JERUSALEM, (Agencies) – Human Rights Watch called on Israel on Thursday to investigate seven incidents in which it said Israeli troops shot dead Palestinian civilians who were flying white flags during the war in the Gaza Strip in January.
The New York-based lobby group said other governments should press for prosecutions under international law over incidents in the conflict, if the Jewish state and Gaza’s Islamist authorities failed to act themselves.
Human Rights Watch said it had statements and other evidence indicating 11 unarmed people, including five women and four children, were shot dead while in groups waving white flags.
“These casualties comprise a small fraction of the Palestinian civilians wounded and killed,” it said. “But they stand out because, in each case, the victims were standing, walking or in slowly-moving vehicles with other unarmed civilians, and were trying to convey their non-combatant status by waving a white flag.
“All available evidence indicates that Israeli forces were in control of the areas in question, no fighting was taking place there at the time, and no Palestinian forces were hiding among the civilians or using them as human shields.”
The Israeli military said in a statement the Human Rights Watch report was “based upon the testimony of a number of Palestinians whose credibility has not been substantiated”.
The military said its soldiers were obliged to respect individuals presenting a white flag as a symbol of surrender or of non-combatant status, but that Hamas militants had exploited those with white flags for cover and protection. “Any person who displays a white flag in this way acts illegally, does not enjoy protection from retaliatory action, and endangers nearby civilian populations,” the military said.
A Gaza observer group said over 900 of more than 1,400 Palestinians killed in the conflict were civilians. Israel said just under 300 civilians and some 900 fighters were killed. Thirteen Israelis, 10 soldiers and three civilians, died.
Israel has rejected international criticism of an offensive it said was launched to curb rocket attacks on its towns by Hamas in Gaza — attacks which Human Rights Watch also condemns as war crimes. Israel says it is investigating allegations but has not yet found cause to prosecute any of its soldiers.
Human Rights Watch said it had received no reply to detailed questions it had sent the army. It gave an account of an allegation that on Jan. 7 a soldier shot dead two children: “Two women and three children … were standing in front of their home after an Israeli soldier ordered them outside — at least three of them holding pieces of white cloth — when a soldier near a tank opened fire, killing two girls, ages 2 and 7, and wounding the third girl and their grandmother,” it said.
The group concluded: “The evidence strongly indicates that, at the least, Israeli soldiers failed to take feasible precautions to distinguish between civilians and combatants before carrying out the attack. At worst, the soldiers deliberately fired on persons known to be civilians.”
Defence Minister Ehud Barak has repeatedly insisted Israel has “one of the most moral armies in the world”.