Hamas committed war crimes during Operation Cast Lead by firing rocket deliberately or indiscriminately at Israel's civilian population, Human Rights Watch declared in a report released on Thursday. Iain Levine, HRW program director, and Bill Van Esveld, HRW's Israel researcher, said at a press conference in Jerusalem they had wanted to present the report in Gaza but that the Hamas government would not give them permission. Although the report strongly criticized Hamas for firing rockets into Israel from populated areas inside the Gaza Strip, it did not accuse the organization of using the Palestinian civilian population as human shields. "Parties to a conflict violate the laws of war when they fail to take all feasible precautions to avoid placing forces, weapons and ammunition within or near densely populated areas," the report stated. "Deliberately using civilians to deter attacks on military targets amounts to 'human shielding' which is a war crime. Human Rights Watch either could not determine or the evidence did not indicate that militants launched rockets from areas close to civilians with the intention of deterring Israeli forces from counterattacking." Levine and Van Esveld explained that HRW would have had to prove that Hamas and other terrorist organizations that fired rockets into Israel from population centers did so intentionally because they believed Israel would not fire back at them. They said they could not establish that intent and therefore refrained from accusing the armed groups of using the Palestinian civilian population as human shields. Van Esveld said he had visited Gaza twice after the fighting and had tried to find out exactly where the various organizations had fired from. He said he did not find instances in which they had fired from within the midst of the civilian population, for example from courtyards surrounded by apartment buildings or from houses, but rather from distances from civilians of 20 meters or more. On the other hand, they pointed out that the International Crisis Group interviewed three Hamas fighters in January who said, "They had often fired rockets in close proximity to homes and from alleys, hoping that nearby civilians would deter Israel from responding." Had HRW been able to establish that this was a Hamas policy and that it recurred frequently, it would have established "intent." In its report, the US-based organization called on Hamas to cease its rocket attacks against the Israeli civilian population and renounce and repudiate the tactic altogether. It also called on Hamas to arrest all those who had fired rockets at Israel and conduct a transparent investigation and, if justified, hold trials in accordance with international standards. It also called on Hamas to give full consideration to the findings and recommendations of the UN Council of Human Rights special investigation committee headed by Richard Goldstone, which is due to be published in the coming days.