(New York, June 13, 2007) - During recent fighting in the Gaza Strip, armed Palestinian groups have committed serious violations of international humanitarian law, in some cases amounting to war crimes, Human Rights Watch said today.
These attacks by both Hamas and Fatah constitute brutal assaults on the most fundamental humanitarian principles. The murder of civilians not engaged in hostilities and the willful killing of captives are war crimes, pure and simple.
In internal Palestinian fighting over the last three days, both Fatah and Hamas military forces have summarily executed captives, killed people not involved in hostilities, and engaged in gun battles with one another inside and near Palestinian hospitals. On Saturday, armed Palestinians from Islamic Jihad and the Fatah-affiliated Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade used a vehicle with a "TV" insignia to attack an Israeli military position on the border with Gaza.
"These attacks by both Hamas and Fatah constitute brutal assaults on the most fundamental humanitarian principles," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director for Human Rights Watch. "The murder of civilians not engaged in hostilities and the willful killing of captives are war crimes, pure and simple."
On Sunday, Hamas military forces captured 28-year-old Muhammad Swairki, a cook for President Mahmoud Abbas's presidential guard, and executed him by throwing him to his death, with his hands and legs tied, from a 15-story apartment building in Gaza City. Later that night, Fatah military forces shot and captured Muhammad al-Ra'fati, a Hamas supporter and mosque preacher, and threw him from a Gaza City high-rise apartment building. On Monday, Hamas military forces attacked the home in Beit Lahiya of Jamal Abu al-Jadiyan, a senior Fatah official, captured him, and executed him on the street with multiple gunshots. On Tuesday, there were reports of additional killings of individuals not involved in hostilities.
In addition, Fatah and Hamas forces engaged in battles in and around two Gaza Strip hospitals on Monday. After Hamas fighters killed Fatah intelligence officer Yasir Bakar, Fatah gunmen began firing mortars and rocket-propelled grenades at Shifa Hospital in Gaza City, drawing Hamas fire from inside the building, killing one Hamas and one Fatah fighter. At a hospital in Beit Hanun, three family members with ties to Fatah, 'Id al-Masri and his sons, Farij and Ibrahim, were killed, and others wounded. Hospital officials reported that the three were being treated for injuries sustained earlier. One was reportedly shot at close range.
All parties engaged in armed conflict are subject to customary international humanitarian law, which forbids deliberate harming of civilians and those who are not engaged in armed hostilities at the time, Human Rights Watch said. International humanitarian law also provides special protection to medical personnel and hospitals. Military and civilian hospitals and medical units must be protected and respected in all circumstances.
In the June 9 incident, four armed Palestinians drove a white jeep bearing "TV" insignias to a fence on the Gaza-Israel border and fired at Israeli soldiers. The Israelis returned fire, killing one Palestinian. Spokesmen for Islamic Jihad and the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, an offshoot of Fatah, claimed responsibility for the attack. An Islamic Jihad spokesperson denied that Palestinians had put press markings on the jeep used in the June 9 attack, and accused the Israeli military of doing so after the fact. However, photos taken by the Associated Press as the attack was under way show the letters "TV" written in red on the front of the jeep.
"Using a vehicle with press markings to carry out a military attack is a serious violation of the laws of war, and it also puts journalists at risk," said Whitson.
Customary international humanitarian law provides that journalists not taking direct part in hostilities in armed conflict zones "shall be considered as civilians." The deliberate abuse of this protected status in order to breach the confidence of an adversary in an attempt to kill, injure or capture them, would amount to an act of perfidy, a serious violation of international humanitarian law.
The Palestinian Journalists Union on Sunday criticized the use by armed factions of press insignia in a statement: "The use of vehicles that carry 'Press,' 'TV' or other signs ... exposes journalists' lives to danger, gives the Israeli occupation a pretext to target and kill journalists and restricts their ability to perform their professional and national duties. ... We demand all parties stop using these methods."
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