas-affiliated fighters appeared to have deliberately fired at the school bus, a protected civilian object under the laws of war, in an act that amounts to a war crime.
The al-Qassam Brigades and other Palestinian armed groups have claimed responsibility for numerous other mortar and rocket attacks since April 7. Some of the groups' statements claimed to have targeted Israeli military posts, but mortar shells struck Israeli civilian communities near the Gaza perimeter fence, and armed groups fired rockets at Israeli population centers, including the city of Ashkelon. Palestinian armed groups had fired more than 45 rockets and 100 mortar rounds at Israel so far in 2011, before April 7; since then, armed groups have fired around 120 rockets and mortar rounds, including more than a dozen Soviet-designed "Grad" rockets, according to Israeli and other sources. Indiscriminate or deliberate attacks on civilians are serious violations of the laws of war, Human Rights Watch said.
Since April 7, Israeli forces have struck the Gaza Strip with at least 30 air strikes and scores of tank shells, according to Israeli government and media reports, killing at least five civilians and eight members of Palestinian armed groups. Media reports did not identify all of the fatalities. The attacks reportedly wounded more than 40 Palestinians in Gaza, including an unknown number of civilians.
Human Rights Watch investigated the two incidents in which Israeli forces apparently targeted a Palestinian ambulance crew and conducted an indiscriminate attack that killed a mother and daughter, and two others in which Israeli strikes killed Palestinian civilians in apparent violation of the laws of war.
In the first incident, on April 7, an apparent Israeli missile attack injured an ambulance crew member and damaged an ambulance marked as such while the crew was evacuating two men who had been wounded in an Israeli strike. The attacks occurred near the non-operational Gaza Airport, in the southeastern corner of Gaza, east of the city of Rafah and close to the Egyptian border. Reliable independent security reports said that an Israeli tank had previously fired at the area, wounding two men, and that a helicopter later fired missiles at the area.
The ambulance driver, Musa Obayyed, 35, told Human Rights Watch that the crew received a call at around 5:45 p.m. to evacuate several wounded men from the area. Obayyed said that the area was not in the "buffer zone" near the perimeter fence, where medical crews need to coordinate access in advance by contacting the International Committee of the Red Cross, which then coordinates with the Israeli military.
"The sky was full of different kinds of military aircraft at the time, but we didn't hesitate, and the area was full of civilians when we arrived," he said. "We were several meters from an injured man and were just about to get out of the ambulance when an explosion hit next to us."
The attack injured Hassan al-Hela, 41, a member of the medical crew, in his right forearm, and blew out two of the ambulance's windows. The crew did not observe what fired at them, but the only Israeli fire reported in the area that afternoon and evening was from tanks and aircraft. There were no reports of Palestinian rocket or mortar fire in the area at the time. Human Rights Watch observed numerous small holes of between three and five millimeters in diameter in the side of the ambulance at the Red Crescent Center in Khirbat al-Adas, where the crew had taken it. The damage appeared consistent with shrapnel from a small missile. Human Rights Watch was not able to examine shrapnel from the strike, but the damage was consistent with small, cubic shrapnel from the aerial drone-launched missiles that Human Rights Watch examined during the 2008-09 Gaza conflict.
Customary laws of war provide that medical units, including paramedics and ambulances, must be respected and protected in all circumstances. Medical workers engaging exclusively in medical work in the presence of combatants do not forfeit their protected status, and only lose their protection if they commit, outside their humanitarian function, acts harmful to the enemy. A deliberate attack on a medical crew or an ambulance being used solely for medical transport would constitute a serious violation of the laws of war, amounting to a war crime.
"The laws of war have protected medical personnel from attack for nearly 150 years," Whitson said. "Israeli responses to Palestinian attacks cannot show reckless indifference to civilians."
In a second incident, on April 8 at around 12:30 p.m., an Israeli missile attack struck a home in the town of Abasan in southern Gaza, killing Najah Qudeih, 41, and her daughter Nidal, 19, and seriously wounding a second daughter, Nida'a, 17, who remains in a coma.
Nidal's uncle, Fayez Qudeih, 45, told Human Rights Watch that he heard three mortars fired by Palestinian armed groups from somewhere nearby at around 12:15 that afternoon, although he could not specify the precise area.
"After that everything was quiet," he said. "Nidal's father and two sons went to the mosque for Friday prayers, while the mother and four daughters were preparing lunch when the attack happened."
The uncle and Fathi Qudeih, a relative who lives across the street, as well as another resident interviewed separately, said there was no military action between the mortar fire and the time the house was struck about 10 or 15 minutes later. The men said that the women were killed while sitting on the steps of the house, which is about 1.4 kilometers from the Israeli perimeter fence.
"I ran to the house and Nidal was dead already when I got there," Fathi Qudeih told Human Rights Watch. "I saw Najah was badly wounded and praying. The ambulance took 40 minutes to bring her to the hospital, where she died." The relatives added that Nidal was engaged to be married in two months.
Human Rights Watch observed numerous small holes caused by shrapnel in the walls of the building, and a circuit board and other debris indicating an attack from an air-launched missile.
Neither Hamas nor other Palestinian armed groups reported that any fighters had been killed or wounded in the attack.
The Israeli missile strike killing the two women in Abasan appears to have been conducted without distinguishing between fighters and civilians in violation of the international legal prohibition against indiscriminate attacks, Human Rights Watch said.
In a third incident on April 7, several Israeli strikes that used unidentified weapons on a cemetery in the Shajaiya neighborhood in eastern Gaza City killed an Islamic Jihad fighter and a 10-year-old boy. An ambulance crew member who arrived to recover the casualties was wounded, and nine other people were reported injured.
Residents of Shajaiya told Human Rights Watch that members of the armed wing of Islamic Jihad fired mortar rounds from a cemetery in the middle of the neighborhood, around 1.5 kilometers from the Gaza perimeter fence. Shortly after the mortar attack, at around 7 p.m., an Israeli strike hit the cemetery but caused no casualties, residents said. About 10 to 15 children from the area ran into the cemetery to look at the strike site. Five minutes later, residents said, a second strike hit the area, killing one of the children, Mahmoud Wael al-Jaro, and a member of Islamic Jihad named Bilal al-Areer.
Human Rights Watch visited the strike site, where blood and pieces of fabric were visible. Mahmoud's uncle, Alaa' al-Jaro, said the Israeli weapon struck around 150 meters away from where the fighters had fired the mortar. A young boy told Human Rights Watch that he was very close to Mahmoud when he was killed, but that the gravestones had protected the other children from injury. Witnesses described seeing hand-sized pieces of light-colored shrapnel at the site that appeared to be made of an aluminum-like metal. Human Rights Watch was not able to examine the shrapnel.
A subsequent Israeli strike on the cemetery wounded an ambulance crew member. Rami Dababish, 28, a medical worker, told Human Rights Watch that he received an emergency call at around 7:30 p.m. to respond to injuries from an attack in the graveyard. Dababish said that he did not contact the International Red Cross to request coordination with the Israeli military because the cemetery was in the middle of a residential area far from the boundary. He said he arrived at the northern entrance to the cemetery around 7:35 p.m.
"There were no signs of military activity there at the time, and there were a large number of people and cars next to the cemetery," he said. The new strike hit after he entered the cemetery, injuring him and others. He said he believed it was a drone-launched missile. "If it weren't for the gravestones protecting us, many people would have been killed," he said.
Human Rights Watch observed Dababish's injuries, including numerous small wounds in the thigh, neck, face, and right arm, and a small hole that he said shrapnel tore in the bright orange ambulance-crew jacket he wore. Human Rights Watch was not able to examine shrapnel from the strike, but the injuries are also consistent with small, cubic shrapnel from the drone-launched missiles that Human Rights Watch examined during the 2008-09 Gaza conflict. There were no reports of Palestinian mortar or rocket attacks in the area at the time that could have gone astray.
The Palestinian fighters who fired mortar shells from a cemetery in the midst of a crowded residential neighborhood placed civilians at unnecessary risk from counter-strikes. A warring party must take all feasible precautions to protect civilians under its control from the effects of attacks and avoid to the extent feasible deploying within or near densely populated areas - failure to do so is a violation of the laws of war.
Such violations do not justify Israel in attacking without regard for the presence of civilians. Israeli strikes on the cemetery that continued after children and a medical crew entered the area show a failure to take all feasible precautions to ensure only military objectives are attacked, and may have amounted to an indiscriminate attack, Human Rights Watch said.
In a fourth incident, on April 7, Israeli tank shells struck near the home in Shajaiya of Mahmoud Mansur al-Manasra, 55, killing him, and slightly wounding his son Fuad al-Manasra, 17, and his brother Nasser al-Manasra, 44. Human Rights Watch found no evidence to suggest that these men were Palestinian fighters, and Palestinian armed groups did not report any casualties from the Israeli attack.
Kamal al-Manasra, a relative who lives next door, and Sami Harazen, another neighbor whom Human Rights Watch interviewed separately, said that at about 3 p.m. they heard what sounded like a small rocket being launched from somewhere in or near the neighborhood. Harazen believed Palestinian fighters fired it from a location several hundred meters away. Shortly afterward, they heard shells explode near Mahmoud al-Manasra's home.
"Two minutes after the rocket, I heard a shell hit my uncle's [Mahmoud's] house," said Kamal al-Manasra. "My uncle and his son and brother went over to check on the house, and while they were returning another shell fell on my uncle and killed him." Harazen gave a similar account, though he believed the Israeli response occurred less than one minute after the rocket launch.
Human Rights Watch observed shrapnel and entry and exit holes in the walls of Mahmoud al-Manasra's home - the closest building in the neighborhood to the Israeli perimeter fence, roughly one kilometer away - that are consistent with an attack with a shell fired from the main gun of a tank.
Human Rights Watch could not confirm the launch site of the Palestinian rocket. If Palestinian fighters launched a rocket from the midst of a crowded residential neighborhood, they placed civilians at unnecessary risk from counter-strikes; failing to do everything feasible to separate military forces from the civilian population is a violation of the laws of war. This violation would not justify an otherwise illegal Israeli attack.
The legal justification for the Israeli attack is unclear. The laws of war require that a target be identified as a military objective before being attacked. In case of doubt, the people targeted must be assumed to be civilians. Further investigation is needed to determine whether all feasible precautions were taken prior to the attack and whether the tank crew failed to discriminate between combatants and civilians in serious violation of the laws of war, Human Rights Watch said.
"Israel and Hamas need to do more than blame the other side for civilian casualties," Whitson said. "They need to end the laws-of-war violations by their own forces."