A Jerusalem-based researcher for Human Rights Watch, Bill Van Esveld, told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday that there was evidence to indicate that war crimes were committed by Palestinians in the Gaza Strip who allegedly used civilians as "human shields" during Operation Cast Lead. Nonetheless, Van Esveld stressed that the fact that Palestinians may have used civilians as human shields during the fighting did not justify what HRW believes to have been war crimes committed by Israel. His statement followed a report on the military operation in Gaza issued last week by the Foreign Ministry. Until now, neither of the two major international human rights groups, Amnesty International and HRW, had acknowledged one of Israel's main accusations against Hamas, one which it has used to explain the heavy damage the IDF inflicted on Palestinian civilians and civilian infrastructure during the fighting. Last week HRW presented a report in which it stated that members of Hamas and other groups in Gaza had perpetrated war crimes by deliberately firing at Israel's civilian population. The organization also charged that the groups had put Palestinian civilians at risk by firing from within residential areas in the Gaza Strip. However, the organization stopped short of declaring that Hamas fighters had committed war crimes by deliberately endangering the civilian population in the hopes that Israeli forces would not shoot back to prevent civilian casualties. In last week's report, entitled "Harm to Civilians From Palestinian Armed Groups' Rocket Attacks," HRW wrote, "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." The report did mention, however, that another organization, The International Crisis Group, had interviewed three Hamas fighters in January who said they "often fired [rockets] in close proximity to homes and from alleys, hoping that nearby civilians would deter Israel from responding." The Foreign Ministry report included additional evidence that war crimes had been committed. It quoted a report by Newsweek correspondent Rod Nordland on January 20 in which he wrote, "Suddenly there was a terrific whoosh, louder even than a bomb explosion. It was another of Hamas' homemade Qassam rockets being launched into Israel - and the mobile launchpad was smack in the middle of the four [apartment] buildings, where every apartment was full." Van Esveld added that the fact that the rocket launcher was located in the middle of four residential buildings proved intent on the part of those who fired the rockets. In each of these incidents, the evidence strongly indicates that, at the least, Israeli soldiers failed to take feasible precautions to distinguish between civilians and combatants before attacking. At worst, the soldiers deliberately fired on persons known to be civilians.