Human Rights Watch: Suicide bombers 'war criminals'
(CNN) -- 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 such crimes.
"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."
The Israeli government called the report "very important" because it concludes that the Palestinian Authority could have done more to stop suicide attacks and rebuts the justifications for those attacks.
"I think this is a report that has some very important lessons for our region and for the world at large," said Daniel Taub, a spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry. "The report is absolutely categorical that the Palestinian Authority could have and should have (stopped suicide attacks). It had means, it had obligation, in fact instead of stopping suicide attackers, many Palestinian leaders (were) actually praising them."
He added: "What is also very important is that the report goes through so-called justifications for terrorism and dismisses them one by one, makes it absolutely clear that it doesn't matter if you claim that you are fighting for national liberation, if you claim you are fighting in settlements or in occupied territories, and if you think people you are fighting are doing reserve duty or whatever -- every time you kill a civilian -- that is terrorism, it is unjustified, it is a war crime, it is a crime against humanity."
Human Rights Watch called on all Palestinian armed groups to halt their attacks on civilians "immediately and unconditionally," and urged the Palestinian Authority to make sure those responsible for such attacks are brought to justice.
A Palestinian Authority Cabinet Minister Ghassan Khattibsaid that is a difficult task.
"The P.A. 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," Khattib said. "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 group said.
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 P.A. officials and members of the armed groups, and P.A. internal documents it said were made public by Israel.
The report criticized the Palestinians for arguing that Israeli actions -- like destroying P.A. security installations -- has undermined its ability to act.
"Even when that capacity was largely intact," the report said, "the P.A. 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 P.A. instead, the report said, often let the perpetrators back onto the streets soon afterward.
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 against civilians."
The same group published a report in May on the Israeli military operation in Jenin, criticizing Israeli forces for using Palestinian civilians as human shields through a sweep of the refugee camp.
While Israeli officials took issue with that 48-page report, the group also said it did not find evidence to back up charges the Israel Defense Forces had committed a massacre, as alleged, that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of Palestinians.
"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 law."
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.