Gaza: The Israeli Army’s Unlawful Targeting Practices are bad for Children

By Bill Van Esveld, Human Rights Watch

The Israel Defense Force has an answer to the shelling yesterday that killed four children near the Gaza City port. At a media briefing yesterday, an IDF official reportedly said the attack had targeted an “identified Hamas structure,” and that Israeli forces had misidentified the boys as “fleeing fighters.”

Atrocious as much of the Israeli bombing campaign of Gaza has been, it is hard to imagine Israeli forces deliberately trying to kill Ismail Bakr, 9, and his three cousins, Ahed, 10, Zakariya, 10, and Mohammad, 11, with an apparent missile attack, particularly when they were directly in front of a hotel full of foreign journalists.

But to categorize these deaths as an innocent mistake is to put the lives of many other Palestinian children at risk. In fact, they were the inevitable result of the IDF’s practice, seen in several incidents in Gaza since July 7, of firing before determining that the target is military, as required by international humanitarian law, or the laws of war, which apply to both Israel and Palestinian armed groups.

The Israeli argument goes like this: The IDF does its best to avoid civilian casualties. It employs state-of-the-art intelligence to find targets and then uses precision-guided weapons to hit them. And it even calls nearby civilians on the phone and warns them to leave before firing at the target. Hamas, on the other hand, unlawfully hides among civilians. So Hamas is responsible whenever the IDF unintentionally kills civilians – like the inevitable, not culpable, killing of these four boys. Israeli spokesperson Mark Regev said, “The story with these four boys is a tragedy. Let’s be clear: the Israeli military does not target civilians.”

But the issue in the case of the four dead boys isn’t just whether the IDF targeted civilians. It is whether the IDF did its best to avoid killing and wounding civilians. As common sense would dictate, international humanitarian law obliges any attacker before pulling the trigger to make reasonable efforts to ensure that the “target” in its sights is indeed a military objective, not civilian. Palestinian armed groups, too, violate the law when they needlessly put civilians at risk of counter-attacks by deploying in or near homes or other buildings filled with civilians.

Taking this requirement into account, did the IDF meet its legal obligation to distinguish civilians from combatants and to target only the latter, when it killed the Bakr children outside the Deira Hotel? Perhaps it was the case that the Israeli forces at that range couldn’t distinguish a fisherman and his young sons from a group of Islamist fighters. Or they just assumed that anyone running away from an attack on an alleged “Hamas structure” must be “fighters” (as if anyone would continue to stand next to a structure being attacked).

But in that case, the attack was not just tragic, but unlawful. An attacker may not just assume it’s shooting at a valid military target: the laws of war require that the attacker do everything feasible to first verify that the target is a legitimate military objective. People must be presumed to be civilians, not combatants.

These rules exist to minimize “tragic mistakes” – but when such mistakes are repeated, it raises the concern of whether the rules are being disregarded. There have already been several deadly Israeli attacks without any evident military target: The airstrike on the Fun Time Beach café on July 11, where people were gathering to watch the World Cup, killed nine civilians, including two boys. The July 9 airstrike on a municipal vehicle in Bureij killed two civilians driving home after clearing rubble from another airstrike. In all, since July 7, according to UN figures, Israeli attacks in Gaza have killed more than three times as many civilians as combatants, including 48 children.

Israel’s allies have expressed concern at Palestinian civilian casualties. But if they really want to minimize such casualties, they should press the Israeli military to urgently change unlawful targeting practices and hold accountable anyone responsible for them.

Mirrored from Human Rights Watch


Related video added by Juan Cole:

AFP: “Gaza residential tower destroyed after Israeli missile hit”

5 Responses

  1. “Let’s be clear: the Israeli military does not target civilians.”

    One of the most blatant examples during Operation Cast Lead of children being targeted by the IDF was the incident of Dr. Abulaiesh, a Gazan physician practicing in Israel and a peace activist, who had his home fired upon by the IDF and had three daughters killed. He would later be nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.

    The initially reported reason for the deadly attack was Hamas rocket fire in the area; this was rejected and the second reason, which the IDF said was reasonable response, was one of the doctor’s teenage daughter’s was in the window of the home talking on a cell phone and was fired upon since it was possible she was giving location reports of the IDF to Hamas over the phone.

    The incident received international attention and Operation Cast Lead ended two days later by PM Ehud Olmert, who described his regret over the incident. That incident was eventually made into a play in Israel by a soldier who was near the incident:

    link to

  2. Israel targeted all Gazan civilians when it made Gaza that biggest open-air prison in the world. Lying, playing with words and logic as a diversion can not and won’t work in Israel’s best interest forever, and neither will BDS. After this new round of interference in the Palestinian goverments’ unification, Israel should be worried that BDS might be on the rise, seriously on the rise, from civilians all over the world.

  3. What happened to Human Rights Watch? Since when is ‘political correctness’ supposed to take over reality?

    “It is hard to imagine Israeli forces deliberately trying to kill” these boys? Why is it hard? Because of how civilized Israel’s actions in Gaza have been in the past two weeks? Death toll is reaching 400 already.

    What if 400 Israeli had died? Would HRW be that ‘politically correct’ about it? The fact of the matter is that a Palestinian life is not considered as worthy by the international community as that of an Israeli. The surreal disproportion in casualties on both sides makes this a massacre, not a conflict.

    How many deaths would it take for HRW to describe this as a massacre? 2,000? What about genocide? 10,000? Because my friends in Gaza may not have the luxury to wait that long.

  4. Joey Ayoub has, sadly, raised a very clear issue. Many political and religious figures in Israel have characterized non-Jews as “vermin,” and said that killing them is not murder. There is no reason to think that the IDF has no soldiers who share these views. And HRW is trying to pretend that this assault on an open-air prison can be conducted lawfully, if Israel’s allies (read, the US) would just tell the Israeli military to shape up.

  5. The article still assumes that “fighters” are allowed to be targeted despite the fact that they do not have an official army, defence forces, imported high tech weapons from the USA, and in international law are permitted to defend themselves against illlegal occupation or invasion. Israel has no legal right to claim victimhood when it goads reponses by its constant attacks, then makes any incident a pretext for further disproportionate violence.
    “self defense” must apply to all Palestinians, not just children

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