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Human Rights Council: Establish Fact-finding Mission in Israel/Palestine

21st Special Session of the Human Rights Council on the Human Rights Situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem

Thank you Mr. President,

United Nation’s figures as of July 22 indicate that at least 443 Palestinian civilians have died since fighting began on July 7.[1] More than 147 children and 74 women are reported among the dead; 1,100 children and 1,153 women have been wounded, and an unknown number of other civilians. UN facilities are already overflowing with tens of thousands of displaced persons.

Human Rights Watch documented eight airstrikes before the ground offensive began on July 17 that killed 30 civilians, including 11 children and 8 women in violation of the laws of war.[2] These attacks either did not target an evident military objective in violation of the prohibition against indiscriminate attacks or caused clearly disproportionate loss of civilian life. The July 11 airstrike hitting the Fun Time Beach café near Khan Yunis killed two boys and seven other civilians as they were preparing to watch a World Cup game. The Israeli military claimed it was “targeting a terrorist” but provided no information to back up that claim let alone one to justify attacking him in a locale where so many other civilians were likely to be killed.

On July 16, an Israeli missile struck a shack on a Gaza City pier, killing four young boys from the Bakr family who were playing nearby. Seconds later, another missile struck, wounding a fisherman and three more children on the beach fleeing the scene. The Israeli military said it attacked the shack because it was an “identified Hamas structure” but mistakenly targeted the boys – aged 10 to 13 – as “fleeing fighters.” The Israelis did not say why the structure was a lawful military objective – a “Hamas structure” is not a military target unless used for military purposes. Attacks that are not directed at a specific military target are unlawful. Nor can an attacker lawfully presume that anyone seen fleeing an attack is a combatant, and in cases of doubt must presume the person is a civilian, protected from attack. Evidence at the scene indicates that the attack was carried out with Spike missiles, which have sensors that allow the operator to see the target even after the missile is fired and divert them mid-course if the target is not clearly military.

From July 11 to 17, Israeli air and ground forces repeatedly struck the Wafa Rehabilitation Hospital for 17 elderly, chronically ill, and paralyzed patients, ultimately forcing hospital staff to evacuate patients – none of them mobile – under fire. The Israeli military has not alleged that the hospital was being used to conduct military operations.  It warned hospital staff to evacuate despite the obligation under international law to ensure that the sick and wounded have access to medical care. Israel’s use of guided missiles and direct tank fire in strikes on the hospital on three separate occasions suggests that the attacks were intentional or reckless, which are war crimes.

We continue to investigate other reported Israeli attacks on hospitals, clinics, and ambulances, and attacks that caused high civilian casualties. We are particularly concerned at strikes on residential buildings that appeared intended to punish a family member who was allegedly a member of an armed group.  That is an unlawful attack on a civilian structure.  Moreover, while the laws of war encourage advance warnings of attacks, as Israel has often done, advance warning do not make an unlawful attack lawful or make the civilians who do not evacuate lawful targets.

Palestinian armed groups have also violated the laws of war with deliberate or indiscriminate rocket attacks against population centers in Israel. Many of the hundreds of rockets launched have been destroyed by Israel’s defense system, but rocket attacks killed an Israeli Bedouin, wounded others including young children, and destroyed civilian property. Unidentified Palestinian groups have twice been found to have stored rockets in empty UNRWA schools, placing civilians at grave risk.

An important avenue to breaking the cycle of unlawful harm to civilians is an end to impunity for violations of the laws of war. Neither Israel nor Palestinian authorities over several armed conflicts have taken remotely adequate steps to prosecute offenders.  Governments should support statements by Palestinian officials expressing an intent to seek the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court; we reiterate our call for Palestine and Israel to swiftly ratify the court’s statute.

The latest fighting comes on the heels of an extensive, years-long blockade of Gaza by Israel, reinforced by Egypt at the Rafah border, which has had a disastrous impact on the health and well-being of the civilian population, depriving them of food, medicine, fuel and other essential supplies. Hundreds of thousands of people have no access to clean water. Hospitals are desperately over-stretched.

Human Rights Watch deplores the shocking loss of civilian life and calls for both sides to take all necessary measures to protect the civilian population as required by the laws of war. We call on Israel, as well as Egypt, to urgently facilitate humanitarian assistance to and access to medical treatment for Gaza residents. 

Human Rights Watch urges the Human Rights Council to stress the obligations of the parties to the conflict under international law to protect civilians, to keep borders open for humanitarian and medical assistance to reach those in need and permit them to leave, and to ensure accountability for grave violations.  The Council should mandate the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to urgently form a fact-finding mission to impartially investigate and report promptly and publicly on violations by all sides, identify those responsible for grave crimes, and issue recommendations to the parties and the UN, including on measures to ensure accountability.

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