Tuesday, July 15, 2014

HRW: Unlawful Israeli Airstrikes

From a July 16 report by Human Rights Watch on Israeli military action in Gaza.

* * *

Israeli air attacks in Gaza investigated by Human Rights Watch have been targeting apparent civilian structures and killing civilians in violation of the laws of war. Israel should end unlawful attacks that do not target military objectives and may be intended as collective punishment or broadly to destroy civilian property. Deliberate or reckless attacks violating the laws of war are war crimes, Human Rights Watch said.

Israeli attacks in Gaza since July 7, 2014, which Israeli officials said delivered more than 500 tons of explosives in missiles, aerial bombs, and artillery fire, killed at least 178 people and wounded 1,361 as of July 14, including 635 women and children, according to the United Nations. Preliminary UN reports identified 138 people, about 77 percent of those killed, as civilians, including 36 children, and found that the attacks had destroyed 1,255 homes, displacing at least 7,500 people.

“Israel’s rhetoric is all about precision attacks but attacks with no military target and many civilian deaths can hardly be considered precise,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Recent documented cases in Gaza sadly fit Israel’s long record of unlawful airstrikes with high civilian casualties.”

Palestinian armed groups also should end indiscriminate rocket attacks launched toward Israeli population centers. Israeli media reported that Palestinian armed groups have launched 1,500 rockets at Israel, wounding five Israeli civilians and destroying property.

Israeli forces and Palestinian armed groups conducted fewer attacks and rocket launches in May and early June. An Israeli airstrike killed an alleged member of an armed group and his son on a motorcycle in Gaza on June 11, sparking rocket launches by Palestinian armed groups, and leading to a massive escalation of Israeli attacks on July 7. Israel also blamed Hamas for the abduction and murder of three Israeli teenagers near a West Bank settlement on June 12 and launched a military operation in the West Bank on June 13, killing at least six Palestinians. Hamas had praised the kidnappings but denied responsibility.

Human Rights Watch investigated four Israeli strikes during the July military offensive in Gaza that resulted in civilian casualties and either did not attack a legitimate military target or attacked despite the likelihood of civilian casualties being disproportionate to the military gain. Such attacks committed deliberately or recklessly constitute war crimes under the laws of war applicable to all parties. In these cases, the Israeli military has presented no information to show that it was attacking lawful military objectives or acted to minimize civilian casualties.

Israel has wrongly claimed as a matter of policy that civilian members of Hamas or other political groups who do not have a military role are “terrorists” and therefore valid military targets, and has previously carried out hundreds of unlawful attacks on this basis. Israel has also targeted family homes of alleged members of armed groups without showing that the structure was being used for military purposes.

On July 11, an Israeli attack on the Fun Time Beach café near the city of Khan Yunis killed nine civilians, including two 15-year-old children, and wounded three, including a 13-year-old boy. An Israeli military spokesman said the attack was “targeting a terrorist” but presented no evidence that any of those at the café, who had gathered to watch a World Cup match, were participating in military operations, or that the killing of one alleged “terrorist” in a crowded café would justify the expected civilian casualties.

In another July 11 attack, an Israeli missile struck a vehicle in the Bureij refugee camp, killing the two municipal workers inside. The men were driving home in a marked municipal vehicle after clearing rubble from a road damaged in an airstrike. Their relatives said that neither man was affiliated with an armed group, and that the driver had followed the same daily routine in the same vehicle every day since July 7. The explosion blew the roof off the vehicle and partly disemboweled a 9-year-old girl and wounded her sister, 8, who were sitting in front of their home nearby. Human Rights Watch found no evidence of a military objective in the vehicle or in the area at the time.

An Israeli airstrike on July 10 on the family home of Mohammed al-Hajj, a tailor, in the densely crowded Khan Yunis refugee camp killed seven civilian family members, including two children, and wounded more than twenty civilians. An eighth fatality, al-Hajj’s 20-year-old son, was a low-ranking member of the Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of Hamas, residents told Human Rights Watch. The Israeli military said the attack was being investigated. Even if the son was the intended target, the nature of the attack appears indiscriminate and would in any case be disproportionate.

“The presence of a single, low-level fighter would hardly justify the appalling obliteration of an entire family,” Whitson said. “Israel would never accept an argument that any Israeli home of an Israel Defense Force member would be a valid military target.”

A fourth Israeli airstrike, on July 9, killed Amal Abed Ghafour, who was 7-months pregnant, and her 1-year-old daughter, and wounded her husband and 3-year-old son. The family lived across the street from an apartment building that was struck with multiple missiles, according to witnesses. Residents of nearby homes said Israeli forces fired a small non-explosive “warning” missile at the apartment building minutes before the main missile strikes. However, the family did not know of the warning or have time to flee. Israeli officials have not said why they targeted the apartment building.

A brief initial statement on July 8 by the Israeli military spokesperson’s office asserted that military attacks had targeted “four homes of activists in the Hamas terror organization who are involved in terrorist activity and direct and carry out high-trajectory fire towards Israel,” without any further qualification. In subsequent statements, the military said that its policy is to attack homes used as “command and control” centers or “terrorist infrastructure” after warning residents to leave, but has provided no information to support these vague claims.

The Israeli rights group B’Tselem said on July 13 that the Israel Defense Forces spokesperson had changed the wording of statements concerning such attacks over the course of the current military offensive, but that in only one specific case did the military claim that weapons were hidden in a home it had attacked. An Israeli military official stated on July 12 that the military has targeted “more than 100 homes of commanders of different ranks” in Gaza, the Israeli news website Ynet reported.

Civilian structures such as residential homes become lawful targets only when they are being used for military purposes. While the laws of war encourage the use of effective advance warnings of attacks to minimize civilian casualties, providing warnings does not make an otherwise unlawful attack lawful.

For warnings to be effective, civilians need adequate time to leave and go to a place of safety before an attack. In several cases Human Rights Watch investigated, Israel gave warnings, but carried out the attack within five minutes or less. Given that Gaza has no bomb shelters, civilians realistically often have no place to flee.

Attacks targeting civilians or civilian property are unlawful, as are attacks that do not or cannot discriminate between civilians and combatants. Attacks intended to punish the family members of an enemy commander or fighter would also constitute unlawful collective punishment. Attacks causing the extensive destruction of property carried out unlawfully and wantonly are also prohibited.

“Warning families to flee might reduce civilian casualties but they don’t make illegal attacks any less illegal,” Whitson said. “The Israeli failure to demonstrate why attacks that are killing civilians are lawful raises serious questions as to whether these attacks are intended to target civilians or wantonly destroy civilian property.”

The United Nations Human Rights Council should hold a special session to address violations of international human rights and humanitarian law in the context of the conflict, Human Rights Watch said. The Council should mandate the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to form a fact-finding mission to impartially investigate, report promptly and publicly on violations by all sides, and issue recommendations to the parties and the UN.

The European Union and its member countries should support convening a special session and formation of a fact-finding mission. They should also work for a resolution that:
  • Stresses the conflicting parties’ obligations under international law to protect civilians;
  • Stresses the need for borders to be kept open for humanitarian and medical assistance to reach those in need and permit them to leave;
  • Condemns violations of international human rights and humanitarian law by all parties; and
  •  Stresses the need for accountability for grave violations.
Neither Israeli nor Palestinian authorities have ever taken serious action to investigate alleged war crimes by members of their forces in previous armed conflicts. Human Rights Watch has documented numerous serious violations of the laws of war by Israeli forces in the past decade, particularly indiscriminate attacks on civilians.

From 2005 to the end of 2012, Israeli military operations in Gaza resulted in the deaths of 1,474 civilians and the destruction of thousands of buildings. In the same period, Hamas and other armed groups in Gaza firedsome 8,734 rockets at Israeli population centers, killing 38 civilians, including 26 Israelis, 2 foreign nationals, and 10 Palestinians when rockets fell short of their intended targets.

The Palestine Liberation Organization should direct President Mahmoud Abbas to seek the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court to investigate and prosecute serious international crimes committed by all parties on Palestinian territory.

Governments that are providing weapons to Israel, to Hamas, or to armed groups in the Gaza Strip should suspend transfers of any materiel that has been documented or credibly alleged to have been used in violation of international humanitarian law, as well as funding or support for such material, Human Rights Watch said. The US supplies Israel with rotary and fixed wing military aircraft, Hellfire missiles, and other munitions that have been used in illegal airstrikes in Gaza.

“The longstanding failure of either side to prosecute war crimes in Gaza means that the only meaningful option for justice and accountability is legal proceedings before the International Criminal Court,” Whitson said. “How many more civilians will die as a result of unlawful Israeli attacks before President Abbas submits Palestine to this court?” . . . 
* * *
Further details follow in the report. See Israel/Palestine: Unlawful Israeli Airstrikes Kill Civilians, Human Rights Watch, July 16, 2014

No comments:

Post a Comment