Human Rights Watch Report denounces Israeli military's use of drones that killed civilians in Gaza

Yes, it is different this time. There is much more sustained international criticism than ever before of how the Israeli military operated during its 22-day Operation Cast Lead in Gaza (27 December – 18 January).

Human Rights Watch has just released another in its series of investigations into the Israeli military operation, entitled: “Precisely Wrong – Gaza Civilians Killed by Israeli Drone-Launched Missiles”. It can be viewed in full here

The drones (also know as Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles) are “one of the most precise weapons in Israel’s arsenal” — yet during Operation Cast Lead drones “killed civilians who were not taking part in hostilities and were far from any fighting”, Human Rights Watch said.

As a result, Human Rights Watch concluded 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”.

Gazans call the drones “zanana” because of the constant buzzing noise they make when hovering overhead. They also reportedly fly over the West Bank, and interfere with television reception when they do.

Marc Garlasco, senior military analyst at Human Rights Watch and co-author of the report, said that “When used properly, drones and their precision missiles can help a military minimize civilian casualties … But drones are only as good at sparing civilians as the people who command and operate them.”

“Drone operators can clearly see their targets on the ground and also divert their missiles after launch … Given these capabilities, Israel needs to explain why these civilian deaths took place.”

Human Rights Watch said that “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 … 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 and adults … 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 weapon elsewhere”.

Given all these capabilities, the drone attacks in Gaza appear to have been, according to Human Rights Watch, “in violation of the laws of war”.

Human Rights Watch added that “The Israel Defense Forces turned down repeated Human Rights Watch requests for a meeting and did not respond to questions submitted in writing*.

“Precisely Wrong”, the new 39-page report from HRW, 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 organization said it examined in detail six incidents resulting in 29 civilian deaths (among them 8 children). There were a reported total of 42 drone attacks that killed 87 civilian.

“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”.

In addition, “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 here 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”.

Human Rights Watch said “it 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. 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’.

But, Human Rights Watch noted, “Individuals who have committed serious violations of the laws of war with criminal intent – that is, intentionally or recklessly – are responsible for war crimes”.

The organization called on Israel to release its recorded video footage and other documentation of its attacks in which civilians were wounded or killed: “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 on video”

The Israeli military issued a response on Tuesday evening, saying that “The credibility of the Human Rights Watch (HRW) report is questionable, given that it is based on anonymous Palestinian sources, who lack credibility, whose knowledge of military issues is doubtful, and on the other hand are clearly not impartial observers, and form part of the Gazan propaganda system”.

The Israeli military statement added that: “It is surprising that HRW chose to ignore the extensive efforts made by the IDF to avoid causing harm to non-combatants, and chose to base its report entirely on reports by Palestinian witnesses. The actions taken by the IDF in general, and in particular those taken during Operation Cast Lead, conform to international law, as do the weapons and munitions used by the IDF. Furthermore, when using these weapons the IDF strictly adheres to the principles of distinction and proportionality. During operation Cast Lead the IDF made use of advanced technology, tactics and weapon systems which minimized the risk to non-combatants and civilian property. This was done while confronting terrorists, who intentionally operated from within the Gaza Strip’s densely populated areas and used civilians as human shields. The IDF acted exclusively against military targets, and strived to minimize the harm caused to civilian population, at times at the expense of its own military interests.  The IDF is committed to honoring its obligations under international humanitarian law and is examining allegations that it breached these obligations during Operation Cast Lead. As a result, Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, IDF Chief of Staff, appointed five investigative teams, each headed by an officer of the rank of Colonel, to thoroughly examine several issues, including claims regarding incidents in which many uninvolved civilians were harmed which were raised by NGOs and international human rights organizations, including HRW as well as Israeli and international media outlets. A summary of the results of these investigations were released by the IDF, and showed that, as a rule, the IDF’s actions during the operation conformed with international law, and that the IDF maintained high professional and moral standards. In addition the investigations showed that in all of the incidents which were examined, the IDF did not directly target non-combatants. In those incidents where IDF activity did cause injury to non-combatants, it was not as the result of an intentional strike on those non-combatants, but rather the unfortunate result of circumstances which were beyond the control of the IDF forces involved, or the result of an unexpected operational failure. As noted, many of the incidents resulted from the deplorable and intentional use that Hamas made of civilians as ‘cover’, blending with the civilian population and using civilian buildings and facilities while launching terror attacks against Israel”.

At a recent conference organized in Jerusalem by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (JCPA) to evaluate the Gaza war, the world-class Israeli international law expert Professor Yoram Dinstein, the author of War, Aggression, and Self-Defence and The Conduct of Hostilities Under the Law of International Armed Conflict as well as of The International Law of Belligerent Occupation, and a former President of Tel Aviv University and head of the law school who still lectures there as Professor Emeritus, said that “the law of armed conflict is a very difficult field … and, with international humanitarian law, often issues very harsh criteria.  Can you drop a bomb of half a ton on one Hamas activist even tough civilians are in the building?  Is it allowed or not?  This is debated.  But Israel is making a mistake in not going to this forum.  We cannot be satisfied with five military investigatîve teams conducting inquiries [into various aspects of Operation Cast Lead], and then concluding that ‘Israel has the most moral army in the world’.  How is this measured?  How do you measure it?  We indict soldiers for looting — we should also do this if there is data indicating that maybe a war crime was committed.  Maybe they would be acquitted in the end, but we cannot issue five repourts that say at the wnd we are the best military in the world — and then say the world [when it is sceptical] is anti-semitic, though maybe it is, but we are losing the public relations battle”, Dinsein added.

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