May 2002 Vol. XX, No. X (X)
Israel, The occupied west bank
and gaza strip, and the palestinian
Jenin: IDF Military Operations
I. About this research.
IV. Background: The Battle Inside Jenin Refugee Camp.
V. Applicable Legal Standards.
VI. Civilian Casualties and Unlawful Killings in Jenin.
VII. Human Shielding and the Use of Civilians for Military Purposes.
VIII. Medical and Humanitarian Access, and Attacks against Medical Personnel
IX. Disproportionate and Indiscriminate Use of Force Without Military Necessity by the IDF.
A Human Rights Watch team of three experienced researchers spent seven days in Jenin from April 19, 2002 to April 28, 2002 to research this report. The team interviewed over one hundred residents of Jenin refugee camp, gathering detailed accounts from victims and witnesses and carefully corroborating and cross-checking their accounts with those of others. Human Rights Watch investigators also collected information from other first-hand observers of the events in the Jenin refugee camp, including international aid workers, medical workers, and local officials. The research also included information from public sources, including Israeli governmental sources, about the incursion. However, the IDF has not agreed to Human Rights Watch’s repeated requests for information about its military incursions into the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Although Human Rights Watch’s research has been extensive, we do not pretend that it is comprehensive. Further inquiry is still in order, particularly as the excavation process proceeds, and if Israel ultimately decides to make its soldiers involved in the operation available for interview.
On April 3, 2002, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) launched a major military operation in the Jenin refugee camp, home to some fourteen thousand Palestinians, the overwhelming majority of them civilians. The Israelis’ expressed aim was to capture or kill Palestinian militants responsible for suicide bombings and other attacks that have killed more than seventy Israeli and other civilians since March 2002. The IDF military incursion into the Jenin refugee camp was carried out on an unprecedented scale compared to other military operations mounted by the IDF since the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict began in September 2000.
The presence of armed Palestinian militants inside Jenin refugee camp, and the preparations made by those armed Palestinian militants in anticipation of the IDF incursion, does not detract from the IDF’s obligation under international humanitarian law to take all feasible precautions to avoid harm to civilians. Israel also has a legal duty to ensure that its attacks on legitimate military targets did not cause disproportionate harm to civilians. Unfortunately, these obligations were not met. Human Rights Watch’s research demonstrates that, during their incursion into the Jenin refugee camp, Israeli forces committed serious violations of international humanitarian law, some amounting prima facie to war crimes.
Due to the dense urban setting of the refugee camp, fighters and civilians were never at great distances. Civilian residents of the camp described days of sustained missile fire from helicopters hitting their houses. Some residents were forced to flee from house to house seeking shelter, while others were trapped by the fighting, unable to escape to safety, and were threatened by a curfew that the IDF enforced with lethal force, using sniper fire. Human Rights Watch documented instances in which soldiers converted civilian houses into military positions, and confined the inhabitants to a single room. In other instances, civilians who attempted to flee were expressly told by IDF soldiers that they should return to their homes.
Despite these close quarters, the IDF had a legal duty to distinguish civilians from military targets. At times, however, IDF military attacks were indiscriminate, failing to make this distinction. Firing was particularly indiscriminate on the morning of April 6, when missiles were launched from helicopters, catching many sleeping civilians unaware. One woman was killed by helicopter fire during that attack; a four-year-old child in another part of the town was injured when a missile hit the house where she was sleeping. Both were buildings housing only civilians, with no fighters in the immediate vicinity.
The IDF used armored bulldozers to demolish residents’ homes. The apparent purpose was to clear paths through Jenin’s narrow and winding alleys to enable their tanks and other heavy weaponry to penetrate the camp interior, particularly since some of these had evidently been booby-trapped. However, particularly in the Hawashin district, the destruction extended well beyond any conceivable purpose of gaining access to fighters, and was vastly disproportionate to the military objectives pursued. The damage to Jenin camp by missile and tank fire and bulldozer destruction has shocked many observers. At least 140 buildings—most of them multi-family dwellings—were completely destroyed in the camp, and severe damage caused to more than 200 others has rendered them uninhabitable or unsafe. An estimated 4,000 people, more than a quarter of the population of the camp, were rendered homeless because of this destruction. Serious damage was also done to the water, sewage and electrical infrastructure of the camp. More than one hundred of the 140 completely destroyed buildings were in Hawashin district. In contrast to other parts of the camp where bulldozers were used to widen streets, the IDF razed the entire Hawashin district, where on April 9 thirteen IDF soldiers were killed in an ambush by Palestinian militants. Establishing whether this extensive destruction so exceeded military necessity as to constitute wanton destruction—or a war crime—should be one of the highest priorities for the United Nations fact-finding mission.
The harm from this destruction was aggravated by the inadequate warning given to civilian residents. Although warnings were issued on multiple occasions by the IDF, many civilians only learned of the risk as bulldozers began to crush their houses. Jamal Fayid, a thirty-seven-year-old paralyzed man, was killed when the IDF bulldozed his home on top of him, refusing to allow his relatives the time to remove him from the home. Sixty-five-year-old Muhammad Abu Saba‘a had to plead with an IDF bulldozer operator to stop demolishing his home while his family remained inside; when he returned to his half-demolished home, he was shot dead by an Israeli soldier.
Human Rights Watch has confirmed that at least fifty-two Palestinians were killed as a result of IDF operations in Jenin. This figure may rise as rescue and investigative work proceeds, and as family members detained by Israel are located or released. Due to the low number of people reported missing, Human Rights Watch does not expect this figure to increase substantially. At least twenty-two of those confirmed dead were civilians, including children, physically disabled, and elderly people. At least twenty-seven of those confirmed dead were suspected to have been armed Palestinians belonging to movements such as Islamic Jihad, Hamas, and the al-Aqsa Martyr’s Brigades. Some were members of the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) National Security Forces or other branches of the PA police and security forces. Human Rights watch was unable to determine conclusively the status of the remaining three killed, among the cases documented.
Human Rights Watch found no evidence to sustain claims of massacres or large-scale extrajudicial executions by the IDF in Jenin refugee camp. However, many of the civilian deaths documented by Human Rights Watch amounted to unlawful or willful killings by the IDF. Many others could have been avoided if the IDF had taken proper precautions to protect civilian life during its military operation, as required by international humanitarian law. Among the civilian deaths were those of Kamal Zgheir, a fifty-seven-year-old wheelchair-bound man who was shot and run over by a tank on a major road outside the camp on April 10, even though he had a white flag attached to his wheelchair; fifty-eight year old Mariam Wishahi, killed by a missile in her home on April 6 just hours after her unarmed son was shot in the street; Jamal Fayid, a thirty-seven-year old paralyzed man who was crushed in the rubble of his home on April 7 despite his family’s pleas to be allowed to remove him; and fourteen-year-old Faris Zaiban, who was killed by fire from an IDF armored car as he went to buy groceries when the IDF-imposed curfew was temporarily lifted on April 11.
Some of the cases documented by Human Rights Watch amounted to summary executions, a clear war crime, such as the shooting of Jamal al-Sabbagh on April 6. Al-Sabbagh was shot to death while directly under the control of the IDF: he was obeying orders to strip off his clothes. In at least one case, IDF soldiers unlawfully killed a wounded Palestinian, Munthir al-Haj, who was no longer carrying a weapon, his arms were reportedly broken, and he was taking no active part in the fighting.
Throughout the incursion, IDF soldiers used Palestinian civilians to protect them from danger, deploying them as “human shields” and forcing them to perform dangerous work. Human Rights Watch received many separate and credible testimonies that Palestinians were placed in vulnerable positions to protect IDF soldiers from gunfire or attack. IDF soldiers forced these Palestinians to stand for extended periods in front of exposed IDF positions, or made them accompany the soldiers as they moved from house to house. Kamal Tawalbi, the father of fourteen children, described how soldiers kept him and his fourteen-year-old son for three hours in the line of fire, using his and his son’s shoulders to rest their rifles as they fired. IDF soldiers forced a sixty-five-year-old woman was forced to stand on a rooftop in front of an IDF position in the middle of a helicopter battle.
As in prior IDF operations, soldiers forced Palestinians, sometimes at gunpoint, to accompany IDF troops during their searches of homes, to enter homes, to open doors, and to perform other potentially dangerous tasks. In Jenin, such coerced use of civilians was a widespread practice; in virtually every case in which IDF soldiers entered civilian homes, residents told Human Rights Watch that IDF soldiers were accompanied by Palestinian civilians who were participating under duress. The forced use of civilians during military operations is a serious violation of the laws of war, as it exposes civilians to direct risk of death or serious injury.
Human Rights Watch has so far found no evidence that Palestinian gunmen forced Palestinian civilians to serve as human shields during the attack. But Palestinian gunmen did endanger Palestinian civilians in the camp by using it as a base for planning and launching attacks, using indiscriminate tactics such as planting improvised explosive devices within the camp, and intermingling with the civilian population during armed conflict, and, in some cases, to avoid apprehension by Israeli forces.
During “Operation Defensive Shield,” the IDF blocked the passage of emergency medical vehicles and personnel to Jenin refugee camp for eleven days, from April 4 to April 15. During this period, injured combatants and civilians in the camp as well as the sick had no access to emergency medical treatment. The functioning of ambulances and hospitals in Jenin city was severely circumscribed, and ambulances were repeatedly fired upon by IDF soldiers. Farwa Jammal, a uniformed nurse, was killed by IDF fire while treating an injured civilian. In at least two cases, injured civilians died without access to medical treatment. Direct attacks on medical personnel and the denial of access to medical care for the wounded constitute serious violations of the laws of war.
During the period that the IDF directly controlled Jenin camp, the Israeli authorities were obliged under international humanitarian law to take all feasible precautions to protect camp civilians from the dangers arising from hostilities, and to ensure to the maximum extent possible under the circumstances that the civilian population had access to food and medical supplies. In practice, however, the IDF prevented humanitarian organizations, including the International Committee of the Red Cross, from gaining access to the camp and its civilian inhabitants—despite the great humanitarian need. This blockage continued from April 11 to 15, after the majority of armed Palestinians had surrendered. Human Rights Watch investigated and found no evidence to sustain reports that the IDF had removed bodies from the refugee camp for burial in mass graves.
Every case listed in the report below warrants additional thorough, transparent, and impartial investigation, with the results of such an investigation made public. Where wrongdoing is found, those responsible should be held accountable. There is a strong prima facie evidence that, in the cases noted below, IDF personnel committed grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions, or war crimes. Such cases warrant specific criminal investigations with a view to ascertaining and prosecuting those responsible. Israel has the primary obligation to carry out such investigations, but the international community also has a responsibility to ensure that these investigations take place.
Israeli authorities have repeatedly stressed the military significance of the IDF operation inside Jenin refugee camp, stating that it was imperative to stop attacks against Israeli civilians, both by halting the individuals involved and by destroying the infrastructure they used. Israeli officials claim that many of the suicide bombers that had carried out attacks against Israeli civilians came from the camp. A number of ranking Palestinian militants from the Islamic Jihad, Hamas, and Al Aqsa Martyr’s Brigade groups also lived in the refugee camp.
Armed Palestinians had prepared for the attack by setting up positions at the perimeter of and within the camp, and by laying booby-traps in many areas. Located on hills southwest of Jenin’s city center, the camp’s dense housing and narrow, twisting alleys made for a very difficult environment in which to conduct close-range urban combat. When Human Rights Watch investigators visited the camp, residents spoke openly about the preparations made by the militants, who have been estimated in media reports as having numbered between eighty and one hundred. Children could be seen walking around with unexploded Palestinian pipe bombs they had dug out of the rubble. A de-mining worker told Human Rights Watch that he had defused forty Palestinian-made bombs in a single day.
But the presence of armed Palestinian militants inside the camp, and the preparations made by those armed Palestinian militants in anticipation of the IDF incursion does not detract from an essential fact: Jenin refugee camp was also home to more than 14,000 Palestinian civilians. The IDF had an obligation under international humanitarian law to take all feasible precautions to prevent a disproportionate impact of its military incursion on those civilians.
Most witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch described the first two days of the incursion as consisting of tank, helicopter, and gunfire. IDF tanks and troops took up positions around the camp’s perimeter during the night of April 2 to April 3. While accounts differ according to location, witnesses in the area of the camp immediately above the hospital reported seeing small numbers of IDF soldiers enter the camp on the morning and late afternoon of April 3. Armed Palestinians took up positions at the camp entrance, and also reportedly at other edges of the camp. As the days passed, the armed Palestinians were increasingly forced back into the camp center, fighting in small groups that became increasingly isolated.
To enable tanks and heavy armor to penetrate to the camp, the IDF sent in armored bulldozers to widen the narrow alleys by shearing off the fronts of buildings, in places several meters deep. In the initial days, Palestinian fighters held off the IDF to the west of the camp, while to the east bulldozers penetrated the hilltop district of al-Damaj, overlooking the center of the camp. The IDF infantry managed to enter the northern entrance to the camp, throwing smoke grenades to provide cover as they went from house to house. Although helicopters were present, at that stage they primarily provided air-to-ground support. IDF soldiers “mouseholed” from house to house, knocking large holes in the walls between houses to provide routes of safe passage from to the outer perimeters of the camp to the center. In numerous cases, they used Palestinian civilians and detainees as human shields as they moved from house to house, and, as Human Rights Watch has documented in previous incursions elsewhere in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, forced civilians to perform the most dangerous tasks of entering and checking buildings during house-to-house searches.
The third day of the incursion, in the early morning hours of April 6, U.S.-supplied helicopters started firing missiles into the camp, often striking civilian homes where no Palestinian fighters were present. The missile fire, which began in the early morning hours, caught many sleeping civilians by surprise. The chaos and destruction caused by the bombardment allowed the IDF to move closer to the center of the camp. On April 9, thirteen Israeli soldiers died in a major ambush in Hawashin district.
After the April 9 ambush, the IDF relied heavily on missile strikes from helicopters. It also extensively used armored bulldozers, which allowed the IDF to penetrate districts where previously they had not been able to consolidate control. The change in military strategy arguably helped to defeat the armed Palestinians in the camp, but as described below, the new tactics had an unacceptable impact on the civilian population and infrastructure of the camp.
The IDF continued to use armored bulldozers throughout the operation. On April 10, armored bulldozers were sent to widen an alley in Abu Nasr district, to the west of Hawashin. At this time, the bulldozers were still primarily being used to widen streets. On April 12, civilians in the Matahin area of the camp, located above the main UNRWA school, were likewise warned to leave their homes in advance of their being destroyed by bulldozers. Many heeded the call. Armored bulldozers soon arrived to clear a broad path for the IDF’s armored vehicles, leveling many of the homes in their path.
Towards the end of the IDF operation, the fighting and destruction was mostly focused on the central Hawashin district of the camp. The majority of the fighting appears to have subsided by April 10, but isolated pockets of Palestinian militants continued to hold out for some days. The bulldozers appear to have continued razing homes even after most of the fighting had ended. At the end, the bulldozers had done much more than creating paths for the IDF tanks and armored cars in Hawashin district: the entire area, down to the last house, had been leveled.
In any armed conflict, the right of parties to the conflict to choose the methods or means of warfare is not unlimited, but rather is strictly regulated by International Humanitarian Law (IHL) as codified in the Geneva Conventions and its Additional Protocols. Of particular relevance are the concepts of proportionality, military necessity, and limits on the destruction of civilian property.
The most fundamental principle of the laws of war requires that combatants be distinguished from noncombatants, and that military objectives be distinguished from protected property and protected places. Parties to a conflict must direct their operations only against military objectives (including combatants). Military objectives are defined as “those objects which by their nature, location, purpose or use make an effective contribution to military action.”
Under Protocol I, Article 51(4), indiscriminate attacks are prohibited. Israel is not a party to Protocol I, but the provisions prohibiting indiscriminate warfare are considered to be norms of customary international law, binding on all parties in a conflict, regardless of whether it is an international or internal armed conflict. Indiscriminate attacks are “those which are not directed against a military objective,” “those which employ a method or means of combat which cannot be directed at a specific military objective,” or “those which employ a method or means of combat the effects of which cannot be limited as required by the Protocol,” “and consequently, in each such case, are of a nature to strike military objectives and civilians or civilian objects without distinction.”
Among the types of attacks specifically prohibited as indiscriminate is “an attack which may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, damage to civilian objects, or a combination thereof, which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated.” Also prohibited are “attacks against the civilian population or civilians by way of reprisal.”
The term “means” of combat refers generally to the weapons used; “method” refers
to the way in which such weapons are used. Casualties that are a consequence
of accidents, as in situations in which civilians live adjacent to military
installations, may be considered incidental to an attack on a military objective—so
called “collateral damage”—but care must still have been
the presence of civilians. Article 57 of Protocol I sets out the precautions
required, among them to “do everything feasible to verify that the objectives
to be attacked are neither civilians or civilian objects,” to “take all feasible
precautions in the choice of means and methods of attack with a view to avoiding,
and in any case minimizing, incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians
and damage to civilian objects,” and to refrain from deciding launch any attack—or cancel or suspend any
attack already in progress—“which may be expected to cause” such deaths, injuries
or damage “which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military
In its authoritative Commentary on the protocols, the International Committee
of the Red Cross (ICRC) is clear on
what is meant by “feasible” in Article 57: “What is required … is to take the
necessary identification measures in good time to spare the population as far
The principle of proportionality places a duty on combatants to choose means of attack that avoid or minimize damage to civilians. In particular, the attacker should refrain from launching an attack if the expected civilian casualties would outweigh the importance of the military objective. Protocol I, Article 57 (“Precautions in attack”) requires those who plan and/or execute an attack to cancel or desist f