Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - Those who plan and perpetrate suicide bombings are guilty of crimes against humanity and in some cases war crimes, an international human rights group concluded in a report released Friday.
Some 250 Israelis have died and another 2,000 have been wounded in suicide bomb attacks since January 2001.
In "Erased in a Moment: Suicide Bombing Attacks Against Civilians," the New York-based Human Rights Watch charges that the leaders of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and local leaders of the Al-Aksa Martyrs Brigade should face criminal investigation for their roles in attacks.
"The people who carry out suicide bombings are not martyrs, they're war criminals, and so are the people who help to 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," Roth said in a statement.
The 170-page report, available on HRW's website, is based on field research carried out in Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip between May and June 2002, as well as expert and witness interviews with members of armed groups; Israeli and Palestinian analysts and security experts; diplomat; and Palestinian activists and militants.
It also included analysis of public documents seized by Israel from PA headquarters and offices in April and May 2002.
Human Rights Watch, which has criticized Israel in past reports, came down hard on the Palestinian Authority and its leader Chairman Yasser Arafat for not doing enough to prevent attacks.
While acknowledging the PA's argument that its security system has been undermined by Israeli military offensives, the report states that even when its capacity was intact, the PA took no "effective action" to bring to justice those who incited, planned or assisted in perpetrating bomb and other attacks on Israeli civilians. It also notes that even when arrests were made, suspects were not investigated or prosecuted.
"The greatest failure of President Arafat and the PA leadership is their unwillingness to deploy the criminal justice system to deter the suicide bombings, particularly in 2001, when the PA was most capable of doing so," Roth said.
Nevertheless, while the group said it could find no evidence linking Arafat or the PA to planning, ordering or carrying out suicide or other attacks on Israelis, Roth said they do bear command responsibility under international law.
"Arafat and the PA do bear a high degree of political responsibility for the atrocities that occurred," Roth said.
The report examines suicide bomb attacks, including the stated motivations behind them and compelling testimony from victims.
The report's title came from Moti Mizrachi who suffered life-threatening injuries in an attack on a Jerusalem cafe in March
"Your whole life - erased in a moment," Mizrachi was quoted as saying. "One quick minute and everything is radically changed. It's like your life was erased - everything that you did until the age thirty-one vanished into nothing. I used to be active, to paly soccer two or three times a week..."
The report examines international legal standards in the context of the situation. It also examines the structures and strategies of the various organizations, including Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Al-Aksa Martyrs Brigades and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and looks at groups that give them financial and logistical support, including Iran, Syria and Iraq.
The report offers Palestinian armed groups no slack in their arguments for attacking Israelis and states that international law bans the targeting of civilians unconditionally.
The claim that all Israelis are reservists or that Israelis living in settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip have forfeited their civilian status are not valid, the report says, because off-duty reservists and even settlers are entitled to protection under international humanitarian law.
"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 report recommends that groups responsible for attacks "desist immediately" and to renounce unconditionally the use of such attacks as well as commit publicly to respect the principles of international humanitarian law. It also calls on the groups to stop recruiting persons under the age of 18.
Although HRW recognizes that PA's capacity to maintain law and order has been greatly diminished in 2002, still the group says the PA can carry out a number of steps including making it clear that suicide bombings and other attacks constitute "grave crimes" that will be prosecuted and that the PA does not consider those who die in attacks as "martyrs."
HRW also calls on the PA to instruct its law enforcement agencies "to identify and bring to justice anyone who incites, plans, assists or attempts to carry out suicide bombings or other attacks against civilians" including the security services themselves.
The HRW calls on Israel to ensure that all measures it takes "to prevent or respond to suicide or other attacks...conform to international humanitarian and human rights law."
The international community should refrain from any action "that appears to encourage, support or endorse suicide bombings or other attacks" including the funding of groups that carry out attacks.