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Airbursts of artillery-fired white phosphorus fall over the Gaza city port, October 11, 2023.  © 2023 Mohammed Adeb/AFP via Getty Images

(Jerusalem) – Allies of Israel and backers of Palestinian armed groups should suspend the transfer of arms to the warring parties in Israel and Gaza given the real risk that they will be used to commit grave abuses, Human Rights Watch said today. Providing weapons that knowingly and significantly would contribute to unlawful attacks can make those providing them complicit in war crimes.

Israel and Palestinian armed groups have committed serious abuses amounting to war crimes during the current hostilities. Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups deliberately killed hundreds of civilians in Israel on October 7, 2023, and took more than 200 hostage. Israel then cut electricity, fuel, food and water to Gaza’s population and severely curtailed life-saving humanitarian aid, all of which are acts of collective punishment.

“Civilians are being punished and killed at a scale unprecedented in recent history in Israel and Palestine,” said Bruno Stagno, chief advocacy officer at Human Rights Watch. “The United States, Iran and other governments risk being complicit in grave abuses if they continue to provide military assistance to known violators.”

Israel’s key allies—the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Germany—should suspend military assistance and arms sales to Israel so long as its forces commit widespread, serious abuses amounting to war crimes against Palestinian civilians with impunity. Iran and other governments should cease providing arms to Palestinian armed groups, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad, so long as they systematically commit attacks amounting to war crimes against Israeli civilians.

Since October 7, about 1,400 Israelis and others, and more than 9,700 Palestinians, many of them civilians, have been killed, according to local authorities.

During the current hostilities, Israeli forces have imposed collective punishment on civilians in Gaza by denying them water, electricity, and food, and have willfully impeded humanitarian aid from entering Gaza.

They have also repeatedly used explosive weapons with wide area effects in densely populated areas, reducing entire blocks and large parts of neighborhoods to rubble and raising grave concerns of indiscriminate attacks, and indiscriminately used white phosphorus, an incendiary material that burns human flesh and can cause lifelong suffering, in populated areas in Gaza and in Lebanon. Amnesty International has also verified photos showing M825-series white phosphorous 155mm artillery projectiles being used by Israeli forces near the Lebanese border and Gaza fences.

Israel’s military has also ordered over a million people in northern Gaza to evacuate to the south of Gaza because of military operations in the north, though they had no safe place to go or safe way to go anywhere in Gaza. Broad-based warnings, rather than specific warnings of imminent attacks, suggest that everywhere in northern Gaza is subject to military attack. This order risks mass forced displacement, a war crime. Israel has also sealed its border crossings to anyone who would seek to flee.

Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups have deliberately killed civilians, taken civilians hostage and continue to hold them, and launched thousands of rockets at Israeli communities, all of which are war crimes.

Rockets launched toward Israel from the Gaza Strip, October 8, 2023.   © 2023 AP

The leaders of Israel and Palestinian armed groups have made statements indicating that serious abuses by their forces will continue. Israeli officials have sought to hold Gaza’s entire population responsible for the October 7 attack; one minister said that “there is no reason” to provide humanitarian aid to the population until Israeli forces “eliminate” Hamas. A spokesman for the Hamas military wing threatened to broadcast “with sound and video” the “execution of one of our enemy’s civilian hostages.”

Future military transfers to Israel in the face of ongoing serious violations of the laws of war risk making the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Germany complicit in these abuses if they knowingly and significantly contribute to them, Human Rights Watch said. Providing weapons to Palestinian armed groups, given their continuing unlawful attacks, risks making Iran complicit in those violations.

The current abuses follow years of systematic violations, including unlawful air strikes on Gaza by Israeli forces, the firing of rockets indiscriminately towards civilian communities in Israel by Palestinian armed groups, and Israel’s crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution against Palestinians, committed with impunity.

US President Joseph R. Biden has requested US$14.3 billion for further arms to Israel in addition to the $3.8 billion in US military aid Israel receives annually. On November 2, the US House of Representatives passed a bill that would provide that military aid to Israel. Since October 7, the United States has either transferred or announced it is planning to transfer Small Diameter Bombs, Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) guidance kits, 155mm artillery shells, and a million rounds of ammunition, among other weapons.

The United Kingdom has licensed the sale of GBP£442 million worth of arms ($539 million) to Israeli forces since 2015, including aircraft, bombs, and ammunition. Canada exported CDN$47 million ($33 million) in 2021 and 2022. Germany issued licenses for €862 million ($916 million) in arms sales to Israel between 2015 and 2019.

Hamas leadership publicly said in January 2022 that it received at least US$70 million in military assistance from Iran, but did not specify during what period of time this support was provided.

“How many more civilian lives must be lost, how much more must civilians suffer as a result of war crimes before countries supplying weapons to Israel and Palestinian armed groups pull the plug and avoid complicity in these atrocities?” Stagno said.

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