November 1, 2002
GAZA CITY — Those who plan and carry out suicide bombings that deliberately
target civilians are guilty of crimes against humanity and must be brought to
justice, a leading humanitarian watchdog group said in a report released Friday.
The 170-page report from New York-based Human Rights Watch assessed the
suicide bombing operations of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades
and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), the groups that
have claimed responsibility for most recent suicide bombings. The report says
the leaders of such groups should face criminal investigation.
Human Rights Watch also said the Palestinian Authority and its president,
Yasser Arafat, have failed to do all they can to stop suicide attacks or bring the
perpetrators to justice, thus contributing to “an atmosphere of impunity” for
“The people who carry out suicide bombings are not martyrs, they’re war
criminals, and so are the people who help plan such attacks,” said Kenneth
Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “The scale and systematic
nature of these attacks sets them apart from other abuses committed in times
of conflict. They clearly fall under the category of crimes against humanity.”
A Hamas political leader disagreed.
“This report is neglecting all the Arab Muslim scholars who are not
recognizing these operations as a suicide. [It] is accepting the [terminology of]
Israel, describing such operation as suicide operation,” said Mahmoud El Zahar.
“This operation is not suicide, these are martyrs.”
Human Rights Watch called on all Palestinian armed groups to halt their attacks
on civilians “immediately and unconditionally,” and urged the PA to make sure
those responsible for such attacks are brought to justice.
A PA official said that is a difficult task.
“The PA did everything they could. They were arresting some of those
activists, but politically speaking we have to understand the situation where
Israel is committing all these crimes against Palestinian civilians,” said PA
Cabinet Minister Ghassan Khattib. “The persons we are talking about, who
were responding with these suicide activities, were unfortunately perceived as
heroes in the eyes of 80 percent of the Palestinian population.”
Principles of international law require that those in authority be held
accountable when people under their control commit war crimes or crimes
against humanity. Leaders who order such crimes, fail to take action to prevent
them or fail to punish the perpetrators are also responsible for the crimes, the
The report noted that top leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad have “openly
espoused, encouraged, or endorsed suicide bombing attacks against Israeli
civilians and indicated that they have the capacity to stop them from happening.”
Specifically, the group said Hamas’ Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and Khalid Mish’al
and Islamic Jihad’s Ramadan Shalah must face criminal investigation for their
roles in such crimes. Criminal investigation is also warranted for the PFLP and
Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, it said.
Human Rights Watch based its report, “Erased in a Moment: Suicide Bombing
Attacks against Israeli Civilians,” on interviews with PA officials and members
of the armed groups, and PA internal documents it said were made public by
The report criticized the Palestinians for arguing that Israeli actions — like
destroying PA security installations — has undermined its ability to act.
“Even when that capacity was largely intact,” the report said, “the PA
took no effective action to bring to justice those who incited, planned, or
assisted in carrying out bombings and other attacks on Israeli civilians.” The PA
instead, the report said, often let the perpetrators back onto the streets soon
The justification used by armed groups and their supporters, which holds that
Israeli attacks that kill injure Palestinian civilians are reason to carry out attacks
on Israeli civilians, also holds no water, the report said.
“The prohibition against targeting civilians doesn’t depend on the
behavior of one’s adversary,” Roth said. “Even in the face of Israeli violations of
international law, Palestinian armed groups must refrain from deliberate attacks
“Armed conflicts often involve discrepancies of power between adversaries,”
said Roth. “Allowing those discrepancies to justify attacking civilians would
create an immense loophole in the protections of international humanitarian
To the argument by armed Palestinian groups that their Israeli targets are
legitimate because all Israelis are reservists, and therefore are not civilians,
Human Rights Watch said reservists are only combatants while on active duty.
Some armed groups have also said residents of Israeli settlements have
forfeited their civilian status, but the group said people living there are entitled
to protection so long as they are not participating in armed conflict.
The report also included recommendations for the Israeli government, including
the suggestion that its military not target Palestinian Security Services in
reprisal for suicide attacks — instead arguing the Palestinian police should be
given an opportunity to do its job to stop them.