(Jerusalem) – Palestinian armed groups in Gaza violated the laws of war during the November 2012 fighting by launching hundreds of rockets toward population centers in Israel.
About 1,500 rockets were fired at Israel between November 14 and 21, the Israel Defense Forces reported. At least 800 struck Israel, including 60 that hit populated areas.
The rocket attacks, including the first from Gaza to strike the Tel Aviv and Jerusalem areas, killed three Israeli civilians, wounded at least 38, several seriously, and destroyed civilian property. Rockets that fell short of their intended targets in Israel apparently killed at least two Palestinians in Gaza and wounded others, Human Rights Watch said.
“Palestinian armed groups made clear in their statements that harming civilians was their aim,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “There is simply no legal justification for launching rockets at populated areas.”
Under international humanitarian law, or the laws of war, civilians and civilian structures may not be subject to deliberate attacks or attacks that do not discriminate between civilians and military targets. Anyone who commits serious laws-of-war violations intentionally or recklessly is responsible for war crimes.
During and after the November fighting, Human Rights Watch interviewed witnesses, victims, and relatives of people killed and injured by rocket attacks in Israel, as well as Israeli officials from two communities struck by rockets, and a spokesperson for the Israeli emergency medical services.
Human Rights Watch research in Gaza found that armed groups repeatedly fired rockets from densely populated areas, near homes, businesses, and a hotel, unnecessarily placing civilians in the vicinity at grave risk from Israeli counter-fire.
The Palestinian armed groups that are known to have launched rockets at Israel – Hamas’ Izz el-Din al-Qassam Brigades, Islamic Jihad’s Saraya al-Quds Brigades, and the Popular Resistance Committee‘s Nasser Salahaddin Brigades – at times said that their attacks targeted civilians or they sought to justify the attacks by calling them reprisals for Israeli attacks that killed civilians in Gaza.
On November 18, for example, the al-Qassam Brigades announced that it had launched a Fajr 5 at Tel Aviv “as a response for the ongoing aggression against Palestinian people.” The Nasser Salahaddin Brigades stated on November 10 that it had launched four rockets at Israeli communities close to Gaza as a “revenge invoice” for Israeli shelling that had killed four Palestinian civilians.
The laws of war prohibit reprisal attacks against civilians, regardless of unlawful attacks by the other side, Human Rights Watch said. Statements by armed groups that they deliberately targeted an Israeli city or Israeli civilians are demonstrating their intent to commit war crimes.
Hamas, the ruling authority in Gaza, is obligated to uphold the laws of war and should appropriately punish those responsible for serious violations, Human Rights Watch said.
During the November fighting, Palestinian armed groups launched rockets that reached further into Israel than ever before, with eight rockets reportedly striking or being intercepted in the Tel Aviv area and three near Jerusalem. Hamas’ al-Qassam Brigades stated on November 22 that armed groups during the fighting had launched 12 long-range rockets, one toward the city of Herzliya in the Tel Aviv district and three toward Jerusalem.
Israel’s Internal Security Agency (ISA) said that about half of the rockets fired into Israel were short range, reaching up to 20 kilometers; slightly less than half were medium range, reaching 20 to 60 kilometers, and less than 1 percent were long range reaching over 60 kilometers.
The Israel Defense Forces said that its “Iron Dome” anti-rocket defense system intercepted more than 400 rockets during the November fighting. Of the rockets that hit Israel, the vast majority landed in open areas, causing no injuries or damage.
In addition to the locally made Qassam rockets and Soviet-designed Grad rockets long used by Palestinian armed groups, the Qassam Brigades announced that it had launched a locally made larger rocket, called the M75, as well as Iranian-produced Fajr 5 rockets. Officials from Hamas and Islamic Jihad said that Iran had supplied Palestinian armed groups with military support.
The Guardian newspaper quoted an Iranian military official’s statement to Iranian media that Iran had not supplied rockets but had provided technical information to Palestinian armed groups that enabled them to build their own Fajr 5 rockets. The Fajr 5 has a reported range of 75 kilometers, capable of reaching the Tel Aviv metropolitan area from Gaza, with 90 kilograms of explosives in its warhead.
Supplying weaponry to a party to a conflict knowing that it is likely to be used to commit war crimes constitutes the aiding and abetting of war crimes, as demonstrated in the April conviction of former Liberian president Charles Taylor by the Special Court for Sierra Leone.
The three Israeli civilian deaths came from one rocket that struck an apartment building in Kiryat Malachi near Ashdod around 8 a.m. on November 15, killing Aharon Smadja, 48, Mira Scharf, 25, and Yitzhak Amsalem, 24. Two men and an 8-month-old baby were wounded.
A statement by Hamas’s al-Qassam Brigades claimed responsibility for launching five Grad rockets at Kiryat Malachi that day at 7:50 a.m.
The Israeli emergency medical service, Magen David Adom, said that during the November fighting, medics treated thirty-eight civilians wounded by rockets, three of them severely and four of them moderately. The wounded included a 50-year-old man in Ashkelon, whose foot was traumatically amputated by a rocket blast; a man in Ofakim who was severely wounded when a rocket hit the car in which he was riding; and a 43-year-old man in the Zeelim area who suffered severe injuries to his upper body from rocket shrapnel.
Kfir Rosen, a 26-year-old state employee, described a November 20 rocket blast that injured him in the shoulder and leg:
The things in the house flew around, doors were blown out, the whole building shook. A splinter from the rocket flew past and scraped my throat. After the explosion we couldn’t see a thing; it was all full of smoke and dust. A [concrete] block from upstairs hit my shoulder, and another hit the back of my hip.
Rockets also destroyed civilian property including homes and schools. On November 20, a rocket tore the roof off a school in Ashkelon.
Some rockets launched by Palestinian armed groups fell short and struck inside Gaza. On November 16, a rocket that appears to have been launched from within Gaza hit a crowded street in the Gazan town of Jabalya, killing a man, 23, and a boy, 4, and wounding five people.
Launching from Residential Neighborhoods
Human Rights Watch interviewed four witnesses to rocket launches from densely populated areas inside Gaza, and heard second-hand reports about many more. Unlike during previous fighting, armed groups seem to have fired many rockets from underground tunnels, opening a hatch to launch the munition.
One rocket was launched on November 20 at around 1:30 p.m. just off Wehda Street in Gaza City, about 100 meters from the Shawa and Housari Building, where various Palestinian and international media have offices. “I saw it [the rocket] go up and heard it, and then smoke was in the office,” a witness said.
One man said he saw a rocket launched from the yard of a house near the Deira Hotel in central Gaza City, though he could not recall the date.
International and Palestinian journalists traveling around Gaza during the fighting told Human Rights Watch that they did not see any Palestinian militants moving in the open, suggesting that Hamas has developed a network of tunnels for personnel and perhaps rockets.
Under the laws of war, parties to an armed conflict are required to take all feasible precautions to protect civilians under their control from the effects of attacks and not to place military targets in or near densely populated areas. Human Rights Watch has not been able to identify any instances in November in which a Palestinian armed group warned civilians to evacuate an area before a rocket launch.
The rockets launched by Palestinian groups cannot be aimed precisely enough to target military objectives in or near civilian areas, Human Rights Watch said. Under the laws of war, such weapons are therefore indiscriminate when used against targets in population centers. The absence of Israeli military forces in the areas where rockets hit, as well as statements by leaders of Palestinian armed groups that population centers were being targeted, indicate that the armed groups deliberately attacked Israeli civilians and civilian objects.
Human Rights Watch has repeatedly condemned indiscriminate rocket attacks on Israeli population centers, as well as Hamas’ failure to hold anyone accountable for those attacks. Human Rights Watch reiterated those condemnations.
The November 14 to 21 hostilities between Israel and Hamas and armed groups in Gaza involved unlawful attacks on civilians by both sides. Four Israeli civilians and at least 103 Palestinian civilians died during the fighting. The fourth Israeli civilian, an Israeli Bedouin named Alayaan Salem al-Nabari, 33, was killed on November 20 in a mortar attack in the Eshkol Regional Council area that reportedly wounded several soldiers. According to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, he was accompanying his cousin who works for a company that builds tents for the military.
“A limited military arsenal that relies on largely indiscriminate rockets does not justify a failure to respect the laws of war, which apply to all sides in a conflict whatever their capabilities,” Whitson said. “As the ruling authority in Gaza, Hamas has an obligation to stop unlawful attacks and punish those responsible.”
Rocket Attack Cases
On November 15, at around 8 a.m., a “Grad” type rocket struck the top two floors of a four-story apartment building in Kiryat Malachi, a town of 20,000 people 25 kilometers north of Gaza. The rocket killed Aharon Smadja, 48, Mira Scharf, 25, and Yitzhak Amsalem, 24. The blast wounded Scharf’s husband, Shmuel, and the couple’s 8-month-old boy. The rocket also wounded Boris Chorona, 52, a deliveryman who had been standing outside the building.
Smadja, a rabbi, lived on the third floor of the building with his wife and their four children, his cousin Rachel Gueta told Human Rights Watch. Gueta, who spoke with residents of the building, said that a warning siren sounded – Israel’s “Color Red” system, which alerts residents of incoming rockets – and that Smadja, his wife, and children went downstairs to a designated protected area inside the building. Smadja then heard Amsalem’s mother calling her son to come to the protected area, and Smadja went upstairs to get the younger man. The men were reportedly killed while standing next to a window in Amsalem’s apartment.
“The rocket hit the fourth floor and penetrated through to the third,” destroying the Smadjas’ apartment, Gueta told Human Rights Watch. “The police let [Smadja's wife] go back to the apartment once to get some clothes. Her kids said, ‘You came back with clothes, but not with dad.’”
Gueta said that Smadja’s corpse was badly disfigured from the blast. “The funeral was horrible. The nylon that was supposed to cover the body was not closed properly. And two sirens sounded during the funeral. We had to run to [a protected area in] the synagogue.”
Chorona, a furniture deliveryman from Tiberius, was standing outside the apartment building when the rocket hit. Chorona’s daughter-in-law, Roxanna, told Human Rights Watch that he was “waiting by the [delivery] truck” when shrapnel from the rocket almost completely severed his hand. Doctors “saved his hand but it doesn’t function,” she said. “A splinter from the rocket hit the nerve. He can’t work. He needs his wife’s help to shower and eat.” The rocket also badly damaged the truck.
A Kiryat Malachi spokesman, Yossi Peretz, told Human Rights Watch that the rocket was the only one that has hit the town.
On November 20 at about 6 p.m., a rocket that Israeli media identified as an Iranian-produced Fajr 5 struck the top two floors of a seven-story apartment building in Rishon LeZion, a city of 220,000 about 60 kilometers northeast of Gaza.
Kobi Mordechai, 31, a gas station attendant, lived with his wife and three young children in an apartment on the sixth floor. The family and a friend were home when the siren sounded, he said:
We ran into the shelter [in the hallway outside the apartment], all six of us. Then we heard a huge explosion. I went out of the shelter but couldn’t see a thing. The electricity was gone, and everything was full of smoke and what looked like fire, so we went back in. Only when someone came to get us and we left the building did I understand it had been my apartment. The rocket was in my house – it hit my house directly. The whole place is in ruins; almost nothing is left. We managed to get just a few things out. The kids saw our house on television; they saw their shelter, their toys. They asked their grandmother, “Grandma, will you also not have a house soon?”
Kfir Rosen, a 26-year-old employee of the Rishon LeZion municipality, lived with his parents and brother on the second floor of the building. His parents were not home at the time. Rosen told Human Rights Watch that he heard the “Color Red” early-warning siren and warned his brother to go to their shelter, but his brother said that he wanted to see the rocket intercepted by Israel’s “Iron Dome” anti-rocket missile system. He told Human Rights Watch: “I asked myself, ‘What’s the chance that the rocket will actually fall on me of all places?’ and we stayed on the balcony. The siren stopped, and about 20 seconds later we heard an enormous boom.” He said that pieces of his building struck him in the shoulder and hip.
Rosen said that the rocket “made a big hole in the balcony on the third floor above mine, and then fell down to the neighbors’ lawn. Even the apartments in the adjacent building were damaged by the blast.” He said police “only gave us minutes to retrieve a few things” from the building, because “they say the upper floors might fall down, the structure isn’t safe.” Rosen and his family are living in a hotel while the building is repaired.
The armed group that fired the rocket apparently packed it with anti-personnel shrapnel. “Lots of tiny balls that were inside the rocket flew out all over the place” when it hit, Rosen said. Small holes that he said were caused by the shrapnel had pockmarked the wall of the building and another building across the street.
On November 17 at around 8 a.m., a rocket struck a private home in Ashdod while five people were there, badly damaging the house and wounding the mother. A daughter, 22, who was not in the house at the time, said her father, mother, 14-year-old sister, brother-in-law, and 2-year-old niece were at home when the rocket struck. The woman said she saw the house a few hours after the explosion:
We don’t have a shelter at home, so they were all hiding in my room, which is on the bottom floor and has fewer external walls. We had two floors, and the top floor is what saved my family. An iron beam stopped the rocket; it exploded on the top floor. A brick flew and hit my mother in the head. When I arrived at the house, it was just awful. I didn’t know that this is what a rocket does to a house; the news doesn’t really show you. My little sister’s room doesn’t have a ceiling anymore. My niece started to wet her bed. After that, when there were [rocket] sirens, she’d go into the shelter shaking and crying.
Rockets struck Ashdod repeatedly during the fighting, including rockets that hit a residential area on November 16 and a store on November 20.
Residents of Sderot, a residential community near the Gaza perimeter that was first struck by rockets from Gaza in 2002, described near-hits from rockets that exploded during the eight-day conflict.
“We couldn’t leave our houses for a week; we were constantly in the shelters,” Shirly Seidler, 25, a journalist with Yedioth South who lives in Sderot, told Human Rights Watch. Residents have 10 to 15 seconds after the rocket siren sounds to enter a protected space, she said.
One rocket hit the house across the street from her home in Sderot:
We ran to the shelter when we heard the siren, then heard two really strong blasts that made the house shake. It had hit the house across the street from ours. There were gas balloons where the rockets had fallen, and we thought we’d have to evacuate. We were running around barefoot in our pajamas, and there were a few moments of real panic, with ambulances, police, police sapper units, and bulldozers digging out the rocket.
Many Sderot residents moved away due to fear of rocket strikes. “I know a lot of people with children who got up and left” during the fighting, Seidler said.
Rotem Ochana, 25, an employee at Sapir College, said that a rocket hit the basketball court across the street from his house. He also witnessed several interceptions of rockets by Israel’s “Iron Dome” anti-rocket system on November 16, while driving near the Ad Halom junction outside Ashdod. He said:
The sirens began, so I pulled over, and there was a bus and two other private cars that also stopped on the side of the road with me. There were four sirens in a row, and we saw all the interceptions over our head. I saw two kids running from place to place and a hysterical mother trying to grab them. Once the sirens ended, I got back in the car to get to a shelter, and a fragment from the interception fell and broke my windshield on the driver’s side. After that, I didn’t leave the house again until everything calmed down. It made me realize how bad it must be on the other side [for Gaza residents] where they have no sirens or shelters.
In response to questions from Human Rights Watch, the Ashkelon municipality spokesperson said that 36 rockets struck the city during the November fighting, and that Israel’s “Iron Dome” system intercepted an additional 60 rockets that would otherwise have hit.
Rockets seriously damaged the Mekif Bet and Ronson schools in the central Kiryat Hachinuch area. Shrapnel from the rocket traumatically amputated a man’s foot near Zipora House, a building across the street from the Rambam religious school. Shrapnel also penetrated and severely damaged the car he had been driving, the spokesperson said.