(Beirut) – An unlawful Israeli strike on a family in a car on November 5, 2023, should be investigated as an apparent war crime, Human Rights Watch said today. The attack killed three girls and their grandmother and wounded their mother.
The family had been traveling from south Lebanon to Beirut in the late afternoon, following heavy shelling by Israeli forces in the area earlier that day, Samir Ayoub, the girls’ uncle, said in a televised interview the night of the attack. Ayoub, a journalist, was traveling in a separate car in front of the car that was hit.
“This attack by Israeli military forces that struck a car carrying a family fleeing violence shows a reckless disregard for civilian life,” said Ramzi Kaiss, Lebanon researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Three young girls and their grandmother have lost their lives, our investigations show, as a result of the Israeli military’s failure to distinguish between combatants and civilians. Their killing is a violation of the laws of war, and Israel’s allies, like the US, should respond to this apparent war crime by demanding accountability for this unlawful strike.”
That evening, the Israeli military admitted carrying out the strike, telling the Times of Israel it “struck a vehicle in Lebanese territory that was identified as a suspicious vehicle containing several terrorists […] The claim that there were several uninvolved civilians in the vehicle is being examined. The event is under review.” According to Human Rights Watch research, they have provided no further evidence to justify their claim.
Human Rights Watch interviewed Ayoub and an official of the civil defense team that responded to the site after the attack. Human Rights Watch also reviewed videos of the aftermath, CCTV footage of the family’s vehicle captured before the strike, and statements by the head of the hospital to which the victims were carried. Human Rights Watch geolocated the videos to confirm the locations.
The girls—Rimas, 14, Taline, 12, and Liane, 10, Chour—their mother, Hoda Hijazi Chour, who was driving the car, and their grandmother, Samira Ayoub, were the only people in the car, Ayoub and the civil defense official said. The head of the Salah Ghandour Hospital in Bint Jbeil was quoted as saying that the bodies of the girls and their grandmother were completely burned, while the mother was injured but in stable condition.
Ayoub said that he had used that particular road daily when traveling from his house in Aitaroun to visit his sister’s house in Blida. “All people in the town use that road when they go to buy groceries or get supplies,” he said. “There are no military targets there.”
Human Rights Watch found no evidence of a military target in the vicinity. But if there were one, targeting a car carrying civilians, along with the Israeli military’s admission of targeting the car while failing to distinguish between combatants and civilians, makes the strike unlawful. Under the laws of war, all parties must do everything feasible to verify that targets are valid military objectives. In case of doubt whether a person is a civilian, that person must be considered a civilian.
In a televised interview the night of the attack, Ayoub said that shortly before the strike, the two cars had stopped at a small shop in Aitaroun. Human Rights Watch reviewed a video recording provided by Ayoub from the CCTV camera at the shop showing the family’s vehicle and geolocated it to be around 1.7 kilometers from the attack site, confirming Ayoub’s account.
The CCTV footage shows a child and a woman, identified as the mother and Liane, with Ayoub, leaving the shop. The footage shows at least two young girls in the back seat of the car and two women in the front seats.
A recording of a live TV transmission from the site of the strike shows the civil defense team taking a charred body from the car and putting it into an ambulance. Ayoub, with blood on his shirt, can be heard saying that the children and their grandmother had been killed, while the mother was injured.
In a TV interview recorded shortly after the strike, Ayoub said that the family had planned to drive to his house before heading to Beirut. “I told them to play in front of the car since a [surveillance drone] was flying over them. I told them the drone will see you now and know there are children in the car. The three little girls, they were burned in the car before my eyes, and their mother was screaming. I pulled her out. But we couldn’t do anything. The children were burning, screaming but we couldn’t do anything.”
Lebanon’s state-run National News Agency reported that Ayoub was driving the first car while the others followed behind in the second car. The second car was hit directly, causing it to flip onto the side of the road as it was engulfed in flames, according to the agency.
The latest Israeli strikes come in the context of increased tensions along the Lebanon-Israel border, where rocket attacks and armed clashes between the Israeli army and various Lebanese and Palestinian armed groups have been ongoing since October 8. As of November 10, Israeli attacks in Lebanon have reportedly killed at least 10 civilians, in addition to at least 70 Hezbollah fighters. Rocket strikes and other attacks into Israel by Hezbollah and Palestinian groups have reportedly killed at least two civilians and six soldiers.
In a statement it published on November 5, Hezbollah said that it responded to the strike on the civilian car with a barrage of Grad rockets on Kiryat Shmona. While Israeli media reports indicated that there were no injuries from the attack on Kiryat Shmona, one Israeli civilian was killed by Hezbollah rocket strikes in Kibbutz Yiftah in northern Israel on the same day. On October 20, the Israeli Ministry of Defense had ordered the evacuation of Kiryat Shmona, which, alongside other towns within four kilometers of the border, the Israeli military has declared a closed military zone.
Hezbollah’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, suggested in a televised speech on November 3 that attacks by Israel on civilians would be met with retaliatory attacks on civilians. Under international humanitarian law, belligerent reprisals against civilians are prohibited. Parties to a conflict are obligated to abide by international humanitarian law irrespective of the conduct of the other party. Laws-of-war violations by one side do not justify violations by the other side.
On October 7, a Hamas-led attack in southern Israel resulted in the killing of about 1,200 people, hundreds of them civilians, according to the Israeli government. Hamas and Islamic Jihad took more than 200 people hostage, including children, people with disabilities, and older people.
Heavy bombardment of Gaza by Israeli forces since October 7 has killed, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry, more than 11,000 Palestinians, including thousands of civilians and more than 4,500 children, and displaced more than 1.5 million people. Israeli authorities have cut electricity, water, fuel, and food into Gaza, exacerbating an already dire humanitarian situation as a result of Israel’s 16-year unlawful closure of the strip. In the West Bank, Israeli forces and settlers have killed 169 Palestinians as of November 11, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
Israel’s key allies—the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Germany—should suspend military assistance and arms sales to Israel, and Iran and other governments should cease providing arms to Palestinian armed groups, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad, given the real risk that they will be used to commit grave abuses.
Under international humanitarian law, all parties to the conflict are under a duty, at all times during the conflict, to distinguish between combatants and civilians and to target only combatants. Individuals who commit serious violations of the laws of war with criminal intent—that is, intentionally or recklessly—may be prosecuted for war crimes. Individuals may also be held criminally liable for assisting in, facilitating, aiding, or abetting a war crime. All governments that are parties to an armed conflict are obligated to investigate alleged war crimes by members of their armed forces.
The attack on a vehicle containing only fleeing civilians shows reckless disregard by the Israeli military for its obligation to distinguish between civilian and military objects and a significant failure to take adequate safeguards to prevent civilian deaths, Human Rights Watch said.
“Israeli authorities have long failed to credibly investigate their own serious abuses, even when they acknowledge they carried them out,” Kaiss said. “With Israeli authorities continuing to commit abuses with impunity, Israel’s allies should insist on accountability for Israel’s violations of the laws of war and this apparent war crime.”