Human Rights Watch: Questions and answers: October 2023 hostilities between Israel and Armed Palestinian Groups




9 OCTOBER 2023

The following questions and answers (Q&A) address issues relating to international humanitarian law (the laws of war) governing current hostilities between Israel and Hamas, and other Palestinian armed groups in Gaza. The purpose is to facilitate analysis of the conduct of all parties involved in the conflict with the aim of deterring violations of the laws of war and encouraging accountability for abuses.

This Q&A focuses on international humanitarian law governing the conduct of hostilities. It does not address whether Palestinian armed groups or Israel were or are justified in their attacks or other matters concerning the legitimacy of resorting to armed force, such as under the United Nations Charter. In accordance with our institutional mandate, Human Rights Watch does not take positions on issues of jus ad bellum (law concerning acceptable justifications to use armed force); our primary goal is documenting violations of the laws of war, and encouraging all parties in armed conflict to respect the laws of war, or jus in bello.


What international humanitarian law applies to the current armed conflict between Israel and Palestinian armed groups?

International humanitarian law recognizes the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza as an ongoing armed conflict. Current hostilities and military attacks between Israel and Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups are governed by the conduct of hostilities standards rooted in international humanitarian law, consisting of international treaty law, most notably Common Article 3 to the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and customary international humanitarian law applicable in so-called non-international armed conflicts, which are reflected in the Additional Protocols of 1977 to the Geneva Conventions. These rules concern the methods and means of combat and fundamental protections for civilians and combatants no longer participating in hostilities for both states and non-state armed groups.

Foremost among the rules of international humanitarian law is the rule that parties to a conflict must distinguish at all times between combatants and civilians. Civilians may never be the target of attack. Warring parties are required to take all feasible precautions to minimize harm to civilians and civilian objects, such as homes, shops, schools, and medical facilities. Attacks may target only combatants and military objectives. Attacks that target civilians or fail to discriminate between combatants and civilians, or that would cause disproportionate harm to the civilian population compared to the anticipated military gain, are prohibited.

Additionally, Common Article 3 provides a number of fundamental protections for civilians and persons who are no longer taking part in hostilities, such as captured combatants, and those who have surrendered or become incapacitated. It prohibits violence against such persons – particularly murder, cruel treatment, and torture – as well as outrages against their personal dignity and degrading or humiliating treatment, and the taking of hostages.


  1. Does the political context, including resistance to an occupation and imbalances of power, affect the analysis under international humanitarian law?

The laws of war make no formal distinction between parties to a conflict on the basis of power imbalances or other criteria. The fundamental principles of international humanitarian law still apply. Violating them by deliberately targeting civilians or carrying out indiscriminate attacks can never be justified by pointing to the injustice of the political situation or other political or moral arguments. To permit the targeting of civilians in circumstances in which there is a disparity of power between opposing forces, as is the case in many conflicts, would create an exception that would virtually negate the rules of war.

That is, whether a belligerent party may lawfully use force or not under international law, they must still abide by the laws of war.

Parties to a conflict are also obligated to abide by international humanitarian law irrespective of the conduct of the other belligerent parties. That is, laws-of-war violations by one side do not justify violations by the other side. So-called belligerent reprisals – normally unlawful acts that are permissible under certain circumstances – are prohibited against civilians or the civilian population.


  1. Who and what is lawfully subject to military attack?

The laws of war recognize that some civilian casualties may be inevitable during armed conflict, but impose a duty on warring parties at all times to distinguish between combatants and civilians, and to target only combatants and other military objectives. The fundamental tenets of international humanitarian law are “civilian immunity” and the principle of “distinction.”

Combatants include members of a country’s armed forces and commanders and full-time fighters in non-state armed groups. They are subject to attack at all times during hostilities unless they are captured or incapacitated.

Civilians lose their immunity from attack when and only for such time as they are directly participating in hostilities. According to guidance by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the laws of war distinguish between members of the organized fighting forces of a non-state party, who may be targeted during an armed conflict, and part-time fighters, who are civilians who may only be targeted when and only for such time as they are directly participating in hostilities. Similarly, reservists of national armed forces are considered civilians except when they go on duty, in which case they are combatants subject to attack. Fighters who leave the armed group, as well as regular army reservists who reintegrate into civilian life, are civilians until they are called back to active duty.

For an individual’s act to constitute direct participation in hostilities, it must imminently be capable of causing harm to opposing forces and must be deliberately carried out to support a party to the armed conflict. Direct participation in hostilities includes measures taken in preparation for executing the act, as well as deployment to and return from the location where the act is carried out.

ICRC guidance also sets out that people who have exclusively non-combat functions in armed groups, including political or administrative roles, or are merely members of or affiliated with political entities that have an armed component, such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad, or the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, may not be targeted at any time unless and only for such time as they, like any other civilian, directly participate in the hostilities. That is, membership or affiliation with a Palestinian movement with an armed wing is not a sufficient basis for determining an individual to be a lawful military target.

The laws of war also protect civilian objects, which are defined as anything not considered a legitimate military objective. Prohibited are direct attacks against civilian objects, such as homes and apartments, places of worship, hospitals and other medical facilities, schools, and cultural monuments. Civilian objects become subject to legitimate attack when they become military objectives; that is, when they are making an effective contribution to military action and their destruction, capture, or neutralization offers a definite military advantage, subject to the rules of proportionality. This would include the presence of members of armed groups or military forces in what are normally civilian objects. Where there is doubt about the nature of an object, it must be presumed to be civilian.

The laws of war prohibit indiscriminate attacks. Indiscriminate attacks strike military objectives and civilians or civilian objects without distinction. Examples of indiscriminate attacks are those that are not directed at a specific military objective or that use weapons that cannot be directed at a specific military objective. Prohibited indiscriminate attacks include area bombardment, which are attacks by artillery or other means that treat as a single military objective a number of clearly separated and distinct military objectives located in an area containing a concentration of civilians and civilian objects.

An attack on an otherwise legitimate military target is prohibited if it would violate the principle of proportionality. Disproportionate attacks are those that may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life or damage to civilian objects that would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated from the attack.


  1. Is hostage-taking permitted under international humanitarian law?

Hostage-taking is prohibited in non-international armed conflicts under Article 1(b) of Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions and customary international humanitarian law. The ICRC Commentary on Common Article 3 defines hostage-taking as “the seizure, detention or otherwise holding of a person (the hostage) accompanied by the threat to kill, injure or continue to detain that person in order to compel a third party to do or to abstain from doing any act as an explicit or implicit condition for the release, safety or well-being of the hostage.” Hostages can include civilians and people taking no active part in hostilities, such as members of armed forces who have surrendered or who have been detained. Hostage-taking is a war crime, including under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. People taken as hostages, like all held in custody, must be treated humanely, and cannot be used as human shields.

The ICRC Commentary also notes that hostages are often people, such as civilians posing no security threat, who are taken into custody and detained unlawfully. However, unlawful detention is not necessary for there to be a hostage-taking. An individual whose detention may be lawful, such as a captured soldier, could still be used as a hostage.

A threat to continue detaining someone legally held would not amount to a hostage-taking. For instance, it is not unlawful as part of a negotiation over a prisoner exchange to continue to detain someone, such as a captured combatant, whose release is not legally required. It would, however, be unlawful to make such a threat against a detained civilian unlawfully held.

Hostage-taking is prohibited regardless of the conduct that the hostage-taker aims to impose. So it is still unlawful even when seeking to compel the opposing force to cease an unlawful conduct.


  1. What are the obligations of Israel and Palestinian armed groups with respect to fighting in populated civilian areas?

International humanitarian law does not prohibit fighting in urban areas, although the presence of many civilians places greater obligations on warring parties to take steps to minimize harm to civilians. Gaza is one of the most densely populated areas in the world.

The laws of war require that the parties to a conflict take constant care during military operations to spare the civilian population, and to “take all feasible precautions” to avoid or minimize the incidental loss of civilian life and damage to civilian objects. These precautions include doing everything feasible to verify that the objects of attack are military objectives and not civilians or civilian objects, giving “effective advance warning” of attacks when circumstances permit, and refraining from an attack if the rule of proportionality will be violated. In populated areas with buildings or other structures, both above and underground, parties should take into account the difficulty of identifying civilians who may be obscured from view even from advanced surveillance technology.

Forces deployed in populated areas must, to the extent feasible, avoid locating military objectives – including fighters, ammunition, weapons, equipment, and military infrastructure – in or near densely populated areas, and endeavor to remove civilians from the vicinity of military objectives. Belligerents are prohibited from using civilians to shield military objectives or operations from attack. “Shielding” refers to purposefully using the presence of civilians to render military forces or areas immune from attack.

At the same time, the attacking party is not relieved from its obligation to take into account the risk to civilians, including the duty to avoid causing disproportionate harm to civilians, simply because it considers the defending party responsible for having located legitimate military targets within or near populated areas. That is, the presence of a Hamas commander or rocket launcher, or other military facility in a populated area would not justify attacking the area without regard to the threatened civilian population, including the duty to distinguish combatants from civilians and the rule of proportionality.

The use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas is one of the gravest threats to civilians in contemporary armed conflict. In addition to causing civilian casualties directly, explosive weapons with wide-area effects have frequently damaged or destroyed civilian infrastructure, such as bridges, water pipes, power stations, hospitals, and schools, causing long-term harm to civilians, including the disruption of basic services. These weapons have a wide-area effect if they have a large destructive radius, are inherently inaccurate, or deliver multiple munitions at the same time. Their use in populated areas forces people to flee their homes, exacerbating humanitarian needs.

Weapons that have a large destructive radius include those that detonate a large amount of explosive material and those that propel fragments over a large area, or both. Munitions with large amounts of explosive material can produce fragmentation that spreads unpredictably over a wide area, and a powerful blast wave that can cause severe physical injuries to the human body and physical structures, cause blunt force trauma and physical damage from flying debris, and cause or exacerbate other injuries or existing illnesses. Munitions that have preformed fragmentation warheads are designed to spread scores of fragments over an area, making it difficult or impossible to limit the effects of the weapon.

The use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in the densely populated Gaza Strip, where 2.2 million Palestinians live in a strip of territory that is 41 kilometers (25 miles) long and between 6 and 12 kilometers (3.7 and 7.5 miles) wide, and the targeting at times of critical infrastructure, could be expected to cause serious harm to civilians and civilian objects. In addition, rockets launched from Gaza that are fundamentally inaccurate or designed to saturate a large area and are likely to strike civilians and civilian objects inside Israel, also cause foreseeable harm to civilians and civilian objects.


  1. Should belligerent parties give warnings to civilians in advance of attacks? What constitutes an “effective” warning?

The laws of war require, unless circumstances do not permit, that warring parties give “effective advance warning” of attacks that may affect the civilian population. What constitutes an “effective” warning will depend on the circumstances. Such an assessment would take into account the timing of the warning and the ability of civilians to leave the area. A warning that does not give civilians adequate time to leave for a safer area would not be considered “effective.”

Civilians who do not evacuate following warnings are still fully protected by international humanitarian law. Otherwise, warring parties could use warnings to cause forced displacement, threatening civilians with deliberate harm if they did not heed them. Moreover, some civilians are unable to heed a warning to evacuate, for reasons of health, disability, fear, or lack of anyplace else to go. So, even after warnings have been given, attacking forces must still take all feasible precautions to avoid loss of civilian life and property. This includes canceling an attack when it becomes apparent that the target is civilian, or that the civilian loss would be disproportionate to the expected military gain.

The laws of war also prohibit “acts or threats of violence the primary purpose of which is to spread terror among the civilian population.” Statements that called for the evacuation of areas that are not genuine warnings, but are primarily intended to cause panic among residents or compel them to leave their homes for reasons other than their safety, would fall under this prohibition. This prohibition does not attempt to address the effects of lawful attacks, which ordinarily cause fear, but rather those threats or attacks on civilians that have this specific purpose.


  1. What are the legal protections for hospitals, medical personnel, and ambulances?

Healthcare facilities are civilian objects that have special protections under the laws of war against attacks and other acts of violence including bombing, shelling, looting, forced entry, shooting into, encircling, or other forceful interference such as intentionally depriving facilities of electricity and water.

Healthcare facilities include hospitals, laboratories, clinics, first aid posts, blood transfusion centers, and the medical and pharmaceutical stores of these facilities, whether military or civilian. While other presumptively civilian structures become military objectives if they are being used for a military purpose, hospitals lose their protection from attack only if they are being used, outside their humanitarian function, to commit “acts harmful to the enemy.” Several types of acts do not constitute “acts harmful to the enemy,” such as the presence of armed guards, or when small arms from the wounded are found in the hospital. Even if military forces misuse a hospital to store weapons or shelter able-bodied combatants, the attacking force must issue a warning to cease this misuse, setting a reasonable time limit for it to end, and attacking only after such a warning has gone unheeded.

Under the laws of war, doctors, nurses, and other medical personnel must be permitted to do their work and be protected in all circumstances. They lose their protection only if they commit, outside their humanitarian function, “acts harmful to the enemy.”

Likewise, ambulances and other medical transportation must be allowed to function and be protected in all circumstances. They could lose their protection only if they are being used to commit “acts harmful to the enemy,” such as transporting ammunition or healthy fighters in service. As stated above, the attacking force must issue a warning to cease this misuse, and can only attack after such a warning goes unheeded.


  1. Is Israel permitted to attack mosques or schools in Gaza?

Mosques and churches – like all houses of worship – and schools are presumptively civilian objects that may not be attacked unless they are being used for military purposes, such as a military headquarters or a location for storing weapons and ammunition.

The principle of proportionality also applies to these objects.

All sides were obligated to take special care in military operations to avoid damage to schools, houses of worship, and other cultural property.


  1. Are rockets fired by Palestinian armed groups at Israel lawful?

As parties to the armed conflict, the armed wings of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and other Palestinian armed groups are obligated to abide by international humanitarian law. The targeting of military installations and other military objectives is permitted under the laws of war, but only if all feasible precautions to avoid civilian harm are taken. The laws prohibit Palestinian armed groups from targeting civilians or launching indiscriminate attacks or attacks that would cause disproportionate harm to civilians compared to the expected military advantage. Commanders of Palestinian armed groups are also obligated to choose such means of attack that they could direct at military targets and minimize incidental harm to civilians. If the weapons used were so inaccurate that they could not be directed at military targets without imposing a substantial risk of civilian harm, then the group should not have deployed them.

Human Rights Watch has found in prior hostilities that rockets launched by Palestinian armed groups – including locally made short and upgraded long-range rockets, “Grad” rockets, and rockets imported from other sources – are so inaccurate as to be incapable of being aimed in a manner to discriminate between military targets and civilian objects when they were launched toward populated areas. This inaccuracy and inability to target military objectives are exacerbated at the longer ranges that some rockets were fired into Israel.

The use of such rockets against civilian areas violates the prohibition on deliberate and indiscriminate attacks. Likewise, a party that launches rockets from densely populated areas, or co-locates military objectives in or near civilian areas – thus making civilians vulnerable to counterattacks – may be failing to take all feasible precautions to protect civilians under its control against the effects of attacks.


  1. Is it lawful to target leaders of Palestinian armed groups and their offices and homes?

International humanitarian law allows the targeting of military commanders in the course of armed conflict, provided that such attacks otherwise comply with the laws that protect civilians, including being proportionate. Political leaders not taking part in military operations, as civilians, would not be legitimate targets of attack.

Palestinian armed groups’ leaders who are commanding belligerent forces are legitimate targets. However, because Hamas engages in civil governance beyond its military component, merely being a Hamas leader in and of itself does not make an individual lawfully subject to military attack.

Combatants do not have immunity from attacks in their homes and workplaces. However, as with any attack on an otherwise legitimate military target, the attacking force must refrain from attack if it would disproportionately harm the civilian population – including civilian family members of combatants – or be launched in a way that fails to discriminate between combatants and civilians. Under this duty to take all feasible precautions to avoid civilian harm, the attacking force should also consider whether there may be alternative sites where the combatant can be targeted without endangering civilians.

Attacking the home of a combatant who was not physically present at the time of the attack would be an unlawful attack on a civilian object. If such an unlawful attack were carried out intentionally, then it would constitute a war crime. A civilian home does not lose its protected status as a civilian object merely because it is the home of a militant who is not present there. Insofar as the attack is designed to harm the combatants’ families, it would also be a prohibited form of collective punishment.

Personnel or equipment being used in military operations are subject to attack, but whether that justifies destroying an entire large building where they might be present depends on the attack not inflicting disproportionate harm on civilians or civilian property.


  1. What is meant by “collective punishment” of the civilian population?

The laws of war prohibit the punishment of any person for an offense other than one that they have personally committed. Collective punishment is a term used in international law to describe any form of punitive sanctions and harassment, not limited to judicial penalties, but including sanctions of “any sort, administrative, by police action or otherwise,” that are imposed on targeted groups of persons for actions that they themselves did not personally commit. The imposition of collective punishment – such as, in violation of the laws of war, the demolition of homes of families of fighters, or other civilian objects such as multi-story buildings as a form of punishment – is a war crime. Whether an attack or measure could amount to collective punishment depends on several factors, including the target of the measure and its punitive impact, but of particular relevance is the intent behind a particular measure. If the intention was to punish, purely or primarily as a result of an act committed by third parties, then the attack is likely to have been collective punishment.


  1. Do journalists have special protection from attack?

Journalists and their equipment benefit from the general protection enjoyed by civilians and civilian objects and may not be targets of an attack unless they are taking direct part in hostilities. Journalists may be subject to legitimate limitations on rights, such as freedom of expression or freedom of movement, imposed in accordance with the law and only to the extent strictly required by the exigencies of the situation. But they may not be arrested, detained, or subjected to other forms of punishment or retaliation simply for doing their work as journalists.


  1. Are Israeli attacks on radio and television stations of news media organizations, including those run by Hamas, lawful?

Radio and television facilities are civilian objects and as such enjoy general protection. Military attacks on broadcast facilities used for military communications are legitimate under the laws of war, but such attacks on civilian television or radio stations are otherwise prohibited because they are protected civilian structures and not legitimate military targets. Moreover, if the attack is designed primarily to undermine civilian morale or to psychologically harass the civilian population, that is also a prohibited war purpose. Civilian television and radio stations are legitimate targets only if they meet the criteria for a legitimate military objective; that is, if they are used in a way that makes an “effective contribution to military action,” and their destruction in the circumstances ruling at the time offers “a definite military advantage.” Specifically, Hamas-operated civilian broadcast facilities could become military targets if, for example, they were used to send military orders or otherwise concretely to advance Hamas’s armed campaign against Israel. However, civilian broadcasting facilities are not rendered legitimate military targets simply because they are pro-Hamas or anti-Israel, or report on the laws of war violations by one side or the other. Just as it is unlawful to attack the civilian population to lower its morale, it is unlawful to attack news outfits that merely shape civilian opinion by their reporting or create diplomatic pressure; neither directly contributes to military operations.

Should stations become legitimate military objectives because of their use to transmit military communications, the principle of proportionality in attack must still be respected. This means that Israeli forces should verify at all times that the risks to the civilian population in undertaking any such attack do not outweigh the anticipated definite military advantage. They should take special precautions in relation to buildings located in urban areas, including giving advance warning of an attack whenever possible.


  1. What are Israel’s and Palestinian armed groups’ obligations to humanitarian agencies?

Under international humanitarian law, parties to a conflict must allow and facilitate the rapid and unimpeded passage of impartially distributed humanitarian aid to the population in need. The belligerent parties must consent to allow relief operations to take place and may not refuse such consent on arbitrary grounds. They can take steps to ensure that consignments do not include weapons or other military materiel. However, deliberately impeding relief supplies is prohibited.

In addition, international humanitarian law requires that belligerent parties ensure the freedom of movement of humanitarian relief personnel essential to the exercise of their functions. This movement can be restricted only temporarily for reasons of imperative military necessity.


  1. Does international human rights law still apply?

International human rights law is applicable at all times, including during armed conflict situations in which the laws of war apply, as well as during times of peace. Israel and Palestine are party to core international human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. These treaties outline guarantees for fundamental rights, many of which correspond to the protections to which civilians are entitled under international humanitarian law (such as the prohibition of torture, inhuman and degrading treatment, nondiscrimination, right to a fair trial).

While the ICCPR permits some restrictions on certain rights during an officially proclaimed public emergency that “threatens the life of the nation,” any derogation of rights during a public emergency must be of an exceptional and temporary nature, and must be “limited to the extent strictly required by the exigencies of the situation,” and should not involve discrimination on grounds of race, religion, and other grounds. Certain fundamental rights – such as the right to life and the right to be secure from torture and other ill-treatment, the prohibition on unacknowledged detention, the duty to ensure judicial review of the lawfulness of detention, and the right to a fair trial – must always be respected, even during a public emergency.


  1. Who can be held responsible for violations of international humanitarian law?

Serious violations of the laws of war that are committed with criminal intent are war crimes. War crimes, listed in the “grave breaches” provisions of the Geneva Conventions and as customary law in the International Criminal Court statute and other sources, include a wide array of offenses, including deliberate, indiscriminate, and disproportionate attacks harming civilians, hostage-taking, using human shields, and imposing collective punishments, among others. Individuals also may be held criminally liable for attempting to commit a war crime, as well as assisting in, facilitating, aiding, or abetting a war crime.

Responsibility also may fall on persons planning or instigating the commission of a war crime. In addition, commanders and civilian leaders may be prosecuted for war crimes as a matter of command responsibility when they knew or should have known about the commission of war crimes and took insufficient measures to prevent them or punish those responsible.

States have an obligation to investigate and fairly prosecute individuals within their territory implicated in war crimes.


  1. Can alleged serious crimes be prosecuted at the International Criminal Court?

Alleged war crimes committed during the fighting between Israel and Palestinian armed groups could be investigated by the International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor. On March 3, 2021, the ICC prosecutor opened an investigation into alleged serious crimes committed in Palestine since June 13, 2014. The ICC treaty officially went into effect for Palestine on April 1, 2015. The court’s judges have said this gives it jurisdiction over the territory occupied by Israel since 1967, namely Gaza and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. The ICC has jurisdiction over war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide, committed in this territory, regardless of the nationality of the alleged perpetrators.

Israel signed but has not ratified the ICC treaty, and in 2002 announced that it did not intend to become a member of the court.

Since 2016, Human Rights Watch has called on the ICC prosecutor to pursue a formal Palestine investigation given strong evidence that serious crimes have been committed there and the pervasive climate of impunity for those crimes. The recent hostilities between Hamas and Israel highlight the importance of the court’s investigation and the urgent need for justice to address serious crimes committed in Palestine. Human Rights Watch has also called on the ICC prosecutor to investigate Israeli authorities implicated in the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution against Palestinians.


  1. What other venues for accountability exist?

Certain categories of grave crimes in violation of international law, such as war crimes and torture, are subject to “universal jurisdiction,” which refers to the ability of a country’s domestic judicial system to investigate and prosecute certain crimes, even if they were not committed on its territory, by one of its nationals, or against one of its nationals. Certain treaties, such as the 1949 Geneva Conventions and the Convention against Torture, obligate states to extradite or prosecute suspected offenders who are within that country’s territory or otherwise under its jurisdiction. Under customary international law, it is also generally agreed that countries are allowed to try those responsible for other crimes, such as genocide or crimes against humanity, wherever these crimes took place.

National judicial officials should investigate and prosecute those credibly implicated in serious crimes, under the principle of universal jurisdiction and in accordance with national laws.

In May 2021, the United Nations Human Rights Council established an ongoing Commission of Inquiry to address violations and abuses in the Occupied Palestinian Territory and in Israel, to monitor, document, and report on violations and abuses of international law, advance accountability for perpetrators and justice for victims, and address the root causes and systematic oppression that help fuel continued violence.

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