HR Orgs Seek Change To IOF Gaza Shelling Policies
16 April 2006
Israeli and Palestinian
human rights organizations petition the High
Reducing "Safety Zone" in Shelling of Gaza Strip is Manifestly Illegal Order
The order given to Israeli forces to aim shells only 100 meters from houses of residents injures civilians and subjects Israeli army officers and soldiers to war crimes charges
Today, six Israeli and Palestinian human rights organizations petitioned the High Court, demanding that Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and Chief of Staff Dan Halutz revoke the order recently given to soldiers that reduces the safety zone of shells fired into the Gaza Strip to only 100 meters from civilians, civilians' houses, or any other civilian object. Previously, the safety zone had been 300 meters. Last week, the order resulted in the loss of life. In light of the substantial risk of further civilian casualties that may occur before the order is revoked, an urgent hearing on the petition is requested, if possible, as early as tomorrow (Monday, 17 April). The petitioners, Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, Al Mezan Center for Human Rights in Gaza, Btselem, Gaza Community Mental Health Programme, Association for Civil Rights in Israel, and the Public Committee against Torture in Israel, are represented by attorney Micha'el Sfard.
The order given to reduce the safety zone was revealed last week by Ha'aretz's military correspondent, Amos Harel, and was not denied by the Israeli Army. The article quoted a "senior official" who expressly confirmed that the Israeli Army was aware that the reduction endangers civilian lives. The organizations argue that, given that the shell fragmentation range is 100 meters in any case, and that the weaponry is not precise and shells can land dozens of meters from the target, reduction of the safety zone substantially endangers civilian lives, buildings, and other civilian objects located near the target. Last week, shelling into the reduced range caused the death of 7-year-old Hadeel Ghaban from Beit Lahiya, when a shell landed inside her house. The blast wounded 12 members of her family, among them her pregnant mother and her small brothers. Dozens of shells landed dozens of meters, and in some cases only a few meters, from houses. The organizations emphasize that the shelling is not a defensive measure, directed at the source of Qassam rocket fire at the time the rockets are launched at Israel, but shelling into "the Qassam launching spaces," broad areas from which – it is estimated – Qassam rockets had previously been fired. Thus, the attack is Israeli army initiated, intending to punish and/or deter, and not as self-defense.
The organizations argue that reducing the safety zone gravely breaches fundamental principles of the laws of war, and that the order is manifestly illegal to the point that Israeli soldiers should not obey them. In carrying out the order, Israeli army officers and soldiers risk being charged with war crimes and with legal measures that may be taken against them by international judicial bodies. The order flagrantly breaches at least three fundamental principles of international humanitarian law: the requirement to distinguish between combatants and civilians, the principle of proportionality in the use of force, and the requirement to use caution in carrying out attacks. Attorney Sfard argues that, in reducing the safety zone, the Israeli Army is playing Russian roulette with the lives of Gaza's civilians, by knowingly placing civilian homes within the area in which the shells will fall, and whether civilians, including whole families, will be injured depends on variables over which the army has no control.