Dear Secretary Kerry,

I am writing to express Human Rights Watch’s concerns about serious violations of the laws of war by Israeli forces and by Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups in the fighting that began in July, violations that in some cases amount to war crimes. Our findings are based on research and analysis undertaken by Human Rights Watch staff in Israel and Gaza.

During the first two weeks of this fighting alone, Israeli strikes in Gaza used more than 3,000 tons of explosives. These attacks and the ground offensive that began on July 17 have killed more than 1,800 Palestinians as of August 5, the great majority of them civilians, including at least 408 children, according to the United Nations.

In many of the cases resulting in civilian casualties that Human Rights Watch has been able to investigate thus far, the Israeli attacks did not appear directed at a legitimate military target, or the attack was launched despite the likelihood of civilian harm being disproportionate to the military gain. Human Rights Watch and other independent organizations have repeatedly documented such unlawful attacks by Israel causing high civilian casualties. When such attacks are carried out deliberately or recklessly they constitute war crimes.

Israeli forces have also unlawfully targeted non-combatant members of Hamas, their homes, and governmental infrastructure without providing information that they were military objectives. They have also unlawfully and apparently punitively targeted family homes on the sole basis that residents included alleged members of Palestinian armed groups, regardless of whether those persons were at home. Israel has asserted as a matter of policy – contrary to the laws of war – that civilian members of Hamas or other groups who do not have a military role are nonetheless “terrorists” and therefore valid military targets; in previous military operations in Gaza Israel has carried out hundreds of unlawful attacks[i] on this basis. Israel has also targeted family homes[ii] of alleged members of armed groups without showing that the structure was being used for military purposes. Further investigations are needed to determine whether Israeli air or ground attacks that have destroyed or extensively damaged homes, schools, United Nations facilities, civilian infrastructure, and hospitals, often causing high numbers of civilian casualties, were in accordance with the laws of war.

Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups have to date launched more than 2,900 rockets, as well as numerous mortar shells, toward Israeli population centers since July 8, killing three Israeli civilians and causing injuries and property damage. Deliberate and indiscriminate attacks against civilians are war crimes. You have rightly and repeatedly condemned these attacks.

The latest fighting occurred amid an extensive, years-long blockade of Gaza by Israel, reinforced for most of that period by Egypt’s blockade of its border with Gaza. Far beyond preventing the import of military equipment, this blockade has largely prevented the export (and often import) of commercial or agricultural goods, crippling Gaza’s economy, as well as travel for personal, educational or health reasons. This blockade has had a disastrous impact on the health and well-being of Gaza’s civilian population, curtailing the delivery of food, medicine, fuel and other necessities. Hundreds of thousands of people have little or no access to clean water. Hospitals, even before the recent fighting, were desperately overstretched. In that regard, we take note of your reported comments on July 26 in which you acknowledged that “Palestinians need to live with dignity, with some freedom, with goods that can come in and out, and they need a life that is free from the current restraints.” To the extent that this blockade goes beyond justifications of military necessity, it constitutes unlawful collective punishment of the civilian population.

In light of these circumstances, Human Rights Watch is deeply concerned about the provision of military assistance to all parties to the conflict without regard to the unlawful manner in which that assistance is being used. The United States currently provides Israel with military assistance amounting to $3.1 billion per year, in addition to the $500 million per year for missile defense programs. This assistance includes US supplies of rotary and fixed-wing military aircraft, Hellfire missiles, and other munitions that Israel has used in unlawful airstrikes in Gaza during this most recent conflict, in possible violation of the “Leahy Law.” However, we understand there is no mechanism in place to track which Israeli units are receiving US military assistance, much less to sanction units found to have used such assistance in violation of US laws.

We are also concerned with the extent to which the US has failed to support any serious measure of accountability for Israeli violations of international law, such as by opposing the UN Human Rights Council’s resolution to establish a fact-finding commission to investigate violations of the laws of the war, and opposing Palestine’s accession to the International Criminal Court. We believe both these measures can provide an important opportunity to provide justice to the victims of unlawful attacks carried out by both Israel and Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups, and deter future violations.

To help bring an end to these violations, we urge the US government to adopt the following measures and changes of policy by:

  • Suspending the provision of weapons to Israel that have been documented or credibly alleged to have been used in the commission of war crimes or other serious laws-of-war violations, as well as funding and support for such materiel.
  • Implementing human rights vetting, as per the provisions of the Leahy Law, to include vetting of military equipment allocated to Israel under the Foreign Military Financing account, to ensure that no equipment reaches Israeli military units credibly alleged to have committed gross violations of international human rights or humanitarian law and to sanction units that are found to have committed such violations.
  • Contributing to the effectiveness of the fact-finding mission that the UN Human Rights Council established on July 23 – despite the sole US “no” vote – by urging all parties to cooperate with and provide access to the mission; by urging the mission to report on laws-of-war violations by all parties to the conflict; and by supporting the mission as a step toward holding all parties accountable.
  • Ending opposition to, and the encouragement of other governments to oppose, Palestinian initiatives to enable the International Criminal Court (ICC) to exercise jurisdiction over serious international crimes committed on and from Palestinian territory by all parties to the conflict.
  • Calling on Israel and Egypt to end their unlawful blockade of Gaza and allow the passage of civilian goods and people, with restrictions limited only to the import of military equipment that has been used to violate the laws of war.

The present ceasefire has of course reduced the incidence of laws-of-war violations but not the need for the United States to adopt the above measures. Past fighting between Israel and armed groups in Gaza has shown that both sides again violate the laws of war when hostilities resume, with civilians paying a heavy price.  It is time for the United States to play a more active role in preventing violations of international law and helping to ensure justice for victims, without which a durable peace is likely to remain elusive.

Sincerely,

Sarah Leah Whitson
Executive Director
Middle East and North Africa Division
Human Rights Watch

Cc: Anne Patterson, Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs
Tom Malinowski, Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

 
[i] “Israel: Gaza Airstrikes Violated Laws of War: Israeli Attacks Killed Civilians, Destroyed Homes without Lawful Justification,” Human Rights Watch news release, February 12, 2013, http://www.hrw.org/news/2013/02/12/israel-gaza-airstrikes-violated-laws-war.

[ii] “Israel/Gaza: Israeli Airstrike on Home Unlawful: Deadliest Strike of Gaza Fighting Killed 12,” Human Rights Watch, December 7, 2012, http://www.hrw.org/news/2012/12/07/israelgaza-israeli-airstrike-home-unl....