JERUSALEM -- A prominent international human rights group on Thursday accused Hamas of committing war crimes during a recent 11-day conflict with Israel by indiscriminately firing thousands of rockets toward Israeli population centers.
In its report, Human Rights Watch also said it had concluded that a misfired rocket launched by Hamas killed seven Palestinians when it fell short in the Gaza Strip. In a separate development, a U.N. agency said it had uncovered militant tunnels near one of its facilities and that Hamas had taken over one of its schools, undermining the agency's neutrality.
The New York-based rights group has repeatedly come under fire by Israel and its supporters over reports accusing Israel of war crimes against the Palestinians as well as apartheid and persecution. But in this report it agreed with most legal experts — and Israel itself — that indiscriminate rocket fire from Palestinian population centers directed at Israeli civilian areas is a violation of international law.
“Palestinian armed groups during the May fighting flagrantly violated the laws-of-war prohibition on indiscriminate attacks by launching thousands of unguided rockets towards Israeli cities,” Human Rights Watch acting Middle East and North Africa director Eric Goldstein said.
It based its conclusions on an investigation into Hamas rocket attacks that killed 12 civilians in Israel.
Last month the group issued a report that accused the Israeli military of carrying out attacks during the conflict that “apparently amount to war crimes" after investigating three Israeli airstrikes that it said killed 62 Palestinian civilians. The group said there were no clear military targets in the airstrikes and said Israel had not taken sufficient precautions to avoid civilian casualties.
The war erupted on May 10 after Hamas fired a barrage of rockets toward Jerusalem in support of Palestinian protests against Israel’s heavy-handed policing at Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa Mosque compound and the threatened eviction of dozens of Palestinian families from their homes by Jewish settlers in a nearby neighborhood.
Israel has said it struck over 1,000 targets in the Gaza Strip during the fighting, while Hamas launched more than 4,300 rockets and mortar rounds at Israel, including barrages directed at major population centers around Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
In all, some 254 people were killed in Gaza, including at least 67 children and 39 women, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. Hamas has acknowledged the deaths of 80 militants, while Israel has claimed the number is much higher. Twelve civilians, including two children, were killed in Israel, along with one soldier.
“The rockets and mortars that Palestinian armed groups fired lack guidance systems and are prone to misfire, making them extremely inaccurate and thus inherently indiscriminate when directed toward areas with civilians,” the report said. “Launching such rockets to attack civilian areas is a war crime.”
Israel has claimed that around 20% of the rockets Palestinian militants launched fell inside the Gaza Strip, and said that most of the remaining rockets were intercepted by the military's Iron Dome aerial defense system, or fell in open areas.
Human Rights Watch concluded that a Hamas rocket fired on May 10 killed seven people, including two children, in the Gaza Strip city of Jabaliya. It said the number of Palestinians killed by errant Hamas fire might be higher.
“Munitions apparently directed toward Israel that misfired and fell short killed and injured an undetermined number of Palestinians in Gaza,” the report said, adding that Hamas has not “provided information about how many rockets misfired or how many people died as a result in Gaza and there are no precise independent estimates.”
The Israeli military has claimed another incident on May 10, in which eight Palestinian civilians died in an explosion in the northern Gaza town of Beit Hanoun, was the result of a misfired Hamas rocket. Human Rights Watch said in its earlier report that the explosion appeared to have been caused by an Israeli missile.
The May conflict was the fourth war between Israel and Hamas since the Islamic militant group seized control of Gaza in 2007, a year after winning the Palestinian parliamentary elections. Founded in the 1980s, the group rejects Israel's existence, is responsible for scores of deadly attacks on Israeli civilians and is considered a terrorist group by the United States, European Union and Israel.
Human Rights Watch, other rights groups and U.N. officials have accused both sides of committing war crimes in all of the conflicts, and HRW said both parties have “a long track record of failing to investigate" alleged violations.
The International Criminal Court is investigating possible war crimes by Israel and Hamas in Gaza. Goldstein has urged the ICC to include Palestinian rocket attacks and Israeli airstrikes during the most recent Gaza war in its ongoing investigation.
“The failure of both Hamas authorities and the Israeli government to provide accountability for alleged war crimes by their forces highlights the essential role of the International Criminal Court," Goldstein said.
Israel does not recognize the court’s jurisdiction and says it is capable of investigating any possible wrongdoing by its forces. It says the ICC probe is unfair and politically motivated. Israel blames Hamas for the high civilian casualty count in Gaza, accusing the group of using civilians as human shields by launching attacks and military activity from residential areas.
This week, the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, said it had discovered “underground structures," including tunnels near U.N. facilities in Gaza. It said it condemned the existence of these tunnels “in the strongest possible terms” and sent protest letters to Hamas officials. “The agency has also protested the takeover by the de facto authorities of one of these schools, which undermines the inviolability and neutrality of UNRWA premises,” it said.
In Gaza, Hamas issued an angry reaction to the HRW report, calling it “an injustice to our people."
“The only beneficiary of such a report is the Israeli occupation, because it equated the victim with the real criminal, while our Palestinian people are exercising their legitimate right to resist the occupation,” it said.
But Goldstein said, "Hamas authorities should stop trying to justify unlawful rocket attacks that indiscriminately kill and injure civilians by pointing to Israel’s violations.”