Israel/Hamas: Civilians Must Not Be Targets

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Israel/Hamas: Civilians Must Not Be Targets

Disregard for Civilians Underlies Current Escalation

WASHINGTON - Israel and Hamas both must respect the prohibition under the laws of
war against deliberate and indiscriminate attacks on civilians, Human
Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch expressed grave concern
about Israeli bombings in Gaza that caused civilian deaths and
Palestinian rocket attacks on Israeli civilian areas in violation of
international law.

Rocket attacks on Israeli towns by Hamas and other Palestinian armed
groups that do not discriminate between civilians and military targets
violate the laws of war, while a rising number of the hundreds of
Israeli bombings in Gaza since December 27, 2008, appear to be unlawful
attacks causing civilian casualties. Additionally, Israel's severe
limitations on the movement of non-military goods and people into and
out of Gaza, including fuel and medical supplies, constitutes
collective punishment, also in violation of the laws of war.

"Firing rockets into civilian areas with the intent to harm and
terrorize Israelis has no justification whatsoever, regardless of
Israel's actions in Gaza," said Joe Stork, deputy director of Human
Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa division. "At the same
time, Israel should not target individuals and institutions in Gaza
solely because they are part of the Hamas-run political authority,
including ordinary police. Only attacks on military targets are
permissible, and only in a manner that minimizes civilian casualties."

Human Rights Watch investigated three Israeli attacks that raise
particular concern about Israel's targeting decisions and require
independent and impartial inquiries to determine whether the attacks
violated the laws of war. In three incidents detailed below, 18
civilians died, among them at least seven children.

On Saturday, December 27, the first day of Israel's aerial attacks,
witnesses told Human Rights Watch that shortly after 1 p.m. an Israeli
air-to-ground missile struck a group of students leaving the Gaza
Training College, adjacent to the headquarters of the UN Relief and
Works Agency (UNRWA) in downtown Gaza City. The students were waiting
to board buses to transport them to their homes in Khan Yunis and
Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip. The strike killed eight students,
ages 18 to 20, and wounded 19 others.

A UNRWA security guard stationed at the college entrance told Human
Rights Watch that he used his UN radio to call for medical help. He
said the attack also killed two other civilians, Hisham al-Rayes, 28,
and his brother Alam, 26, whose family ran a small shop opposite the
college entrance. The guard said that the only potential target nearby
was the Gaza governorate building, which deals with civil matters,
about 150 meters away from where the missile struck. Another UNRWA
security guard who also witnessed the attack told Human Rights Watch:
"There wasn't anybody else around - no police, army, or Hamas."

The second incident occurred shortly before midnight on Sunday,
December 28, when Israeli warplanes fired one or more missiles at the
Imad Aqil mosque in Jabalya, a densely populated refugee camp in the
northern Gaza Strip. The attack killed five of Anwar Balousha's
daughters who were sleeping in a bedroom of their nearby house:
Jawaher, 4; Dina, 8; Samar, 12; Ikram, 14; and Tahrir, 18. "We were
asleep and we woke to the sound of bombing and the rubble falling on
the house and on our heads," Anwar Balousha told Human Rights Watch.
The Balousha's three-room house is just across a small street from the
mosque.

The two-story Imad Aqil mosque, named after a deceased Hamas member,
is regarded by Palestinians in the area as a "Hamas mosque" - that is,
a place where the group's supporters gather for political meetings or
to assemble for demonstrations, and where death notices of Hamas
members are posted. Mosques are presumptively civilian objects and
their use for political activities does not change that. Human Rights
Watch said that the attack on Imad Aql mosque would be lawful only if
Israel could demonstrate that it was being used to store weapons and
ammunition or served some other military purpose. Even if that were the
case, Israel still had an obligation to take all feasible precautions
to minimize harm to civilians and ensure that any likely civilian harm
was not disproportionate to the expected military gain.

In the third incident, at around 1 a.m. on Monday, December 29, an
Israeli helicopter fired two missiles into the Rafah refugee camp. One
struck the home of a senior Hamas commander; the other struck the home
of the al-Absi family, about 150 meters away, killing three brothers -
Sedqi, 3, Ahmad, 12, and Muhammad, 13 - and wounding two sisters and
the children's mother. Ziad al-Absi, 46, the children's father, told
Human Rights Watch that at around 10:30 p.m. on Sunday, armed
Palestinians had gathered near their home, firing machine guns at
Israeli helicopters. "I and the neighbors argued with the militants,
told them this is a populated area and this will put us into peril," he
said. According to al-Absi's nephew, Iyad al-Absi, 27, the fighters
refused to leave. When their commander arrived at about 11 p.m. and
ordered them to leave, they again refused. The fighters finally left at
around 11:15, but only after an exchange of gunfire between the
fighters and their commander. Al-Absi said that he and his family then
went to sleep. He told his nephew and other relatives that there was no
further armed activity in the area prior to the missile strike on his
house, almost two hours later. Ziad al-Absi said the blast had thrown
one daughter onto a neighbor's balcony. The children's mother is in
hospital intensive care; the two daughters are also in the hospital.

Human Rights Watch noted that many of Israel's airstrikes,
especially during the first day, targeted police stations as well as
security and militia installations controlled by Hamas. According to
the Jerusalem Post, an attack on the police academy in Gaza City on
December 27 killed at least 40, including dozens of cadets at their
graduation ceremony as well as the chief of police, making it the
single deadliest air attack of the campaign to date. Another attack, on
a traffic police station in the central Gaza town of Deir al-Balah,
killed a by-stander, 12-year-old Camilia Ra`fat al-Burdini. Under the
laws of war, police and police stations are presumptively civilian
unless the police are Hamas fighters or taking a direct part in the
hostilities, or police stations are being used for military purposes.

"Israel must not make a blanket decision that all police and police
stations are by definition legitimate military targets," Stork said.
"It depends upon whether those police play a role in fighting against
Israel, or whether a particular police station is used to store weapons
or for some other military purpose."

Some other Israeli targets may have also been unlawful under the
laws of war. Three teenagers were killed in southern Gaza City on
December 27, when Israeli aircraft struck a building rented by Wa`ed
(Promise), a Hamas-affiliated organization that defends prisoners held
by Israel. Israel justified its attack on Gaza City's Islamic
University on grounds that laboratories were used to manufacture
explosives, but this did not address why a second strike demolished the
women's quarters there. Israel also attacked the Hamas-affiliated
Al-Aqsa TV, but did not provide a reason. Television and radio stations
are legitimate military targets only if used for military purposes, not
if they are simply being used for pro-Hamas or anti-Israel propaganda.

Human Rights Watch expressed grave concern about the seriously
deteriorating humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip, which was
already dire prior to the latest attacks. A health expert with the
International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Gaza said on
December 28 that hospitals were "overwhelmed and unable to cope with
the scale and type of injuries that keep coming in." The ICRC noted
that medical supplies and medicines were already badly depleted as a
result of Israel's prohibition of most imports into Gaza since Hamas
took full internal control of the territory in June 2007. In a
statement on December 29, the ICRC said that some neighborhoods were
running short of water, owing to damage from attacks or fuel and power
shortages. The statement also said that prices for food and basic
commodities were reportedly rising fast. UNRWA had reported several
days prior to the latest escalation of fighting that its stocks of
essential commodities were extremely low.

According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian
Affairs (OCHA), which also monitors security matters in Gaza,
Palestinian armed groups fired more than 100 rockets towards Israel on
December 27-28; Haaretz, the Israeli daily, reported that on December
29 Palestinian armed groups fired at least 60 rockets into Israel. One
of them killed a Bedouin construction worker, 27-year-old Hani
al-Mahdi, and wounded 14 others in the coastal city of Ashkelon, north
of Gaza; another fatally wounded 39-year-old Irit Sheetrit while she
was driving home in the city of Ashdod, 35 kilometers from Gaza. The
previous day, December 28, a rocket attack killed another Israeli
civilian and wounded four in Netivot, some 20 kilometers east of Gaza
City.

Human Rights Watch has long criticized Palestinian rocket attacks
against Israeli civilians - most recently, in a public letter to Hamas
on November 20 (http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2008/11/20/letter-hamas-stop-rocket-attacks
). The rockets are highly inaccurate, and those launching them cannot
accurately target military objects. Deliberately firing indiscriminate
weapons into civilian populated areas, as a matter of policy,
constitutes a war crime. Rocket attacks have killed 19 civilians in
Israel since 2005, including those killed to date during the current
clashes.

Human Rights Watch has also criticized Israel's policy of severely
restricting the flow of people and goods into Gaza, including fuel and
other civilian necessities, saying that those restrictions amount to
collective punishment against the civilian population, a serious
violation of the laws of war (http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2008/11/20/letter-olmert-stop-blockade-gaza
). Israel continues to exercise effective control over Gaza's borders
and airspace as well as its population registry, and remains the
occupying power there under international law. The laws of war prohibit
the occupying power from attacking, destroying, or withholding objects
essential to the survival of the civilian population. Israel is also
obliged to protect the right of Palestinians in Gaza to freedom of
movement, to secure access to health care and education, and to lead
normal lives.

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Human Rights Watch is one of the world's leading independent organizations dedicated to defending and protecting human rights. By focusing international attention where human rights are violated, we give voice to the oppressed and hold oppressors accountable for their crimes. Our rigorous, objective investigations and strategic, targeted advocacy build intense pressure for action and raise the cost of human rights abuse. For 30 years, Human Rights Watch has worked tenaciously to lay the legal and moral groundwork for deep-rooted change and has fought to bring greater justice and security to people around the world.

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