(Jerusalem) – Two Israeli airstrikes in Gaza during a flare-up in fighting with Palestinian armed groups in November 2019 killed at least 11 civilians, in apparent violations of the laws of war, Human Rights Watch said today.
Between November 12 and 14, Palestinian armed groups also fired hundreds of rockets and mortars into Israel, causing shock or light injuries to 78 civilians, according to the United Nations. These attacks also violated the laws of war. Human Rights Watch found that at least two rockets apparently fired by Palestinian armed groups landed in Gaza, one killing a Palestinian man and injuring 16 others, and the other hitting the offices of a local human rights organization, causing damage but no casualties.
“Once again, Israeli and Palestinian strikes and rockets have killed and injured civilians while putting countless other civilians at risk,” said Gerry Simpson, associate crisis and conflict director at Human Rights Watch. “The Israeli and Palestinian authorities’ longstanding failure to hold to account those responsible for possible war crimes highlights the need for International Criminal Court scrutiny.”
The two Israeli airstrikes that Human Rights Watch investigated appear to have violated the laws of war because they struck civilian objects with little or no evidence that the attackers took all feasible precautions to avoid or minimize loss of civilian life. The first killed three people at a location where there appeared to be no combatants, weapons, or other military target. The second killed nine people in two homes, at least eight of them civilians. Human Rights Watch interviewed 17 Palestinians in Gaza about the two incidents, including survivors as well as witnesses, relatives and neighbors of those killed, and first responders. Human Rights Watch visited the sites of both strikes and reviewed statements by Israeli officials, the Health Ministry in Gaza, and Palestinian armed groups.
The first of the two attacks occurred at about 9 a.m. on November 13. A guided missile killed Rafat Ayyad, 54, and two of his sons, aged 7 and 23, as they rode a motorcycle in the al-Zeitoun neighborhood, two kilometers east of Gaza City. Three relatives and neighbors who visited the scene just after the attack told Human Rights Watch that they heard the buzz of drones overhead immediately before the strike.
Interviewed separately, they all said that neither Rafat nor his eldest son has ties to any armed group. None of Gaza’s armed groups referred to them as militants on their websites or claimed them as a “martyrs,” a standard practice when militants are killed. Human Rights Watch found no other evidence that Rafat or his eldest son were combatants. Israeli military authorities have not commented publicly on the attack.
The second strike occurred at about 12:15 a.m. on November 14. Paramedics, neighbors, relatives, and survivors said that three airdropped munitions fell within about two minutes on adjacent homes of the families of two brothers, Rasmi Abu Malhouse al-Sawarka and Mohammad al-Sawarka, on the edge of Deir al-Balah town in the central Gaza Strip. The strikes killed the two brothers, two women, and five boys aged 1, 2, 7, 12, and 13, and injured a woman and nine other children.
Relatives and neighbors said that eight of those killed appear to be civilians. Human Rights Watch could not make a conclusive determination about the ninth casuality, Mohammad al-Sawarka. One relative said he was as member of Islamic Jihad, though six others said he was not a member of any armed group, and Islamic Jihad neither referred to him on their website nor claimed him as a “martyr” as it typically does when one of his militants is killed in an Israeli strike.
The day of the attack, the Israeli military released a photo of two men, saying that an attack earlier in the day had killed a man called Rasmi Abu Malhous, and that he was a senior Islamic Jihad commander. Just after the attack, Islamic Jihad said that one of the men in the photo was one of their commanders, but that he was alive. Survivors of the attack said they did not know the men in the photo.
Later that month, the Israeli military admitted that it had made a targeting error, saying “it was not expected that noncombatant civilians would be hurt in the strike.” In December, the military said it had mistakenly categorized the two homes as a “military compound” instead of a civilian complex “with some military activity.” The military did not say what activity it considered to be of a military nature; nor did it claim at the time that the strike killed any combatants. It also did not specify if anyone had been held accountable for the error.
One relative and two neighbors said that both of the families had lived in their homes for at least 10 years. All seven adults interviewed said they were not aware of any activity in the houses that might have made the structures a target. The closest other structures were a small makeshift house 50 meters west and another house 150 meters northwest.
Human Rights Watch also investigated two incidents in which rockets apparently fired by Palestinian armed groups landed inside Gaza. One struck a residential building under construction in Jabalya around 9 a.m. on November 12, killing a 20-year-old man, Mohammed Hammouda, and injuring 6 children and 10 men. The other hit the Gaza City offices of the Palestinian Independent Commission for Human Rights on November 12, at about 10:30 a.m., causing damage but no injuries.
Due to their inherently indiscriminate nature, firing unguided rockets into areas with civilians is a serious violation of the laws of war.
Under the laws of war, warring parties may target only combatants and military objectives. If a civilian object or structure is being used for military purposes, it can be targeted only while it makes an effective contribution to military action. Parties to a conflict must take all feasible precautions to minimize civilian harm. Individuals who deliberately order or take part in attacks targeting civilians or civilian objects are responsible for war crimes. The laws of war prohibit launching attacks where the expected civilian harm and loss of property would be excessive in relation to the anticipated military advantage.
The laws of war apply to all parties to the conflict, including Israel, Hamas, and other Palestinian armed groups like Islamic Jihad. They obligate Israel and Hamas, as the de facto authority in Gaza, to investigate credible allegations of serious laws-of-war violations. However, Israeli and Palestinian authorities have for years systematically failed to credibly investigate alleged war crimes and to hold those responsible to account.
These consistent failings underscore the important role for the International Criminal Court (ICC). In December, ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda concluded a preliminary inquiry into the Palestine situation, determining that “all the statutory criteria” to proceed with a formal investigation have been met. However, she then sought a ruling from the court’s judges on whether Palestine should be considered a “state” for the purpose of giving the ICC jurisdiction over the Occupied Palestinian Territory.
“The November flare-up, like the ones before it, killed and injured civilians in violation of the laws of war,” Simpson said. “Such deaths will most likely continue as long as no one is punished for unlawful attacks.”
Hostilities in 2018 and 2019
The November 2019 hostilities in Gaza followed fighting in May 2019, during which civilians were also killed. For the May fighting, Human Rights Watch documented 13 civilian deaths from Israeli airstrikes and six – four Israelis and two Palestinians – from rockets fired by Palestinian armed groups. There were several smaller flareups in July, August, October, and November 2018, and March 2019, some of which resulted in civilian casualties.
The most recent hostilities began on November 12, 2019 when an Israeli airstrike killed a senior Islamic Jihad commander and his wife in Gaza City. A ceasefire agreement entered into force on November 14, with some exchanges of fire on November 15 and 16. The Israeli army did not say publicly how many airstrikes it launched in Gaza during the fighting, but said that Palestinian armed groups had fired 450 rockets into Israel. Islamic Jihad acknowledged launching rockets into Israel, but did not say how many.
Citing “the security situation in the sector,” the Israeli authorities on November 12 halted the movement of virtually all people and goods out of or into Gaza, exempting some people in need of medical treatment, some Palestinian citizens of Israel, cooking gas, and fuel for Gaza’s power plant. Israel also limited access to the fishing zone that it patrols off Gaza’s coast, blocking all access to the northern part of the zone and limiting access in the southern part to six kilometers from the coast. Israel lifted the restrictions on the movement of people on November 14 and on goods three days later. These restrictions come on top of Israel’s near-total closure of Gaza since 2007.
Israeli airstrikes in Gaza, November 13-14
At about 9 a.m. on November 13, a guided missile probably launched by a drone struck a motorcycle in al-Zeitoun neighborhood, two kilometers east of Gaza City.
Human Rights Watch visited the site on November 21, took and analyzed photos and videos of munition remnants and related damage, and spoke with seven people about the attack, including five relatives of the victims and two neighbors who were lightly injured.
The limited amount of blast and fragmentation damage at the scene suggests the use of a small munition that was designed to minimize casualties. Fragments of the munition and a distinctive remnant found at the scene indicate that the attack involved the use of a drone-fired guided missile.
The people interviewed said the attack took place after a morning of drone activity in the area and killed Rafat Ayyad, 54, and two of his sons, Islam, 23, and Amir, 7. Those interviewed all said that Rafat Ayyad was a former Palestinian Authority employee and that Islam was an imam in a local mosque. Neither Rafat nor Islam was a member of any militant group, according to those interviewed. No militant group claimed either of the men as members. Israeli authorities have released no information to explain or justify the attack.
Three people said the attack took place just outside the house of Manal Alwan, Rafat’s former wife and Islam’s mother. Alwan said that she heard the sound of a motorbike at about 9 a.m. and looked out of the window to see Rafat, Islam, and Amir arriving. She turned away from the window, she said, and then heard an explosion:
I immediately ran outside and saw all three of them lying on the ground. Amir was lying underneath Rafat and was alive so I pulled him out. Islam was lying on the ground next to them and had a head injury.
One of Islam’s and Amir’s cousins, Hisham Ayyad, was cleaning his car outside his home 200 meters from the site when he saw Rafat and his sons drive past at about 9 a.m., and then he heard an explosion:
I ran toward them. When I reached them, I saw Rafat’s former wife, who was crying and screaming. Then I saw Rafat, Islam, and Amir on the ground next to Rafat’s motorbike. Rafat’s head was injured and he was not moving. Islam was injured in the back of his head but still alive. Amir was also alive but his torso was injured and blood was coming out of his eyes. It took 20 minutes for the ambulance to arrive.
Another of Rafat’s sons, Ihab Ayyad, 25, went to the two hospitals in Gaza City that received the three victims. He said his father died before reaching al-Shifa hospital. When Ihab Ayyad arrived at al-Quds hospital, he said that staff told him that Islam had already died and that Amir was in critical condition. Amir died shortly thereafter.
In its visit to the site, Human Rights Watch found no indications of military activity or equipment in the immediate vicinity. All of those interviewed said the victims had no ties to armed groups.
The Israeli authorities have not publicly explained who or what they were targeting or what precautions they took to minimize civilian casualties.
On November 14 at about 12:15 a.m., three air-dropped munitions launched by Israeli forces struck the homes of two families in an agricultural zone of the al-Berkah area on the edge of Deir al-Balah town in central Gaza Strip.
Relatives of the families said the attack killed four adults and five children. Rasmi Salem Abu Malhous (also known as Rasmi Salem al-Sawarka), 45; his wife, Mariam Salem Nasser, 33; two of their children, Salem, 3, and Fairas, 1; and Rasmi’s child from a prior marriage, Mohammed, 12, were killed, as were Mohammed al-Sawarka, 40, who died a week later of his injuries; his wife, Yousra al-Sawarka, 39; and two of their children, Wasim, 13 and Mo’ath, 7.
Relatives said the attack also injured one adult and nine children: Wisam al-Sawarka, 35, Rasmi’s third wife, and five of their children: Diaa, 10, Yousef, 7, Fahed, 6, Fawzi, 4, and Rasmiyeh, 2; and four of Mohammed and Yousra’s children: Nirmeen, 10, Reem, 8, Lama, 5, and Salem, 3.
A relative of Rasmi al-Sawarka’s family said that the two families shared two caravan homes, which had metal walls and roofing, as well as a small concrete room with a metal roof and two summer and winter pergolas with palm leaf and plastic roofing. One of their neighbors and a relative said Mohammed al-Sawarka had recently constructed a concrete room with asbestos roofing for more living space. Another said they had lived there since 2006 and that Rasmi was a former employee of the Palestinian Authority.
Human Rights Watch visited the site on November 20 and observed three large craters apparently created by air-dropped guided bombs of at least 500 kilograms that detonated on impact.
Human Rights Watch spoke with 10 people about the attack, including one of the surviving adults and two of the surviving children, a third child of the family who had been sleeping at her grandmother’s house nearby, three adult relatives who lived nearby, two neighbors, and first responders from the Palestinian Red Crescent who said they removed eight bodies from the site. The ninth person, Mohammed al-Sawarka, died eight days later.
Nour al-Sawarka, 12, was lying awake in a pergola next to their home with her sleeping parents, Mohammed and Yousra, who were killed, and her six siblings when the attack happened:
A first bomb hit the house and I ran out of the house. There were two more bombs and one of them landed right on top of where we had been sleeping. I ran back. Our house had become a crater. I saw my mother carrying my young brother [Salem]. I thought my mother wasn’t injured but then she fell to the ground and I realized she was. I also saw my father lying on the ground at the edge of the crater and my aunt Wissam, looking for her children. Then I saw my injured sister Reem and I dug her out of the sand. I sat next to my mother until the ambulance came.
Wissam al-Sawarka, who was sleeping inside her home at the time of the attack, said:
I woke up about 10 meters from our house, lying in the sand next to the metal roof and our furniture. I looked for my children and found them behind me. Then I saw Mohammed stumbling as he tried to stay standing, his face covered in blood. His wife, Yousra, had her hand on her chest, struggling to breathe, and then fell down. She died before the paramedics arrived.
On the morning of November 14, the Israeli military’s Arabic spokesperson published a photo of two men with one in the center foreground, saying that an airstrike “tonight” had killed an Islamic Jihad commander named Rasmi Abu Malhous. Relatives and neighbors of those killed said that one of the two men killed in the attack – called Rasmi Abu Malhous, but who used the surname al-Sawarka after the Bedouin tribe to which he belonged – had no ties to any military group and that he was not in the photo that the military released. Islamic Jihad said that one of the two men in the photo was an Islamic Jihad commander, but that he was from Rafah, not Deir el-Balah, and was still alive, media reported.
Six interviewees who knew Mohammed al-Sawarka, the other man killed in the strike, said he was not a member of an armed group, but one relative said he was a member of Islamic Jihad. Neither Islamic Jihad nor the Israeli authorities have publicly identified him as a member of Islamic Jihad or its armed wing. All of the other people in the home appear to have been civilians.
The day after the attack, the Israeli military acknowledged that it had conducted the strike with precision-guided bombs. It also said the attack had targeted “terror infrastructure, a training installation, and a training compound,” and that the target had “served Islamic Jihad for several rounds of clearly military activity.”
On November 28, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported an Israeli military spokesperson as saying that the military had selected the “buildings as a military target after being incriminated several months ago…[that] professionals validated this incrimination again a few days before the attack [and that] in keeping with the information the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] had at its disposal when the attack was carried out, it was not expected that noncombatant civilians would be hurt in the strike.”
In December, the Israeli military authorities said they had investigated the strike and found that the military had mistakenly categorized the two homes as an Islamic Jihad “military compound” instead of a civilian complex “with some military activity” based on their assessment that the homes were “a compound of…Islamic Jihad…and that military activity was carried out there in the past as well as during [the] operation” in mid-November.
Aerial surveillance of the site and any verification attempts through people with local knowledge of the site should have shown significant civilian activity and that two families lived there.
The Israeli army targeted two structures housing 21 civilians despite saying it had assessed the target a few days before the attack and concluding that civilians would not be harmed. The Israeli military authorities therefore appear to have failed in their legal obligation to carefully assess the nature of their target to ensure that they attack only combatants and military objectives. By failing to identify the many civilians at this site, the army appears to have failed to take all feasible precautions to avoid or minimize civilian harm, and to ensure that any such harm was not disproportionate to the military advantage gained in the same attack.
In addition to the above cases that involved apparent violations of the laws of war, Human Rights Watch investigated another Israeli strike involving significant fatalities but were unable to determine that a violation occurred. The strike, which took place on November 13, hit a carpentry workshop in al-Shaaf neighborhood, 1.5 kilometers east of Gaza City, killing two Islamic Jihad fighters, a member of Hamas’s armed wing, and two civilians. The two civilians, 17-year-old Ibrahim Abdel ‘Aal and 16-year-old Ismail Abdel ‘Aal, worked in the carpentry workshop, which belonged to their father. Munition fragments and blast and fragmentation damage reviewed by Human Rights Watch was consistent with an attack using at least two small, air-launched guided standard Spike or Hellfire anti-tank guided missiles, which can be fired from jets, drones, and helicopters. Israeli authorities have not publicly presented any information about the attack, including who or what they targeted or what precautions they took to minimize civilian harm.
Palestinian Rockets Landing in Gaza
According to the Israeli army, Palestinian armed groups fired about 450 rockets into Israel between November 12 and14, injuring at least 78 Israelis.
In May 2019, a Palestinian rocket launched from Gaza landed inside the Gaza Strip and was probably responsible for the deaths of a pregnant Palestinian mother of nine and a 14-month-old toddler.
Lacking a guidance system, the rockets are inherently indiscriminate when directed toward areas with civilians and their use in such circumstances is a serious violation of the laws of war, which require attackers to distinguish at all times between combatants and military targets on the one hand and civilians and civilian structures on the other.
Human Rights Watch found that at least two of the rockets Palestinian armed groups fired at Israel between November 12 and 14 apparently errantly landed inside of Gaza, one killing a Palestinian and injuring 16. Human Rights Watch could not conclusively determine the source of the strikes, due to Israel’s repeated denial of permits to Gaza for foreign human rights researchers, including Human Rights Watch staff members, who were needed to supplement local staff in investigating this case given security concerns. However, the Palestinian authorities’ reaction and Palestinian civil society’s and media’s muted response to the incidents strongly suggest that a Palestinian armed group was responsible.
At about 9 a.m. on November 12, a projectile, apparently a rocket fired by Palestinian armed groups, struck a four-story residential building under construction next to the Halawa roundabout on Yafa Street in the town of Jabalya.
Human Rights Watch visited the site on November 23 and spoke with four people about the attack. They all said the incident killed Mohammed Hamodeh, 20, and injured 16 people, including 6 children who were sitting in a pergola at the back of the house and were injured by shrapnel. None of those interviewed was aware of any combatants or military objectives at or in the vicinity of the building.
A resident of the building said the attack appeared to hit the third floor, damaging two apartments:
At about 9 a.m., I was near my house when I heard an explosion. I ran toward the house where I saw neighbors running and carrying my son… who had a head injury. We took him to the intensive care unit in the Indonesian hospital [in Jabalya]. While I was there, others injured in the attack arrived. Mohammed [Hamodeh] died in the intensive care unit. I stayed in the hospital until later that afternoon and then went home. There was blood on the ground and everywhere. A part of Mohammed’s head remained under a tree in the backyard of the house. Civil defense workers came and took it.
Another resident of the building said:
At about 9:40 a.m., we were in the backyard of the house, with Mohammed Hamodeh and 16 others. Hamodeh was sitting on a chair. I climbed the wall of our store next to the yard to get a tool and I threw it on the ground, next to his feet. As I was climbing down, I heard a heavy explosion and saw Mohammed [Hamodeh] fall down.
I ran out of the courtyard and saw Mohammed’s father. I told him his son had died. I walked to the street, fell down and then found myself at the hospital. People told me later that I was crying in the middle of the street, but I don’t remember that. I can still hear the incredibly loud sound of the rocket. It continued buzzing in my ears for three days and nights and I couldn’t sleep.
One of the people interviewed said that the next afternoon he saw officials from the local police explosives engineering unit remove remnants from the site, and that a few days later another group of police and then people he believed to be members of an armed group came to remove the remaining fragments. Human Rights Watch was unable to find any remnants at the site, in contrast to the sites of the al-Zeitoun and al-Shaaf attacks, where 1-2 weeks later remnants were still lying about in plan site. These actions suggest the authorities took steps to remove evidence of a likely Islamic Jihad rocket attack.
Human Rights Watch also could not find any coverage since November 12 by Palestinian media outlets of the incident, in contrast to their coverage of Israeli strikes, including the ones Human Rights Watch documented.
At about 10:30 a.m. on November 12, a projectile, apparently a rocket fired by a Palestinian armed group hit the office of the Palestinian Independent Commission for Human Rights (PICHR), located on the fifth, sixth, and seventh floors of the Harara building in Gaza City. There were no fatalities or injuries. Staff told Human Rights Watch that there were no deaths as the rocket damaged only the fifth floor and all employees were on sixth and seventh floors during the incident.
An employee said:
At about 10:30 a.m., some of my colleagues and I were in our offices, watching the funeral procession of Abu Atta [an Islamic Jihad militant killed on November 12] from the window. A few minutes later, everyone returned to work. Most of us were on the sixth and seventh floors of the building…Suddenly I heard an explosion and fell down. Everything went dark and there was dust and broken glass. The fifth floor was completely destroyed and part of the sixth floor collapsed.
Human Rights Watch visited the site on December 8 and was unable to find any munition remnants. Human Rights Watch also found no coverage by Palestinian media outlets of the incident. As in the case of the Jabalya incident, this would appear to indicate that a Palestinian armed group rocket that may have misfired caused the strike.
International Humanitarian Law
Military authorities are legally obliged to carefully assess the nature of their target to ensure that they attack only combatants and military objectives, to take all feasible precautions to avoid or minimize civilian harm, and to ensure that any such harm is not disproportionate to the military advantage gained in the same attack.
International law prohibits indiscriminate attacks, which are not directed against a military objective, or which employ a method that cannot be directed at a specific military objective, or a method whose effects cannot be limited as required by international humanitarian law.
International law also requires combatants, when targeting military objectives, to take all feasible precautions to avoid, and in any event to minimize, civilian casualties.
When parties to a conflict kill civilians whose presence they fail to detect before striking, it raises serious concerns about how they ascertained whether civilians are in the vicinity of a target and whether they took all feasible precautions to minimize civilian harm.
If a party to a conflict knows that civilians are present or near the site of a military objective, they must determine that the harm caused to civilians is proportional and not excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated in the attack.
As part of their obligation to ensure that the objects of an attack are military objectives and not civilians or civilian objects and to take all feasible precautions to avoid or minimize civilian casualties, military authorities should carefully assess the nature of the targeted structures and the pattern of life there as close to the time of the attack as feasible.
International law also requires compensation for civilian victims in the event of violations of international law. When losses occur, even in the absence of violations of international humanitarian law, civilians should receive assistance or redress. This can take the form of payments for loss of civilian life and property – often known as ex gratia payments – made without legal obligation and non-monetary acknowledgement of the harm done.