HRW expresses concerns about serious violations of international law which may amount to war crimes

Human Rights Watch (HRW) will launch on Thursday its report on the conduct of Israel’s 22-day Operation Cast Lead in Gaza. There is apparently going to be a press conference in Jerusalem, which I am trying to find out about…

Meanwhile, HRW has recently sent a letter to European Union Foreign Ministers, in which it callied on the EU to “address the pressing matter of serious violations of international humanitarian law committed by Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip and southern Israel … [and] to press for a comprehensive and impartial international inquiry into allegations of serious violations of international law and to insist on accountability for those responsible for these violations, which may amount to war crimes, by committing or ordering them or as a matter of command responsibility”.

The letter was signed by Lotte Leicht, EU Director for Human Rights Watch

She wrote that it will not be easy, but “the work has to start now in the form of an impartial, international commission of inquiry to determine key facts and to recommend mechanisms for holding violators accountable and providing compensation to victims. If the UN Security Council cannot agree to establish such a commission, the EU should encourage Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to take the initiative … The primary other mechanism for an impartial international inquiry, the ICC, is currently less promising … However, the EU could press for the UN Security Council to establish a UN commission of inquiry into serious violations of the rules of war and to recommend next steps to ensure accountability and compensation for the victims, as happened in the case for Darfur”.

The letter added that “Failure to push for accountability in Gaza would undermine the credibility of both the EU as a global voice for international justice and international justice institutions themselves, which the EU has reinforced and supported”.

The concerns expressed in the letter were about both Israel and Hamas’

Israel actions cited were:
– The continuing closure of the Gaza Strip;
– Regrettably in January 2009, the IDF resumed the unlawful use of High Explosive Heavy Artillery in densely populated areas.
– The IDF’s extensive use of white phosphorus over many parts of the Gaza Strip, despite plentiful evidence of the munitions’ indiscriminate incendiary effect, was neither incidental nor accidental, but intentional. Even if intended as an obscurant to block troop movements rather than as a weapon, the IDF’s firing of air-burst white phosphorus shells from 155mm artillery into densely populated areas indicates the commission of war crimes.
– Human Rights Watch documented six cases in which Israeli soldiers opened small-arms fire on Palestinian civilians, killing a total of 10 people-among them five women and three children-and wounding at least eight civilians. In each of these cases, the victims were standing, walking or driving with other civilians who were trying to convey their civilian status by waving a white flag.
The IDF appears to have used an unjustifiably expansive definition of military targets during the operation. According to official Israeli statements, Israeli forces attacked a range of presumptively civilian facilities, from government offices to police stations, on the basis that they provided at least indirect support to Hamas’s military wing. This violates the crucial distinction between civilians and combatants that lies at the heart of the laws of war, and which requires that civilians take a direct part in the hostilities before they become legitimate military targets.
– The IDF repeatedly justified attacks in civilian areas by saying that it had adequately warned the civilian population in advance, either by dropping leaflets, making telephone calls or breaking into local radio and television broadcasts. International humanitarian law requires armed forces to provide “effective advance warnings” of an attack when circumstances permit. Human Rights Watch found that warnings given in Gaza by the IDF failed to meet that standard of effectiveness. The warnings were vague: often addressed to the “inhabitants of the area,” they did not provide sufficient information on what areas would be attacked or when civilians should take appropriate action. When dropped from airplanes, leaflets scattered over wide areas, leading some civilians to disregard them. In many cases, the warnings did not instruct civilians where to find safety after fleeing their homes. Some warnings told civilians to head to the centers of towns, and in some cases those centers, including Gaza City, later came under attack. Moreover, even after warnings have been given, international humanitarian law requires attacking forces to take all feasible precautions to avoid loss of civilian life and property; attacking forces may not assume that all persons remaining in an area after a warning has been issued are combatants.
– Human Rights Watch is still conducting research on the intentional destruction by Israeli ground forces of civilian property throughout Gaza … In several cases investigated so far, Human Rights Watch found that the pattern of destruction strongly suggests that Israeli ground forces demolished homes in a wholesale manner in the absence of military necessity, in violation of international humanitarian law.

Hamas actions cited were:
– Rocket Attacks on Israeli civilians by Hamas and by other Palestinian armed groups: Statements from Hamas officials indicate that they are directing their rockets at Israeli population centers. The use of such rockets against civilian areas violates the prohibition on deliberate and indiscriminate attacks. Those who willfully conduct such attacks are responsible for war crimes.
– Sparing civilians from hostilities and use of “human shields”: The laws of war do not ban urban combat or prohibit fighting from civilian areas, but parties to a conflict must take all necessary precautions to protect civilians against the dangers resulting from armed hostilities. They must to the extent feasible avoid locating military objectives, such weapons, ammunition and headquarters, within or near densely populated areas. Hamas forces at times deployed in populated civilian homes and used them to monitor or attack Israeli forces. Human Rights Watch documented cases in which Hamas fired rockets from very near populated homes or other civilian objects. Launching rockets from within densely populated areas–thus making civilians in the vicinity vulnerable to counterattacks – violates the requirement to take all feasible precautions to protect civilians from harm … [But]we did not document any cases in which Hamas fighters deliberately used civilians to protect themselves against an Israeli attack.
– Parallel with its conduct of military hostilities with Israel, and in part using that conflict as a rationale, Hamas violated the human rights of Gazan residents. After Israel began its military offensive on December 27, 2008, Hamas authorities in Gaza took extraordinary steps to control, intimidate, punish, and at times eliminate their internal political rivals and those suspected of collaboration with Israel. The attacks continued throughout Israel’s campaign, and have slowed but not stopped since major hostilities ceased on January 18, 2009.

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