Two Israeli airstrikes in Gaza during a flare-up in fighting with Palestinian armed groups in November 2019 killed at least 11 civilians, in apparent violations of the laws of war, Human Rights Watch said today.
Between November 12 and 14, Palestinian armed groups also fired hundreds of rockets and mortars into Israel, causing shock or light injuries to 78 civilians, according to the United Nations. These attacks also violated the laws of war. Human Rights Watch found that at least two rockets apparently fired by Palestinian armed groups landed in Gaza, one killing a Palestinian man and injuring 16 others, and the other hitting the offices of a local human rights organization, causing damage but no casualties.
“Once again, Israeli and Palestinian strikes and rockets have killed and injured civilians while putting countless other civilians at risk,” said Gerry Simpson, associate crisis and conflict director at Human Rights Watch. “The Israeli and Palestinian authorities’ longstanding failure to hold to account those responsible for possible war crimes highlights the need for International Criminal Court scrutiny.”
The two Israeli airstrikes that Human Rights Watch investigated appear to have violated the laws of war because they struck civilian objects with little or no evidence that the attackers took all feasible precautions to avoid or minimize loss of civilian life. The first killed three people at a location where there appeared to be no combatants, weapons, or other military target. The second killed nine people in two homes, at least eight of them civilians. Human Rights Watch interviewed 17 Palestinians in Gaza about the two incidents, including survivors as well as witnesses, relatives and neighbors of those killed, and first responders. Human Rights Watch visited the sites of both strikes and reviewed statements by Israeli officials, the Health Ministry in Gaza, and Palestinian armed groups.
The first of the two attacks occurred at about 9 a.m. on November 13. A guided missile killed Rafat Ayyad, 54, and two of his sons, aged 7 and 23, as they rode a motorcycle in the al-Zeitoun neighborhood, two kilometers east of Gaza City. Three relatives and neighbors who visited the scene just after the attack told Human Rights Watch that they heard the buzz of drones overhead immediately before the strike.
Interviewed separately, they all said that neither Rafat nor his eldest son has ties to any armed group. None of Gaza’s armed groups referred to them as militants on their websites or claimed them as a “martyrs,” a standard practice when militants are killed. Human Rights Watch found no other evidence that Rafat or his eldest son were combatants. Israeli military authorities have not commented publicly on the attack.
The second strike occurred at about 12:15 a.m. on November 14. Paramedics, neighbors, relatives, and survivors said that three airdropped munitions fell within about two minutes on adjacent homes of the families of two brothers, Rasmi and Mohammad al-Sawarka (sometimes referred to with the surname Abu Malhous), on the edge of Deir al-Balah town in the central Gaza Strip. The strikes killed the two brothers, two women, and five boys aged 1, 2, 7, 12, and 13, and injured a woman and nine other children.
Relatives and neighbors said that eight of those killed appear to be civilians. Human Rights Watch could not make a conclusive determination about the ninth casuality, Mohammad al-Sawarka. One relative said he was as member of Islamic Jihad, though six others said he was not a member of any armed group, and Islamic Jihad neither referred to him on their website nor claimed him as a “martyr” as it typically does when one of his militants is killed in an Israeli strike.
The day of the attack, the Israeli military released a photo of two men, saying that an attack earlier in the day had killed a man called Rasmi Abu Malhous, and that he was a senior Islamic Jihad commander. Just after the attack, Islamic Jihad said that one of the men in the photo was one of their commanders, but that he was alive. Survivors of the attack said they did not know the men in the photo.
Later that month, the Israeli military admitted that it had made a targeting error, saying “it was not expected that noncombatant civilians would be hurt in the strike.” In December, the military said it had mistakenly categorized the two homes as a “military compound” instead of a civilian complex “with some military activity.” The military did not say what activity it considered to be of a military nature; nor did it claim at the time that the strike killed any combatants. It also did not specify if anyone had been held accountable for the error.
One relative and two neighbors said that both of the families had lived in their homes for at least 10 years. All seven adults interviewed said they were not aware of any activity in the houses that might have made the structures a target. The closest other structures were a small makeshift house 50 meters west and another house 150 meters northwest.
Human Rights Watch also investigated two incidents in which rockets apparently fired by Palestinian armed groups landed inside Gaza. One struck a residential building under construction in Jabalya around 9 a.m. on November 12, killing a 20-year-old man, Mohammed Hammouda, and injuring 6 children and 10 men. The other hit the Gaza City offices of the Palestinian Independent Commission for Human Rights on November 12, at about 10:30 a.m., causing damage but no injuries.
Due to their inherently indiscriminate nature, firing unguided rockets into areas with civilians is a serious violation of the laws of war.
Under the laws of war, warring parties may target only combatants and military objectives. If a civilian object or structure is being used for military purposes, it can be targeted only while it makes an effective contribution to military action. Parties to a conflict must take all feasible precautions to minimize civilian harm. Individuals who deliberately order or take part in attacks targeting civilians or civilian objects are responsible for war crimes. The laws of war prohibit launching attacks where the expected civilian harm and loss of property would be excessive in relation to the anticipated military advantage.
The laws of war apply to all parties to the conflict, including Israel, Hamas, and other Palestinian armed groups like Islamic Jihad. They obligate Israel and Hamas, as the de facto authority in Gaza, to investigate credible allegations of serious laws-of-war violations. However, Israeli and Palestinian authorities have for years systematically failed to credibly investigate alleged war crimes and to hold those responsible to account.
These consistent failings underscore the important role for the International Criminal Court (ICC). In December, ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda concluded a preliminary inquiry into the Palestine situation, determining that “all the statutory criteria” to proceed with a formal investigation have been met. However, she then sought a ruling from the court’s judges on whether Palestine should be considered a “state” for the purpose of giving the ICC jurisdiction over the Occupied Palestinian Territory.
“The November flare-up, like the ones before it, killed and injured civilians in violation of the laws of war,” Simpson said. “Such deaths will most likely continue as long as no one is punished for unlawful attacks.”