Between 15 and 18 January 2008, at least 39 people were killed in the Gaza Strip, including three children and three women, and at least another 127 have been wounded. Since the beginning of 2008, Israeli attacks in the Gaza Strip have caused the death of at least 72 people, including six children and eight women, and have injured at least another 208, amongst those were 34 children and 13 women. During the same period, the Israeli authorities estimate that some 130 home-made rockets were fired towards Israel from the Gaza Strip.
Recent statements by Israeli officials clearly indicate that further escalation of the raids to the Gaza Strip is planned. Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter recently declared “[t]hese [rocket] attacks need not be minimised or managed, but stopped completely irrespective of the cost to the Palestinians” [emphasis added]. Statements such as this, when coupled with the brief overview of the Israeli occupying forces recent attacks in the Gaza Strip provided below, which have resulted in numerous civilians being killed and wounded, demonstrate a marked disregard by the Israeli authorities for the lives of the civilian population of the Gaza Strip.
15 – 18 January 2008: Israeli attacks in the Gaza Strip
On Tuesday, 15 January 2008, Israeli occupying forces, including 13 tanks, two bulldozers and several aircraft, carried out an incursion in the Zaitoun area to the east of Gaza City. The incursion resulted in the death of 17 Palestinians, of whom at least five were civilians, and the injury of at least another 30, five of whom were critically wounded. The attack, which started at 8:15 and ended at approximately 13:00, also affected the area adjacent to the “Tunis” high school where a student was killed and several people were injured. Disturbingly, the area near the school was shelled by tanks a second time after a crowd had gathered to provide assistance to the victims of the initial attack.
On Wednesday, 16 January 2008, Israeli aircraft carried out numerous attacks in the Gaza Strip, targeting cars carrying alleged members of Palestinian armed groups. One of these operations killed three civilians, including a 5-year-old child, when their car, travelling in the Al-Daraj area in the east of Gaza City, was hit by a missile. According to official statements issued by the Israeli military authority the car was hit by mistake. On the same day two alleged members of Palestinian armed groups were killed in a similar strike.
On Thursday, 17 January 2008, at approximately 13:45, an Israeli missile hit a car being driven by an alleged member of an armed group, who was killed along with a 34-year-old woman. Three bystanders were severely wounded. Later that afternoon, another car containing three alleged members of armed groups was hit by a missile, causing the death of all passengers. The same day, at 19:40 in Beit Lahia, a donkey-drawn cart was hit by an Israeli air strike. In the incident, three civilians, namely a woman and two children, were killed, while two more children were wounded.
On Friday, 18 January 2008 at approximately 15:40, an Israeli F-16 fighter jet launched an attack against a building which formerly hosted the Palestinian Ministry of the Interior, located in the south-east of Gaza City. As a result of the attack, the building was completely destroyed. Three civilians, namely a woman and two young men, were killed, and at least 45 others were severely wounded, as at the time of the attack a wedding party was taking place nearby.
All of the above attacks have the distressing common denominator of having been carried out in densely populated urban areas, in apparent disregard for the increased risk of harming civilians.
Distinction and Proportionality
In carrying out the operations described above, the Israeli occupying forces clearly failed, once again, to respect the basic principles of distinction and proportionality enshrined in international humanitarian law.
Under conventional and customary international humanitarian law, civilians are persons who are not members of the armed forces and as such they are protected against attack, unless and during such time as they take direct part in hostilities. Similarly, Parties to a conflict “shall at all times distinguish between civilian objects and military objectives and accordingly shall direct their operations only against military objectives.” Indiscriminate attacks, including bombardment by any method which treats as a single military objective a number of separate military objectives located in an urban area containing a similar concentration of civilians and civilian objects, are strictly prohibited. Additionally, the Parties to a conflict must take all feasible precautions in their choice of means and methods of warfare in order to avoid and minimise incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians and damage to civilian objects.
This prohibition on attacking civilians and civilian objects, known as the principle of distinction, should be read in conjunction with the principle of proportionality. The International Committee of the Red Cross, in its authoritative study on customary international humanitarian law, has held this principle to dictate that launching an attack which may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury of civilians and damage of civilian objects, which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated, is prohibited. When conducting hostilities in an urban area, the combating parties hold an increased duty of diligence in order to ensure the application of the rules of international humanitarian law, and in particular to spare civilians from the effects of the hostilities.
Israel’s widespread use of heavy artillery, tanks and F-16 fighter jets against civilian populated centres in the Gaza Strip, one of the most densely populated areas on earth, results in flagrant breaches of the principles of distinction and proportionality, and is therefore unlawful under international humanitarian law. The cost of the Israeli occupying forces’ disregard for these principles is being paid by the civilian population of the Gaza Strip. These civilians, who are entitled to the protection provided under international humanitarian law as a population under belligerent occupation, are instead being subjected to unrelenting attack.
Regrettably, these recent attacks are not an isolated example of the occupying forces’ practices in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT). Military raids in urban areas, resulting in similar injury and killing of civilians, have been a sadly recurrent feature of the Israel’s 40-year long occupation of the OPT. Israel’s persistence in launching attacks in densely populated areas of the Gaza Strip is evidence of Israel’s complete disregard for the protection of the civilian population and the rules of international humanitarian law.
In disregarding the principles of distinction and proportionality, the Israeli occupying forces carrying out and the political leaders sanctioning attacks such as those described above, have committed grave breaches of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which constitute war crimes entailing individual criminal responsibility for the perpetrators. The High Contracting Parties to the Geneva Conventions hold the responsibility to bring before their courts those responsible for such breaches, as established under Article 146 of the Fourth Geneva Convention.
Further, during his recent meeting with the Dutch Foreign Minister, Maxime Verhagen, the Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, asserted that the relentless attacks on the Gaza Strip serve, in part, the purpose of “signalling to the population in Gaza that it cannot be free from responsibility to the situation.” This contrasts starkly with Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention which prohibits collective punishment and further holds that “[…] all measures of intimidation or of terrorism are prohibited.” The continuous military operations against the densely populated Gaza Strip have sown a state of terror amongst the civilian population, who are already suffering the dire humanitarian consequences of Israel’s ongoing blockade and economic sanctions.
In light of Israel’s consistent failure to adhere to international humanitarian law as described above, Al-Haq is extremely disturbed by the escalation of the attacks on the Gaza Strip. Statements given by Israeli officials in this regard, such as Minister of Defence Ehud Barak, who explained that “[w]e increased, and will increase, the pressure,” clearly indicate that the recent increase in attacks will escalate further.
In light of the above, Al-Haq urges:
- Israel to immediately cease indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks against the civilian population of the Gaza Strip, consistent with their obligations under international humanitarian law.
- The High Contracting Parties to the Geneva Conventions to fulfil their obligation under common Article 1 to ensure respect for the provisions of the Conventions, taking appropriate measures to compel Israel to abide by its obligations under international humanitarian law, in particular placing pivotal importance on the respect and protection of civilians from the effects of the hostilities.
- The High Contracting Parties to fulfil their legal obligation under Article 146 of the Fourth Geneva Convention to prosecute those responsible for grave breaches of the Convention.
- EU institutions and member states to make effective use of the European Union Guidelines on promoting compliance with international humanitarian law (2005/C 327/04) to ensure Israel complies with international humanitarian law under paragraph 16 (b), (c) and (d) of these guidelines, including the adoption of immediate restrictive measures and sanctions.
- The UN Human Rights Council, at its Sixth Special Session currently being held in Geneva, to recommend that the General Assembly invoke GA Resolution 377, Uniting For Peace, to reconvene the 10th Emergency Special Session under agenda item five (Illegal Israeli actions in Occupied East Jerusalem and the rest of the Occupied Palestinian Territory).
- The UN Security Council to end its inaction by adopting concrete measures, including the imposition of sanctions, in order to ensure Israel’s fulfilment of its obligations under international humanitarian law.
- Ends -