Dear Prime Minister,

I am writing to you ahead of your talks with your Israeli counterpart, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, to draw your attention to crucial issues of human rights abuses and violations of the laws of war in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. The continuation of these abuses and the near-total lack of accountability for them feed grievances and extremism on both sides and seriously hamper the search for a just and lasting peace in the region.

In the interests of overcoming this dangerous climate of impunity, Human Rights Watch urges you to call on Mr Netanyahu to end Israel's part in these abuses, to launch credible investigations into violations of the laws of war, and to cooperate with UN mechanisms seeking to establish the facts and pursue accountability.   

Of immediate concern are the grave violations of international humanitarian law carried out by both sides during Israel's 22-day military campaign in Gaza starting December 27, 2008 in which several hundred Palestinian civilians were killed, many of them children.

Human Rights Watch has documented these violations in several reports. On the Palestinian side we have documented indiscriminate rocket attacks against Israeli population centres by Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups, and intra-Palestinian reprisal killings and torture. On the Israeli side we have reported on the Israel Defence Forces' use of white phosphorous munitions against civilians, attacks on civilians by precision drone-fired missiles, and killings of civilians waving white flags by Israeli soldiers.

Human Rights Watch's findings on violations of the laws of war by both sides in the Gaza conflict have been corroborated by other international human rights organisations, by local Palestinian and Israeli non-governmental organisations, and by a UN Board of Inquiry that investigated several incidents of attacks against UN installations and personnel in Gaza.

Israel's own purported investigations into these alleged violations have been neither independent nor impartial and have resulted in blanket denials of any serious wrongdoing on the part of the Israel Defence Forces. There has been no Israeli government action to secure accountability for perpetrators and justice for victims. Furthermore the Israeli Prime Minister's Office has resorted to a propaganda campaign aimed at undermining the credibility of organisations such as Human Rights Watch that have reported in good faith on Israeli (and Palestinian) violations.

As you are no doubt aware, laws of war violations by both sides in Gaza are now the subject of a fact-finding mission by the international jurist Richard Goldstone, working under a mandate from the UN Human Rights Council. The Israel government has refused to cooperate with Judge Goldstone's mission, which enjoys the support of the United Kingdom and is due to issue its report in September.

Often lost in the current focus on laws-of-war violations by both sides in December and January has been the devastating humanitarian impact of Israel's two-year-long military blockade of Gaza in collusion with Egypt. Human Rights Watch has extensively documented the impact of the blockade on Gaza's civilian population, including its 750,000 children. Months after the December and January fighting, civilians continue to bear the brunt of severe restrictions on basic necessities, food, medical supplies and building materials for the reconstruction of houses, schools, hospitals, waterworks, and industrial and agricultural infrastructure.

Israel continues to exercise full control of Gaza's borders and airspace, with the exception of the Rafah crossing with Egypt. While Israel is entitled to inspect goods entering Gaza, any restrictions should be for specific security reasons and not to block humanitarian aid or other necessary civilian goods. Israel's blockade of Gaza violates international humanitarian law, which forbids a government from blocking goods essential to the survival of the civilian population. As the EU has acknowledged, the blockade also violates Israel's duty as an occupying power to safeguard the health and welfare of the occupied population, and amounts to collective punishment against civilians.

The conflict in Gaza has diverted attention from another core issue of international humanitarian law that hampers efforts for peace and stability between Israel and the Palestinians, namely the continuing expansion of illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. These settlements have long violated the prohibition under the Fourth Geneva Convention against transferring its own civilian population into territory it occupies.  They also have led to daily abuses of the Palestinian population both by the occupying Israeli military and by armed Israeli settlers.

What has evolved as a direct result of the illegal settlements is a pervasive system of government-sponsored discrimination against Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem where Israel has constructed roads exclusively for settlers and established vastly unequal access to water, fuel, education, healthcare, transportation, and infrastructure.

We urge you to raise these important human rights and laws of war issues with Prime Minister Netanyahu during his visit to London both in your private conversations with him and in public. In particular we urge you to press him to:

  • order thorough and impartial investigations into credible allegations of serious violations of the laws of war during Israeli military operations in Gaza, prosecute those responsible for war crimes, and compensate the victims;
  • seriously consider the findings and recommendations of the mission's forthcoming report;
  • end the illegal and inhumane blockade of Gaza;
  • dismantle all illegal settlements in the occupied territories;
  • end the systematic government-backed discrimination of Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

We also urge you make it clear to Mr Netanyahu that, in the event that Israel fails to conduct thorough and impartial investigations into violations of the laws of war during the Israeli attack on Gaza and punish the perpetrators, the UK will work with its international partners to ensure that mechanisms of international justice are deployed to pursue accountability for serious violations and justice for victims. 

I thank you for your attention to these important matters.   

Yours sincerely,

Tom Porteous

London Director

Human Rights Watch