Report: Hamas targeted civilians

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

IDF Operation Cast Lead (photo credit: AP)
IDF Operation Cast Lead
(photo credit: AP)

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

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. Mostinternational criticism, including by Human Rights Watch, has beendirected toward Israel.

Both Israel and Hamasface a Feb. 5 deadline to respond to allegations in a UN report thatthey committed war crimes during the fighting. The report urged bothsides to conduct independent investigations into the allegations, andboth have signaled they will not comply, though they have not deliveredformal responses.

In an internal Hamasdocument obtained by The Associated Press, Hamassaid that its rocket and mortar fire was directed solely at militarytargets and that any civilian casualties were accidental.

Palestinian terrorists fired some 800 rockets and mortar shells into Israel duringthe conflict, killing three civilians and wounding about 80. More than800 others sustained minor injuries.

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

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

He said Hamasalso committed war crimes by firing rockets from populated areas, whichendangered the local population in Gaza by raising the likelihood ofIsraeli 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 Hamasrocket fire. Around 1,400 Palestinians, including some 900 civilians,were killed during the conflict, according to Palestinian andinternational 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 openindependent investigations into their actions, giving them until Feb. 5to respond.

Israel's formal response is expected in the comingdays. But earlier this week, Information and Diaspora affairs Minister, YuliEdelstein, said the government would ignore the demand for afull-fledged inquiry.

Israel did not cooperate with the UNcommission and rejected its findings as biased and unfounded. It saysthe operation was launched in self-defense, aimed at stopping years ofalmost daily rocket attacks from Gaza. Israel also says it dideverything 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.

AlsoThursday, Israel arrested a lead organizer of the most persistentprotests against the separation barrier in the territory. Lawyer GabyLasky said the Israeli army arrested Mohammed Khatib during a nightraid in the village of Bilin.

There was no immediate comment from Israel's military.

Bilinresidents have protested the barrier weekly for almost five years.Israel considers the marches illegal, and soldiers routinely disperseprotesters with tear gas.

Israel says the barrier is necessary toprevent suicide bombing attacks. Palestinians call it a land grab sinceparts of it jut into the West Bank.