Human Rights Group Says 29 Civilians Were Killed by Israeli Air Attacks in Gaza

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/01/world/middleeast/01gaza.html?_r=1&ref=world
July 1, 2009

Human Rights Group Says 29 Civilians Were Killed by Israeli Air Attacks in Gaza

By CHRISTOPHER DREW

Twenty-nine civilians, including eight children, were killed in what appeared to be six missile strikes by Israeli drones in Gaza in December and January, according to a report released Tuesday by Human Rights Watch. The group questioned whether Israeli forces had taken “all feasible precautions” to avoid civilian casualties.

Israel’s military has never acknowledged using the remotely piloted planes to fire missiles. In a statement released Tuesday, it said that it had used an assortment of weapons and technologies to minimize the risk to Palestinian civilians.

Lt. Col. Avital Leibovich, a spokeswoman for the Israeli military, said Israeli forces had also gone to extraordinary lengths to warn civilians during the Gaza offensive, and she questioned the credibility of some of the Palestinian witnesses cited by the advocacy group.

The report, based on interviews with witnesses to the attacks and an examination of the missile debris, represented the latest in a series of accusations about Israel’s conduct of the Gaza war. And it raised broader concerns about how carefully drones were being used, much like the complaints that the Central Intelligence Agency has encountered in its use of drones to attack suspected members of the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Pakistan.

The report was partly written by Marc Garlasco, the senior military analyst at Human Rights Watch, a New York-based group, who was a weapons-targeting official at the Pentagon from 1997 to 2003.

Mr. Garlasco has praised the American military’s use of drones in Iraq and Afghanistan, saying that their ability to hover over a target for many hours had improved the accuracy of many missile attacks and limited civilian casualties.

The group’s findings in Gaza suggest that “the weapon itself isn’t the problem,” he said in an interview. “It’s the way it’s used that is.”

He added: “The operators have the ability to distinguish between combatants and civilians and can even divert the missiles after launch. So it’s hard to understand how the Israelis did such a poor job of targeting.”

Israel has said that it uses drones to gather intelligence and to help provide target information for helicopters and other aircraft. But Mr. Garlasco said the missile impact marks and the highly fragmented debris in the six attacks matched the smaller missiles typically used by drones rather than the larger antitank missiles that Israeli helicopters were seen carrying in Gaza.

The report said one missile had hit a group of university students waiting for a bus in the center of Gaza City, while another struck a truck hauling oxygen tanks and a third smashed into a school sheltering people who had lost or left their homes.

In three other attacks, the report said, the victims were six children, ages 10 to 15, who had been playing on residential rooftops. Muhammad al-Habbash, the father of one of the girls who was killed, told Human Rights Watch that some of the children had been feeding chickens that the family kept on the roof when the missile struck.

At another house, Nahla Allaw said her son’s legs had been crushed and blood poured from small holes in his chest as he died.

While fighters from Hamas, the militant Palestinian faction that controls Gaza, often placed artillery spotters on rooftops, the group found no evidence of militants in the area at the time of the attacks, the report said.

When asked about the rooftop attacks, Colonel Leibovich, the Israeli military spokeswoman, said, “This is the first time I am hearing of these specific incidents.”

Israel has said that over all, 1,166 people were killed in the Gaza offensive. Of those, 295 were noncombatants, 709 were Hamas fighters and 162 were men whose affiliations could not be identified, Israeli officials have said. The Palestinian Center for Human Rights in Gaza has said 1,417 people were killed, including 926 civilians.

The Israeli military has conducted internal investigations into its conduct during the 22-day war, which determined it had operated in accordance with international law. The United Nations Human Rights Council is conducting an investigation into allegations of war crimes by Israel and Hamas.

After the attack on the truck, the Israel Defense Forces released video of the event, contending that they had killed men who were loading rockets. The military later acknowledged that the cylinders on the truck were oxygen tanks, though it also said they could have been used in rocket production.

Colonel Leibovich said few military forces had ever taken as many precautions to minimize civilian casualties as Israel did in Gaza, dropping 500,000 leaflets warning people that its forces were arriving and even making telephone calls to neighbors of those thought to be Hamas fighters.

“There were also numerous cases where pilots had to reverse the missiles because they saw civilians enter the area,” she said.

P. W. Singer, the author of a recent book on military robots called “Wired for War,” said Israel might also be finding that using the drones “certainly raises the bar of expectations.”

“Because you can target more precisely, people hold you to a higher standard,” he said.

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