GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – A prominent human rights group said there is “strong evidence” that Gaza’s Hamas rulers committed war crimes by allowing militants to fire rockets from the territory that killed civilians in Israel, according to a report released Thursday.
The 31-page report by the New York-based Human Rights Watch focuses on Hamas’ actions in connection with Israel’s three-week offensive in Gaza that ended in late January. Human Rights Watch, as well as other groups, have previously accused Israel of committing war crimes during the offensive aimed at stopping Palestinian rocket fire.
“Hamas rocket attacks targeting Israeli civilians are unlawful and unjustifiable, and amount to war crimes,” said Iain Levine of Human Rights Watch. But the report stopped short of accusing Hamas militants of war crimes, with officials saying only a court could make that determination.
Hamas rejected the group’s findings, calling it “biased.”
More than 1,100 Palestinians were killed during the offensive. Palestinians said most were civilians, but Israel disputed that.
Three Israeli civilians were killed by rocket fire and 10 soldiers were also killed during the conflict that saw Israeli warplanes, tanks and artillery smashing Palestinian government buildings, and destroying and damaging thousands of apartments, schools and factories.
Hamas militants fired hundreds of rockets at southern Israeli towns, forcing thousands of civilians to hide in shelters or to flee. Many of those rockets were filmed by Israeli army drones and seen by foreign observers being launched from crowded Palestinian neighborhoods.
Israel was accused by rights groups of using excessive force and endangering civilians in Gaza.
A small group of Israeli soldiers who fought in the offensive made anonymous statements in a report issued last month saying the military used Palestinians as human shields, improperly fired incendiary white phosphorous shells over civilian areas and used overwhelming firepower that caused needless deaths and destruction. The report was released by an organization of Israeli army reservists critical of their country’s treatment of Palestinians.
The army said if they would come forward and give evidence the allegations would be investigated. International rights groups have said the degree of force and heavy civilian death toll constituted war crimes, and the U.N. has launched a probe into the actions of Israel and Hamas
Bill Van Esveld of Human Rights Watch said the intent of armed groups to harm civilians, and not numbers of people killed, determined whether they committed war crimes.
Van Esveld said the Islamic militant group, which is committed to Israel’s destruction, violated international war rules by allowing fighters to launch rockets that either “deliberately or indiscriminately” targeted civilian areas. Hamas also violated rules of war by allowing militants to fire from populated Gaza areas, endangering the lives of civilians, by making them vulnerable to return Israeli fire, he said.
Van Esveld said in the specific cases where three Israeli civilians were killed by rocket fire there was “strong evidence” Hamas militants committed war crimes.
One Israeli civilian, Beber Vaknin, 58, was killed while in his backyard, about six miles (10 kilometers) from Gaza. Hani al-Mahdi, an Israel construction worker, was killed at a building site. Irit Sheetrit, a mother of four, was killed as she drove home.
“It’s clear evidence of intent to commit war crimes,” Van Esveld said. He said other cases needed more investigation.
Hamas took responsibility for each of the attacks on its Web site but Hamas spokesman Ismail Ridwan nevertheless denied the charges.
“Hamas did not use human shields and did not fire rockets from residential areas. Hamas does not target civilians,” Ridwan said.
In the lexicon of Hamas, no Israeli is considered a civilian as all have either performed compulsory military service, will serve in the future or are currently in the reserves.
Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev referred queries for comment on the report to a 160-page Israeli document on the Gaza offensive released last week. It contains 20 pages of documentation of Hamas practices, including rocket attacks, and Israel’s response.
The Israeli NGO Monitor, which critiques groups such as Human Rights Watch, criticized it for waiting for six months before issuing its report critical of Hamas though it contained “no new information.” Gerald Steinberg, director of NGO Monitor, noted that the group already released two reports critical of Israel. “The fact that it (Hamas) is only now on their agenda exposes their biased priorities,” he said.
Since fighting subsided in January, Hamas militants have held back from firing rockets, respecting an unwritten truce with Israel.
Hamas is already considered a terrorist organization by most of the international community.
Thousands of rockets fired by Palestinian militants in Gaza have killed 24 Israelis since 2001, according to Israeli police figures.