Human Rights Watch: Israel and Palestinian armed groups committed war crimes in latest fighting

Judge Richard Goldstone’s article in the Washington Post continues to attract attention from many different quarters, and has put the question of war crimes committed in Gaza in late 2008 and early 2009 back in the spotlight.  But what hasn’t received nearly enough attention is that the latest round of fighting in the Gaza Strip has resulted in more war crimes, according to a report from Human Rights Watch.

Hamas’ attack on an Israeli school bus “appeared to have deliberately fired at the school bus, a protected civilian object under the laws of war, in an act that amounts to a war crime,” the report reads.

The release from Human Rights Watch also includes details of four investigations they carried out into Israeli violations of the laws of war.  Here’s an excerpt dealing with one investigation:

In the first incident, on April 7, an apparent Israeli missile attack injured an ambulance crew member and damaged an ambulance marked as such while the crew was evacuating two men who had been wounded in an Israeli strike. The attacks occurred near the non-operational Gaza Airport, in the southeastern corner of Gaza, east of the city of Rafah and close to the Egyptian border. Reliable independent security reports said that an Israeli tank had previously fired at the area, wounding two men, and that a helicopter later fired missiles at the area.

The ambulance driver, Musa Obayyed, 35, told Human Rights Watch that the crew received a call at around 5:45 p.m. to evacuate several wounded men from the area. Obayyed said that the area was not in the “buffer zone” near the perimeter fence, where medical crews need to coordinate access in advance by contacting the International Committee of the Red Cross, which then coordinates with the Israeli military.

“The sky was full of different kinds of military aircraft at the time, but we didn’t hesitate, and the area was full of civilians when we arrived,” he said. “We were several meters from an injured man and were just about to get out of the ambulance when an explosion hit next to us.”

The attack injured Hassan al-Hela, 41, a member of the medical crew, in his right forearm, and blew out two of the ambulance’s windows. The crew did not observe what fired at them, but the only Israeli fire reported in the area that afternoon and evening was from tanks and aircraft. There were no reports of Palestinian rocket or mortar fire in the area at the time. Human Rights Watch observed numerous small holes of between three and five millimeters in diameter in the side of the ambulance at the Red Crescent Center in Khirbat al-Adas, where the crew had taken it. The damage appeared consistent with shrapnel from a small missile. Human Rights Watch was not able to examine shrapnel from the strike, but the damage was consistent with small, cubic shrapnel from the aerial drone-launched missiles that Human Rights Watch examined during the 2008-09 Gaza conflict.

Customary laws of war provide that medical units, including paramedics and ambulances, must be respected and protected in all circumstances. Medical workers engaging exclusively in medical work in the presence of combatants do not forfeit their protected status, and only lose their protection if they commit, outside their humanitarian function, acts harmful to the enemy. A deliberate attack on a medical crew or an ambulance being used solely for medical transport would constitute a serious violation of the laws of war, amounting to a war crime.

“The laws of war have protected medical personnel from attack for nearly 150 years,” Whitson said. “Israeli responses to Palestinian attacks cannot show reckless indifference to civilians.”

Read the full release here.

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