The Hostilities in Gaza since disengagement

Published: 
1 Jan 2016

"Death zones" near the fence

Since the outbreak of the second intifada, in late September 2000, Israeli security forces have killed at least 284 Palestinians near the Gaza Strip perimeter fence. At least 117 of the fatalities were civilians (including twenty-three minors) who were not taking part in the hostilities. The large number of cases indicates, apparently, that the IDF has classified substantial areas near the fence as "death zones," i.e., soldiers are under standing orders to fire at any person who enters the area, regardless of the circumstances. IDF officials, among them Judge Advocate General Avihai Mandeblit, vociferously deny that any such order has been given. However, the killings in the area since disengagement belie the army's denial.

It is also significant that, during the second intifada, the IDF has refused to reveal the open-fire regulations. Prior to the second intifada, soldiers received a written copy of the open-fire regulations; now, they receive verbal orders given them by their field commanders.

Israel completed the disengagement in September 2005. From then until the end of July 2006, soldiers have killed fourteen unarmed Palestinians near the perimeter fence. Five of the fatalities were minors, one of them an eight-year-old girl. Eight of the dead did not even try to reach the fence, and were shot at a distance of from 100 to 800 meters from the fence. Four other civilians were shot when they tried to cross the fence and sneak into Israel to work, and two were shot near the Israeli border. The IDF's announcement confirms that none of the persons killed were carrying weapons or objects with which they could mount an attack. B'Tselem's research also indicates that Israel 's security forces did not warn the Palestinians to go away from the area, and they were not given the opportunity to hand themselves over to the soldiers. The IDF Spokesperson's Office only announced that the soldiers opened fire when they suspected that Palestinians intended to fire at them or sought to place explosives near the fence.

A primary principle of international humanitarian law is the distinction between combatants and civilians. According to this principle, it is forbidden to attack civilians who are not taking part in the hostilities. When it is unclear if the persons are civilians or combatants, they must be treated as civilians. Automatically opening fire at every person who enters a certain area, regardless of the person's identity or the circumstances of the incident, such as in the cases described above, is "indiscriminate firing," which is liable to constitute a war crime.

Reducing the "safety range" in the Gaza Strip

In April 2006, the media reported that the IDF reduced – from 300 meters to 100 meters – the "safety range" between populated areas in the Gaza Strip and the area at which the army launches artillery fire. Given that a volley of shells disperses over an area of up to 100 meters from the target, and shell fire is not precise in any case, by reducing the range, the IDF knowingly endangers the lives of Palestinians living in these areas.

The IDF's artillery fire in these circumstances is not a defensive action taken to combat opposing fire and Qassam rockets at the time they occur. Rather, it is aimed at what the IDF refers to as "Qassam launching areas," broad spaces of land from which the IDF believes Qassam rockets had previously been fired. The firing is carried out at Israel 's initiative, as punishment or deterrence, and not in self-defense.

In one case, a shell landed near the house of nine-year-old Hadil Ghaben, in Beit Lahiya, which is in the northern Gaza Strip, killing her and wounding twelve members of her family, including her pregnant mother and three of her siblings, aged three to six. On 16 April 2006, human rights organizations, B'Tselem among them, petitioned the High Court to order the army to cancel its decision to reduce the "safety zone." The petition is still pending.

The laws of war require the sides to aim their attacks at military objects, and to distinguish between combatants and civilians. The principle of proportionality, one of the pillars of international humanitarian law, prohibits carrying out attacks, even those aimed at a legitimate military target, if the attacking side knows that the attack will result in injury to civilians in excess of the advantage anticipated from the attack. The killing and wounding of civilians as a result of the artillery shelling, which is imprecise, at targets close to residential areas is a grave breach of fundamental principles of the laws of war and constitutes a war crime.