(Jerusalem) – Fighting between Israel and Palestinian armed groups in Gaza in early May 2019 involved unlawful attacks by both sides, Human Rights Watch said today. Fifteen Palestinian civilians and four Israeli civilians died during the fighting.
Four Israeli airstrikes struck targets that appeared to contain no military objective or may have caused disproportionate civilian loss in violation of the laws of war. Civilians killed included a pregnant Palestinian woman, an infant, and a 11-year-old boy. Unguided rockets launched by Palestinian armed groups toward Israeli population centers were unlawfully indiscriminate.
“Nearly every new round of fighting in Gaza leaves civilians dead and wounded,” said Tom Porteous, deputy program director at Human Rights Watch. “Both Israel and Palestinian armed groups are carrying out attacks with disturbing disregard for the protection of civilians.”
Human Rights Watch interviewed 20 Palestinians and Israelis who were survivors or witnesses to attacks, relatives of those killed, or residents of targeted areas. Human Rights Watch also visited the sites of strikes, inspected remnants of munitions, and reviewed statements by Israeli officials and Palestinian armed groups.
In a separate investigation, the Israeli rights group B’Tselem also documented the civilian consequences of the May Israeli airstrikes in Gaza.
Hostilities broke out on May 3 when Israeli security forces fired on largely unarmed Palestinian demonstrators gathered near the fences between Gaza and Israel as part of the “Great March of Return,” killing two people. Palestinian armed groups retaliated with gunfire, wounding two Israeli soldiers. Israeli forces then struck a Hamas post, killing two fighters. This triggered barrages of rockets into Israel by armed Palestinian group; in turn, the Israel Defense Forces carried out a three-day aerial bombardment campaign.
The Israeli military said it struck “350 Hamas and PIJ [Palestinian Islamic Jihad] terror targets” between May 4-6, including “rocket launch sites, terror squads, terror operatives, command centers, weapon storage facilities, observation posts, and military compounds,” as well as rocket or weapon manufacturing sites and Hamas facilities, including a cyber headquarters. It also acknowledged targeting as many as 30 homes of people it said were “terrorist activists,” claiming that some of the targets “had been intentionally embedded and concealed in densely populated civilian areas.”
The Israeli strikes killed 25 Palestinians and injured 153 more. Human Rights Watch investigated four May 5 airstrikes that killed 13 civilians, including 2 people sitting in a café, a teacher at a tutoring center, and 10 people at their homes. The Israeli military also killed 12 Palestinian fighters, including the two Hamas fighters killed on May 3, eight of whom Islamic Jihad identified as members of its armed wing, one whom Hamas’s armed wing identified as a “field commander” and another belonging to a Hamas-affiliated armed group, which said he was killed while firing mortar shells into Israel. A group of international humanitarian organizations also documented 33 residential units destroyed in Gaza, 327 people left homeless, and 700 housing units partially damaged.
Palestinian armed groups launched 690 unguided rockets toward Israeli population centers, according to the Israeli military. These strikes killed three Israelis—all citizens, including a father of four at his mother-in-law’s house, a Palestinian Bedouin working in an Ashkelon factory, and a 21-year-old man in Ashdod—and injured 123. An anti-tank guided missile killed a fourth. In addition, a Palestinian rocket that landed inside of Gaza was most likely responsible for the deaths of a pregnant Palestinian mother of nine and a 14-month-old toddler.
In two of the four Israeli attacks investigated, Human Rights Watch found no evidence of a military objective – such as enemy fighters or weapons or other military material – needed for an attack to be lawful under the laws of war.
In the two other attacks, there were apparently legitimate military targets. In one of these attacks an Islamic Jihad fighter died; in another attack on a large residential building, an Islamic Jihad commander appeared to be present. These attacks would be unlawfully disproportionate if the expected civilian loss from the attack was excessive compared to the anticipated military gain. At the same time, parties to a conflict should avoid deploying among civilians.
Rockets used by Palestinian armed groups cannot target a specific military objective, making their use in areas containing civilians inherently indiscriminate in violation of the laws of war.
In a statement on behalf of the “Joint Operations Room of Resistance Factions,” Islamic Jihad said that it launched rockets in response to Israeli killings of Palestinians, “assassinations” of fighters, and targeting of military sites and residential buildings. It said it fired an anti-tank missile at an armored personnel carrier, but furnished no information showing that it fired at a military target.
The Israeli military on May 4 blocked access to Gaza’s territorial waters, including for fishermen, and halted the movement of people and goods at its Gaza crossings, except for a few critical medical patients and fuel for Gaza’s power plant. It maintained the restrictions at sea until May 10 and crossings remained closed until May 12. These measures, which the military said it took in response to the rocket attacks, amount to collective punishment in violation of international humanitarian law.
These restrictions come amid Israel’s near-total closure of Gaza since 2007. Instead of specifically monitoring or restricting the flow of arms and material, Israel imposes sweeping restrictions on the movement of people and goods, including a generalized travel ban for residents of Gaza outside of “exceptional humanitarian cases.”
The May hostilities follow several smaller-scale flareups in July, August, October, and November 2018, and March 2019, some of which resulted in civilian casulties.
Israel and Hamas, as the de facto authority in Gaza, have a duty to investigate allegations of serious violations of the laws of war. Israeli authorities have taken inadequate steps and Palestinian authorities no steps to investigate alleged war crimes and to hold members of their forces accountable. These failings highlight the importance of the International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor opening a formal investigation into the situation in Palestine.
“There is little hope for reining in attacks that violate the laws of war so long as both Israeli and Palestinian forces can commit them with impunity,” Porteous said. “The continued unlawful killing of civilians underlines the need for a formal ICC probe in Palestine to help bring a measure of justice for the victims and their families.”
Zoroub Strike, Rafah (May 5)
Three Israeli munitions hit the lower floors of a six-floor commercial building in Rafah in south Gaza known as the Zoroub Building after its owner, Ibrahim Zoroub. The attack, about 5:40 p.m. on May 5, killed three apparent civilians: Mousa Moamer, 35; Hani Abu Shaer, 37; and Ali Abdul Jawad, 50.
Ahmad Zoroub, a 19-year-old relative of the building owner, said that he and his friends – Abu Shaer, a digital advertiser, and Moamer, owner of al-Fakher café in the Zoroub Building’s basement – were sitting at the café when the first munition struck. Zoroub did not recall that anyone else was in the café at the time. The owner of a stationery store in the building said that no warning of the attack had been given.
Two more munitions struck several seconds later, witnesses said. Hassan Shiqaqi said he heard the explosions as he was teaching English to eighth-grade students in a building directly facing the Zoroub Building. Hundreds immediately streamed out of the buildings in the area.
Ahmed Zoroub said the blast threw him five meters. He dug himself out from under chairs and rubble and crawled, amid small blazes, smoke, and dust, in search of Abu Shaer and Moamer, following their voices. He found both badly injured: Moamer with “flesh and bones” coming out of his abdomen and upper legs and Abu Shaer’s left leg nearly severed from his body. Zoroub said he crawled toward the door and called out for help, but he lost consciousness. He awoke to find himself in a hospital with Abu Shaer and Moamer, who later died.
Ibrahim Zoroub, the building owner, found the body of the third victim, Ali Abdul Jawad, an English teacher, in the tutoring center Abdul Jawad operated on the ground floor. Zoroub believes that Abdul Jawad had cancelled classes for the day and was alone at the time of the strike.
Human Rights Watch visited the damaged building 11 days after the attack. Weapons remnants examined were found to be from a GBU-39 series guided bomb. The first strike appeared to hit the first floor, where there had been the tutoring center, a construction company, and a clothing store, but exploding on the ground floor and causing damage in the basement. Subsequent strikes hit the second floor, which had two engineering offices and an accounting office, but also damaged floors below.. The building also included two other tutoring centers and apartments, the building owner said.
At 5:36 p.m. and again at 6:39 p.m., the Israeli military said on Twitter that it attacked “terrorist operatives” in south Gaza, but did not say what or where the targets may have been. Three local residents said that Islamic Jihad had a media office on the second floor, but one noted that the office had moved to a different location months before. Ibrahim al-Zoroub said there had been no Islamic Jihad office in the building during the three years he had owned the building.
Human Rights Watch uncovered no evidence of a current military objective.
Container Strike, Beit Lahiya (May 4)
On May 4 at about 8 p.m., an Israeli airstrike struck a metal shipping container outside a businessman’s villa in Beit Lahiya in north Gaza, killing an apparent civilian, Khaled Abu Qleeq, 24. Atallah al-Attar, 30, a friend of Qleeq who worked as a security guard at a wedding hall next door, said that Abu Qleeq approached him at the wedding hall, where he came to make tea, and invited al-Attar to join him in the container, where he worked. They sat together and as Qleeq began to eat some food, a missile struck the shack.
The two men ran toward a villa about 10 to 15 meters away seeking medical care for injuries they sustained in the strike, al-Attar said. Near the villa doors, another missile struck, he said. Al-Attar, who had been wounded by fragments in his eye and leg, said Abu Qleeq was struck in the head. He sat beside Abu Qleeq awaiting an ambulance, but, before it arrived, Abu Qleeq stopped responding and died and he lost consciousness. The Israeli military has not reported on the attack. Human Rights Watch found no information that would indicate that Abu Qleeq, al-Attar, or anyone living in the villa had any connections to armed Palestinian groups.
Sheikh Zayed Strike, Beit Lahiya (May 5)
An Israeli airstrike struck the top floor of a five-story residential building, No. 12 in the Sheikh Zayed residential complex in Beit Lahiya in northern Gaza about 8:00 p.m. on May 5. The attack appeared to target an Islamic Jihad commander who was in the building at the time, but killed six civilians: Eman Asraf, 29, and Ahmad al-Ghazali, 30, and their 3-month-old daughter, Maria; and Talal Abu al-Jedyan, 48, Raghda Abu al-Jedyan, 46, and their 11-year-old son, Abdulrahman.
Ahmad al-Ghazali’s sister, who lives on the first floor, said that she spent the early evening in her brother’s apartment on the fifth floor watching the news with him and his wife, Eman. She said Ahmad worked at a juice factory, while Eman served as a legal adviser for the Interior Ministry in Gaza. She advised them to spend the night in her apartment, maintaining that lower floors would be safer during the fighting, and shortly before 7:30 p.m. she left their apartment to prepare hers for them. Minutes later, without warning, she said, she “heard a heavy explosion” and “saw a light.”
Ahmad’s brother, Mahmoud al-Ghazali said that shortly thereafter he arrived at Ahmad’s apartment to find a scene of devastation. The apartment lay in ruins and had collapsed into the floor below. Al-Ghazali accidentally stepped on his brother’s corpse: his leg and pelvis had been severed from the rest of his body and Mahmoud said he mistook it for a mattress. He did not recognize his niece Maria, whose skull and backbone had been broken.
The strike also killed three members of the Abu al-Jedyan family, who lived in the adjacent fifth-floor apartment. Mohammad Abu al-Jedyan, one of Talal and Raghda’s four children, said he had just returned to the building from visiting his sister and was walking up the stairs when the airstrike hit. He said the strikes dismembered his relatives’ bodies. A neighbor who lives directly across from the Abu al-Jedyans said that the next day, he found pieces of flesh in his damaged home. He said his son had played football with Abdulrahman, a sixth grade student.
The Israeli military has not reported the reason for attacking the residential building. On a visit to the area 10 days after the strike, Human Rights Watch saw a site with an observation tower belonging to the armed wing of Hamas about 20 meters from the targeted building, but two rows of residential buildings were closer to the tower. A local journalist told Human Rights Watch that a senior commander from Islamic Jihad said to him that he had just entered the residential building and was walking up the stairs when the strike took place. The commander was not injured, the journalist said. The owner of a recreational site near the al-Qassam observation site said that two strikes hit his establishment four hours later.
Even if the Israeli forces were targeting the Islamic Jihad commander, a valid military target, this attack on a large residential building raises concerns that it was indiscriminate or disproportionate.
Al-Madhoun Strike, Beit Lahiya (May 5)
An Israel Defense Forces missile strike hit a three-unit home in Beit Lahiya in northwest Gaza, killing a member of Islamic Jihad’s armed wing along with three civilians and wounding others. The strike, on May 5 at about 5:30 p.m., killed Abdullah al-Madhoun, 21; his 60-year-old father, Abdul Rahim; his 36-year-old pregnant sister-in-law, Amani al-Madhoun; and his unemployed brother-in-law and neighbor, Fadi Badran, 33.
Ahmad al-Madhoun, Abdullah’s brother, told Human Rights Watch that the house included three small residential units – one belonging to him, one to his brother Mohammad, and one to their father. That afternoon, 15 family members, including several relatives who do not live in the house and a neighbor had gathered there before going to a funeral, he said. The missile struck the eastern side of the house as Abdullah prayed in his father’s unit and his father worked in his small grocery store in front of his house.
The strike leveled the house. Amani, a mother of three, was killed when the asbestos ceiling in southeast side of the house collapsed on her. Several relatives who were on the western side of the house were wounded; fragments gashed Ahmad’s 2-year-old daughter in the neck.
Fragments also penetrated the walls of a nearby three-unit residential building belonging to a neighbor, Fadi al-Badran. Fadi’s brother Ahmad al-Badran, who lives in the building, said that shortly after the strike Fadi emerged from his house injured, carrying his daughter. A local resident said that when he arrived he saw men rushing Fadi, who was bleeding from the mouth from a fragmentation wound to the abdomen, to a hospital.
Human Rights Watch examined weapon remnants from the destroyed compound 10 days after the strike and determined they were of a GBU-39 series guided bomb, also known as a “small-diameter bomb,” which the Israeli military has in its arsenal.
At 5:03 p.m., the Israeli military tweeted that “IDF aircraft attacked a short time ago terrorist operatives in the northern Gaza Strip.” It has not said whom it targeted. Islamic Jihad, however, identified Abdullah al-Madhoun as a member of its armed wing, but otherwise did not describe his position. Al-Madhoun had a walkie-talkie-type device often used by Islamic Jihad fighters to communicate with each other, though his brother Ahmad said Abdullah only used the device to listen to the news.
As a member of the Islamic Jihad’s armed wing, Abdullah al-Madhoun would have been a valid military target. However, the nature of the attack, on a home containing many civilians, raises concerns that it was disproportionate.
Rocket Attacks Launched Toward Israel
In early May, Palestinian armed groups launched unguided rockets against Israeli population centers that killed three Israeli civilians: Moshe Agadi, 58; Zaid al-Hamamda, 49; and Pinchas Menachem Prezuazman, 21. Agadi, a father of four, died when a rocket hit his mother-in-law’s house. A rocket launched on May 4 killed al-Hamamda, a Palestinian Bedouin civilian as he was working in a factory in Ashkelon in Israel. A neighbor said that the loss of al-Hamamda, a father of eight, had devastated his extended family, whom he provided for, and his community, where he was a leader. Agadi’s brother-in-law said that residents of southern Israel “live in consistent fear… that a rocket might fall on our heads at any moment.” A rocket that struck in Ashdod killed Prezuazman.
These rocket attacks were inherently indiscriminate – not able to distinguish between civilians and military targets – in violation of the laws of war.
In addition, an anti-tank guided missile fired from Gaza killed 68-year-old Moshe Feder on May 5 in southern Israel just north of Gaza. Feder had no apparent affiliation to the Israeli armed forces.
Rocket Strike Landing in Gaza
On May 4, a munition struck the al-Zaytoun neighborhood in eastern Gaza, killing Falastin Abu Arar, a 38-year-old mother of nine, and her 14-month-old niece, Siba Abu Arar. The Gaza Health Ministry included both on a list of people killed by Israeli airstrikes, but the Israeli military said that it did not conduct the lethal strike.
Human Rights Watch was unable to investigate the strike for security reasons and Israel’s repeated denial of permits to Gaza for foreign researchers. A field worker with a Palestinian organization who visited the site said that unlike at other sites, Palestinian authorities quickly removed remnants of munitions and described damage that make it more likely that the strike came from an errant Palestinian rocket.