Date: Thu Feb 05 2009 - 00:26:56 EST
Rights groups say laws of war violated in Gaza
By BEN HUBBARD and ALFRED de MONTESQUIOU –
GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Human rights groups are seeking to build a
case that Israel and Hamas violated the laws of war during the fighting
last month in this tiny coastal territory — a charge both combatants
On Tuesday, the International Criminal Court said the Palestinian Authority
had recognized the court's jurisdiction in a move aimed at allowing a war
Given the clarity of Hamas' violations, such as firing rockets at Israeli
cities, organizations are focusing more on Israeli actions, the facts of
which they say are harder to establish.
"The Israeli authorities deny everything, so one has to prove what happened
in a way that you don't need to do with the Palestinian rockets," said
Donatella Rovera of Amnesty International.
Among the questions being raised are whether Israel used disproportionate
force and failed to protect civilians.
In one case, Israeli artillery fire hit near a U.N. school where hundreds
of Gazans had sought refuge, killing 42 people. Israeli said its troops
were responding to fire from militants near the school.
In another instance, Gazans allege Israeli soldiers ordered 110 civilians
into a warehouse, then shelled it the next day, killing 30. Israel denies
the army targeted the warehouse, saying the building was hit during intense
combat with militants in that area.
"The suspected war crimes make for a very long list," said Jessica Montell,
head of the Israeli group B'Tselem.
Rights activists say Gaza's Hamas rulers and other Palestinian groups
committed war crimes by targeting Israeli civilians with rockets. They also
say Hamas' use of human shields, as alleged by Israel, would constitute war
Groups — which include B'Tselem, the Palestinian Center for Human Rights,
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch — emphasize that
investigations will take months and concede few venues exist for any
trials. But they have to investigate potential violations on both sides.
Even if no trials result, investigations encourage accountability, the
"As long as there is no mechanism that can enforce accountability, this
cycle will just continue again and again," Amnesty's Rovera said.
The International Criminal Court can only investigate if asked by the U.N.
Security Council or an involved state that has recognized the court. Israel
has never recognized its jurisdiction, and because only states can
recognize the court, it is unclear if the Palestinians can do so.
Israel is preparing for potential legal action, barring the media from
publishing pictures of officers' faces and their names for fear of
investigations. Last week, Israel's Cabinet promised legal and financial
support for any officers facing trial, despite the difficulty of
Israel says its army took great care to avoid harming civilians in Gaza.
The military said it preceded some airstrikes with leaflets or phone calls
warning civilians to flee — a contention confirmed by Gaza residents.
An Israeli helicopter pilot told the AP how he avoided civilians when
shooting over Gaza.
"The ones I remember are when I have locked in on a target and I fire and
then at the last second I see a child in my cross hairs and I divert the
missile," said the 25-year-old captain, who only gave his first name, Orr,
and was interviewed in the presence of a military censor.
At the same time, Israel acknowledges it loosened its rules of engagement
for the Gaza war to lessen military casualties. As a result, ground troops
moved under heavy covering fire from tanks and artillery, devastating
Israel has blamed the high civilian death toll on Hamas militiamen fighting
from civilian areas.
Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum denied the group's men battled from civilians
areas. He also called Hamas rocket attacks on southern Israel towns "a
means of self-defense."
"Those are not civilians. They are all soldiers," Barhoum said of the
residents of southern Israel. "We are firing at places that bring us the
F-16s, the warplanes and the tanks."
Israel launched its offensive Dec. 27, calling it necessary to stop quell
rocket and mortar fire that rained more than 10,000 shells on swaths of
southern Israel since 2001, some hitting houses, schools and retirement
The rockets had killed 24 Israelis since 2001 and injured more than 1,000,
police said. Thirteen Israelis were killed during the Gaza offensive,
including three civilians hit by rocket fire.
The 23-day offensive killed 1,285 Palestinians, nearly 900 of them
civilians, according to the Palestinian Center for Human Rights.
The laws of war — as established by the Hague and Geneva conventions —
require combatants to target only military targets, make all feasible
efforts to avoid civilians and keep military actions in scale with their
objectives, said David Crane, professor at the Syracuse University College
This leaves no ambiguity about Hamas firing rockets at towns or using
civilians as human shields, as alleged by Israel, Crane said.
But he added that violations on one side don't excuse them on the other.
"Even if the other side is not following the laws, you cannot step away
from them," he said.
The United Nations, the European Union and other organizations accuse
Israel of using indiscriminate force, particularly in hits on U.N.
buildings and Gaza's civilian infrastructure. Some of the attacks proved
On Jan. 6, Israeli troops responded to militant mortar fire by shooting
three artillery shells within 100 yards (meters) of a U.N. school, killing
42 people. The Israeli military said the dead included two Hamas militants.
Determining whether the shelling was a violation means asking, "Did they
know there were 42 human beings there, or did they just know they were
being fired upon?" said Crane, the law professor.
The military responded to requests for comment on the specific cases in
this article with a general statement saying Israeli soldiers do not target
Israel also has been criticized for using white phosphorus weapons, which
can be legitimately used in war to create smoke screens or provide
illumination. But Fred Abrahams, of Human Rights Watch, said its use over
populated areas can indiscriminately burn civilians and constitute a war
Doctors reported phosphorous burns throughout the war.
Abrahams also complained that his group's researchers found 155-mm howitzer
shells, which have a 30-yard (meter) margin of error and a blast radius of
300 yards (meters). Israel's choice of such weapons over more precise
alternatives raises questions of intention, he said.
"When you have an alternative that is GPS-guided and very accurate, why
would you use a shell that is much less accurate and has a much larger kill
radius?" Abrahams said.
Israel's military said it used all munitions legally, but it has launched
an investigation into whether troops used white phosphorus inappropriately.
Associated Press writers Aron Heller in Jerusalem and Mohammed Daraghmeh in
Ramallah, West Bank, contributed to this report.
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