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Israel: Ensure Improved 'Attack Warnings' to Civilians Are Effective

Follow International Law to Avoid Past Failings


The Israel Defense Forces have reportedly decided to improve the warnings given to civilians before attacks, but still need to ensure that the warnings are effective and do not allow attacks otherwise prohibited under international law, Human Rights Watch said today.

In a letter to the Israeli military's Chief of Staff, Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, Human Rights Watch welcomed the reported announcement that the military will issue new procedures to improve its early warnings to civilians during armed conflict, saying that improved procedures could save lives but reiterating concerns over past practice.

"More specific warnings that describe the target area and the timing of the attack would be a positive step towards ensuring they meet the requirement to be effective," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "Unfortunately, during the January conflict in Gaza, many warnings failed that test."

An article on July 29, 2009, on the Israeli news website, said that Israeli military officials agreed, after reviewing Israel's conduct during military operations in Gaza during December and January, that the military should "give more accurate details in warnings issued to Palestinians before aerial strikes," including specific information such as "timetables for strikes to be carried out" and escape routes. Warning fliers would "be more detailed in order to make it clear to civilians that their lives are in danger."

During "Operation Cast Lead," the flyers dropped from Israeli fighter jets were addressed to "Inhabitants of the Area" from IDF Command, stating: "For the sake of your safety you are asked to evacuate the area immediately." Human Rights Watch's research found that the warnings were too vague to be effective and gave no sense of either the timing of a pending attack or where the attack would take place.

Human Rights Watch interviewed numerous Gaza residents who said they received IDF warning leaflets during the hostilities but did not evacuate because the fliers were spread over very wide areas, leaving them unsure of whether their area would be attacked and of where it would be safe to go. Gaza residents also told Human Rights Watch that they received warning phone calls to leave their homes because of "terrorist activity" in the area, but that these calls did not inform them of safe routes by which to evacuate. Gazans also said they received Israeli warnings, in some cases delivered by radio or television broadcasts, to "go to city centers," but that Israeli forces subsequently attacked those areas.

Human Rights Watch's research on the 2006 war in Lebanon found that the Israeli military, having issued warnings to civilians in South Lebanon to leave, often then treated the area as a civilian-free zone. Many civilians remained in Southern Lebanon throughout the fighting, yet the Israeli military often seemed not to take their presence into account in making targeting decisions. The frequent result was attacks that did not discriminate between combatants and civilians, resulting in high numbers of civilian casualties.

Under the laws of war, parties to a conflict must, whenever possible, provide effective advance warnings of attacks that may affect the civilian population. Whether a warning is effective depends on the circumstances, and it must take into account the amount of advance notice and the ability of civilians to flee the area to safety.

Civilians who do not evacuate following warnings are still fully protected by international law. Even after effective warnings have been given, attacking forces may not assume that civilians have evacuated, and must remain cognizant of the presence of civilians in an area. The attacker remains obligated to distinguish between military targets and civilians or civilian objects, and must still take all feasible precautions to avoid loss of civilian life and property. It is a violation of the laws of war to presume that anyone who remains in an area following warnings to flee is a legitimate military target. Warring parties may not cause forced displacement by threatening civilians with deliberate harm if they did not heed warnings.

"Warnings are important, but often civilians can't flee a combat zone because they are old or sick, don't have the means to flee, or have no safe place to go to," said Whitson. "Regardless of warnings, an army can't assume that civilians have heeded its warnings, and it is still obligated to ensure that only legitimate military targets are attacked."

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.