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From the field

Bombing family homes of activists in armed Palestinian groups violates international humanitarian law

The Kaware’a family home in Khan Yunis, Photo: Khaled al-'Azayzeh, B'Tselem, 8 July 2014
The Kaware’ family home in Khan Yunis, Photo: Khaled al-'Azayzeh, B'Tselem, 8 July 2014

Since the Israeli military launched Operation Protective Edge in the early hours of 8 July 2014, the IDF Spokesperson and media sources have reported deliberate attacks against the homes of senior activists in armed Palestinian groups. The IDF Spokesperson reported that 11 such homes were attacked. According to media reports, the defense establishment intends to continue attacking the homes of senior Hamas activists. The reports state that the bombings are being carried out with the “knock on the roof” procedure, whereby the military fires a small missile at the house it intends to bomb as warning, expecting inhabitants to leave the premises, and then bombs the house to destruction. In some cases, military representative call the family and instruct them to evacuate the house.

Even if uninvolved civilians are not injured, these houses are not legitimate military targets, and attacking them is a violation of international humanitarian law. The gravity of the violation is compounded when uninvolved civilians are injured. Until now, B’Tselem has documented one case in which civilians were in a house bombed after a prior warning missile was fired:

The Kaware’ family home in Khan Yunis

On 8 July 2014, at around 1:30 P.M., the military called the Kaware’ home, informed the family that the house was to be bombed, and instructed them to leave the premises. The three-story building, owned by Ahmad Kaware’, consists of seven apartments belonging to Kaware’ and his sons. One son, ‘Odeh Kaware’, is an activist in Hamas’ military wing. At first, the family members obeyed the instruction to leave the house, but they gathered outside it with dozens of other persons. At approximately 2:50 P.M., a missile fired from an unmanned aerial vehicle struck the solar water tank on the roof of the building. Several minutes later, family members and neighbors began to go up to the roof. At 3:00 P.M., a missile was fired at the building from an F-16 fighter jet. At that stage, four persons were on the roof and other people were in the stairway or in the courtyard, on their way to the roof. The roof collapsed under the bombing, killing eight people, six of them children. Another 28 people were injured, ten of them sustaining severe injuries.

The persons killed:

Hussein Yusef Kaware’, 13

Bassem Salem Kaware’, 10

Muhammad ‘Ali Kaware’, 13

‘Abdallah Muhammad Kaware’, 12

Siraj Iyad ‘Abd al-‘Al, 8

Qassem Jaber ‘Adwan Kaware’, 12

‘Amar Muhammad Judah, 20

Muhammad Ibrahim Kaware’, 50

Bombing the homes of senior activists in armed groups violates international humanitarian law, which provides a narrow definition of what constitutes a legitimate target and permits aiming attacks only at targets that effectively assist military efforts, when damaging them can provide a military advantage. Treating these homes as legitimate targets is an unlawful, distorted interpretation of the concept, resulting in harm to civilians, whom this body of law is intended to protect.

An IDF Spokesperson’s announcement from yesterday, after the first round of attacks, stated only that “among the targets attacked were four homes of activists in the Hamas terror organization who are involved in terrorist activity and direct and carry out high-trajectory fire towards Israel…”. In other words, the military itself acknowledged that the attacks were illegally aimed at homes that were not military targets. Only later was a new announcement made, in an attempt to retroactively adapt the described activity to the requirements of international law, stating that the targets were “the homes of senior activists that function as command and control headquarters”.

In the case of the Kaware’ home, not only can the house not be considered a legitimate target, but civilians were on the premises at the time of the bombing. Although the military did warn the inhabitants of the impending attack and instruct them to leave, its duty does not end with giving prior warning: it must give the inhabitants enough time to leave and ensure that all civilians have indeed evacuated the spot. Given the military’s sophisticated surveillance equipment, those responsible for the bombing should have known that civilians went back into the building. According to a senior air force officer, the military did not have enough time to divert the missile once civilians were detected re-entering the building. This claim is unreasonable, as many people were already crowded around the house when the warning missile was fired, raising suspicion that not all necessary precautions were taken to prevent harm to civilians. The military must publish the footage of the attack taken by the unmanned aerial vehicle. B’Tselem has also received initial information regarding a home bombed in Beit Hanun as part of a targeted assassination: B’Tselem’s initial investigation indicates that on 8 July 2014, at approximately 11:40 P.M., the military bombed the home of Hafez Hamad, an activist in the military wing of the Islamic Jihad. According to the investigation, none of the inhabitants received prior warning from the military and the house was bombed mere moments after the family went to bed for the night. The bombing killed six persons, including a 16-year-old girl.

The persons killed:

Dunia Mahdi Hamad, 16

Mahdi Muhammad Hamad, 46

Fawziya Khalil Hamad, 62

Hafez Hamad, 30

Suha Hamad (wife of Hafez), 25

Ibrahim Muhammad Hamad, 26

A statement issued this morning by the IDF Spokesperson read: “A joint IDF-ISA operation led to the successful IAF targeting of Hafez Hamid, 77′, a commander in the Islamic Jihad. Hamid was responsible for the recent rocket attacks against Sderot.” According to the statement, the house was bombed as part of the assassination of Hafez Hamad. The bombing took place at night, when the military should have known that family members would most likely be present. B’Tselem’s initial investigation also indicates that none of the inhabitants was given prior warning. These circumstances indicate that the attack was disproportionate and raise grave suspicion that the incident violated international humanitarian law.

B’Tselem will continue to investigate these incidents and other instances of harm to civilians and property in the Gaza Strip since the beginning of the operation. Thus far, at least 30 fatalities have been reported in the Gaza Strip, many of them civilians. B’Tselem reiterates that intentional targeting of civilians is a war crime.