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Gaza: Build on Ceasefire to Address Rights Abuses

With Fighting’s End, Major Concerns Remain Impunity, Blockade, Freedom of Movement

(Jerusalem) – Israel and Hamas should follow the announced ceasefire agreement with concrete measures to address longstanding human rights abuses and the impunity that has fueled violations in successive conflicts, Human Rights Watch said today. Their allies should press the parties to address ongoing abuses as well as laws-of-war violations during the current conflict, which killed dozens of civilians.

“With a ceasefire in place, Israel and Hamas should put the well-being of civilians on both sides front and center,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “That means putting in place measures to end human rights abuses as well as violations of the laws of war, and to ensure justice for victims.”

Media reports quoted the agreement’s provisions as obliging Israel and Palestinian forces to stop all attacks, and Israel to open the crossings it controls into Gaza and to “facilitate the movement of people and the transfer of goods” and to lift restrictions on Gaza residents’ internal freedom of movement, including by “not attempting to harm persons in the border area” near Israel. The Associated Press reported on November 21 that Hamas officials said the details on the new border arrangements had not yet been negotiated. Some Palestinian armed groups launched as many as 12 rockets in the first few hours after the ceasefire went into effect, according to media reports quoting Israeli police officials.

Israel should end measures that harm Gaza’s civilians in violation of international law, Human Rights Watch said, including a blanket ban on travel to the West Bank, and firing live ammunition to restrict Palestinians’ access to up to 35 percent of Gaza’s farmland and 80 percent of its fishing waters.  In conjunction with Egypt’s continued closure of Gaza’s southern border to the import and export of goods, first imposed by the prior Mubarak government, Israel has also imposed a blockade that – while partially eased since June 2010 – continues to restrict the import of construction materials and the export of goods, harming Gaza’s economy.  Around 44 percent of Gaza’s residents cannot afford adequate food, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported in July 2012. 

“The ceasefire agreement’s provisions on easing restrictions on movement and the transfer of non-military goods reflect the immense harm that the blockade has imposed on Gaza’s population,” Stork said.

Since November 14, Palestinian armed groups have launched approximately 1,500 rockets towards population centers in Israel, the Israeli government stated.  Rockets killed three Israeli civilians and wounded 219 others, including at least three seriously, according to OCHA and media reports, while a mortar shell fired from Gaza killed a fourth Israeli civilian. Launching rockets that cannot distinguish civilians from military targets, or deliberately launching rockets at or otherwise targeting civilians, are serious violations of the laws of war.

From November 14 to noon on November 21, Israeli aerial and artillery attacks killed at least 90 Palestinian civilians in Gaza, including 26 children and 12 women, OCHA reported.  The Gaza Health Ministry reported  at 10 p.m. on November 21 that those wounded included 381 children under age 17, including 119 under age 5, as well as 186 women, and 88 people older than 60. Israeli attacks on presumptively civilian structures, including media buildings, civilian government buildings and police stations, raise concerns that the laws of war were violated; civilian objects may not be attacked unless and for only such time as they are being used for military purposes. Human Rights Watch is investigating attacks by Israeli forces and Palestinian armed groups.

Ending existing hardships to Gaza’s population by lifting all restrictions on non-military commerce andtravel should be a ceasefire priority, Human Rights Watch said. Israel in May 2010 began to ease the blockade it imposed on Gaza from 2007 to 2010; it no longer, for instance, limits the amount of food imported into Gaza based on calculations of what is minimally necessary to avoid malnutrition. But Israel, in conjunction with Egypt, continues to block virtually all exports from Gaza, hampering the re-development of its crippled economy, and prolonging an impoverishing and debilitating status quo for Gaza’s 1.7 million residents.  Israel bans almost all Palestinians whom it has registered as Gaza residents from traveling, much less moving to the West Bank, where many have close relatives and other ties.

Egypt has eased restrictions on the movement of Palestinians across the southern Gaza border, but has until now continued to require Palestinians to present Israeli-approved identification documents. This combination of policies effectively prevents most Gaza residents from traveling anywhere in the world without Israeli authorization.  Although the smuggling tunnels beneath Gaza’s southern border continue to flourish, Egypt has continued to restrict almost any imports or exports through the Rafah border crossing.  The cease-fire agreement, which Egypt helped broker, provides a good occasion for Egypt to end its history of imposing harmful restrictions on trade and the right to travel of Gaza’s residents.    

The Israeli military has also denied Gaza farmers access to 35 percent of the territory’s agricultural land by firing live ammunition to warn away, or in some cases kill, anyone who comes within 500 meters of the boundary fence;  in some areas the restrictions extend to 1500 meters.  The Israeli navy has repeatedly shot at, swamped or seized Palestinian fishing boats that venture more than three nautical miles from shore, barring access to fisheries in some 85 percent of Gaza’s territorial waters.

The authorities in Israel and Gaza should end impunity for laws-of-war violations and avoid a repeat of the December 2008 to January 2009 Gaza conflict, in which neither Israel nor Hamas provided meaningful accountability for abuses, Human Rights Watch said.  During “Operation Cast Lead,” Israeli attacks killed hundreds of Palestinian civilians, including in attacks that violated the laws of war, and unlawfully destroyed hundreds of civilian buildings without military necessity. Israel convicted only four soldiers for crimes. Only two received prison time, a soldier sentenced to seven months for stealing a credit card, and another who took a 45-day sentence as a plea bargain after being prosecuted but not convicted of a fatal shooting of a Palestinian woman and her daughter, who was holding a white flag.

Hamas and armed groups in Gaza unlawfully fired hundreds of rockets at Israeli population centers during the 2008-2009 conflict, killing three Israeli civilians and injuring dozens.  Hamas has prosecuted no one. Armed groups in Gaza, including Hamas’s military wing, the Qassam Brigades, also carried out 32 extrajudicial executions of alleged collaborators with Israel during the conflict and in the three months afterwards.  The Qassam Brigades have claimed responsibility for seven more such killings since November 15, 2012. In addition, the bombing of a bus in Tel Aviv on November 21 was a deliberate attack on civilians. According to the Israeli emergency medical service, Magen David Adom, the attack wounded 17 civilians, one critically, three of whom required surgery.

The failure of Israel and Hamas to hold perpetrators of serious international crimes to account could fuel future abuses, as it has in the past, Human Rights Watch said. The United States, instead of shielding its Israeli ally from international pressure to end the virtual impunity for members of its armed forces, should press for real accountability.  Hamas’s supporters, including Egypt, Qatar and Turkey, should press it to end attacks directed at Israeli civilians and to hold members of its forces accountable for abuses.

“Influential governments have repeatedly abdicated their responsibility to address the abuses at the heart of successive conflicts between Israel and Hamas,” Stork said. “At this time of great upheaval in the region, they should propose solutions that place respect for human rights at the core of any agreement.”

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