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Open Letter to European Presidency Calling for Action to Protect Palestinian Civilians

Open Letter to European Presidency Calling for Action to Protect Palestinian Civilians



An Taoiseach

Bertie Ahern T.D.

President of the European Council


Dear Mr Ahern,


We are writing to express our sincere concerns regarding the recent further deterioration in the human rights and humanitarian situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPTs), particularly the Gaza Strip.  We believe that this latest escalation in Israeli military actions in the Gaza Strip, including the massive military offensive to be launched in Rafah today of which the reported purpose is the destruction of hundreds of Palestinian refugee homes, requires your urgent attention.  We call for immediate action by the European Union, as High Contracting Parties to the Fourth Geneva Convention, to ensure an immediate halt to these escalating violations of the Convention perpetrated by the Israeli occupying forces in the OPTs.  Specifically, we call for the immediate dispatch of international protection for the Palestinian civilian population in the OPTs.


In the last week, the Israeli occupying forces have escalated the use of force during a number of aerial and ground attacks in the Gaza Strip utilizing helicopter gunships, tanks, bulldozers and other armoured vehicles.  These attacks have targeted densely populated civilian residential areas in Gaza city and the Rafah refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip, and have largely failed to adhere to the principles of proportionality and distinction as required by international humanitarian law.  Consequently, since the night of Monday 10 May 2004, at least 30 Palestinians, including 21 civilians not engaged in fighting, have been killed by the Israeli occupying forces during Israeli military operations in the Gaza Strip; more than 258 Palestinian civilians have been injured and more than 188 civilian properties have been destroyed or damaged. 


The large-scale Israeli incursion into the Gaza city neighbourhood of al Zeitoun which began in the early hours of Tuesday 11 May was characterized by targeted destruction of the civilian property and infrastructure in this densely populated residential area, including destruction of water and electricity networks, roads; destruction or damage  of 83 civilian homes and 42 commercial buildings; destruction of 30 cars; and razing of 100 dunums of agricultural land.  At least 16 Palestinians, including 7 civilians not engaged in fighting, were killed during this incursion which ended in the early hours of Thursday 13 May.  A further 200 Palestinian civilians were injured.  During the incursion, Israeli occupying forces also established military positions in civilian homes, including positioning snipers in civilian properties around the area; Israeli helicopter gunships fired missiles into crowds on the street and into civilian properties, and opened fire from machine guns into the area; Israeli forces used Palestinian civilians as human shields during house-to house searches; explosives and armoured vehicles were used to destroy civilian properties; a curfew was imposed on the neighbourhood, denying access for emergency medical crews and humanitarian aid.  Israeli actions were intensified following the destruction of an Israeli armoured vehicle by Palestinian armed groups which resulted in the deaths of at least 6 Israeli soldiers. 


In the Rafah refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip, Israeli occupying forces launched an incursion early Thursday 13 May which has thus far included the use of bull-dozers, helicopter gunships, tanks and other armoured vehicles.  Again, this incursion has targeted a densely-populated civilian residential area.  Israeli actions intensified after the deaths of several Israeli soldiers killed during the incursion.  This incursion has resulted in the killing of 14 Palestinian civilians, including a number killed by missiles fired from helicopter gunships into a crowd in the street.  In addition, at least 48 civilians have been injured.  Israeli forces withdrew briefly on Saturday 15 May but a major military build-up began early this morning around Rafah in preparation for a more protracted military offensive.


PCHR is particularly concerned about the demolition of Palestinian homes, unprecedented in scale, which has characterized this operation in Rafah.  The Rafah refugee camp, situated along the border with Egypt has been subjected to repeated demolition operations. Since the beginning of the current Intifada in September 2000, Israeli occupying forces have totally or partially demolished approximately 2000 Palestinian houses in Rafah, clearing a huge tract of land parallel to the border with Egypt.  Thousands of Palestinian civilians have been rendered homeless, many for the second or third time.  Demolitions are usually conducted without warning allowing no time to appeal against the operation and no time to retrieve possessions.  Increasing numbers of Palestinian civilians have been killed or injured during such operations.  Since Monday 10 May, at least 101 homes have been destroyed or damaged in Rafah camp, rendering 1371 civilians homeless.  23 commercial buildings have also been destroyed or damaged.  Statements by Israeli officials have indicated that this ongoing demolition operation is likely to result in the destruction of several hundred homes.  However, Israeli claims that all the homes recently demolished were vacant or used by Palestinian snipers and for smuggling tunnels are inconsistent with the principles of proportionality and distinction.  The strategic nature of this demolition operation has been further confounded by statements last month regarding the intended construction of a trench parallel to the border line on the Palestinian side in this same area of the camp[1].  Thus, Israeli claims of immediate military necessity are clearly invalid.


As I am sure you are aware, international humanitarian law, specifically the Fourth Geneva Convention, is founded on the principle of protection for the civilian population in time of war or occupation.  The Fourth Geneva Convention provides a wide range of protections for civilians under occupation, including protection of civilian life and civilian property.  Specifically, the extensive destruction of civilian property carried out wantonly and unlawfully and without military necessity is a grave breach of the Convention as defined in article 147 and a war crime as defined in article 85.5 of the First Additional Protocol.  Article 33 of the Convention further prohibits “collective penalties and likewise all measures of intimidation”.  The scale and circumstances of the recent and proposed destruction of homes in Rafah negates Israeli claims of immediate military necessity; as stated by the Commissioner-General of UNRWA, Peter Hansen, “With these disproportionate military operations, Israel is in grave breach of international humanitarian law.  This collective punishment can do nothing to calm the situation in Gaza or enhance Israel’s own security”[2].


However, despite the clear recognition by the international community of not only the applicability of the Convention to the OPTs, but also of Israel’s consistent violations of the Convention in its actions in the OPTs, these unlawful demolitions and other violations continue to be sanctioned by the Israeli High Court.  On Friday 14 May 2004, PCHR submitted a petition to the High Court against the proposed destruction of homes in Block O, Rafah, on behalf of 13 named families.  Although a temporary injunction was issued on Friday evening, the petition was rejected on Sunday 16 May by the High Court, citing Israel’s military operational needs.  Israel has repeatedly refused to accept the de jure applicability of the Fourth Geneva Convention to the OPTs and the High Court of Israel has consistently failed to hold the Israeli military and state accountable in accordance with its clear obligations under the Fourth Geneva Convention and relevant international human rights treaty law to which Israel is also a state party.


In this context, PCHR wishes to remind European states of their legal obligations outlined in the Fourth Geneva Convention to ensure Israel’s respect of the Convention in the OPTs.  In respect of the general obligation contained in article 1 to ensure respect for the Convention in all circumstances, all High Contracting Parties have an obligation to ensure a halt to violations of the Convention by the Israeli military and ensure the protection of the Palestinian civilian population.  Actions required in fulfillment of this obligation are not specified in article 1 but can include a range of lawful activities including suspension of the EU-Israel Association Agreement and non-renewal of other trade privileges or agreements; down-grading of diplomatic representation; restrictions and/or ban on arms trade, military technology and scientific cooperation; restrictions on exports and/or imports[3].  More specifically, article 146 requires that the High Contracting Parties undertake to search for and prosecute those responsible for ordering or committing grave breaches of the Convention.


Whilst we welcome your recent condemnation of the house demolition operation conducted by the Israeli military in recent days, we do not consider that such a statement is sufficient to fulfill the requirements of the European states as High Contracting Parties.  In light of the rapid deterioration in the current situation and the stated intentions of Israeli military commanders in relation to the imminent demolition of hundreds more Palestinian homes in Rafah, PCHR calls upon the Presidency and all EU states to take immediate effective action as required of all High Contracting Parties to the Fourth Geneva Convention.  In light of the gravity of the current situation and the ongoing major military operations taking place in the Gaza Strip and Rafah in particular, PCHR urges the EU states to immediately dispatch international protection for the Palestinian civilian population in the OPTs.  In light of the continuing extension of effective impunity to Israel for its violations of international human rights and humanitarian law in the OPTs, the cycle of violence will continue to spiral towards a situation of total lawlessness.  Concrete action in accordance with clear legal obligations is urgently required to ensure a halt to the current escalation in violence and as a step towards achieving a sustainable and just peace for Israelis and Palestinians. 


We thank you for your attention.


Yours sincerely,




Palestinian Centre for Human Rights










[1] Amos Harel, “IDF Plans to build trench along Philadelphi Road”, 28/04/04 Ha’aretz newspaper available at www.haaretz.com.

[2] UNRWA Press Release, “UNRWA: Alarm at Planned Demolitions”, 16 May 2004 available at www.unrwa.org.

[3] U.Palwankar, “Measures available to states for fulfilling their obligation to ensure respect for international humanitarian law” (January-February 1994) 298 Int. Rev. Red Cross 9.