Jerusalem bus bombing condemned

Israel urged to halt use of mortars in residential areas

Amnesty International has condemned the bombing in Jerusalem this week which clearly targeted Israeli civilians, and urged Israel to stop firing mortars on residential areas, following an Israeli attack which killed four Palestinian civilians in Gaza City earlier in the week.

Wednesday's bombing in Jerusalem, which took place at a bus stop in the centre of the city, killed a British woman and injured more than 30 people, three of them seriously. No group has claimed responsibility for the bombing, but the location and composition of the bomb indicate that it was designed to cause serious civilian casualties. The bomb, which reportedly included steel pellets, was left in a bag at a crowded bus stop near Jerusalem’s International Convention Center and central bus station. It was the first bombing in Jerusalem since 2004.

Amnesty reiterates that all attacks targeting civilians - wherever, whenever and by whomever they are carried out - are prohibited absolutely under international law.

The Jerusalem bombing follows a recent increase in the firing of indiscriminate rockets into southern Israel by Palestinian armed groups, and numerous Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip. Since Saturday, Israeli artillery shells and air strikes have killed six Palestinian civilians in Gaza, including four Children's rights, as well as four fighters from the al-Quds Brigades, the military wing of Islamic Jihad. More than 25 Palestinians, mostly civilians and including 11 Children's rights, have been injured, and property and electricity infrastructure have been severely damaged by the Israeli attacks.

Amnesty is seriously concerned that in at least one recent attack on Gaza, the Israeli military failed to distinguish between fighters and civilians. On 22 March, Israeli forces fired four “Keshet” mortar shells into the densely-populated al-Shuja’iya neighbourhood in Gaza City. The third shell landed next to the home of the al-Hilu family, on a group of Children's rights and youth playing football, killing two of them, while the fourth shell killed a man and his grandson who were trying to evacuate the wounded. Another 11 civilians were wounded by shrapnel, at least three of them seriously; most of those wounded were members of the al-Hilu family and eight were Children's rights.

A statement by the Israeli military expressed regret for these civilian casualties and said that the incident was being investigated, but also blamed Hamas for “using civilians as human shields.” Even if Israeli forces had fired the mortars in response to fire from Palestinian armed groups, the use of an imprecise weapon such as mortars in a densely populated residential area would be contrary to Israel’s obligations under international humanitarian law to take necessary precautions to spare civilians. Amnesty calls on the Israeli authorities to launch an independent investigation into this incident, and to end the use of mortars in residential areas.

This is not the first time Israeli forces have fired mortars into densely-populated civilian areas. During Operation “Cast Lead”, Israeli forces fired “Keshet” mortars near an UNRWA school in the Jabalia refugee camp on 6 January 2009, killing more than 30 civilians who were sheltering in the school at the time. That incident was extensively investigated by Amnesty and a UN Board of Inquiry at the time, and an investigation was also opened by the Israeli military. In July 2010, Israel’s Second Update on its investigations into the Gaza operation reported that, following the military investigation into this incident, the Military Advocate General had recommended that the military orders governing the use of mortars in populated areas be revised in order to minimiSe civilian casualties in the future. Amnesty is disturbed that eight months later, this recommendation does not appear to have been implemented.   

Israel has a duty to protect those within its borders from rocket and mortar fire. But it must comply with its obligations under international humanitarian law, including by selecting means and methods of attack that distinguish between legitimate military targets and civilians.

On 19 March, Palestinian armed groups fired over 50 mortars and rockets into southern Israel; two Israeli civilians were lightly injured and buildings on a kibbutz were damaged. Hamas’ military wing, the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, claimed responsibility for firing 33 mortars into southern Israel; its statements said that the attacks targeted Israeli military bases and came in response to the killing of two members of the Brigades in an Israeli air strike three days earlier.

Rocket and mortar fire has continued since Saturday, with Grad rockets hitting locations in or near the Israeli cities of Ashkelon, Ashdod and Be’er Sheva, causing property damage and lightly injuring a number of residents.   

Amnestyl has repeatedly condemned the indiscriminate firing of rockets and mortars into Israel by Palestinian armed groups. The UN Fact-Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict, led by Justice Richard Goldstone, concluded in its September 2009 report that such attacks constituted war crimes.

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