Report: Hamas targeted civilians

Human Rights Watch urges Israel and Hamas to probe war crime allegations.

By AP
January 28, 2010 17:38
2 minute read.
IDF Operation Cast Lead

IDF Operation Cast Lead. (photo credit: AP)

 
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An international human rights group on Thursday disputed Hamas' claim that it did not target civilians during last year's war against Israel, saying there was strong evidence the Islamist group intentionally aimed its rockets at Israeli towns.



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The criticism from New York-based Human Rights Watch drew fresh attention to Hamas' actions in the three-week war, during which about 1,400 Palestinians — most of them civilians — and 13 Israelis were killed. Most international criticism, including by Human Rights Watch, has been directed toward Israel.



Both Israel and Hamas face a Feb. 5 deadline to respond to allegations in a UN report that they committed war crimes during the fighting. The report urged both sides to conduct independent investigations into the allegations, and both have signaled they will not comply, though they have not delivered formal responses.



In an internal Hamas document obtained by The Associated Press, Hamas said that its rocket and mortar fire was directed solely at military targets and that any civilian casualties were accidental.



Palestinian terrorists fired some 800 rockets and mortar shells into Israel during the conflict, killing three civilians and wounding about 80. More than 800 others sustained minor injuries.



"Most of the rocket attacks on Israel hit civilian areas, which suggests that civilians were the target," said Bill van Esveld, a researcher for Human Rights Watch. "Deliberately targeting civilians is a war crime."



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Van Esveld added that statements from Hamas leaders during the fighting made clear that they intended to harm Israeli civilians.



He said Hamas also committed war crimes by firing rockets from populated areas, which endangered the local population in Gaza by raising the likelihood of Israeli retaliation.



"Fighters intentionally fired rockets from near civilians in order to shield themselves from counter attacks," he said.



Israel launched Operation Cast Lead on Dec. 27, 2008, in an attempt to halt years of Hamas rocket fire. Around 1,400 Palestinians, including some 900 civilians, were killed during the conflict, according to Palestinian and international human rights groups.



The UN report, compiled by former war crimes prosecutor Richard Goldstone, leveled tough allegations at both Israel and Hamas. The UN General Assembly in November called on both sides to open independent investigations into their actions, giving them until Feb. 5 to respond.



Israel's formal response is expected in the coming days. But earlier this week, Information and Diaspora affairs Minister, Yuli Edelstein, said the government would ignore the demand for a full-fledged inquiry.



Israel did not cooperate with the UN commission and rejected its findings as biased and unfounded. It says the operation was launched in self-defense, aimed at stopping years of almost daily rocket attacks from Gaza. Israel also says it did everything it could to limit civilian casualties.



By rejecting calls for an independent inquiry, both Hamas and Israel could open themselves up to international war crimes proceedings.



Also Thursday, Israel arrested a lead organizer of the most persistent protests against the separation barrier in the territory. Lawyer Gaby Lasky said the Israeli army arrested Mohammed Khatib during a night raid in the village of Bilin.



There was no immediate comment from Israel's military.



Bilin residents have protested the barrier weekly for almost five years. Israel considers the marches illegal, and soldiers routinely disperse protesters with tear gas.



Israel says the barrier is necessary to prevent suicide bombing attacks. Palestinians call it a land grab since parts of it jut into the West Bank.




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