Israeli forces and armed Palestinian groups in Gaza must take all feasible steps to minimize harm to civilians as hostilities between them intensify, says Human Rights Watch.
Civil rights NGO's say that both the disproportionate Israeli assault on Gaza and Palestinian rocket attacks into civilian areas violate the laws of war prohibition against targeting civilians. They have called for both sides to "step back from the brink".
Israel’s targeted assassination of Ahmad al-Ja’abari, the head of Hamas' military wing, has placed civilians in Gaza and southern Israel at grave risk by re-igniting the armed conflict there, said Amnesty International, yesterday (15 November).
The killing of al-Ja’abari in Gaza City signalled the start of a new Israeli military operation, ”Pillar of Cloud”, which continued with further airstrikes throughout the Gaza Strip.
The current conflict began with an Israeli Defense Force incursion into southern Gaza on 8 November, leading to accusations from Hamas and an editorial comment by Haaretz newspaper, that the latest Gaza intervention is connected to the upcoming elections in Israel, which has maintained a long-standing blockade against the territory.
The overall context of these latest developments remains Israeli domination of areas which have been designated as occupied territory by the United Nations and other international organisations, analysts point out.
This includes territories seized by Israel from Egypt, Jordan, and Syria during the Six Day War of 1967. They consist of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem; the Gaza Strip (partially reliquished in 2005, but still blockaded); much of the Golan Heights, and, until 1982, the Sinai Peninsula.
Reports say that strikes by Israeli forces on 10 and 14 November 2012 killed at least nine civilians in Gaza. A rocket launched by an armed group also killed three Israeli civilians on the morning of 15 November 2012.
“Israeli and Palestinian forces alike need to make all feasible efforts to avoid harming civilians,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. He added: “There is no justification for Palestinian armed groups unlawfully launching rockets at Israeli population centres.”
“The Israeli military must not carry out further indiscriminate attacks, or attacks in densely-populated residential areas that will inevitably harm civilians,” said Ann Harrison, Deputy Director of Amnesty’s Middle East and North Africa Programme.
“Palestinian armed groups in Gaza meanwhile must not fire indiscriminate rockets into Israel. The international community must put pressure on both sides," she added.
Hostilities between Palestinian armed groups and Israel have escalated since an Israeli military incursion on 8 November that left a 13-year-old Palestinian boy dead, followed by a Palestinian attack on an Israeli military vehicle on 10 November. Between 10 and 15 November armed groups have fired more than 200 rockets into Israel, injuring eight Israeli civilians, and strikes by Israeli forces wounded scores of civilians in Gaza.
After armed groups attacked an Israeli military jeep on Gaza’s boundary east of Gaza City on 10 November, Israeli forces counter-attacked, killing one Palestinian fighter and four civilians in the area and wounding several dozen more. Later that day and the next, armed groups launched scores of rockets and mortar shells into Israel, wounding three Israeli civilians and destroying or damaging civilian property, including cars and homes. Some armed groups stated they are targeting Israeli civilian communities as “revenge” for the 10 November deaths of Palestinian civilians.
The Israeli emergency medical service, Magen David Adom, said its medics treated two men, aged about 50, who were wounded by shrapnel “all over their bodies” when a rocket struck near their car on 11 November in the Shaar Hanegev Regional Council.
Another man suffered shrapnel wounds to his face when a rocket exploded in the town of Sderot. Israeli media reported that rockets struck two homes in Sderot and a residential building in Netivot, causing damage. Islamic Jihad said it had fired 70 rockets and mortar rounds across the border on 11 November.
On 14 November, Israeli forces launched dozens of strikes in Gaza, killing at least two Hamas members including the head of Hamas’s military wing, Ahmed Jabari, and at least five civilians. The strikes wounded at least 115 people, including 26 children and 25 women, the Palestinian Center for Human Rights reported.
In response, a Hamas spokesman said that Israel would “pay a heavy price,” indicating an intention to resume rocket attacks. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that 85 rockets landed in Israel on 14 November, and that Israel’s anti-rocket system intercepted 27 rockets. Two civilians were injured by shards of glass from a rocket explosion, and other rockets damaged property.
Israeli media reported that one Palestinian rocket struck a car in the city of Beer Sheva, 40 kilometres east of Gaza, and another landed in Gedera, 40 kilometres northeast of Gaza.
Israeli strikes on 14 November killed at least four Palestinian civilians, including a man in his 60s, a 20-year-old woman, a seven-year-old girl, an 18-month-old boy, and an 11-month-old boy, and severely wounded a girl, aged about five, according to news reports and witnesses who spoke to Human Rights Watch. An 18-month old boy injured on 14 November died the following day, Palestinian media reported.
Abeer Ayyoub, a freelance journalist reporting from al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City, told Human Rights Watch that she viewed the body of the 11-month-old, and that the 5-year-old girl was “totally burned with blood coming from her mouth.” Medical staff said the infant had been wounded in an Israeli strike.
BBC journalists tweeted that those killed in an Israeli airstrike included the sister-in-law and 11-month-old son of a BBC Arabic Service journalist, and that the journalist’s brother was seriously wounded. Palestinian media reported that Ranan Arafat, the seven-year-old girl, was killed in the Zeitun neighborhood of Gaza City, and that the 11-month-old, Ahmed Masharawi, was killed by a tank shell at his family’s home in Shajai’ya.
Israeli media reported that the military had instructed civilians living within seven kilometres of the Gaza Strip not to go to work on 15 November, and cancelled public events, closed schools and shopping centres within 40 kilometres. Hamas closed schools in eastern Gaza.
Israeli media reported that shortly before 9 am on 15 November, a rocket killed two women and a man and seriously wounded a four-year-old boy in a four-story building in Kiryat Malachi, a city 28 kilometres northeast of Gaza. The rockets also wounded a one-year-old girl and her father. Other rockets launched during the morning damaged a house in Ashdod, 25 kilometers north of Gaza, and a school in Ofakim, 25 kilometres east of Gaza.
The current round of fighting began on 8 November, during an incursion by Israeli forces into southern Gaza, east of Khan Yunis. The Popular Resistance Committees, an armed group, said it fired at Israeli tanks and bulldozers near Khuza’a and detonated an explosive device in a tunnel in the area, according to Ma’an, an independent Palestinian news site.
An Israeli military spokesperson said an Israeli soldier had been lightly injured, Ma’an reported. Residents told the The New York Times that Israeli tanks and helicopters opened fire during the clash.
Palestinian rights groups, the Gaza Health Ministry, and photojournalist Anne Paq, working for the Israeli-Palestinian ActiveStills media group, reported that a bullet from Israeli machinegun fire fatally struck Hamid Abu Daqqa, 13, in the abdomen as he was playing near his home in ‘Abasan al Kabira, hundreds of meters from the fighting.
Several armed groups invoked the 8 November clash as a reason for the Palestinian attack on 10 November, which wounded four Israeli soldiers. Israeli forces fired several tank or artillery shells in response. One shell wounded members of a Palestinian armed group, one of whom later died. International media and Palestinian rights groups reported that civilians in the area went to the site of the shelling to help the wounded, and that several minutes later more shells struck the area, killing four civilians and wounding perhaps several dozen more.
Human Rights Watch has pointed out that the laws of war require forces to take all feasible precautions to ensure that attacks are only carried out against military targets, not civilians, and attacks should be cancelled if it becomes apparent the target is not military. It is unlawful to carry out an attack in which the expected civilian loss is disproportionate to the anticipated military gain.
“Israeli forces attacking Palestinian armed groups cannot ignore the presence of civilians, including those seeking to help wounded fighters,” Stork said. “The high number of civilians wounded in the 10 November Israeli counter-attack also raises concerns that it was unlawfully disproportionate.”
One Palestinian armed group, the Popular Resistance Committee, said on 10 November that it had launched four rockets at Israeli communities close to Gaza as a “revenge invoice” for the deadly Israeli shelling.
Islamic Jihad’s military wing, the al-Quds Brigades, said it fired 13 rockets toward the city of Ashkelon. Individuals responsible for attacks that deliberately or recklessly target civilians, or that cannot distinguish between civilians and military objectives, are responsible for war crimes.
The websites of several Palestinian armed groups cited the Israeli shelling that killed four and wounded dozens of other Palestinian civilians as justification for the rocket attacks. Reprisal attacks against civilians violate the laws of war, regardless of laws-of-war violations by the other side.
The Israeli news website Ynet reported that in the 10 November incident, an armed Palestinian group fired an anti-tank missile from “a location east of” the Shaja’iya neighborhood, a crowded residential neighborhood near Gaza City about 1,500 metres from the Israeli-built perimeter fence, hitting the Israeli military jeep close to the now-closed Karni border crossing.
Palestinian witnesses described to the Associated Press a loud explosion, evidently the attack on the jeep, soon after which Israeli tanks and machine guns fired toward al-Muntar hill, near Shaja’iya. An Israeli military vehicle fired the first of several shells near the perimeter fence at around 3.30 pm, according to the Palestinian Center for Human Rights.
A Palestinian who was wounded during the attack told the The New York Times that the first Israeli shell wounded a group of militants monitoring the Israeli forces from the hill. Hamas’s armed wing, the Izz el-Din al-Qazzam brigades, stated that one of its members, Muhammad Quno, 20, died on 13 November from injuries sustained during the attack.
The New York Times reported that civilians nearby, including several teenage boys, ran to the scene to help the wounded militants and were hit by subsequent shells. Witnesses said several minutes elapsed between the first shell and subsequent shells, according to a Palestinian rights group, Al-Mezan. Israeli forces fired four shells in all, according to the witnesses.
The Palestinian Center for Human Rights reported that one shell killed Mohammed Harara, 17, and his cousin Ahmed Harara, 17, both civilians. Rami Harara, Mohammed’s cousin, told the Associated Press that Mohammed was at home when he heard an explosion and was killed when “he went out to see what happened and when he started to help evacuating wounded people who were on the ground.” Another shell killed two other civilians, Ahmad al-Dardasawi, 20, and Mattar ‘Abu al-‘Ata, 19, the Palestinian Center for Human Rights said.
Two Palestinian rights organisations, Al Mezan and the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, reported that several boys playing soccer in the area were also wounded. Many of the other wounded civilians had been paying their respects to a bereaved family in a traditional “mourning tent” nearby and had gone to the scene where the first shell struck. Citing accounts of local medical crews, the Palestinian rights groups said the shelling wounded as many as 50 people, 10 of them seriously, including eight children.
Palestinian human rights groups reported other Israeli attacks on 10 and 11 November that harmed civilians and damaged civilian infrastructure. In one case, at about 5pm on November 10, Israeli shells fired into southern Gaza damaged the Khuza’a municipal water tank, 800 metres from the border, and shrapnel wounded civilians nearby, including four women and two children.
Human Rights Watch says it has not been able to determine whether any Palestinian armed groups were in the area of the water tower before or during the attack.
Early on 11 November, an Israeli aerial strike destroyed a metal workshop in Jabalya, in northern Gaza, which made objects needed for construction. The attack wounded five members of the al-Najjar family who lived next door, including a man and woman in their 60s, two younger women and a 17-year-old youth, Al Mezan reported. No members of armed groups were reported to be in the area at the time.
* More on Gaza from Ekklesia: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/gaza 
* Human Rights Watch: http://www.hrw.org/ 
* Amnesty International: http://www.amnesty.org