(Jerusalem) – Palestinian armed groups in Gaza and Israeli military forces should end attacks that fail to distinguish civilians from military targets and should limit harm to civilians, Human Rights Watch said today.
Since August 18, 2011, Palestinian armed groups have launched scores of indiscriminate rocket attacks, striking Israeli population centers, killing a civilian man and seriously injuring several others. Many Israeli attacks in Gaza during this period appeared to be directed at military targets, killing nine men whom Palestinian rights groups identified as members of armed groups and six civilians. However, Human Rights Watch documented an Israeli attack on a sports center that killed two more civilians and caused extensive damage to a civilian residential area, and could find no evidence that the attack was directed at a legitimate military target.
“All parties know they must take all feasible steps to minimize harm to civilians,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Time and again Palestinian armed groups launched rockets at residential areas, randomly killing and even deliberately targeting civilians. And while many Israeli attacks hit military targets, some also hit civilian facilities.”
Hamas, as the de facto governing authority in Gaza, should take responsibility for its own attacks, and prevent unlawful attacks from being launched by others from Gaza, Human Rights Watch said. Israel should investigate attacks that appeared to result from the unlawful failure of Israeli forces to distinguish between civilians and military targets. Palestinian armed groups and the Israeli military should take all feasible precautions to prevent harm to civilians, Human Rights Watch said.
The recent violence began with a series of attacks on August 18, when unidentified gunmen killed six Israeli civilians and two soldiers near the southern city of Eilat, having apparently crossed the border from Egypt. Human Rights Watch condemned the attacks on civilians. The Israel Defense Forces alleged that the gunmen came from Gaza, but Palestinian armed groups in Gaza denied this.
Following the Eilat attacks, an Israeli airstrike, on August 18, targeted a home in the southern Gaza city of Rafah. It killed five members of the Popular Resistance Committees (PRC), a Palestinian armed group that Israel blamed for the attacks, which the group denied. The strike also killed a group member’s 3-year-old son, who was in the house.
In response, Palestinian armed groups, including the PRC, the al-Qassam Brigades (the armed wing of Hamas) and the al-Quds Brigades (the armed wing of Islamic Jihad), declared an end to an informal, unilateral ceasefire with Israel, which the groups had imperfectly adhered to since April. Starting on August 18, they fired about 149 rockets, according to Israeli sources, striking Israeli villages as well as the cities of Ashkelon, Ashdod, and Beer Sheva. The attacks killed a civilian man, and seriously wounded at least four other Israeli civilians, a spokesman for Magen David Adom, Israel’s emergency medical service, told Human Rights Watch.
The rockets used, such as the Soviet-designed “Grad” rockets, are inherently indiscriminate when fired towards civilian areas, Human Rights Watch said. None of the rockets appear to have hit any military objectives. Several statements by armed groups indicated that they deliberately targeted civilians. For example, the al-Quds Brigades claimed responsibility for launching three rockets at “the city of Beer Sheva” on August 24, without specifying any military target, in “retaliation” for an Israeli strike that killed a member of the armed group. Those responsible for deliberate or indiscriminate attacks against civilians are committing war crimes, Human Rights Watch said.
The rocket attacks killed and seriously injured civilians and destroyed civilian property. On the evening of August 20, Yossi Shushan, 38, a municipal inspector from Ofakim, was picking up his pregnant wife at her brother’s home in Beer Sheva, 40 kilometers east of Gaza, when one of the Palestinian rockets, a Grad, killed him, Israeli media reported. Dudu Kadosh, a Beer Sheva resident who treated one of the men wounded in the attack, told the Ynet news website that after hearing an air-raid siren and two explosions, he “saw two people lying on the road, one with his leg hanging by the bone, with the flesh exposed.” Another resident said that a rocket injured two men who were caught outside after the siren sounded, as they “were running to get into the house and find shelter,” Ynet reported.
Several rocket attacks caused serious injuries. On August 19, Grad rockets struck an ultra-orthodox yeshiva, and a synagogue in the city of Ashdod, 35 kilometers north of Gaza, seriously injuring two students. One told Ynet news that he had been praying when he heard a siren: “We ran to an adjacent building. We waited there for several minutes and then stepped out to resume our prayer. Suddenly we heard a loud blast. We couldn't see anything, people were dropping to the floor.”
Shrapnel from another rocket that landed near the southern Israeli city of Ashdod that day injured three Palestinian workers who were sleeping outside near where the rocket landed, Israeli radio reports said. On August 20, a rocket badly damaged a home in the Israeli kibbutz of Ofakim near Gaza, injuring a 4-month-old baby, an 8-year-old girl, and a young man, Israeli media reported. Israeli authorities cancelled all public events in areas within rocket range of Gaza, where as many as 800,000 Israelis live.
“Attacks by Palestinian armed groups that target civilians are not just dishonorable but illegal,” Whitson said.
At least four of the rockets fired since August 18 fell short of their intended targets in Israel and injured Palestinians in Gaza. On August 21, shrapnel from a locally made rocket that an armed group fired at Israel seriously wounded Samar Mas'oud al-Sheikh, 28, in the pelvis and back, when the rocket landed in the al-Toffah neighborhood east of Gaza City, the Palestinian Center for Human Rights reported. A Grad rocket that fell short damaged the al-Qastina school, north of Gaza City, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported.
Israeli attacks in Gaza, in two cases, struck civilian areas where Human Rights Watch has been unable to discover evidence that the targets had any military purpose or that any members of armed groups were present.
One Israeli strike, at around 1:30 a.m. on August 25, destroyed a sports club, Nadi al-Salama, in Beit Lahiya in northern Gaza, five kilometers from Gaza’s perimeter with Israel. No one was killed or injured in the sports club, but the strike killed two civilians in the adjacent home of Abd al-Rahman al-Masry, and wounded others. Human Rights Watch observed a crater in the sports club that appeared to indicate the impact of an aerial munition, which was empty at the time of the strike.
Nearby residents said that the club, which housed a gym, administrative offices, and a soccer field, is owned by the Islamic Jihad political faction, but that they had never seen it used for military purposes such as training, as a barracks for the faction’s al-Quds brigades, or for weapons storage. The al-Quds Brigades have launched rockets at Israel since August 18, but residents said they were not aware that any rockets or mortars were fired from the club or its surroundings. There were no reports that members of armed groups were there at the time of the attack, or of secondary explosions at the site that would have indicated it was used to store weapons.
The strike immediately killed al-Masry’s son Salama al-Masry, 18, and injured his friend Ala’a Jakbeer, 22, who died later of internal bleeding, said nearby residents and the Palestinian Center for Human Rights.
Abd al-Rahman al-Masry told Human Rights Watch that his son and five of his friends “were sitting and talking in the garden near the front door when the strike happened. The house was shaking badly and the electricity was suddenly cut off, and the women started to scream.” Salama had a fatal head injury and three other men were injured, including Jakbeer, the father said. A neighbor told Human Rights Watch that Jakbeer later died of internal hemorrhaging. Residents said that the men were civilians. No armed groups claimed either of the men as members after their deaths. The website of the al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of Hamas, did not mention Jakbeer but described al-Masry as a “resident” rather than a fighter.
Fourteen people lived in the family’s home, which was largely destroyed. Residents and Gaza emergency response medics said the strike injured between 20 and 25 people, including 13 women and children.
Other nearby residents told Human Rights Watch that the strike had badly damaged their property. The owner of a partially-constructed house nearby, Munther Azez, 45, told Human Rights Watch that he had planned to move there from a nearby refugee camp after the end of Ramadan: “I sold everything I had to build this house, but now that it’s been destroyed I don’t know what to do.”
Emad Abd al-Nabi and his brother Fathi told Human Rights Watch that the strike had badly damaged their two-story home adjacent to the club. “We don’t have any other place to go to,” Emad said. The strike also killed livestock the brothers owned, their main source of income.
Israeli military statements about attacks that day described attacks on a weapons storage facility in northern Gaza and on rocket-launching cells, but did not mention the attack on the sports club.
“The sports club’s ownership did not in itself make it a military target,” Whitson said. “Moreover, why did Israel use weapons in a residential area that caused such destruction to homes and civilians near its target?”