“I want to understand whether I did something wrong to Israel to be
punished like this.”
—Khalid ‘Abd Rabbo, whose daughters, aged two and seven, were shot and
killed while they waved white flags on January 7.
This report documents seven incidents where Israeli soldiers fired on civilians with small
arms during Israel’s major military operations in Gaza in December 2008 and January 2009.
These attacks killed 11 civilians—including five women and four children—and wounded at
least another eight.
These casualties comprise a small fraction of the Palestinian civilians killed and wounded
during what Israel called Operation Cast Lead, but they stand out because of the
circumstances of the attacks. In each case, the victims were standing, walking, or in a
slowly moving vehicle with other unarmed civilians who were trying to convey their non-
combatant status by waving a white flag. All available evidence indicates that Israeli forces
had control of the areas in question, no fighting was taking place there at the time, and
Palestinian fighters were not hiding among the civilians who were shot. Whether waving a
white flag or not, these people were civilians not taking an active part in hostilities, and
therefore should not have been attacked, according to international humanitarian law (the
laws of war).
Human Rights Watch conducted extensive investigations into each of these incidents by
visiting the attack sites, examining ballistic evidence, collecting medical records, and
interviewing multiple witnesses—at least three people separately for each attack. In one
case, forensic pathologists examined a survivor. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) declined
repeated Human Rights Watch requests for a meeting to discuss these cases and did not
respond to questions about them submitted in writing (see Appendix).
In each of these incidents, the evidence strongly indicates that, at the least, Israeli soldiers
failed to take feasible precautions to distinguish between civilians and combatants before
carrying out the attack. At worst, the soldiers deliberately fired on persons known to be
Human Rights Watch interview with Khalid ‘Abd Rabbo, Jabalya, January 25, 2009.
3 Human Rights Watch | August 2009
Under the laws of war, parties to an armed conflict must take all feasible measures to
distinguish between civilians and combatants, and they may target only combatants.
Civilians lose their protection from attack only during the time they directly participate in
hostilities. Deliberate attacks on civilians are violations of the laws of war, and individuals
who commit or order such attacks are responsible for war crimes.
The laws of war also oblige states to conduct impartial investigations into credible
allegations of serious laws-of-war violations, and to hold accountable anyone found
responsible for war crimes, regardless of rank. To date, however, the Israeli government and
IDF have failed to conduct serious investigations into many of the credible allegations of
laws-of-war violations by Israeli forces during Operation Cast Lead. When Israeli soldiers
who fought in the operation spoke publicly about attacks on civilians and other violations,
the IDF dismissed their claims as hearsay and exaggerations, and criticized the soldiers for
Israel has repeatedly blamed Hamas for the deaths of Gazan civilians during the operation
because, Israel says, Hamas fought from populated areas and used civilians as “human
shields”—that is, deliberately used civilians to deter attacks against Palestinian forces.
In the killings documented in this report, Human Rights Watch found no evidence that the
civilian victims were used by Palestinian fighters as human shields or were shot in the
crossfire between opposing forces. In each of the incidents, Israeli forces appeared in
control, and Palestinian fighters had left the area in question. The civilian victims were in
plain view and posed no apparent security threat.
In each of the seven cases, at least one person was waving an improvised white flag made
from cloth or clothes, which international humanitarian law recognizes as a sign of truce or
surrender. Civilians are immune from attack with or without a white flag; in these cases they
undoubtedly waved the flags to communicate that they were not engaged in hostilities and
posed no threat, reaffirming their civilian status.
Two Israeli commanders have alleged that Palestinian fighters used white flags to shield
themselves from attack, but without providing details to allow an investigation of the claims,
such as date, time and place. One colonel told the media that his soldiers had seen Hamas
fighters move between houses while holding white flags; a second colonel said his soldiers
had seen a Hamas fighter hide behind a woman with a white flag and a group of children.
The IDF turned down requests from Human Rights Watch to discuss these allegations, as
well as our broader findings.