For Immediate Release
Israel: Misuse of Drones Killed Civilians in Gaza
Israel Should Release Camera Footage of Deadly Attacks
JERUSALEM - Israeli attacks with guided missiles fired from aerial drones killed
civilians during the recent Gaza fighting in violation of the laws of
war, Human Rights Watch said in a report
released today. The attacks with one of the most precise weapons in
Israel's arsenal killed civilians who were not taking part in
hostilities and were far from any fighting.
The 39-page report,
"Precisely Wrong: Gaza Civilians Killed by Israeli Drone-Launched
Missiles," details six incidents resulting in 29 civilian deaths, among
them eight children. Human Rights Watch found that Israeli forces
failed to take all feasible precautions to verify that these targets
were combatants, as required by the laws of war, or that they failed to
distinguish between combatants and civilians. Israeli and Palestinian
human rights groups have reported a total of 42 drone attacks that
killed civilians, 87 in all, during the fighting in December 2008 and
"Drone operators can clearly see their targets on the ground and
also divert their missiles after launch," said Marc Garlasco, senior
military analyst at Human Rights Watch and co-author of the report.
"Given these capabilities, Israel needs to explain why these civilian
deaths took place."
"Precisely Wrong" is based on field research in Gaza, where Human
Rights Watch researchers interviewed victims and witnesses, examined
attack sites, collected missile debris for testing, and reviewed
medical records. The Israel Defense Forces turned down repeated Human
Rights Watch requests for a meeting and did not respond to questions
submitted in writing.
Military experts have extolled armed drones, or Unmanned Combat
Aerial Vehicles, and their precision-guided missiles as weapons that
can minimize civilian casualties. Their use is rapidly expanding - for
example by the United States in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
"When used properly, drones and their precision missiles can help a
military minimize civilian casualties," Garlasco said. "But drones are
only as good at sparing civilians as the people who command and operate
In the six cases documented in the report, Human Rights Watch found
no evidence that Palestinian fighters were present in the immediate
area of the attack at the time. None of the civilians who were killed
were moving quickly or fleeing the area, so the drone operators would
have had time to determine whether they were observing civilians or
combatants, and to hold fire if they were unable to tell the difference.
In three of the cases, drones fired missiles at children playing on
rooftops in residential neighborhoods, far from any ground fighting at
the time. Human Rights Watch found no evidence to suggest that the
children were acting as spotters, relaying Israeli troop locations, or
trying to launch a rocket from the roof.
On December 27, 2008, the first day of the Israeli offensive called
"Operation Cast Lead," a drone-launched missile hit a group of
university students as they waited for a bus on a crowded residential
street in central Gaza City, killing 12 civilians. The Israeli military
has failed to explain why it targeted the group on a crowded downtown
street with no known military activity in the area at the time.
On December 29, the Israeli military struck a truck that it said was
transporting Grad rockets, killing nine civilians. The military
released video footage
of the attack to support its case, but the video raises serious doubts
that the target constituted a military objective - doubts that should
have guided the drone operator to hold fire. The alleged rockets, the
military later admitted, proved to be oxygen canisters.
The technological capabilities of drones and drone-launched missiles
make these violations even more egregious, Human Rights Watch said.
Drones carry an array of advanced sensors, often combining radars,
electro-optical cameras, infrared cameras, and lasers. These sensors
can provide a clear image in real time of individuals on the ground
during day and night, with the ability to distinguish between children
One Israeli drone operator who flew missions in Gaza during the
recent fighting told an Israeli military journal that he was able to
detect clothing colors, a large radio, and a weapon.
The missile launched from a drone carries its own cameras that allow
the operator to observe the target from the moment of firing to impact.
If doubts arise about a target, the drone operator can redirect the
The drones deployed by the Israeli military - the Israeli-produced
Hermes and Heron drones - have video-recording devices so that
everything viewed by the operator is recorded. Every Israeli drone
missile strike during Operation Cast Lead would therefore be registered
The Israeli government is obligated under international law to
investigate serious violations of the laws of war. Israeli military or
civilian personnel found responsible for committing or ordering
unlawful drone attacks should be disciplined or prosecuted as
appropriate, Human Rights Watch said. Individuals who have committed
serious violations of the laws of war with criminal intent - that is,
intentionally or recklessly - are responsible for war crimes.
Israel has failed to conduct credible investigations into its
actions during Operation Cast Lead. On April 22, the military released
the results of an internal investigation, which concluded that its
forces "operated in accordance with international law" throughout the
fighting and that "a very small number" of "unavoidable" incidents
occurred due to "intelligence or operational errors."
A fact-finding team from the United Nations Human Rights Council
headed by the respected international jurist Richard Goldstone is
currently investigating alleged violations of the laws of war by both
Israel and Hamas. Israel has said it will not cooperate with the
investigation because the Human Rights Council is biased against
Israel. Hamas has said it will cooperate.
Human Rights Watch called on Israel and Hamas to cooperate fully
with the Goldstone investigation. Regarding drone-launched missiles,
Israel should provide the recorded video footage and other
documentation of its attacks in which civilians were wounded or killed.
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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.