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OPT: Bearing the brunt again: Child rights violations during Operation Cast Lead

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Executive Summary

This report, published by Al-Mezan Centre for Human Rights and Defence for Children International - Palestine Section, provides a comprehensive overview of child rights violations perpetrated by the Israeli military during Operation Cast Lead including, inter alia, unlawful killing and maiming, the destruction of schools, homes and life-sustaining infrastructure such as water and sanitation networks, the use of children as human shields, and the arbitrary detention of children. Forty-three case studies illustrate the vast range of violations perpetrated. This Executive Summary provides a brief chapter outline and presents the key figures provided in the report. The report is based on extensive primary research dependent on documentation techniques meeting international standards as outlined in Annex 1.

Section 1: Background

At 11.30am on 27 December 2008, Israeli forces began an intensive aerial and naval bombing campaign on the Gaza Strip as a prelude to a large-scale ground invasion which commenced on 3 January 2009.

The stated aim of this 23-day offensive, codenamed Operation Cast Lead, was to end rocket attacks into Israel by armed groups and to alter the security conditions at its southern border. By the end of the offensive on 18 January 2009, 1,409 Palestinians had been killed, of whom 1,172 were civilians (noncombatants).

At least 353 children were killed and a further 860 injured. An additional five child fatalities documented in this period may also be attributable to Israeli military actions, potentially bringing the total child casualty rate to 358. This figure represents more than 50 percent of the total number of children killed in the eight-year period prior to the beginning of Operation Cast Lead.

This section of the report stresses that Operation Cast Lead marked an intensification of military assaults carried out by Israeli forces on the Gaza Strip following Israel's unilateral disengagement from the Strip in 2005; assaults which have been characterized by the perpetration of serious violations of international law. For example, between September 2005 and September 2006, Israeli attacks killed 525 Palestinians and injured 1,527. Israeli military operations Summer Rains (June-September 2006) and Autumn Clouds (November 2006) claimed the lives of over 400 Palestinians including 85 children, while Operation Warm Winter, launched in February 2008 claimed the lives of 33 children in just five days.

Operation Cast Lead must also be viewed in the wider context of the increasing isolation and impoverishment of the Gaza Strip. Following the January 2006 electoral success of the Hamas movement, Israel prohibited all commercial exports through Karni crossing and severely restricted imports, precipitating shortages of basic foodstuffs, fuel and medical supplies. The siege intensified after Hamas took control of Gaza in June 2007 after which Israel kept the border crossings hermetically sealed, allowing only minimal humanitarian goods and supplies to enter the territory. Israel's definition of humanitarian supplies excludes items such as school books and stationery. As a direct result of the siege, which constitutes a form of collective punishment, prohibited under international humanitarian law, Gaza's economy has all but collapsed, unemployment and poverty have sky-rocketed and essential infrastructure such as water and sanitation networks have deteriorated at an alarming rate. On the eve of Operation Cast Lead, Gaza's population of 1.5 million, of whom 56 percent are children, was already on the edge of a humanitarian crisis.

Section 2: International Law

International humanitarian law regulates all cases of armed conflict and belligerent occupation. The primary bodies of applicable law are the four Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their additional protocols, the Hague Regulations of 1907 and customary international humanitarian law. As a party to the conflict and an occupying power, Israel is thus bound by a number of legal obligations, not least the obligation to spare civilians (including children) from the effects of hostilities, and to ensure the welfare of the occupied population.

This section provides a legal background to the issues discussed in this report. It begins by analyzing Israel's status as an occupying power, and detailing Israel's obligations vis-à-vis the residents of the Gaza Strip, which emanate from international humanitarian law and human rights law. Israel's claim to the right to self-defence as a justification for Operation Cast Lead is also discussed, and dismissed as not having legal grounds. The basic principles of international humanitarian law are then presented, such as the principle of distinction, and the principle of proportionality. As impunity has been a key feature of Israel's occupation of Palestinian land, and a major driver of continued violations of international law, the issue of accountability is also discussed.

Section 3: Killing and Maiming of Children and Obstructed Medical Access to Injured Children

The direct targeting of civilians and the killing, maiming or injuring of civilians in indiscriminate attacks constitute unlawful acts that amount to violations of the right to life and grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions. Obstructing medical access to the wounded also constitutes a serious violation of international law (Article 16 of the Fourth Geneva Convention). During Operation Cast Lead, Israeli forces killed at least 353 children and injured a further 860; 66 of these children died after Israeli forces obstructed medical access and 116 were killed by missiles launched by unmanned aircraft (drones).

Drones fire precision missiles and have the ability to distinguish clearly between children and adults. As this section illustrates through the presentation of 18 case studies, many of these attacks appear to have directly contravened basic principles of international law and in several incidents children appear to have been directly targeted. Case 2 details the killing of Faris and Mohammed Hammouda (aged 2 and 15 respectively). Faris died shortly after the Hammouda family home was directly shelled and Mohammed bled to death over the course of several hours during which his father repeatedly called the emergency services to plead for help. He was informed by the International Committee of the Red Cross that Israeli forces had prohibited access to his neighbourhood. Case 4 details the killing of Suad (9) and Amal (2) and the maiming of Samar (4). The family, ordered to leave their home by Israeli forces, stepped out of their front door waving white flags. Israeli forces stationed on a nearby tank opened fire directly at them. Israeli forces killed at least 11 fleeing civilians waving white flags during Operation Cast Lead. Case 7 illustrates the consequences of Israel's new 'knock on the roof' procedure, in which a relatively small munition is fired by Israeli aircraft as a warning message to the inhabitants, giving them a few minutes to evacuate. Four children were killed in the attack described in this case study. Other cases studies in this section focus on white phosphorous attacks, drone attacks and the killing of children attempting to flee to safety.

Section 4: Human Shields

This section presents three incidents in which seven children were used as human shields by the Israeli military. This practice involves forcing civilians to directly assist in military operations or using them to shield an area or troops from attack. The use of civilians as human shields is prohibited under international law and was banned by an Israeli High Court ruling in 2005. Case 19 details how 'Ala (15), Ali (16), Nafiz (17), Hussein (12) and Khalil (15), were detained in a trench for several days as soldiers carried out attacks around it, shooting over the heads of the children. Case 20 details how 17-year-old Amin was forced to accompany soldiers deploying through his neighbourhood. He was forced to crawl in front of the soldiers, and handcuffed, blindfolded and beaten several times during his ordeal. Case 21 details how 9-year-old Majed was ordered at gunpoint to open bags and suitcases suspected of being booby-trapped. When he struggled to open a locked suitcase, he was grabbed by the hair, slapped and slammed against a wall.

Section 5: Attacks on Schools and the Right to Education

Education facilities are presumed to be civilian objects and are protected under international customary law. During Operation Cast Lead, Israeli forces completely destroyed 18 schools and damaged over 260, including five operating as temporary emergency shelters. At least 26 children were killed while near schools, on their way to or from schools, or while sheltering in schools, and at least 922 registered schoolchildren were injured, approximately 732 of whom sustained some form of long-term disability as a consequence of the offensive.

The seven cases in this section describe the killings of ten of the victims of these attacks. Case 24 details the killing of Ahmed (16) and Mahmoud (16), who were on their way home from school when Israeli warplanes bombed Rafah City Hall on 27 December 2008. Cases 25, 26 and 27 focus on three of the 14 children who were killed when Israeli tanks shelled the perimeter of Al-Fakhoura school in Jabalia refugee camp in the north of Gaza. At the time of the attack, it was being used as a UN shelter and the UN agency, UNRWA, had provided the exact GPS coordinates of the school to the Israeli army. Case 28 details the white phosphorous attack on Mashrou Boys School in Beit Lahiya, North Gaza, which resulted in the killing of Bilal (5) and Mohammed (3). For many children in Gaza, schools are no longer perceived as safe places devoted to learning and playing; in this section, the psychological consequences of such attacks on children are presented and examined. The impact of the siege, which classifies stationery and school textbooks as 'non-essential' or 'luxury' items, is also reviewed.

Section 6: Destruction of Civilian Homes

During Operation Cast Lead, Israeli forces completely destroyed at least 3,600 shelters (individual housing units), displacing around 21,000 people, including an estimated 10,500 children. A further 2,700 shelters sustained major damages and around 52,000 sustained minor damages. As this section illustrates, the vast majority of the destruction of civilian homes appears to be unlawful. For instance, 1,723 shelters were destroyed in neighbourhoods under the effective control of Israeli forces when they could no longer be considered military objectives. The 14 cases in this section detail the vast destruction inflicted on different areas in the Gaza Strip including Rafah in the south, Ezbet Abed-Rabbo in the north and Al-Fukhari village in the east. Many children were killed in these attacks. Case 41 details the shelling of the Deeb family home in which five children were killed. Case 42 details the bombing of the Ad-Dayah family home in which 12 children were killed.

More than eight months after the withdrawal of Israeli forces, none of these homes has been rebuilt. As Israel's siege continues, reconstruction remains impossible. Some families are still living in tents, and many are living in damaged homes. In addition to the destruction wrought during Operation Cast Lead, around 4,500 shelters destroyed between 2001 and 2008 have yet to be rebuilt. Consequently, around 25,000 children remain displaced today. This section also presents and examines the psychological impact of the destruction of homes on children.

Section 7: Destruction of Water and Sanitation Infrastructure

Israeli military attacks on water and sanitation facilities during Operation Cast Lead exacerbated an already critical public health situation in the Gaza Strip. During the 23-day military offensive, Israeli forces damaged 19,000 metres of pipes, several vital water tanks and 38 wells; 74 wells were totally destroyed. Sewage infrastructure was also the target of attacks. It is likely that Israeli forces have detailed information about the location of water and sanitation infrastructure in Gaza, raising serious questions about whether Israeli forces took the necessary measures to avoid destroying civilian infrastructure as required by international humanitarian law.

During Operation Cast Lead, 500,000 Palestinians, including around 250,000 children completely lost access to running water. A further 500,000, including around 25,000 children had access to water for only several hours a week; and the remaining third of the population received water for 4-6 hours every two or three days. As a result of the siege, and the destruction caused by the offensive, it took months to restore water access to pre-December 2008 levels. As of 3 September 2009, 10,000 individuals remained without access to the water network, and 60 percent of the population did not have continuous access to water. As well as reducing access, Israeli attacks also contaminated the local water supply; due to damage caused by the attacks, sewage flowed into the water system in a number of areas. This situation has serious implications for children's health including the dissemination of diseases such as diarrhoea, blue-baby syndrome and potentially cholera.

Every individual has the right to the highest attainable standard of health. This right is an inclusive right, incorporating not only health care, but also the underlying determinants of health, such as access to safe and potable water; adequate sanitation; an adequate supply of safe food; nutrition and housing; and healthy occupational and environmental conditions. The current health risks posed to the residents of the Gaza Strip as a result of the water and sanitation crisis are serious, and entirely man-made. They are the result of the long-standing Israeli siege, and the extensive destruction caused by the offensive.

Section 8: Detention - Children Arrested and Detained in the West Bank during Operation Cast Lead

The first three months of 2009 saw a significant increase in the number of children detained by Israeli forces in the West Bank; there were 389 children in Israeli detention at the end of January 2009, 423 at the end of February, and 420 at the end of March. These figures are markedly higher than the average monthly rate of 319 child detainees throughout 2008, and the detention rate in February 2009 was 37.8 percent higher than in the corresponding period from the previous year. According to B'Tselem records, such high numbers of child detainees have not been observed since August 2005. Between January and March, DCI-Palestine investigated two incidents involving the mass arrest and detention of children; on 19 January seven children were arrested in the village of Tura al Gharbiya, near Jenin, while on 26 March, up to 90 children were detained from the village of Haris, near Salfit.

The ages of the children detained were younger than average, and most were charged with minor offences for which they received short sentences. Of the total number of cases represented by DCIPalestine in the first three months of 2009, 36 percent were between 12 and 15 years old, compared to approximately 23 percent in 2008. Sixty-one percent of these children were charged with stone throwing, compared to an annual figure of approximately 27 percent in 2008. All children represented by DCI-Palestine received sentences of less than one year, compared to 71 percent of cases in 2008. These arrests were characterized by an unusually high level of physical abuse against child detainees, a trend confirmed by recent testimonies from Israeli soldiers. Once arrested, children are tried and prosecuted under conditions which violate fundamental international legal standards. For example, children are invariably denied access to a lawyer until the end of the interrogation process, and they are often forced to make a confession under duress.

Conclusion

Operation Cast Lead was characterised by the serious and extensive disregard of fundamental principles of international law. Disproportional and indiscriminate attacks against civilian objects and the civilian population caused widespread civilian casualties, of which almost a third were children. The authors of the report are particularly concerned with the following documented Israeli practices: direct attacks on civilians waving white flags; the targeting of civilians with high-precision weapons; the indiscriminate use of white phosphorous; the use of children as human shields; obstruction of medical access to the wounded and sick; and the targeting of protected objects such as ambulances attempting to evacuate.

On 15 September 2009, the UN Fact-Finding Mission chaired by Justice Richard Goldstone released a report detailing compelling evidence of serious violations committed by Israel against Palestinian children during Operation Cast Lead. Al Mezan and DCI-Palestine are urging international mobilization to ensure that perpetrators of these crimes are held accountable and such grave violations are no more committed.

The children of Gaza are once more bearing the brunt of a brutal Israeli military offensive, and, although the majority of damages caused are irreparable, it is the responsibility of the international community to provide them with an effective response and endeavour to prevent further violations of their rights.

In this regard, Al Mezan and DCI-Palestine fully endorse the recommendations put forward by the Goldstone Mission and put particular emphasis on the following recommendations:

- Failing the Government of Israel undertaking timely independent and impartial - investigations, then the UN Security Council should refer the situation in Gaza to the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) for further action.

- Failing appropriate action being taken by the UN Security Council to refer the situation in Gaza to the ICC, then:

- The UN General Assembly should take action under Resolution 377(V) and Article 22 of the UN Charter and establish an international tribunal for Gaza to investigate and, where appropriate, prosecute the serious violations of international law committed during Operation Cast Lead.

- Should the UN General Assembly fail to take appropriate action, then State Parties to the Fourth Geneva Convention should initiate their own criminal investigations and, where appropriate, prosecute the serious violations of international law committed during the Gaza offensive in their national courts under the principle of universal jurisdiction.

- The Government of Israel must immediately end the blockade of the Gaza Strip and cease the collective punishment of the entire civilian population.

- The Government of Israel should immediately release Palestinians who are detained in Israeli prisons in connection with the occupation and the release of children should be an utmost priority, as recommended by the Goldstone Mission.