For Immediate Release
Gaza/Israel: Hamas Rocket Attacks on Civilians Unlawful
Launches from Populated Areas Endanger Israelis and Palestinians
JERUSALEM - Hamas should repudiate unlawful rocket attacks against Israeli
population centers and hold those responsible for them to account,
Human Rights Watch said in a new report
released today. Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups have over
several years launched thousands of rockets at Israeli cities and
towns, including hundreds during Israel's three-week military offensive
in Gaza in December 2008 and January 2009. A UN fact-finding
investigation into serious violations of the laws of war by both sides
in the Gaza conflict, led by Judge Richard Goldstone, is due to report
back to the UN Human Rights Council in September.
The 31-page report, "Rockets from Gaza: Harm to Civilians from Palestinian Armed Groups' Rocket Attacks,"
documents attacks by Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups since
November 2008 that killed three Israeli civilians and seriously injured
dozens of others, damaged property and forced residents to leave their
homes. The rockets unlawfully struck populated areas up to 40
kilometers inside Israel, placing roughly 800,000 Israeli civilians at
risk. Rockets that fell short of their intended targets in Israel
killed two girls and wounded others in Gaza during this period.
Palestinian armed groups that launched rockets from densely populated
areas also unlawfully put Gaza civilians at risk of Israeli
"Hamas rocket attacks targeting Israeli civilians are unlawful and
unjustifiable, and amount to war crimes," said Iain Levine, program
director at Human Rights Watch. "As the governing authority in Gaza,
Hamas should publicly renounce rocket attacks on Israeli civilian
centers and punish those responsible, including members of its own
"Rockets from Gaza" focuses on events after November 4, 2008, when
Palestinian armed groups resumed rocket fire after an Israeli military
incursion into Gaza. Based on interviews with witnesses to rocket
attacks and launches, field investigations of strike sites in Israel
and Gaza, and media and other reports, the report details the cases of
Israeli and Palestinian civilians killed or wounded by rocket attacks
in December 2008 and January 2009. While Human Rights Watch found no
clear practice by Palestinian armed groups to deliberately use
civilians to shield rocket launches from counterattack, it found they
frequently violated the separate duty under the laws of war to take all
feasible precautions to avoid endangering civilians when they launched
rockets from densely populated areas.
"Hamas forces violated the laws of war both by firing rockets
deliberately or indiscriminately at Israeli cities and by launching
them from populated areas and endangering Gazan civilians," said Levine.
Hamas has significantly limited rocket attacks in recent months, but
has not renounced attacks that deliberately or indiscriminately target
civilians - serious violations of the laws of war - or brought to
justice those responsible for initiating such attacks, or for
endangering Palestinian civilians by launching rockets from densely
populated areas in Gaza. Hamas's armed wing claimed responsibility for
the three Israeli civilian deaths documented in the report. During the
Israeli offensive in December and January, the armed wings of Hamas and
Islamic Jihad claimed to have fired 820 rockets at Israel.
The locally made Qassam rockets and Soviet-designed Grad rockets
used by Hamas and other armed groups cannot be aimed with any
reliability. Under the laws of war, such weapons are indiscriminate
when used against targets in densely populated areas. The absence of
Israeli military forces in the areas struck by the rockets, as well as
statements from the leaders of the Palestinian armed groups, indicate
that the armed groups deliberately intended to strike Israeli civilians
and civilian structures. For example, Abu Obeida, a spokesman for
Hamas's Qassam Brigades, said in a video released on January 5, 2009
that "continuing the incursion will only make us increase our rocket
range [...]. We will double the number of Israelis under fire."
Under the laws of war, individuals who willfully authorize or carry
out deliberate or indiscriminate attacks against civilians are
committing war crimes.
An Israeli early warning siren system, which gives civilians roughly
10 to 45 seconds to find cover in prepared shelters, depending on their
distance from the launch site in Gaza, has undoubtedly limited the
number of civilian casualties in Israel. However, the repeated attacks
have, over months and even years, taken a psychological toll on the
population in areas close to Gaza. The laws of war prohibit attacks the
primary purpose of which is to spread terror among the civilian
population. Because of the rocket attacks, thousands of people have
moved away from frequently targeted areas such as Sderot municipality.
Palestinian armed groups have argued that the rocket attacks are
appropriate reprisals for Israeli military operations and the ongoing
economic blockade of Gaza, and are a lawful response to Israel's
control over Gaza. Human Rights Watch has also documented numerous laws
of war violations by Israeli forces in Gaza, but violations by one
party to a conflict never justify violations by the other. Attacks
targeting civilians are never permitted under the laws of war, which
require armed forces to target only military objectives, and to take
all feasible precautions to spare civilians from harm, regardless of
the reasons for resorting to armed conflict.
Similarly, although Israeli military operations caused far greater
total harm to civilian lives - killing several hundred civilians with
air strikes, artillery, tank shelling, and other attacks - and property
than operations by Palestinian armed groups, violations of the laws of
war are not determined by the number of civilian casualties, but by
whether each side is refraining from conducting deliberate or
indiscriminate attacks against civilians and is taking all feasible
precautions to minimize civilian loss.
"Human Rights Watch is committed to documenting the worst violations
of the laws of war committed by all sides in armed conflicts throughout
the world," Levine said. "We published this report because civilians
must never be the object of attack, regardless of the relative strength
of the attacker."
Using unsophisticated weapons does not justify failure to respect
the laws of war, just as an adversary's use of sophisticated weapons
does not provide a pass to its opponents to ignore those laws, Human
Rights Watch said. Such disparities exist in many wars, and if they
provided a justification for ignoring the laws of war the civilian toll
in armed conflicts would rise dramatically. The loss of civilian life
from armed conflict can be minimized only if each party recognizes its
legal obligations to abide by the laws of war, regardless of the
weaponry at its disposal.
"Rockets from Gaza" is the fifth in a series of reports Human Rights Watch has issued on the Israeli offensive launched on December 27, 2008. Two reports are forthcoming.
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.