At approximately 3:30 pm yesterday, 16 July, an Israeli attack on the Gaza City harbour killed four Palestinian children: Zakariya 'Ahed Subhi Bakr, 10; Muhammad Ramez 'Ezzat Bakr, 11; Ismail Muhammad Subhi Bakr, 10; and 'Ahed 'Atef Bakr, 10. All four children were from al-Shate’ refugee camp, west of Gaza City and were playing on the beach when an Israeli gunboat shelled the area. After the initial strike on the harbour, the four children attempted to run for safety but were killed by a second shell in what eye-witnesses have described as an apparent “adjusting [of Israeli] fire to target the fleeing survivors”. Approximately two minutes later, a third explosion was heard in the area. The attacks injured two further civilians, Fahd Abu Sultan and Muhammad Bashir Abu Wadfa, both 23.
According to customary international humanitarian law (IHL), the cardinal principle of distinction requires that the parties to a conflict always distinguish between civilians and civilian objectives on the one hand and combatants and military objectives on the other. Attacks may only be directed against combatants and military objectives. All persons and objects not falling into this category are entitled to protection against direct attacks, providing that they are not directly participating in hostilities.
According to Al-Haq’s fieldworkers, the beach in Gaza City is a civilian-inhabited area in which no military operations by Palestinian armed groups take place. In addition, Sayyed Ramez Bakr, 12, who was with his four cousins when they were killed, recalls that they were in an open area and clearly visible. As such, it is unlikely that statements by the Israeli Army claiming that the second attack was a result of misidentification of the children as Hamas fighters are accurate. Furthermore, in a situation in which there is any doubt as to the identity of the target as civilian or combatant, the attacking party to the conflict is obligated by IHL to consider that person as a civilian and as such, is forbidden to launch an attack.
Intentionally directing attacks against civilian populations is a grave breach of the Geneva Conventions and is listed as a war crime in Article 8(2)(b)(i) of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC). Grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions also give rise to the obligation of all High Contracting Parties to search for those alleged to have committed the grave breach and bring such persons before its own courts in accordance with the principle of universal jurisdiction. Al-Haq demands that Israel carry out independent, impartial, prompt and transparent investigations into the crimes committed by the Israeli army during ‘Operation Protective Edge’ and previous operations in the Gaza Strip. Furthermore, Al-Haq strongly urges the State of Palestine to pursue the jurisdiction of the ICC by ratifying the Rome Statute without further delay. Taking such a step could ensure access to justice for victims of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed on Palestinian territory.