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More than 415 Israeli and other civilians have been killed, and more than two thousand injured, as a result of attacks by armed Palestinians between September 30, 2000 and August 31, 2002. The majority of these deaths and injuries were caused by so-called suicide bombings carried out by Palestinians. Typically, the bombers, who surrendered their own lives in the process, sought to set off their explosions in places where civilians were gathered, including restaurants and places of entertainment-"soft" targets where they could expect to cause the largest number of casualties. Typically, too, the bombers packed the explosives with nails and pieces of metal for extra deadly effect. In addition to the toll of deaths and injuries, the bombings have sown widespread fear among the civilian population-as they were intended to do.

Hamas and Islamic Jihad, two Islamist Palestinian groups, had previously carried out suicide bombings against Israeli targets in the mid-1990s, as part of their opposition to the Oslo Accords and, at times, the Palestinian Authority (PA). At that time the PA clamped down, arresting some 1,200 leaders and activists, and the bombings ceased. Some of those detained were held for long periods without charge or trial. The PA freed those who remained in detention soon after the current uprising-widely known as the al-Aqsa Intifada-began in September 2000. Within months, following a rapid escalation of violence on both sides, Hamas again resorted to suicide bombings against Israeli civilians when, on January 1, 2001, a suicide bomber blew himself up at a crowded bus station in Netanya, wounding at least twenty civilians. Islamic Jihad resumed suicide attacks against civilians shortly afterwards.

Throughout 2001, there was a rash of such attacks, peaking in March, November, and early December. Israel charged that President Yasir Arafat and the PA were responsible because they had failed to rein in the Islamist groups. In June and again in December 2001, in response to mounting international pressure, the PA obtained a cessation of suicide bombings (though not all attacks) against civilians. These lasted for some six weeks beginning in early June and for some four weeks beginning in mid-December. On January 14, 2002, Israeli forces killed a local West Bank leader of the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades (the al-Aqsa Brigades), which had been formed at the start of the current clashes and is affiliated with Arafat's Fatah organization. The al-Aqsa Brigades carried out their first suicide bombing two weeks later-the first to be carried out by a female perpetrator. The blast killed one civilian and injured one hundred. A fourth group, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), also carried out suicide bombings in 2002.

Each of these four groups has attacked civilians repeatedly. The scale and systematic nature of these attacks in 2001 and 2002 meet the definition of a crime against humanity. When these suicide bombings take place in the context of violence that amounts to armed conflict, they are also war crimes. Human Rights Watch unreservedly condemns these atrocities.

Of the four groups, three have an adversarial relationship with Arafat and the PA: Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the PFLP. The fourth, the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, proclaims its support for Arafat and the PA. Inevitably, the attacks carried out by the al-Aqsa Brigades have provoked the most questions, with intense speculation as to whether they were sanctioned by, or carried out at the behest of, Arafat. This report examines that question, among others.

The Palestinian Authority is not a state, and is therefore not a party to the major international humanitarian law treaties, but it has on several occasions signaled its willingness to abide by those standards. International humanitarian law, through the well established doctrine of command responsibility, requires that those who occupy positions of authority cannot escape accountability for war crimes or other grave abuses committed by persons under their control if they ordered their subordinates to commit such crimes, failed to take reasonable preventive action, or failed to punish the perpetrators. This doctrine is particularly relevant to those in the military chain of command, but the doctrine also extends to political and other leaders insofar as they have "effective responsibility and control" over the actors in question.1 The leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, in particular, appear to be criminal offenders under that doctrine: many of them have openly espoused, encouraged, or endorsed suicide bombing attacks against Israeli civilians, and appear to have had the capacity to turn the bombings on and off at will. The PFLP, which has claimed responsibility for car bombings as well as several suicide bombings that targeted civilians, appears to have a similar degree of internal cohesion and centralized authority, thus making its leadership also criminally liable.

Human Rights Watch sought particularly to obtain information that would enable it to assess the role and responsibility of the PA, as the entity charged with maintaining security in select areas of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Our conclusion, on the basis of the available public information, is that there are important steps that Arafat and the PA could and should have taken to prevent or deter suicide bombings directed against civilians. The failure to take those steps implies a high degree of responsibility for what occurred. Individual members of the al-Aqsa Brigades have even been among the beneficiaries of payments approved by Arafat personally at a time when he knew or should have known that such individuals were alleged to have been involved in planning or carrying out attacks on civilians.

The greatest failure of President Arafat and the PA leadership-a failure for which they must bear heavy responsibility-is their unwillingness to deploy the criminal justice system decisively to stop the suicide bombings, particularly in 2001, when the PA was most capable of doing so. President Arafat and the PA also failed to take aggressive measures to ensure that the intensely polarized political atmosphere not serve as a justification for such attacks. Certain Israeli actions, such as the destruction of PA police and security installations, gradually undermined the PA's capacity to act. But even when their capacity to act was largely intact, Arafat and the PA took no effective action to bring to justice those in Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the PFLP, and the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades who incited, planned or assisted in carrying out bombings and other attacks on Israeli civilians. Instead, Arafat and the PA pursued a policy whereby suspects, when they were detained, were not investigated or prosecuted, but typically were soon let out onto the street again. Indeed, the PA leadership appeared to treat its duty to prosecute murderers as something that was negotiable and contingent on Israel's compliance with its undertakings in the Oslo Accords, not as the unconditional obligation that it was.

The PA sought to explain these releases by citing the danger to detainees when Israeli forces bombed places of detention. But the PA has not explained why suspects were never investigated, charged, or tried - steps that could have been taken with little or no risk to the suspects' physical well-being. Further, while Arafat has repeatedly and publicly condemned suicide bombings and other attacks against Israeli civilians, he has done little to confront or correct the positive portrayal of the bombers within the Palestinian community as "martyrs." Indeed, several PA officials have praised attacks on civilians. Again, steps to delegitimize attacks on civilians could have been taken despite Israel's degradation of the PA's administrative and security apparatus. Finally, Arafat and the PA failed to take available administrative steps to ensure that there were no financial incentives for carrying out attacks on civilians. In a handful of cases, President Arafat authorized modest payments to people whom he knew or should have known had attacked civilians. More commonly, President Arafat and the PA did not take adequate steps as the established authority in the area to prevent special payments, by the PA or others, to such perpetrators and their families. This inaction fostered an environment that allowed Palestinian armed groups to believe they could attack civilians with impunity.

On the basis of what was publicly available as of the end of September 2002, Human Rights Watch did not find evidence that Arafat and the PA planned, ordered, or carried out suicide bombings or other attacks on Israeli civilians. Despite the links between President Arafat's Fatah organization and the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, we found no evidence that the al-Aqsa Brigades, when planning or carrying out suicide bombings or other attacks on civilians, took their orders from or sought the endorsement of Arafat or other senior PA or Fatah leaders. Rather, the al-Aqsa Brigades appear to operate with a wide degree of local discretion and to maintain only a loose relationship with Arafat and the senior Fatah leadership. Such a relationship does not meet the criteria required to establish that Arafat and top PA officials have command responsibility-that is, criminal liability-for the attacks against civilians carried out by the al-Aqsa Brigades. Similarly, the PA's failure to exercise its administrative and criminal justice powers to rein in independent actors does not establish command responsibility under the current state of international law. However, the lack of command responsibility in no way diminishes Arafat's and the PA's significant political responsibility for the repeated deliberate killing of civilians.

Palestinian armed groups have sought to justify suicide bombing attacks on civilians by pointing to Israeli military actions that have killed numerous Palestinian civilians during current clashes, as well as the continuing Israeli occupation of the West Bank and much of the Gaza Strip. Such excuses are completely without merit. International humanitarian law leaves absolutely no doubt that attacks targeting civilians constitute war crimes when committed in situations of armed conflict, and cross the threshold to become crimes against humanity when conducted systematically, whether in peace or war. As the latter term denotes, these are among the worst crimes that can be committed, crimes of universal jurisdiction that the international community as a whole has an obligation to punish and prevent.

International humanitarian law governing situations of armed conflict prohibits even attacks against civilians that are said to have been carried out in reprisal for attacks against one's own civilian population. This principle is set out in both the Fourth Geneva Convention and in Additional Protocol I. Even apart from these treaties, a strong trend has developed in international customary law over the past two decades to prohibit reprisals against civilians. This ban on reprisals is not dependent on reciprocal compliance by opposing forces. Even in the face of Israeli violations of international human rights and humanitarian law, Palestinian armed groups have a duty to refrain from reprisals against civilians.

Palestinian groups have also argued that they are engaged in a "liberation war" against Israel's continuing occupation, and so are somehow exempt from the obligation to respect international humanitarian law. This claim of exemption is also false. Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions, which by its terms governs wars of national self-determination, states that the "civilian population as such, as well as individual civilians, shall not be the object of attack," and that "[a]cts or threats of violence the primary purpose of which is to spread terror among the civilian population are prohibited." That is, the first treaty to recognize wars of national liberation also reaffirms the prohibition of attacks on civilians. In addition, the core principles of the Geneva Conventions and their protocols are part of international customary law, indicating that they have achieved the highest degree of international consensus regardless of treaty ratifications. These include the principle requiring attacking forces to distinguish between civilians and military objects, the principle of granting civilian immunity from deliberate attack, and the prohibition against targeting civilians. All parties to a conflict are obliged unconditionally to respect these principles.

Finally, Palestinian groups have argued that Israeli settlers in the West Bank, by virtue of their presence in an occupied territory, are not civilians, and that because many Israeli adults are members of the military reserve, they, too, are legitimate military targets. These claims also run counter to international humanitarian law. Even though Israel's policy of maintaining and expanding civilian settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip is illegal under international humanitarian law, a person who resides in an illegal settlement continues to be a civilian unless he or she directly participates in hostilities. Except in those circumstances of direct participation in armed conflict, these residents are entitled to full protection as civilians. Similarly, international humanitarian law leaves no doubt that reserve members of military or security forces, while not on active duty, are not combatants and thus benefit from protection as civilians.

The arguments put forward to justify or excuse suicide bombings and other Palestinian attacks on civilians are without foundation. Those who articulate them either fail to understand or have decided to ignore their obligations under international humanitarian law. There can be no doubt that such attacks are grave crimes. In most, if not all cases, they are crimes against humanity. International law defines those who perpetrate these atrocities as criminals. So are those who incite, plan, and assist them. They should be brought to justice.

In this report, Human Rights Watch examines the nature and consequences-the human toll-of the suicide bombings and other attacks on civilians, reviews the relevant international humanitarian law standards and the obligations they impose, and describes the nature, structure, and objectives of the Palestinian armed groups that have carried out these attacks. As indicated, we also examine the role of the Palestinian Authority, including President Arafat.

We include specific recommendations on the steps to be taken, without delay or equivocation, to end attacks on civilians. We call on the PA and Palestinian armed groups to end all suicide attacks against civilians and to abide by the principles of international human rights and humanitarian law. We also urge Israel to ensure that all measures to prevent or respond to suicide or other attacks against civilians conform to international humanitarian and human rights law. We call on the respective parties' international supporters to endorse these recommendations and try to enforce them, so as to help bring an end to the attacks that have cruelly claimed civilian lives and the impunity that allows these attacks to continue.

1 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, Article 28(b), U.N. Doc. no. A/CONF. 183/9 (July 17, 1998), 37 I.L.M. 999.

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