Gaza Strip

31 Dec. '08: B'Tselem to Attorney General Mazuz: Concern over Israel targeting civilian objects in the Gaza Strip

Published: 
31 Dec 2008

Since the beginning of the military operation in the Gaza Strip, on 27 December 2008, the army has bombed dozens of houses, public buildings, and other structures throughout the Gaza Strip.

 

The principle of distinction, one of the fundamental principles of international humanitarian law, states that all parties engaged in combat must distinguish between civilian objects and military targets, and are forbidden to intentionally attack civilians and civilian objects. The First Additional Protocol to the Geneva Conventions establishes two conditions that must be met for an object to be considered a legitimate military target: it must effectively contribute to military action and its total destruction or partial neutralization offers a clear military advantage.

Despite this, other statements made by Israeli officials in recent days raise the suspicion that the army is not maintaining the requisite distinction in its attacks in Gaza. Prime Minster Ehud Olmert stated that, “Israel is not at war with the Palestinian people but with Hamas, which has dedicated itself to acting against residents of Israel. Accordingly, the objects attacked today were selected with the emphasis on the imperative to prevent harm to innocent persons.” In an article published in yesterday's Washington Post, a senior military official was quoted as follows: "There are many aspects to Hamas, and we are trying to hit the whole spectrum, because everything is connected and everything supports terrorism against Israel." Major Avital Liebowitz, of the IDF Spokesperson's Office, told the correspondent that the army had indeed widened its target list in comparison to previous operations, saying Hamas has used ostensibly civilian actions as a cover for military activities. "Anything affiliated with Hamas is a legitimate target," she said.

These comments suggest that the operation in Gaza is aimed against every person and entity tied in some way to Hamas, even if they are not engaged in military action against Israel. An examination of the sites that were bombed in recent days raises questions regarding the legality of targeting many of them.

 

For example, the military bombed the main police building in Gaza and killed, according to reports, forty-two Palestinians who were in a training course and were standing in formation at the time of the bombing. Participants in the course study first-aid, handling of public disturbances, human rights, public-safety exercises, and so forth. Following the course, the police officers are assigned to various arms of the police force in Gaza responsible for maintaining public order.

Another example is yesterday's bombing of the government offices. These offices included the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Labor, Construction and Housing. An announcement made by the IDF Spokesperson's Office regarding this attack stated that, “the attack was carried out in response to the ongoing rocket and mortar-shell fire carried out by Hamas over Israeli territory, and in the framework of IDF operations to strike at Hamas governmental infrastructure and members active in the organization.”

These are just examples of  what appear to be clear civilian objects attacked by the army. On the face of it, the activity carried out in these places is not military activity aimed against Israel, and the IDF spokesperson does not even make this claim. Clearly, then, they cannot be considered military objects in accordance with the provisions of international humanitarian law - they do not make an effective contribution to the military activity against Israel and the attack provides Israel with no militaryadvantage whatsoever, and certainly not a clear militaryadvantage.

Hamas is certainly responsible for missile fire at Israeli civilians, which constitutes a war crime. However, as the entity effectively governing the Gaza Strip, it is also responsible for maintaining daily life. As such, it supervises the activity of all civilian frameworks in Gaza - among them the welfare, health, housing, and legal systems. Hamas must also ensure public order and safety by means of a police force. Therefore, even if Hamas is a “hostile entity” whose principle objective is to undermine the existence of the State of Israel, this does not lead to the conclusion that every act it carries out is intended to harm Israel and that every government ministry is a legitimate target.

The argument that striking at objects of this kind is consistent with international humanitarian law is untenable. Such an interpretation, which relates to these bodies as military objects, stretches the provisions of international humanitarian law in a way that is inconsistent with the articles cited above, and contravenes the principle of distinction that lies at the foundation of international humanitarian law. An intentional attack on a civilian target is a war crime.