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Use of 11 April 2006: Israel bears legal responsibility for the death of a girl in Gaza

Yesterday the Israeli military fired a shell that hit the house of the Ghiben family in the town of Beit Lahya in the northern Gaza Strip. Hadil, a seven-year old girl, was killed, and twelve people were injured, including Hadil's pregnant mother Sfia Ghiben, who was seriously injured.

The shelling occurred as part of Israel's policy during the past few months to shell "launching sites" from which Qassam rockets are fired at Israeli communities. Often these sites are located in residential neighborhoods that are put at risk by Israeli shelling.

According to media reports, the Israeli military has even decided to reduce the "safety zone" that is intended to prevent or limit the danger to residential areas. This zone will reportedly be reduced from 300 to 100 meters. Artillery shells are not accurate weapons, and reducing the safety zone will endanger many more civilians. A senior military officer said of this decision and the killing of Hadil Ghiben, "There is no guarantee that additional civilians will not be hurt in future attacks."

International humanitarian law prohibits attacks from within or near densely populated areas, and prohibits using civilians as "human shields." These prohibitions are intended to prevent harm to civilians as a result of counterattacks. Palestinian organizations that attack Israel from within or near such residential areas are violating these prohibitions and demonstrating indifference to the wellbeing of civilians.

The Palestinian Authority has the obligation to prevent all attacks against Israeli civilian targets, including attacks from within Palestinian residential areas. In failing to take measures against these attacks, the Palestinian Authority is neglecting its responsibility to protect civilians who are not taking part in the conflict.

At the same time, according to international humanitarian law, this violation does not grant permission to the military to treat areas from which shelling originates as a legitimate military target. The Basic Rule of the laws of war obligates parties to a conflict to direct their operations only at military objectives, to take all feasible precautions to avoid harming civilians, and to avoid actions that are likely to cause "incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, damage to civilian objects, or a combination thereof" which is "excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated". Therefore, the official response of the military that "responsibility rests first of all with the civilians themselves" is both appalling and without any legal foundation.

The harm to the Ghiben house, the death of Hadil and the injury to the rest of the household are the direct result of the reduction of the "safety zone" and Israel's policy to fire into residential areas. Legal responsibility therefore rests with Israel, whose policies are knowingly endangering civilian lives.