In response to the Qassam rockets fired from the northern Gaza Strip at Israeli communities and army bases in Israel , the army announced it was beginning Operation Blue Skies. As part of the operation, the army called on Palestinians living or present in the area to leave by 6:00 P.M. Wednesday. According to media reports, the army intends to open fire at any person who enters the area, regardless of the person’s identity or reason for being there.
An order to open fire at any person present in a particular area in the northern Gaza Strip, would constitute a flagrant breach of International Humanitarian Law. A fundamental pillar of IHL is the requirement to distinguish between civilians and combatants. Only combatants and military objects may be attacked, and care must be taken to prevent, as much as possible, injury to civilians. If it is unclear whether a particular person is a civilian or a combatant, the individual is to be considered a civilian. Also, pursuant to the principle of proportionality, it is forbidden to mount attacks against legitimate objects if the potential damage to the civilian population is disproportionate in comparison to the benefit anticipated from the attack.
Furthermore, attacks directed at civilians, and attacks that are carried out with the knowledge they will cause disproportionate injury to the civilian population, are defined as war crimes. Under international law, in addition to the state’s criminal responsibility, persons involved in carrying out such acts are personally responsible for the crimes committed.
The Qassam rocket fire at Israeli communities and civilian installations is the kind of attack that is a war crime. However, breach of the laws of war by one side does not permit the adversary to carry out prohibited acts.
The State of Israel has the duty to take all legitimate means to protect its citizens. However, indiscriminate gunfire at every person who enters a particular area is patently illegal, and can lead to the commission of war crimes. B’Tselem urges the prime minister and the minister of defense to immediately direct that the said order be cancelled, if indeed it was given, and that requisite measures be taken to ensure that Palestinian civilians are not injured in the course of the army’s response to the missile attacks.