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Rockets launched from the Gaza Strip towards Israel on the evening of May 11, 2021. © 2021 Majdi Fathi/NurPhoto via AP

(Jerusalem) – Palestinian armed groups’ rocket and mortar attacks during the May 2021 fighting in the Gaza Strip, which killed and injured civilians in Israel and Gaza, violated the laws of war and amount to war crimes, Human Rights Watch said today. Palestinian and Israeli authorities have a long track record of failing to investigate alleged war crimes, highlighting the importance of the International Criminal Court’s investigation into Israeli and Palestinian conduct.

The Hamas armed wing and other Palestinian armed groups launched rockets and fired mortars toward Israeli population centers that resulted in the deaths of 12 civilians in Israel and injuries to dozens of others. Munitions apparently directed toward Israel that misfired and fell short killed and injured an undetermined number of Palestinians in Gaza. Human Rights Watch investigated several of the attacks that killed Israeli citizens, as well as a Palestinian rocket attack that misfired above the city of Jabalya in the Gaza Strip, killing 7 Palestinian civilians and injuring 15.

“Palestinian armed groups during the May fighting flagrantly violated the laws-of-war prohibition on indiscriminate attacks by launching thousands of unguided rockets towards Israeli cities,” said Eric Goldstein, acting Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The failure of both Hamas authorities and the Israeli government to provide accountability for alleged war crimes by their forces highlights the essential role of the International Criminal Court.”

In late July, Human Rights Watch reported on Israeli strikes in Gaza in May that accounted for 62 of the 129 or more Palestinian civilians who, according to the United Nations, were killed in Israeli strikes. Human Rights Watch found that these attacks violated the laws of war and amount to apparent war crimes. Human Rights Watch will soon release a report on Israeli airstrikes that destroyed or extensively damaged four high-rise towers in Gaza.

Israeli authorities reported that Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups launched more than 4,360 unguided rockets and mortars toward Israeli population centers between May 10 and 21. They said that the rocket attacks resulted in the death of 10 civilians in Israel, that mortar fire killed 2 more, and that “several hundred” people were injured. Nine of the civilians were Israelis, including 2 children and 2 Palestinian citizens of Israel, and 3 were foreign nationals.

Hamas authorities should stop unlawful rocket attacks toward Israeli population centers, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch in July interviewed 12 people in Israel and Gaza who witnessed a Palestinian rocket attack or are relatives of civilians killed. Human Rights Watch examined two rocket strikes in Israel that killed three civilians: Leah Yom Tov, 63, who was killed by metal fragments from a Palestinian rocket at her home in Rishon LeZion, south of Tel Aviv, on the evening of May 11; and Nadine Awad, 16, and Khalil Awad, 52, killed in front of their home in the Palestinian village of Dahmash in central Israel, about 20 kilometers from Tel Aviv, in the early morning of May 12.

The rocket attacks that killed Yom Tov and the Awads occurred after the al-Qassam Brigades, the Hamas armed wing, said in a statement on the evening of May 11 that they had “directed the largest rocket barrage toward Tel Aviv and its surrounding areas, with 130 rockets, in response to the enemy’s targeting of civilian buildings.” On May 21, a coalition of Palestinian armed groups issued a statement seeking to justify their rocket attacks on Israeli cities and towns: “We put Tel Aviv, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Beersheva and all the occupied cities, the usurped places and sites under fire, in response to the barbaric aggression against our people.”

Human Rights Watch also determined that a Palestinian rocket that misfired killed seven people in Jabalya in the Gaza Strip on May 10. Human Rights Watch based this finding on witness interviews, site visits, an inspection of rocket remnants, and a review of video footage.

Under international humanitarian law, or the laws of war, warring parties may only attack military objectives. They must take all feasible precautions to minimize harm to civilians. Deliberate attacks on civilians and civilian objects are prohibited – claims by Hamas and other armed groups that rockets launched against Tel Aviv and other population centers were a response to unlawful Israeli attacks suggest that they were deliberate attacks on civilians. The laws of war also prohibit indiscriminate attacks, which include attacks that do not target a specific military objective, or that use a means or method of attack that cannot be directed at a specific military target. Warring parties to the extent feasible must also avoid firing weapons from within or near densely populated areas and otherwise take necessary precautions to protect civilians under their control from attack.

An individual who commits a serious violation of the laws of war with criminal intent – that is, deliberately or recklessly – is responsible for war crimes. The rockets and mortars that Palestinian armed groups fired lack guidance systems and are prone to misfire, making them extremely inaccurate and thus inherently indiscriminate when directed toward areas with civilians. Launching such rockets to attack civilian areas is a war crime.

On May 12, the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) indicated that it was monitoring the situation in Gaza. The prosecutor’s office should include in its Palestine investigation unlawful Palestinian rocket attacks against Israel, as well as unlawful Israeli attacks in Gaza.

Palestinian armed groups also fired numerous unguided rockets during prior rounds of fighting, including in 2008, 2012, 2014, 2018, and 2019. The May hostilities took place amid Israel’s sweeping closure of the Gaza Strip, which began in 2007, and discriminatory efforts to remove Palestinians from their homes in occupied East Jerusalem – policies and practices that are part of the Israeli government’s crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution, as Human Rights Watch has documented.

On May 27, the UN Human Rights Council established a Commission of Inquiry to address violations and abuses in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) and in Israel, including by advancing accountability for those responsible and justice for victims. The commission should examine unlawful attacks committed by Palestinian armed groups during the May fighting and analyze the larger context of the violence, including the Israeli government’s discriminatory treatment of Palestinians. The commission’s findings should be shared with the ICC prosecutor and other credible judicial authorities examining the situation, Human Rights Watch said.

Judicial authorities in other countries should also investigate and prosecute under national laws those credibly implicated in serious crimes in the OPT and in Israel under the principle of universal jurisdiction. Governments should also support a strong political declaration that addresses the harm that explosive weapons cause to civilians and commits states to avoid using those with wide-area effects in populated areas. 

“Hamas authorities should stop trying to justify unlawful rocket attacks that indiscriminately kill and injure civilians by pointing to Israel’s violations,” Goldstein said. “The laws of war are meant to protect all civilians from harm.”

May Hostilities

The May 2021 fighting followed efforts by Jewish settler groups to evict and confiscate the property of longtime Palestinian residents in East Jerusalem. Palestinians held demonstrations around East Jerusalem, and Israeli security forces fired teargas, stun grenades, and rubber-coated steel bullets, injuring hundreds of Palestinians.

On May 10, Palestinian armed groups in Gaza started to launch rockets toward Israeli population centers. The Israeli military carried out attacks in the densely populated Gaza Strip with missiles, rockets, and artillery. Many of the attacks by the Israeli military and Palestinian armed groups used explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas. A ceasefire between the warring parties went into effect on May 21.

Palestinian Rocket Attacks, Mortar Fire Killing, and Injuring Civilians in Israel

Of the more than 4,360 rocket and mortar attacks by Palestinian armed groups, 3,573 “penetrated Israeli airspace,” according to Israeli authorities. Israeli authorities said that their aerial defense system, known as Iron Dome, intercepted about 90 percent of the rocket attacks.

The attacks resulted in the death of 13 people in Israel, including 12 civilians, 2 of them children, and in injuries to several hundred people, according to Israeli authorities. The authorities said the attacks killed 9 civilians directly, while 3 more died as a result of accidents or cardiac arrest that occurred while they ran to take cover as rockets approached. The 12 civilians killed included 9 Israelis, including 2 Palestinian citizens of Israel, and 3 foreign nationals – 2 from Thailand and 1 from India.

Leah Yom Tov in Rishon LeZion, May 11

Leah Yom Tov, 63, was killed at about 8 p.m. on May 11 in Rishon LeZion, south of Tel Aviv, after a rocket struck her home. Her son, Kfir Yom Tov, said:

My mother retired two years ago and was flourishing. Her life was filled with everything she loved to do. She was very spiritual and thanked God for each day. She supported peace and saw the positive and good side in every human being. She knew how to connect with others and develop good relations with them. She took care of everyone. She was a very giving person. She was studying natural health and wanted to enhance other people’s lives by advising them on good nutrition and thinking positively about their lives.

He said that she was at home alone when the rocket struck and was killed instantly by munition fragments:

When I heard the sirens and the sound of the heavy barrage of rockets in the area, I called her to check on her, but she didn’t answer. I drove to her house. The street was closed, and it was full of soldiers, police, and paramedics. It took them a while to identify her and confirm that she had been killed.   

She was a person of giving, and the emptiness and space she left behind is hard to describe.

Awad Family in Dahmash, May 12

Khalil Awad, 52, and his daughter Nadine, 16, were both killed in a rocket attack in front of their home in the Palestinian village of Dahmash in central Israel at about 3 a.m. on May 12. Suzan Awad, the wife and mother of the victims, described the rocket strike:

Our village is totally neglected, and we don’t have basic services and infrastructure such as [bomb] shelters. The two nights before the attack, we didn’t know what to do and where to go. We ran in and out of the house and sometimes we ran into the street to look for shelter but there was no shelter in the area. We didn’t know where to hide….

That night, we couldn’t sleep from the sound of the rockets. The barrage of rockets in the neighborhood was so heavy and strong and, as always, we didn’t know where to hide ourselves. Many times in this situation, we don’t feel safe staying at home, so we escape outside but without knowing where to go exactly. …

That night, Khalil and Nadine were terrified, the sound of the rockets falling were so close, so they decided to leave the house and seek protection outside at the entrance of the house. We live in a ground-floor home with only three steps at the entrance, so they decided to stand at the stairs and stick to the wall. They did that because we always hear that, in this kind of situation, it’s recommended to hide in the stairway, but we do not have a stairway. The only stairs we have is three steps at the entrance. But the rocket fell on the ground outside, next to the entrance where they stood, a few meters from them. It killed them immediately. It also caused huge damage to our house.

Awad described her husband as “a loving, giving, and modest man.”

He was a metal worker and worked very hard to provide everything for his family. For him, providing our children with a good education was his top priority. My daughter’s dream was to be a doctor to help others and contribute to the community. She was very talented. At school she was known as an outstanding student and took part in so many school projects and activities. She studied very hard and invested a lot to get good grades, so she could study medicine in Israel. She loved art and music so much and [recently] she learned online how to play guitar. She liked it very much, though she was better at piano.

I’m still shocked and traumatized, can’t believe they are gone and not here with me anymore. It’s hard for me to go back to my routine, hard to resume my work. Before this tragedy, I used to work at a clothing store, and I can’t do it anymore. No one should suffer like this. I pray for peace for everyone, for Palestinians and Israelis, and I hope that this tragedy brings more attention to Dahmash and hope the circumstances here will be better.

Ido Abigail in Sderot, May 12

A Palestinian rocket attack killed 5-year-old Ido Abigail in Sderot, near Gaza, on May 12. The rocket struck the safe room of Ido’s family’s apartment and also injured seven other family members, including his mother and 7-year-old sister. The Jerusalem Post reported that Ido’s father, Assaf Abigail, who was not home at the time of the attack, said in a eulogy for his son, “I’m sorry that the shard hit you instead of me” and that “I will live with a hole in my heart for eternity.” He added, “I hope that you are the last sacrifice and that this is the last time that a parent buries his child.”

Israeli authorities identified the other civilians who died in Israel as a result of Palestinian rocket and mortar attacks as: Soumya Santosh, 32, an Indian national working in Ashkelon; Nella Gurevitz, 52, from Ashkelon; Orly Liron, 52, from Netaim, a moshav, or cooperative village, south of Tel Aviv; Miriam Arie, 82, from Shtulim, a moshav near Ashdod in southern Israel; Gershon Franko, 55, from Ramat Gan, near Tel Aviv; Hava Vaknin, 73, from Holon, near Tel Aviv; Sikharin Sangamram, 24, a Thai national working in Ohad, a moshav near Gaza; and Weerawat Krunboorirak, 44, a Thai national also employed in Ohad.

Misfired Palestinian Rockets Striking Gaza

Some Palestinian rockets – 680 according to the Israeli military – misfired, fell short, and struck in Gaza, in some instances causing deaths and injuries. Hamas authorities have not provided information about how many rockets misfired or how many people died as a result in Gaza and there are no precise independent estimates.

Death of 7 Civilians in Jabalya, Gaza Strip, May 10

Human Rights Watch determined, based on witness accounts during site visits, munition remnants, and a review of video footage, that a Palestinian rocket misfired in the city of Jabalya in the northern Gaza Strip on the evening of May 10, killing seven civilians, including two children.

Human Rights Watch visited the site on July 14 and 26 and spoke with 10 witnesses to the strike and its aftermath. We are withholding their names for their security.

The rocket, launched at around 6 p.m. on May 10, landed in Martyr Saleh Dardona Street, about 20 meters from the Omari Mosque, in Jabayla. Three adults and one child who were on the street at the time said they saw a rocket rise into the sky above them and then fall to the street. Two of the adults said they saw the rocket coming from the northwest. A fourth person heard the sound of a rocket being launched and saw it strike in front of his shop.

The wife of one of those killed said:

[My husband] had just come home from work. He had bought sweets and new clothes for everyone, in preparation for Eid [Muslim holiday marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan]. Before he left, he gave the kids some sweets and kissed and hugged them. Then he asked me to look after the kids, as he wanted to buy one more thing. He told me he wouldn’t be delayed, as he was feeling tired. But he never came back.  

A local shop owner said:

People were gathering [on the street] watching the rockets in the sky. I saw a rocket spinning in the air and then it came down and exploded, about 10 meters from where I was standing. There was smoke. I saw the dead and injured. I couldn’t stand what I saw. I broke down.… I saw a child, Mohammed Shaban, whose eyes were bleeding.

A relative of another person killed said:

At about 6 p.m. I was standing near the entrance to the local market on Martyr Salah Dardona Street. I was near about 50 people who were close together in the street. Some of them were there to get food for poor people, cooked by locals wanting to help the poor during Ramadan.

Suddenly, I heard a barrage of rockets being fired and I looked up and saw them rise in the air. I saw one rocket rising in the shape of a spiral and then it came down in the middle of the street about 10 meters from where I was standing.

He said that among those killed and injured in the attack was a father and a child washing a car, a man riding a motorbike, a child coming to get a plate of food, a woman exiting a hairdresser’s shop, and a child playing in front of a bicycle shop. He said he later spoke to a person who had learned what had happened and told him that “six rockets were launched from the Sheikh Radwan area” of Jabalya, a shopping and residential area one kilometer from where the rocket hit, and all struck different areas nearby.

Relatives and the Gaza Health Ministry identified the victims as Bara al-Gharabli, 6; Mustafa Mohammad Obied, 14; Mousa Khamees Junied al-Zain, 20; Raed Abu Warda, 33; Nabeel Noman Dardona, 24; Ismat al-Zain, 50; and Basheer Aloush, 54. The rocket also injured 15 people, including 5 children, said relatives of the injured and others who know them.

Owners of shops nearby showed Human Rights Watch remnants of the munition, which they said they had recovered from the street or inside nearby shops on the day of the incident. The remnants indicate that the weapons used were rockets similar in size and payload to Grad-type unguided artillery rockets. The size and scale of the blast and fragmentation damage to walls near the scene was consistent with the detonation of this type of munition.

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