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Operation Cast Lead: Legal and political background
April 16, 2009

Operation Cast Lead commenced on 27 December 2008 with Israel’s aerial bombardment of the Gaza Strip (Gaza). Israeli ground forces invaded one week later, on 3 January 2009, as the aerial and naval bombardment continued. On 17 January, 22 days after it began, Operation Cast Lead came to an end with Israel’s announcement of a unilateral ceasefire. To date, Operation Cast Lead has claimed the lives of more than 1,300 Palestinians, and injured over 5,300 more.1 DCI-Palestine has thus far confirmed the deaths of 335 children and continues to investigate reports of child fatalities. Thirteen Israelis were also killed, including four civilians.2

While Operation Cast Lead is exceptional in terms of the civilian casualties and devastation it wrought on an impoverished population, it must be viewed in the wider context of an ongoing economic blockade, which had entered its 18-month when the Israeli assault began, and more than four decades of Israeli military occupation during which Palestinians have suffered the loss of their land and continued denial of their fundamental rights and freedoms.


Gaza is a thin strip of land, 40km long by 10km wide, bordered by Israel, Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea. It is one of the most densely populated places on earth with a population of about 1.5 million, of which over one million are registered as refugees from cities and villages inside what is now Israel. More than half of the population in Gaza– 56 percent – are children.

Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem are collectively known as the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt), which has been under Israeli military occupation since 1967. For the last 41 years, numerous UN Security Council Resolutions have called for the withdrawal of Israeli forces to its pre-1967 borders and the removal of settlements illegally built on occupied land.3 Israel has thus far failed to comply with any of these resolutions and there are currently over 460,000 illegal Israeli settlers living in the occupied territory4 in flagrant breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention.5

Israeli disengagement - 2005

In September 2005, Israel withdrew from its military bases in Gaza and removed some 9,000 illegal settlers under its unilateral disengagement plan. Israel claims that this brought an end to its occupation of Gaza, and its corresponding legal obligations. This argument has been widely rejected by legal experts on the grounds that Israel still retains effective control of Gaza’s borders, airspace and territorial waters, as well as the population registry and all movement of people and goods in and out of the territory, including shipments of fuel, food and medical supplies. Since the Gaza disengagement, many of the settlers who were removed from Gaza illegally resettled in the West Bank.

Hamas election victory and economic siege - 2006

Following the Hamas victory in the Palestinian parliamentary elections of January 2006, Israel introduced increasingly restrictive measures amounting to collective punishment of the population of Gaza. Despite prior agreements between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, Israel prohibited all commercial export through Karni crossing resulting in economic losses of $500,000 a day, severely restricted imports, precipitating shortages of basic foodstuff and medical supplies.6 Erez crossing remained closed to Palestinians who held jobs in Israel causing further economic hardship to families. These policies of economic siege intensified with Hamas’s takeover of Gaza in June 2007, following which Israel kept the border crossings hermetically sealed, allowing only minimal humanitarian goods and supplies to enter the territory.

The blockade, now in its 22nd month, has precipitated the economic collapse of Gaza. Since June 2007, no raw materials have entered the territory, forcing 90 percent of enterprises to cease operations. The construction sector is paralysed as 3,500 businesses have been forced to close down and over 75,000 workers, who support half a million dependants, have lost their jobs.7

In September 2007, Israel officially declared Gaza a ‘hostile entity’, a categorisation unknown to international law, and introduced policies further restricting supplies of food, fuel and electricity, interspersed with periods of total blockade. On 5 November, Israel imposed a near total blockade of Gaza and by December 2008, the UN relief agency (UNRWA) responsible for distributing aid to refugees was no longer able to distribute food aid to approximately one million dependent men, women and children.

Prior to Israel’s most recent attack on 27 December 2008, the civilian population of Gaza were already facing a humanitarian crisis due to the 18-month blockade which preceded it. Children, who make up the majority of the population and are particularly vulnerable to malnutrition and disease, have borne the brunt of suffering as a result of Israel’s blockade.

An overview of recent Israeli military attacks in Gaza – 2005 to 2009

Following Israel’s unilateral disengagement from Gaza in 2005, and especially after the rise of Hamas to power, in addition to its policies of economic closure and blockade, Israel has engaged in brutal military operations characterized by indiscriminate and disproportionate force during which the civilian population, protected under international law, have suffered the heaviest toll.

Periods of heightened violence followed Israel’s disengagement from Gaza, with Israeli forces carrying out frequent air strikes and artillery shelling and land levelling in areas within several hundred metres from the border with Israel. These acts resulted in death and injury to civilians as well as damage to civilian infrastructure. Also during this period, Israeli aircraft frequently flew over Gaza at low altitudes deliberately causing sonic booms, which terrorizes the population, especially young children, and causes physical damage to civilian infrastructure.

In the year following Israel’s disengagement from Gaza, Palestinian militant groups fired at least 1,700 Qassam rockets into Israel injuring 41 Israelis. During the same period, Israeli forces fired approximately 15,000 artillery shells and more than 550 air strikes into Gaza, killing 525 Palestinians and injuring 1,527 more.8

Going back further, since September 2001, 22 Israelis have been killed by rockets and mortars fired from the Gaza Strip into Israel.9 Four of those fatalities occurred after Israel started bombarding Gaza on 27 December 2008. During the same period, at least 4,500 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza by Israeli forces.10 This amounts to 205 Palestinian deaths for every one Israeli killed by rocket fire from Gaza, suggesting that Israel’s response, including the most recent attack, has been wholly disproportionate.

Operation Summer Rains (28 June – September 2006)

In the period leading up to Operation Summer Rains, between 9–21 June 2006, Israeli air strikes in Gaza claimed the lives of ten Palestinian children, six of whom were aged five years and under.11 On 26 June 2006, Palestinian factions captured Israeli Corporal Gilad Shalit. In response, two days later, the Israeli army initiated a major military offensive code-named Operation Summer Rains, with the stated aim of suppressing Palestinian rocket-fire into Israel and rescuing Corporal Shalit. [More information on Summer Rains]. On the first day of the attack, Israel bombed and destroyed Gaza’s only power station and closed the Nahal Oz fuel pipeline, threatening the integrity of back-up power systems as well as water supplies and sanitation networks.

Three months after it began, Operation Summer Rains left 256 Palestinians dead and 848 more wounded.12 DCI-Palestine documented a total of 58 child fatalities during Operation Summer Rains (July – September 2006).

Operation Autumn Clouds (1-7 November 2006)

In November 2006, Israel conducted yet another military offensive, codenamed Operation Autumn Clouds, with similar stated aims as Operation Summer Rains. Israeli troops besieged the town of Beit Hanoun in northern Gaza during the six-day military operation, which ended with the withdrawal of troops on 7 November. In the early morning hours of 8 November, as Israeli forces retreated, troops fired approximately 12 artillery shells hitting a row of five houses, killing 19 civilians, including 12 children, almost all of them from a single family.

By the time a ceasefire had been agreed on 26 November 2006, Operations Summer Rains and Autumn Clouds had claimed the lives of over 400 Palestinians.13 DCI-Palestine confirmed a total of 85 Palestinian children killed during this period. In addition, five Israeli soldiers were killed, one in a friendly fire incident.

At its third special session convened on 15 November 2006, the Human Rights Council adopted resolution (A/HRC/S-3/L.1) expressing its shock at the attack against civilians in Beit Hanoun and establishing a high-level fact-finding mission to provide recommendations for protection of civilians and means for accountability. Despite long delays due to Israel’s lack of cooperation in facilitating access to the Gaza Strip, the delegation, led by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, completed its mission in May 2008, travelling to Beit Hanoun via Egypt. At present, none of the recommendations of the high-level mission have been implemented and victims of the Beit Hanoun attack remain without recourse for protection, reparations and accountability.14

January 2008

In January 2008, Israel carried out a campaign of increased military attacks which reached its highest level of intensity between 15-18 January, during which period three children were killed. Concurrently, it closed all Gaza crossings between 18-21 January, thus preventing the passage of all food, medical or fuel supplies. Between 1-31 January 2008, seven Palestinian children were killed and 27 injured in Israeli attacks.

Operation Warm Winter (27 February – 2 March 2008)

A month later, Israel conducted another large-scale military campaign in Gaza, called Operation Warm Winter, once again with the stated aim of stopping rocket attacks on Israel. During Warm Winter 33 children were killed and over 60 injured as a direct result of Israeli air and ground attacks.

Ceasefire amidst continued siege (19 June 2008- 19 December 2008)

In June 2008, Hamas and Israel agreed to an Egyptian-brokered six-month ceasefire agreement. Throughout the ceasefire, Israel continued to impose a harsh blockade on Gaza and carry out raids in the West Bank, despite a significant decline in Palestinian rocket and mortar fire into southern Israel during this same period. Between July and October 2008, a total of 11 rockets and mortar shells were reportedly fired into Israel compared to 87 in the month of June alone and 257 in the month of February, the highest recorded total in one month for all of 2008.15

On 4 November 2008, the Israeli army broke the lull in violence by launching an incursion into Gaza, killing six members of Hamas. Hamas considered this attack to be a major breach of the ceasefire agreement and increased its rocket attacks on southern Israel.16 On 19 December, following several weeks of tit-for-tat cross-border attacks, the six month ceasefire formally expired. Hamas declared it would not renew the ceasefire agreement because of Israel’s refusal to lift the crippling blockade and halt its military attacks in Gaza.

Operation Cast Lead (27 December 2008 – 17 January 2009)

One week later, on Saturday, 27 December 2008, Israel launched Operation Cast Lead with targeted air strikes followed by a ground invasion amidst continued bombardment from land and sea. On 17 January, Operation Cast Lead came to an end with Israel’s announcement of a unilateral ceasefire. Hamas declared its own ceasefire on the following day.

As of 19 March, the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights confirmed that 1,417 Palestinians had been killed and 5,303 injured, including 1,606 children, as a result of Operation Cast Lead.17 DCI-Palestine’s ongoing investigations have confirmed the deaths of at least 335 children. During this same period, four Israelis were killed as a result of Palestinian rocket fire, including one soldier, and 9 Israeli soldiers were killed in combat, including 4 in friendly fire incidents.18 A total of 182 Israelis were injured during Operation Cast Lead.19

Child fatalities in Gaza since 2000

Since 2000, including the start of the second Intifada through 24 December 2008, 623 Palestinian children were killed in Gaza as a direct result of Israeli military action. None of these children were taking part in hostilities at the time they were killed. Very few of these deaths have been investigated and no Israeli soldier has been held accountable. During Operation Cast Lead alone, the number of Palestinian children confirmed killed represents more than 50 percent of this figure and continues to rise, bringing the total to more than 950 children killed since the year 2000.

Legal analysis

Israel seeks to justify its most recent attack on Gaza by claiming that it is acting in self-defence to protect itself from rockets being fired into southern Israel. This claim has been rejected by a number of leading international lawyers20 on the grounds that self-defence is an act of last resort and is subject to the customary rules of proportionality and necessity. The killing of hundreds of Palestinians, mostly civilians, accompanied by the destruction of schools, mosques, houses, UN compounds and government buildings, which Israel has a legal responsibility to protect under the Fourth Geneva Convention, is not commensurate to the deaths caused by Hamas rocket fire.

As the Occupying Power in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, Israel owes a number of specific duties to the Palestinian people under the Hague Regulations and the Fourth Geneva Convention, including a duty to maintain public order and safety, a prohibition against collective punishment, acts of violence and retaliation, deportation and building of settlements, as well as the protection of children and civilian property.

Israel has been in material breach of these duties for the past 41 years of occupation. As long as the military occupation persists, the prospects for peace will continue to remain elusive.

Further legal analysis regarding Israel’s military offensive can be found on the Al-Haq website.

DCI-Palestine’s Gaza under Attack page provides further information on the impact of Operation Cast Lead on children and on how you can help.

Useful references

Fourth Geneva Convention
UN Security Council
International Committee of the Red Cross
Lawyers for Palestinian Human Rights
B’Tselem – The Israeli Information Centre for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories
Al Mezan Center for Human Rights
Palestinian Centre for Human Rights



1 As of 7 March, Al Mezan confirms the deaths of 1,342 Palestinians [see Al-Mezan website].  
As of 19 March, PCHR confirms the deaths of 1,417 Palestinians [see PCHR website].
The Palestinian Ministry of Health confirms 5,303 Palestinian injured [see MOH website].  
Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. See also Magen David Adom.
3 See UN Security Council Resolutions 242 (1967), 252 (1968), 267 (1969), 298 (1971), 446 (1979), 452 (1979), 465 (1980) and 476 (1980) [see UN Security Council website].
4 B’Tselem, Land Expropriation and Settlements – Statistics, 2007. Figures based on Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics as of September 2007 [see B'Tselem website].
5 Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention states, “The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.”
6 OCHA, The Gaza Strip: Situation Report, 31 Jan 2006 [see OCHA report].  
7 B’Tselem – The Israeli Information Centre for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories [see B'Tselem website].
8 OCHA, Gaza Strip Situation Report, 9 November 2006 [see OCHA report].  
9 Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs
10 Sources: Al-Mezan Center for Human Rights (2000-2007 – 2,782 Palestinian fatalities) – [see Al-Mezan website]; OCHA (Jan – Oct 2008 – 389 Palestinian fatalities) – [see OCHA website]; Al-Mezan Center for Human Rights (Operation Cast Lead, 27 December 2008 – 17 January 2009 – 1,342 Palestinian fatalities) – [see Al-Mezan website]. 
11 OCHA, Situation Report: Escalation in Conflict in the Gaza Strip, 27 June 2006 [see OCHA report]. 
12 OCHA, Gaza Strip Situation Report, 10 October 2006 [see OCHA report].  
13 Amnesty International, ‘Israel and the Occupied Territories: Road to Nowhere,’ December 2006 [see Amnesty report].
14 Report of the Secretary-General, Human Rights Situation in Palestine And Other Occupied Arab Territories, 6 March 2009 [see A/HRC/10/27]. 
15 Report of Richard Falk, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967, Human Rights Situation in Palestine And Other Occupied Arab Territories, 11 February 2009 [see A/HRC/10/20]. See also Nancy Kanwisher, Hohannes Haushofer, and Anat Biletzski, “Reigniting Violence: How Do Ceasefires End?” 24 January 2009.
16 Rory McCarthy, 'Gaza truce broken as Israeli raid kills six Hamas gunmen,' The Guardian, 5 November 2008 [see Guardian article].
17 See PCHR Press Release, 19 March 2009. 
18 Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. See also Magen David Adom.
19 Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs

20 Times Online, 'Israel's bombardment of Gaza is not self-defence - it's a war crime,' 11 January 2009 [see Times Online article].