[JURIST] Palestinian rocket attacks against Israeli civilians and Israeli military reprisals "constitute serious violations of the laws of war" [press release], according to a report [PDF text] released Sunday by Human Rights Watch (HRW) [advocacy website]. The report found that Palestinian militant groups, including Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Al-Aqsa Martyr Brigades, and the Popular Resistance Committees [MIPT backgrounders], deliberately launched approximately 2,700 rockets against Israeli civilian positions between September 2005 and May 2007, killing four and wounding 75 Israelis, and causing at least 23 Palestinian casualties. HRW also criticized the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) [official website] for firing more than 14,600 artillery shells close to civilian populated areas in Gaza during the same period, killing 59 Palestinians and wounding 270.
In its report, HRW wrote:
The Palestinian rocket attacks violate international humanitarian law, also known as the laws of war, which governs the conduct of the parties during armed conflict. Where an attack on a military target is intended and that target is in or near a civilian area, the Palestinian rocket attacks are indiscriminate because they cannot distinguish between military targets and civilians. Where there is no intended military target and the rockets are launched into a civilian area, they constitute deliberate attacks against civilians. Given that the rocket attacks have inflicted very little damage on Israeli military assets, their primary purpose seems to be to kill civilians or at least to spread terror among the Israeli civilian population, both of which IHL prohibits.
Even assuming the rocket attacks were intended as reprisal for Israeli attacks that kill and injure civilians, as Palestinian groups often claimed, they still are unlawful under international humanitarian law. The law governing reprisals — defined as otherwise unlawful actions that are considered lawful when used as an enforcement measure in reaction to an adversary's unlawful acts — does not permit direct or indiscriminate attacks on civilians, in part for reasons that these rocket-artillery exchanges demonstrate: even attacks ostensibly launched as reprisals often spur counterattacks by the other side, yielding an endless cycle of civilian injury and death. As the leading treaty in this area provides, one side's targeting of civilians or civilian objects can never justify like targeting by the other side.
HRW acknowledged the Israeli moratorium on the use of artillery in Gaza and that most of the IDF's artillery fired upon legitimate military targets in open areas, but said:
Nevertheless, … all of the Palestinian civilian deaths and the great majority of injuries caused by Israeli artillery fire occurred following Israel's exponential increase of artillery fire and reported authorizing of shelling within a proximity to civilian areas that is smaller than the casualty radius of the artillery. Moreover, Israel did not routinely investigate cases in which civilians died or were injured to learn from past cases of civilian casualties and to ensure that in the future all feasible precautions were taken to avoid them. The combination of increased shelling considerably closer to populated areas and failure to investigate suggest, at the very least, an indifference to the duty to take all feasible precautions to avoid civilian casualties and a failure to rigorously balance concrete military advantage against expected civilian harm, as required by the rule of proportionality….
In addition, while Palestinian fighters firing rockets from sites close to Palestinian civilians can itself be a law-of-war violation and does not prohibit the IDF from returning fire, the IDF still must take all feasible steps to minimize civilian loss and refrain from attack if expected civilian casualties will be disproportionate to the concrete military gain.
HRW Middle East division deputy director Joe Stork urged both sides to refrain from continuing the "tit-for-tat abuses," saying that "Hamas authorities in Gaza should end rocket attacks by all groups on Israeli towns, while Israel should uphold its moratorium on artillery use in Gaza, or at least not shell near populated areas." AFP has more.