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Suicide Attacks Are 'War Crimes'

U.S.-based rights group says Palestinians who order and send bombers should face justice.

November 01, 2002|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — A leading human rights organization charged today that Palestinians who order and dispatch suicide bombers, including senior leaders, are guilty of war crimes and should be brought to justice.

In a comprehensive, 170-page report, the New York-based Human Rights Watch also says that Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat bears "significant political responsibility" for the "repeated deliberate killing" of Israeli civilians in the last two years of blood-soaked conflict.

"The scale and systematic nature of these attacks in 2001 and 2002 meet the definition of a crime against humanity," the report states. "When these suicide bombings take place in the context of violence that amounts to armed conflict, they are also war crimes."

The report is a departure from most human rights investigations into Israeli-Palestinian violence that focus on the Israeli army, including the killing of civilians, demolition of houses and other forms of collective punishment.

Israel is a member state of the United Nations and signatory to a number of international conventions and as such can be held accountable for its army's actions.

Human Rights Watch asserts that although Arafat's Palestinian Authority is not a state, it has aspirations to become one, has made international commitments and therefore cannot evade similar responsibilities.

Instead, the scathing report says, Arafat and the Palestinian leadership have failed to prevent suicide bombings, refused to arrest terrorists and declined to defuse the radicalized political and social climate that encourages attacks targeting Israeli civilians.

Blaming Israel's harsh occupation of Palestinian territory, the leadership has, to the contrary, allowed justification for the attacks to flourish, the report charges.

The report focuses on the history and activities of four factions that have claimed responsibility for 52 suicide bombings since January 2001 in which an estimated 250 civilians have been killed and an additional 2,000 people injured.

In all, about 2,200 people have been killed, about three-quarters of them Palestinians, since the intifada, or uprising, erupted 25 months ago.

Three of the factions cited by Human Rights Watch -- the militant Islamic movement Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the secular but radical Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine -- have an adversarial relationship with Arafat.

But the fourth, the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, professes loyalty to the aging leader while operating with a great deal of local discretion, the report says.

Hamas founder Sheik Ahmed Yassin is among the senior leaders who could be investigated on war crimes charges, said the report's author, Joe Stork, director in Washington of Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa division.

Hamas and Islamic Jihad defend and celebrate the use of suicide bombers, boast of the method's efficacy and make no distinction between Israeli civilians and combatants, according to the report -- all of which supports an allegation of crimes against humanity.

Arafat, however, has little command responsibility over the bombings carried out by the Al Aqsa brigade, the report concludes, and consequently does not bear criminal liability. Yet he is responsible nevertheless, Stork charged.

"The greatest failure of President Arafat and the PA [Palestinian Authority] leadership -- a failure for which they must bear heavy responsibility -- is their unwillingness to deploy the criminal justice system decisively to stop the suicide bombings, particularly in 2001, when the PA was most capable of doing so," the report said.

"The lack of command responsibility in no way diminishes Arafat's and the PA's significant political responsibility for the repeated deliberate killing of civilians."

There was no immediate comment from Palestinian Authority officials.

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